What are these two Latin words doing?

Cracking the Shakespeare Code – The Lede Blog – NYTimes.com

Updated | 5:28 p.m. Anyone out there care to help solve a two-word riddle that has the planet stumped? We will explain what the riddle is in a moment, but let’s be clear about one thing from the start — the prize is nothing more nor less than this: everlasting fame.

So here’s the mystery of the two words, and what we think we know so far.

Since Monday, when the Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells unveiled a 17th-century painting and asserted that he is “99 percent” certain that it is a portrait of William Shakespeare, the Web has filled with hundreds of articles, video reports, blog posts and, of course, blog comments wondering whether this painting really is a portrait of the artist.

While Mr. Wells is convinced, one doubting blogger noted that he is an expert on literature, not painting, and that he is also the chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, which is already selling tickets to see the portrait in Stratford.

The evidence Mr. Wells cited this week, based on a three-year investigation, proves more that the painting could be a portrait of Shakespeare than that it is one:

· The painting’s provenance suggests that the current owners first got it from “the great granddaughter of Shakespeare’s only literary patron, Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton.”

· A battery of scientific tests — x-rays, tree-ring dating and infra-red reflectography — dates the painting to about 1610, when Shakespeare was still living.

· There is a good argument to be made that a number of copies of this painting exist, and two of those copies were at various times marketed as portraits of Shakespeare.

· Then there is also the fact that when the engraving that most people accept to be a genuine likeness of Shakespeare is superimposed on the painting — as it is in this excellent video report by Nicholas Glass of Britian’s Channel 4 News — the general shapes of the two faces do seem to match.

Even Mr. Wells admits that all of this evidence “is circumstantial” at best, which is why it is strange that relatively few people have paid much attention to a rather obvious clue inscribed on the painting: the two Latin words painted across the top in golden letters, followed by an exclamation point: “Principum amicitias!”
Latin InscriptionThe two-word Latin riddle on the painting, yet to be solved.

If this kind of clue were dropped in a mystery novel or a Tom Hanks movie, you’d have to think it would be getting more attention. But then we know that even Shakespeare had “small Latin and less Greek,” and the study of those languages, and of the classics written in them, has fallen off sharply in the 400 years since.

That didn’t stop several readers of The Lede from trying to wring an answer out of the Web. As Emily Sanford noted in a comment she posted near the end of the long comments thread below our first post on this painting, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust does offer a possible explanation of the inscription on its Web site. According to the trust:

The conclusion that the sitter is Shakespeare is strengthened by the fact that the original picture, the Cobbe portrait, was inscribed with a quotation from the Classical writer, Horace, taken from an ode addressed to a playwright.

As Ms. Sanford noted, the trust also suggested that the words should be translated as a somewhat inscrutable warning to “Beware the alliances of princes!”

But a blogger writing under the name rogueclassicist pointed out on his blog that this is really “more a translation of the whole passage” from the Horatian ode than of just “those two words.”

Another reader of The Lede, writing under the name Karin, scoured the Web and came across some notes on the ode in the book “Horace: Behind the Public Poetry,” by R.O.A.M. Lyne. Mr. Lyne’s notes suggest that the phrase in the ode, “grauisque principum amicitias,” which the words of the inscription may be referring to, “brings back to mind the bad old days of the alliances (amicitiae) of the unscrupulous, revolutionary principes, in particular the deal to which we refer as the ‘first triumvirate’ (60 B.C.).”

Got that? I certainly did not. So, feeling well out of my depth three decades after I studied rudimentary Latin, and not having the slightest idea of what the “first triumvirate” was, or what that might have to do with the fellow gazing out at us from this 17th-century painting, I looked around for a Latin scholar to provide some clues.

I was lucky enough to find, at a reputable university, an expert willing to help us on one condition — that he remain nameless. Understanding his fear of being drawn away from his research if he were to be identified as an expert willing to help solve centuries-old mysteries, The Lede agreed.

The full text of his e-mail message on the subject follows. Anyone who wants to get to work on solving the riddle should read it and let us know when you’ve figured the whole thing out. Here’s what our Latin scholar says:

The phrase “principum amicitias” does look like a quotation of the Horatian ode. The idea of translating it “beware the friendships of of princes” is certainly not explicit in Horace, who addressed this poem to Asinius Pollio, a writer but himself an important political man who had written or was writing a history of Rome from the time of the so-called first triumvirate to the death of Cicero, 60-43 BC. That was a very dangerous time, and the end of it was not more than 20 years in the past when Horace wrote the ode, so he characterizes writing about it as dangerous as well. There were plenty of people around who did things during that period that they would just as soon forget, including Augustus, who was complicit in the murder of Cicero.

