I am reading an article by Bowersock.¹ In a discussion of the removal of Āra Victōria from the Senate, he references Symmachus’ ‘ūnō itinere nōn potest pervenīrī ad tam grande sēcrētum’. I translated this as ‘one cannot arrive at such a great mystery by one way alone’. However, Bowersock translated pervenīrī as ‘penetrate’:

In his most celebrated phrase, Symmachus declares that one cannot penetrate so great a mystery (tam grande secretum) by only one road: “uno itinere non potest perveniri ad tam grande secretum.”29
29 Relat. 3.10

My emphasis (bold type); this on p. 304. Further, on p. 305:

Five years after the debate between Symmachus and Ambrose, a pagan panegyrist of the emperor Theodosius, himself a devout Catholic, proclaims that the emperor, whom the nations of the world adore, should alone have access, with his divine partner (cum deo consorte), to the transcendental mystery or secretum.³¹ We have come from the many paths of Symmachus to sole access for the emperor (tibi soli pateat).³² This view, however, was equally incompatible with Ambrose’s militant certainty. Not only could he and other bishops penetrate the secretum: their superior authority gave them the right and the obligation to correct others, including the emperor.
³¹ Pacatus Pan. Lat. 2(12). 6. 4 ed. Mynors.
³² Ibid.

My emphasis (bold type).

Dictionary entries

In Gaffiot I find the following translation:

1 arriver d’un point à un autre, arriver jusqu’à un but, parvenir à […] 2 arriver dans (à) tel ou tel état […] 3 revenir en partage à qqn

1 arrive at a point from another, arrive (up) to a goal, to reach from […] 2 arrive from such or such a state […] 3 to come back at a share [?] of someone

My French is at beginner level, so please do advise me on any errors in the above, especially with regards to point 3.

In Lewis & Short, the following is written:

I. to come to, arrive at, reach a place.[…]
II. Transf., of things, to reach, become known to, come to, fall to, etc. […]
III. Trop., to come to, arrive at; to reach, attain to any thing: […] Cic. Verr. 2, 2, 18, § 45: in senatum, to get into the Senate, i. e. to become a senator, id. Fl. 18, 43: “ad primos comoedos,” to become a first-rate comedian, id. Rosc. Com. 11, 30: “si in tua scripta pervenero,” to be mentioned in your writings […] —Pass. impers.: “pervenirier Eo quo nos volumus,” attain our object, Ter. Phorm. 4, 3, 35: “quin erat dicturus, ad quem propter diei brevitatem perventum non est,” his turn was not reached […]

Thus, with Lewis and short we get: to come, arrive at, reach a place; become known to, come to, fall to; attain; become; be mentioned.


None of these meanings seems to clearly point towards ‘penetrate’. Is this then a development of Late Antiquity? As far as I know, Symmachus was not a Christian (please do correct me if I am wrong), so I would assume asking whether this is a Christian Latin development would be missing the mark, but I’ll throw it in there. What grounds are there to translate perveniō as ‘penetrate’ and not simply as ‘arrive at’ or similar?



¹ ‘From Emperor to Bishop: The Self-Conscious Transformation of Political Power in the Fourth Century A.D.’ in Classical Philology, vol. 81 № 4, The University of Chicago Press, October 1986, pp. 298–307.

I am uncertain of my choice of tags, so please feel free to edit them as you see fit.

  • 4
    @CannedMan could you perhaps provide the full English translation? Good translators do not work word-by-word, and also English "penetrate" is rather more versatile than one might think. It seems a bit rash to speculate about Late Latin developments based on a translation we do not know. Commented Jun 30, 2021 at 16:42
  • @SebastianKoppehel You mean Bowersock’s full translation?
    – Canned Man
    Commented Jun 30, 2021 at 22:09
  • If the above reply was what you were looking for, I have added it now.
    – Canned Man
    Commented Jun 30, 2021 at 22:18

1 Answer 1


Section 2.b under the Merriam-Webster link Sebastian provided holds the answer, I believe:

2.b: to discover the inner contents or meaning

The Latin is easy enough to get: pervenire meaning "to arrive at" is used metaphorically for "understand." If you "arrive at" the answer to a problem, you understand it (something like that). But in English, there is a set idiom meaning "to penetrate the mysteries." So the translator just opted for this common idiom instead of the more literal "arrive at the mystery." There is no need to postulate some funky late Latin development for this.

Edit: See Sebastian's note, too!

  • 3
    The use of itinere and ad + accusative also makes it quite clear that the author had the plain old sense of pervenire in mind. It seems the translator thought that this was not idiomatic English and wrote "penetrate" instead, but he produced a dissonance of metaphors: one does not "penetrate" something "by a road." Commented Jul 1, 2021 at 6:09
  • With Sebastian’s comment and your pointer towards it, this made an excellent answer. Thank you very much! In this case, it obviously was me not noticing this as an idiom, and reading it literally. As Sebastian says, the author thus produced ‘a dissonance of metaphors’, but not only that, writing for an international audience, he did not consider that someone whose first language isn’t English might (as I did) catch on to this here being meant as the idiom, and not have some other (maybe tongue-in-cheek) meaning to it. Thank you for your answer!
    – Canned Man
    Commented Jul 3, 2021 at 22:29

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