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The wikipedia page on the Sator Square (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sator_Square) says that the sentence "SATOR AREPO TENET OPERA ROTAS" is a grammatical sentence and translates it as "The farmer Arepo uses a plough as a form of work".
However, I don't really get how they obtained the translation. The word "Arepo" is probably the name of the sower (even though it could have a different meaning), but that is not the main issue.
"Tenere" means "to hold" and "opera" is the accusative plural of "opus", that is "work". Also, "rotas" is the accusative plural of "rota", or "wheel". But I don't really know, which word relates to which. "Tenere" takes an accusative object, but there are 2 in the sentence. Could someone explain, or offer a better translation?

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I think the intention is that opera is a singular ablative of the feminine noun opera, not a form of opus. Among other things, opera means "work".

Starting with the other words, Sator Arepo tenet rotas means "the sower Arepo has/holds wheels". Adding an ablative to describe circumstances, we get something like "the sower Arepo has/holds wheels for (the purpose of) work". The translation "as a form of work" makes sense, too. It is not more specific than "there is a work-related reason that the sower Arepo holds wheels", but that feels clumsy as a translation.

Interpreting a sower as a farmer is reasonable, but taking wheels to stand for a plough seems to be a farther fetch. Having specifically a plough seems to come more from sator (what tools could one use in such work?) than rotas.

The translation is a little forced; the restriction of making the words go nicely in a square is too much for fluent language unless one has extraordinary luck. Therefore one might have to be a little flexible or creative with grammar to make it work.

The square looks nice, though:

S A T O R
A R E P O
T E N E T
O P E R A
R O T A S

  • 1
    llmavirta: a primitive plough consisted of a blade between two wheels; "wheels" as a slang term for plough is easy to understand; but, not easy to prove. That the square violates grammar in order to "work" is well-known. – tony Jun 27 '19 at 18:10
  • @tony Indeed, some flexibility and creativity is needed to parse the sentence. I agree that "wheels" could make a reasonable reference to a plough, but the dictionary entries I consulted for rota made no such mention. Therefore I thought the translation is more honest as "wheels". If the reader interprets the wheels as a plough or a carriage or something else, that is their judgement. I get the impression that the interpretation as a plough comes mainly from the word sator, as that work restricts the possible set of tools. – Joonas Ilmavirta Jun 27 '19 at 18:16
  • The 1938 interpretation in S.Paul by J Carcopino was very influential and probably fixed the association with Christianity AND with plough. – Hugh Jun 29 '19 at 1:49
  • @Hugh Can you add that as a separate answer? That is crucial insight into how the square is usually translated. – Joonas Ilmavirta Jun 29 '19 at 4:38
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The farmer Arepo possesses (tenet) the wheels (accusative-plural of "rota" ="rotas" [presumably a plough]) as the works (his job; noun "opus") opera (acc. pl.).

It may be that in order to make the square work a word was missed out e.g. "pro" = "for", as in "for (his) work", giving "pro opere"; which would have compromised the square.

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