Anyway, the “first triumvirate” was just an agreement among Caesar, Pompeius, and Crassus to cooperate with one another for mutual advantage (rather than, say, for the good of the state). Cicero was invited to work with them, but refused to do so. When the agreement became public, people were rightly alarmed. But the agreement — the “friendships of princes” in Horace’s phrase — kept the three men from one another’s throats, until Crassus was destroyed when he decided to make war on the Parthian Empire (roughly, Persia). After he was out of the way, Caesar and Pompeius found it impossible to cooperate, and between 49 and 45 B.C. they fought a civil war that left Caesar as dictator for life. When he was assassinated in 44, an actual triumvirate consisting of Octavian (the future Augustus), Marcus Antonius, and C. Lepidus was appointed by the senate. These triumviri had many of their enemies murdered, including Cicero, and this is where Pollio’s history stopped.

Whether in Horace the plural “friendships” refers to the various one-to-one relationships among Caesar, Pompeius, and Crassus, or to that three-way friendship and other friendships as well, is hard to say. The “second triumvirate” could be considered a form of amicitia, since that was the word that the Romans used to denote political alliance; and Pollio may have structured his history by beginning and ending it with these two instances of friendship among princes. Note that for Horace the apparent meaning is just that — “friendships among princes,” not “friendships of princes with other, lesser people.” So if the meaning is in any sense “beware the friendships of princes,” it should mean (in Horatian terms) not beware of friendships with princes, but beware for the state when princes form friendships with one another. It’s certainly a cynical comment on Machiavellian political friendships, though.

How does all of this relate to Shakespeare?

It could just be that the phrase is not meant to interact in any direct way with the Horatian context. “The friendships of princes” might then refer to Shakespeare’s friendships with noble patrons, as a kind of compliment and an acknowledgment that their patronage was a factor in his success. In this case, the classical reference would also be a compliment to his culture, but not a specific reference to whatever Horace was talking about.

There could on the other hand be a more pointed reference to the history plays that deal with how the current dynasty came to power, although I’m not sure that I can think of any close parallel in that process to the “first triumvirate.” But maybe the phrase “friendships of princes” had some currency as a way of acknowledging the cynical behavior of the powerful towards one another and towards everybody else.

Update | Reader Response 1: A second Latin professor, one of our readers, John L, writes in the comments thread below that he sees the inscription differently:

I’d just add this: while the Horace lines have negative implications (poetry/art/wisdom always being ambiguous towards power politics, even when tied to them), still, the two words in the painting seem positive to me: (i) the Horatian context and the adj. “gravis” are omitted, (ii) there is a cheery exclamation-point; (iii) it was noted that the portrait is of a wealthy man; (iv) there is talk of Shakespeare’s patron in connection w/ this very painting. (Yes, a lot of people say that the 2 quoted words imply the whole context, and by implication carry with them the rest of what Horace says there, but I disagree. It’s equally significant that it leaves them out and puts them in a _new_ context, as I argued. But this is always a dilemma with selective quotations.)

This view is supported by the blogger at Rogue Classicism, who said in his blog post on the inscription: “It probably has a positive spin in the painting.”

Update | Reader Response 2: Another reader, Ken C, draws our attention to an interesting part of the Channel 4 News report on the painting that we were not aware of: a gallery showing the various paintings that look like copies of this one, and an image of this painting before it was restored in 2002.

Ken has also been good enough to watch the complete Channel 4 News interview with the painting’s owner, an art restorer named Alec Cobbe, and notes that in that interview Mr. Cobbe discusses an aspect of the restoration that has gotten little or no attention. Mr. Cobbe told Channel 4 News that this recent restoration removed what he took to be “extra” hair that had been added to this painting at some stage after it was first painted. Since a 17th-century engraving that was said by Shakespeare’s contemporaries to be a good likeness of him showed that he was going bald in his later years, this recent alteration to the Cobbe portrait did make it look more plausibly like that accepted image of Shakespeare than it did before the restoration. Here is the Cobbe painting before and after the restoration hair removal, and here is the engraving by Martin Droeshout, published in 1623 in the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays next to a poem by his friend Ben Jonson declaring it a good likeness.

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