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In Ars Poetica Horace writes:

quid dignum tanto feret hic promissor hiatu?
parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus.

I get the meaning of the Latin, though admittedly by looking at a translation but I want to understand the actual Greek proverb that it comes from. C.O. Brink has a lengthy commentary on this passage. One annoying thing about Latin commentaries is that they are often written for super-experts in Latin, not for the student and even worse, they assume you already know Ancient Greek. Here is Brink's commentary:

answers the preceding question (quid dignum. . . feret?) with a Greek proverb, transposed to the fut. tense to suit the tense of the question. For the proverb see CPG, 1. 378, 4, II. 733. 4 ὤδινεν ὄρος, εἶτα μυν­ ἀπέτεκεν alluded to by the first two words in Lucian, Conscr. Hist. 23, in a similar though not identical setting. Immisch, p. 112 n., has drawn attention to the parallel, but his conclusions are implausible. Lucian objects to προοίμια λαμπρὰ καὶ τραγικὰ και εισ ὑπερβολὴν μακρά where the body of the narrative is puny, H. objects to a proem (however short) announcing a large subject when its execution must fall short of the expectation raised , cf 136-9 n., 197 n., and below 143 non fumum ex fulgore. Phaedrus, Iv. 23 (24) has made a short fable out of the proverb, the moral being qui, magna cum minaris, extricas nihil. The proverb made into a skit, in Sotadean metre, on the minute body of Agesilaus and ascribed to the Egyptian King Tachos, is cited by Athen. xrv. 616 d ὤδινεν οροσ Ζεῦς δ' ἐφοβεῖτο, το δ' ἔτεκεν μυν. This, if historical, dates the proverb back to the fourth century B.C., but I should be loath to spin Hellen- istic literary affiliations out of its metrical form, as Immisch, p. 25, is inclined to do. One might note however that the proverb makes better sense in Lucian's context than in H's and Lucian may therefore preserve its original application. The age of the proverb, its greek provenance and the literary contexts in Lucian and the Ars might possibly point to a common Hellenistic source.

I want to know how the Greek proverb that Brink quotes is to be translated. I get what point Horace is trying to make as Brink points out "H. objects to a proem (however short) announcing a large subject when its execution must fall short of the expectation raised," so mountain would be a symbol for an ambitious artistics goal and mouse would be the result which would be a symbol for pathetic.

2 Answers 2

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The Greek proverb is very straightforward:

ὤδινεν ὄρος, εἶτα μυν­ ἀπέτεκεν

A mountain is in labor, then gives birth to a mouse.

As your commentary notes, Horace transposed it into the future. The original Greek is in the aorist, probably a so-called gnomic aorist that expresses a timeless truth and isn't meant to indicate any sort of past time frame. The adjective ridiculum is Horace's addition.

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  • Thanks I really appreciate that. I wonder why my question was downmarked.
    – bobsmith76
    May 29, 2022 at 23:59
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    @bobsmith76 My guess is the combative tone you took against a commentary. I should add that indeed, the purpose of the commentary is not to for students, but for Classical scholars, virtually all of whom know both Greek and Latin. Editing that part out might yield a more positive response.
    – cmw
    May 30, 2022 at 3:24
  • @bobsmith76 I haven't been around here for a while, so things may have lightened up a bit since then, but back when I was a regular, questions about Greek seemed to really bother some people and both questions and answers pertaining to Greek would sometimes get voted down simply to make a point.
    – Penelope
    May 30, 2022 at 5:36
  • @Penelope I still see that sometimes, but (thankfully!) that attitude seems to be dying down a bit. For the better, if you ask me.
    – cmw
    May 30, 2022 at 6:17
  • What a difference 5 years makes, pretty weird considering Greek is 2800 years old if you start it with Homer.
    – bobsmith76
    May 30, 2022 at 7:45
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cnread has already ably translated the proverb but I wanted to unpack Brink’s observation that “one might note however that the proverb makes better sense in Lucian's context than in H's and Lucian may therefore preserve its original application.” We know what the proverb says, but we cannot be sure what it originally meant.

As Brink points out, Horace clearly intends it to mean a proem that promises something grand but then fails to fulfil its promise. This seems to be how Phaedrus (translating Aesop) also understood it; the mountain who cried out so much but only produced a mouse, is a morality tale directed at those who make great threats but actually do nothing (qui, magna cum minaris, extricas nihil). The proverb, in this sense, is highlighting the disparity between appearance and reality, of promising one thing but delivering another.

Lucian’s complaint, however, is not one so much of overselling the topic, but that the body of the narrative (he is discussing the writing of history) is different from the ‘head’, or the proem* - it’s like someone wearing a golden helmet, he says, with a cuirass of rags and a wicker-work shield. All parts should resemble each other, he says, there should be uniformity, and they should be of the same colour and in proportion to each other. The proverb, in this sense, is highlighting the inconsistency of something, a lack of cohesion in its parts.

Whether one is closer to the “original application” or not, I can’t be sure (unlike Brink!) but the difference between the two seems slight to me; ultimately, both interpretations hinge on the idea of incongruity.

*For the record, Brink’s quote of Lucian is (roughly), “bright and majestic and very long proems” (προοίμια λαμπρὰ καὶ τραγικὰ και εισ ὑπερβολὴν μακρά).

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    "the difference between the two seems slight to me" I'm not sure Brink is right to note a difference at all. Sure, Lucian says something a bit different than Horace, but all of his examples (gold helmet and wicket shield; head of Colossus and body of dwarf) parallel Horace's usage. If you see a gold helmet, you expect the rest to be gold; if you see the head of the Colossus, you expect the rest of the body to be immense. Likewise, authoring a mouse isn't bad, but don't promise a mountain ahead of time.
    – cmw
    May 30, 2022 at 3:31
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    @cmw True enough. But I do think Lucian's illustration of the child wearing a mask to masquerade as Hercules, at which sight the audience yells "a mountain is in labour", suggests that it's not that they were expecting more and were let down, but rather that they can immediately see a lightweight trying to be something he isn't. There's no sequence of events, it's the overall impression of a lack of consistency or authenticity.
    – Penelope
    May 30, 2022 at 5:59
  • I can concede that the origin of the complaint differs, although if I do think there is an expectation that a strong person ought to play Hercules. In that case, then, it's the promise that there is Hercules in a play, but it's played by a child, whence the disappointment stems. It's all splitting hairs, though (which, I guess, a commentary is useful for!).
    – cmw
    May 30, 2022 at 6:15

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