English scholars translate Greek into Latin. Thomas More’s and William Lily’s "Progymnasmata"

Term Paper, 2016

17 Pages, Grade: 1,0








Anthology The Greek Anthology, transl. W. R. Paton

EAP Epigrammatum Anthologia Palatina, ed. E. Cougny


The current paper aims at a comparative analysis on the Latin translations of five out of the eighteen epigrams in Thomas More’s Progymnasmata Thomae Mori et Guilielmi Lilii Sodalium (1518). Sourced in the Greek Anthology the epigrams that were chosen as progymnasmata (singular: progymnasma; from Greek pro ‘beforehand’, and gymnazein ‘to train sb’, originally from gymnos ‘naked’) for his educational purposes are mostly elegiac couplets – one dactylic hexameter followed by a pentameter – up to four verses, which form a contrast to the wider range of poems and styles that the Anthology exhibits. It would be interesting to examine whether these epigrams are understood in the same way in both languages and to what extent, and also to propose which of the two offered versions, More’s and his friend’s, William Lily’s, remains closer to the original text and meaning. We shall consider, though, that the effort to adapt the epigrams in metrical form following thus their original version does not always favour a verbatim translation; on the contrary, when viewed comparatively to the Greek text some aspects of the translation may be questioned. In particular, while we have two versions of distinguished English scholars available we might wish to opine on the more effective or less effective, the more preferable and less preferable, or even the more skilful and the less skilful translation. For such an approach one has to look at certain linguistic features such as word choice, poetic composition, rhetorical figures, syntactical structures and, of course, the conception of the whole epigram’s message.[1] One shall take into consideration that More’s epigram-writing is said to have begun already in his school days, and consequently some of the translations from Greek to Latin were part of school exercises,[2] although it would be difficult to tell which ones exactly due to the fact that he could have made changes later. More’s and Lily’s translations can in general be approached and elaborated upon as classicising literary samples rather than New Latin versions due: (1) to the primary educational purposes of works entitled progymnasmata; (2) to the epigram’s tradition; and (3) to the special grammar-orientated learning of Renaissance humanism with its scope of imitating classical models and reproducing similarly educated people, as we will see in the following subchapter.

In short, the tradition of progymnasmata as part of language training is sourced in the surviving four Greek handbooks attributed to the rhetoricians Theon, Hermogenes, Aphthonius and Nicolaus. Theon, for instance, regarded this preliminary training very important for rhetorical, historical and poetical composition, and criticised students who neglected it; Aphthonius, furthermore, provides sixteen different types of such exercises among which we find mythos, chreia (χρεία, ‘anecdote’), diēgēma (διήγημα, ‘narrative’), anaskeuē (ἀνασκευή, ‘refutation), gnōmē (γνώμη, ‘maxim’) etc. The gnōmai managed to find their way to Renaissance humanism under the Latin term sententiae (‘sentences’).[3] Such sententiae were selectively taken from the Greek Anthology and were translated by More and Lily for the same educating purposes due to their special stylistic value and philosophical content that was believed to enhance the learners’ thinking and speaking abilities.


Sir Thomas More (1478–1535) was considered the most prominent humanist at the court of Henry VIII and internationally the most famous English humanist. He had a mixed education with a strong humanist influence as well as aristocratic manners and an attraction to Catholic ideals of a cloistered and celibate life. Nevertheless, he decided on marriage and public life, practised law and befriended not only English scholars such as John Colet and William Grocyn, but also Erasmus and his circle of continental humanists.[4] His Latin versions of more than one hundred poems of the Greek Anthology contributed to the revival of the classical manner in epigram composition and to a rapid increase of European scholars studying Latin verse through his work.[5]

More’s friend, William Lily (1468–1522), was the godson of William Grocyn (1446–1519), another important English humanist and scholar who went to Italy to study Greek; after his return he was ordained priest and taught Greek at Exeter College.[6] Lily, too, surrounded by this intellectual environment he travelled to Jerusalem after his graduation from Magdalene College in 1486, and upon his return he stayed for a while in Italy, like his godfather, to study Greek and Latin. In 1512 he was appointed first high-master in St Paul’s School in London. His work on Latin syntax with rules in English and in revised forms (Grammatices rudimenta) became the standard Latin grammar in England for over two centuries.[7]

