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 p9  Introduction

In these days, a first edition in English of a classical author is a great rarity. An especial interest, therefore, attaches to the Riddles of Symphosius, which have now, for the first time, been translated and annotated in our language. It may serve to call the attention of Latin scholars to the wealth of unique and valuable literature which still lies, as it has lain for centuries, practically unknown except to a few German and French savants.

The work of Caelius Firmianus Symphosius consists of a Preface and one hundred Riddles, supposed to have been written for a feast at the time of the Saturnalia. Professor A. Rieseº calls them "clever but easily-guessed riddles". They are certainly clever, with a continuous play upon words and quaint little turns of expression. The fact, too, that Symphosius has very considerately given the answer to each as its title, may have something to do with Professor Riese's criticism that they are "easily guessed". While they do not possess a high degree of poetic merit, they are correct and pleasing in versification, and graceful in diction, with here and there a phrase of considerable beauty: as when the  p10 snow is described as the "slight dust of water" (pulvis aquae tenuis); or the roses called the "purple of earth" (purpura sum terrae); or the scourge "teaches obedience by the well-remembered law of pain" (Obsequium reddens memorata lege doloris). The ninety-sixth riddle is missing in most of the manuscripts. In one, its place has been supplied by a riddle entitled De VIII ut tollas VII et remanent VI, evidently the work of some wiseacre of the Middle Ages. He has, unfortunately, omitted to give the answer. How well Professor Riese has supplied this lack, we leave to the judgment of the reader.

Symphosius's date is very uncertain. A learned Hanoverian, in 1722, even attempted to prove, on the authority of a gloss in one of the manuscripts, that Symphosius did not write the Riddles that go under his name, but that they belonged to the Symposium of Lactantius. This thesis, however, required too many desperate assumptions to be entertained by scholars. Symphosius is not mentioned by name until the fourth century A.D., and this is generally given as his date. Professor Lucian Müller, however, places him at the end of the second and the beginning of the third century on account of the accuracy of his prosody and meter. This earlier date seems the more plausible one for a second reason. There is a striking resemblance in style between the Riddles and the New Poetry of Hadrian's time. Both Symphosius and the author of the Pervigilium Veneris, for instance, are fond of assonance and of repeated sounds and words, though rhyme itself is not frequent. To give a few illustrations from the Riddles:

 p11  Exiguum corpus, sed cor mihi corpore maius. (XXXIV.1);

In terris nascor, lympha lavor, ungor olivo, (XLII.3);

Tres olim fuimus, qui nomine iungimur uno;

Ex tribus est unus, sed tres miscentur in uno, (LXXXII.1 and 2).

Here, while the repetition is not so skillfully managed as in the golden lines of the Pervigilium, it is very far from producing the heavy, pedestrian effect that it does in later Latin poetry.

The Riddles appear in numerous early manuscripts, of which the oldest is the Salmasianus, belonging to the seventh or eighth century (Paris, 10318). A number of them were added to the Historia of Apollonius of Tyre by the Latin translator. Aldhelmus, abbot of Malmesbury in the seventh century, modelled his own book of one hundred riddles very closely on that of Symphosius; and Alcuin used a prose version in teaching Latin to his royal pupil Pepin the Short, son of Charlemagne.

In modern times, however, Symphosius has received but scant attention. The Riddles have been published in a number of collections, such as Poematiaº Vera (Paris, 1590), by Pithoeus (Pierre Pithou), and Poetae Latini Minores revised by Baehrens (Leipzig, 1881). Besides a few papers in German philological journals, which have to do almost wholly with the text, there are three small books devoted to Symphosius alone: a doctor's dissertation, De Symposii Aenigmatis, by W. T. Paul (Berlin, 1854), Das Räthselgedicht des Symphosius, by K. Schenkl (Vienna, 1863), and Enigmes de Symphosius, revues sur plusieurs  p12 Manuscrits et traduites en Vers français, by E. F. Corpet (Paris, 1868).

The one writer who treats Symphosius as a human being and not as a scrub manuscript is, quite naturally, the Frenchman. Professor Corpet's charming translations are in the very spirit of the Latin, smooth, sprightly and witty. One or two of them have a sly fun that is almost better than the original. He uses six short lines, instead of the triple hexameter of Symphosius, and constant rhyme which would, indeed, be a necessity in a modern language. We add a few of the best:—

IV Laº Clef

J'ai peu de force et grand pouvoir.
Tour à tour et toujours la même,
J'ouvre et je ferme tout manoir.
Je garde au maître ce qu'il aime,
Son logis, son or, son avoir,
S'il sait bien me garder lui-même.

XVI Le Ver

Je vis des lettres, et j'ignore
Le premier mot de l' A B C.
Sans aimer l'étude, j'adore
Les livres, j'y reste enfoncé,
Et jour et nuit je les dévore,
Sans en être plus avancé.

XVIII Le Colimaçon

Toujours prêt à me mettre en route,
J'emporte avec moi ma maison.
Je m'exile, sans qu'il m'en coûte,
Ici, là, suivant la saison.
Le ciel m'avertit, je l'écoute :
Il trompe moins que la raison.

XXXIV Le Renard

J'ai faible corps et forte tête :
Rusé compère et fin matois,
Je suis adroit, pas très-honnête,
Mais très-intelligent, je crois ;
Si l'on peut être toutefois
Intelligent, quand on est bête.

XCIX Le Sommeil

Je viens à mon gré : j'offre aux gueux
Plus d'une image décevante ;
J'inspire au riche l'épouvante
Pour des dangers plus que douteux ;
Nul ne me voit si, dans l'attente,
Il n'a d'abord fermé les yeux.

Professor Müller concludes an article on the text of Symphosius with a number of riddles which he found in a manuscript of Ausonius at Leyden.

Si me retro legis, potui quae vivere numquam

Continuo vivam, sumens de nomine vitam.

Si me retro legis, faciam de nomine verbum.

Femina cum fuerim, imperativus ero.

Si me retro legis, dicam tibi semper id ipsum.

Una mihi facies ante retroque manet.

Si me retro legis, facere qui vulnera novi,

Ex me confestim noscis adesse deum.

Some kindly soul has written the answer to the second and the third in the margin and Professor Müller himself ventures a guess for the first and fourth. The answers are (1) lamina, animal; (2) Eva, ave; (3) ara; (4) mucro, Orcum; the last being suggested by the third line of the thirty-sixth riddle of Symphosius. He adds a fifth, from another manuscript, which he does not solve; but leaves to the cleverness and scholarship of the reader. Nor can I do better than follow so illustrious an example.

Quatuor una simul dat dictio nomina rebus.

Tota namque deum designat voce Latinum.

Parte sed ablata fit proles Daunia prima.

Sublato medio remanet contrarius aegro.

Extremo restat quod prandia cuncta recusat.

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Page updated: 19 Jul 12