Ancient wisdom

Published by: John Alty on 7th Nov 2017 | View all blogs by John Alty

“Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm”

This quotation intrigued me not because of its simple wisdom but because it was written in the first century BC. That seemed an awfully long time ago to be using metaphors involving the helming of boats. How many people in those days would have been familiar with the way boats were steered? This was before leisure boating was widespread, I’m guessing, and before movies – even silent ones. 

Anyway, a little research reveals that there was a vast trading network of liburnias, corbitas, gaulus and cladivatas plying the waters around Italy at that time, so the concept of helming was probably as familiar as it is today.

The words were penned by a clever bloke called Publilius Syrus who was popular in first century BC Italy as a writer of maxims – sort of early one-liners. Old Publilius was a Syrian who had been taken to Italy as a slave and had then been freed by his master who was impressed by his witty repartee. A valuable thing is a ready wit, I’ve always said.




  • Dolly
    by Dolly 17 days ago
    Whatever else you lose in your life, don't lose that!
  • Hilly
    by Hilly 17 days ago
    Nothing worse than thinking of that clever, witty riposte two hours after it was needed.
  • John Alty
    by John Alty 17 days ago
    Don't you hate when that happens!
  • Jenni Belsay
    by Jenni Belsay 16 days ago
    That's a great quotation. I love the idea of 1st Century BC one-liners! Retaining one's sense of humour (and indeed the rest of one's wits) can be hard as one gets older but, as Dolly says, it's worth hanging onto. Too-late witty ripostes? Yup, I'm a master of those.
  • John Alty
    by John Alty 16 days ago
    Young Syrus was quite prolific with his one-liners, here's another: "The opportunity is often lost by deliberating."
    Was he warning us about those too-late witty ripostes, Jenni? 8-)
  • Jenni Belsay
    by Jenni Belsay 16 days ago
    Could well have been, Alty. Interesting to see that not much has changed over the centuries ;-)
  • BellaM
    by BellaM 16 days ago
    This puts me in mind of an old joke from the Philogelos - a fourth century (?) Greek joke book:

    Barber: How would you like your hair cut, sir?
    Customer: In silence please.
  • new-bee-author
    by new-bee-author 16 days ago
    Hey Bella, that's a good one. What heaven - having one's hair done in silence without having to comment on anything or make small talk. ;-)
  • mike
    by mike 13 days ago
    Mary Beard has written about ''laughter in Ancient Rome' but I have not read the book. I've got though about 100 pages of 'Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire' and there don't seem top be any one-liners.
  • Casey
    by Casey 7 hours ago
    Love this one “Opportunity is often lost by Deliberation” I need that pasted in post it stickers all round my room!!! Yet- I do enjoy listening to Obama - the master of the five second ponder before response, so there you go
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