During those times, new classical learning was being promoted as part of the Reformation in order to educate government servants. Many schools were founded and sons of wealthy families enjoyed university education in Oxford and Cambridge. The acquisition of humanistic skills, particularly in rhetoric, i.e. arguing, speaking in public and persuading, held a political importance.[8] The new curriculum produced grammar-school boys based on Tudor syllabi that focused on the Latin language – grammar and vocabulary for the elementary level – literature and composition. The methods included learning grammar texts, proverbs and dialogues by heart, but also by varying the number, gender or tense of standard sentences, like drills. The best Latin writers representing a certain literary genre were used as models for imitation and learning, e.g. Terence was used for comedy, Horace for lyric poetry, Cicero’s De officiis for moral philosophy and so on. For Latin composition the teachers relied on three basic textbooks: (1) a letter writing guide, e.g. imitating the shorter letters of Cicero in order to train themselves in letter writing – afterwards, they used a different book for training on different types of letters; (2) then, a manual called Progymnasmata, which contained a variety of genres such as descriptions, law proposals, fables, philosophical thoughts and other types of texts; and (3) Erasmus’ book De Copia, which instructed pupils how to write a description and use commonplaces and maxims. It taught them, for instance, how to use a commonplace book in order to collect material from their reading. Finally, the grammar-school syllabi of the time did not always include a comprehensive treatment of rhetoric, but pupils were nevertheless trained in the figures of speech and many other rhetorical skills.[9]


The Latin versions of the Progymnasmata are believed to have been composed in friendly rivalry between More and Lily in order to demonstrate various paedagogical ways of developing an idea while learning Latin.[10] Considering this, the Greek text may to a certain extent be of secondary importance. But, from a point of view outside the learning scope it is possible, of course, to judge the result like a translation ‘contest’ and elaborate on several linguistic features comparatively. Some commentators, says Hudson, ascribe these translations to the early youth of the two scholars, given that a work entitled Progymnasmata would belong to school assignments rather than an independent publication; but, as the youth of the two men could not have coincided, he believes that More must have been at least in his twenties and Lily at least in his thirties when these translations took place.[11] If so, it could be possible after all to propose which of the two translations features a more experienced Latin user.

The epigrams have been taken from an 1808 edition (transl. Cayley) and have been selected based on personal preference and on some observations I could make. I believe that all eighteen epigrams offer many things to comment on, but due to the restricted amount of space for this term paper only five will be analysed.[12] I present the selected epigrams in tables so that their translations can be observed next to each other. Furthermore, I considered useful to provide my own English translation next to the Greek text in my effort to highlight some details that are lost in the usual English versions. Each analysis contains a very brief interpretation of the content, and afterwards it is followed by a commentary on various aspects of language usage.


[1] It has been observed that Thomas More does not always translate from Greek, but he composes a new epigram by borrowing the original idea and imitating it in Latin. For more on this see Hudson 1966, pp. 42–3.

[2] Ibid., p. 31.

[3] Kennedy 1994, pp. 203–7. He presents all sixteen types. The origin of progymnasmata and further authors of those are discussed also in Heath 2002, pp. 129–60.

[4] Crane 2003, pp. 21–2. For encyclopedic information consider also Bergin-Speake, pp. 323–4.

[5] Ryan 1985, p. 743.

[6] Bergin-Speake 2004, p. 224.

[7] Ibid., p. 281.

[8] Mack 2006, p. 95.

[9] Ibid., pp. 96–7.

[10] McCutcheon 2011, p. 48.

[11] Hudson 1966, p. 38.

[12] About one-third of the epigrams are satirical, one-third admonitory or moralistic, and one-third declamatory. See ibid.

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English scholars translate Greek into Latin. Thomas More’s and William Lily’s "Progymnasmata"
University of Bonn  (Anglistik, Amerikanistik und Keltologie)
The English Renaissance
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english, greek, latin, thomas, more’s, william, lily’s, progymnasmata
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Dipl. Archäologe / B. Ed. Englisch-Latein Michael Barkas (Author), 2016, English scholars translate Greek into Latin. Thomas More’s and William Lily’s "Progymnasmata", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/346838


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