Dusty Phrases

Hi! Welcome to “Dusty Phrases.” You will find below an ancient phrase in one language or another, along with its English translation. You may also find the power to inspire your friends or provoke dread among your enemies.

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O tempora, o mores!


Oh the times! Oh the customs!

This Latin phrase dates back to the time of Cicero. From Wiki:

O tempora, o mores is a Latin phrase that translates literally as “Oh the times! Oh the customs!“, first recorded to have been spoken by Cicero. A more natural, yet still quite literal, translation is “Oh what times! Oh what customs!“; a common idiomatic rendering in English is “Shame on this age and on its lost principles!“, originated by the classicist Charles Duke Yonge. The original Latin phrase is often printed as O tempora! O mores!, with the addition of exclamation marks, which would not have been used in the Latin written in Cicero’s day.

The phrase was used by the Roman orator Cicero in four different speeches, of which the earliest was his speech against Verres in 70 BC. The most famous instance, however, is in the second paragraph of his First Oration against Catiline, a speech made in 63 BC, when Cicero was consul (Roman head of state), denouncing his political enemy Catiline. In this passage, Cicero uses it as an expression of his disgust, to deplore the sorry condition of the Roman Republic, in which a citizen could plot against the state and not be punished in his view adequately for it. The passage in question reads as follows:

O tempora, o mores! Senatus haec intellegit, Consul videt; hic tamen vivit. vivit? immo vero etiam in Senatum venit, fit publici consili particeps, notat et designat oculis ad caedem unum quemque nostrum!

O times! O morals! The Senate understands these things, the Consul sees them; yet this man still lives. He lives? Indeed, he even comes into the Senate, he takes part in public debate, he notes and marks out with his eyes each one of us for slaughter!

— Cic. Catil. 1.1.2 (Latin)

Cicero is frustrated that, despite all of the evidence that has been compiled against Catiline, who had been conspiring to overthrow the Roman government and assassinate Cicero himself, and in spite of the fact that the Senate had given its senatus consultum ultimum, Catiline had not yet been executed. Cicero goes on to describe various times throughout Roman history where consuls saw fit to execute conspirators with less evidence, in one instance—the case of former consul Lucius Opimius‘ slaughter of Gaius Gracchus (one of the Gracchi brothers)—based only on quasdam seditionum suspiciones: “mere suspicion of disaffection”.

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