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I am told that "semel iterumque" was a common phrase in classical Latin. What did it mean?

Google translate says "once and again," but I'm not sure what that's supposed to signify (or whether it's correct).

Was the meaning of the phrase "twice" or "more than once" or "repeatedly" or something else?

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  • Not an answer to the question itself, but the exact phrase shows up nine times via a Perseus corpus search. It likely shows up as other variations, too.
    – Adam
    Commented Mar 29, 2023 at 17:12

1 Answer 1

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Semel iterumque and the apparently more common semel atque iterum literally does indeed mean “once and again,” and it can mean two things:

  1. twice (instead of the more straightforward bis) – examples:

    • semel atque iterum consul fuisti (You were twice consul; Plin. Ep. 4, 3)
    • Ianum Quirinum semel atque iterum a condita urbe ante memoriam suam clausum (The Temple of Janus, which since the foundation of the city had been closed twice before his time; Suet. Aug. 22. See also Liv. 1, 19 on the same subject, who counts somewhat differently and uses bis, semel and iterum.)
  2. time and again (repeatedly, again and again. etc.) – examples:

    • Quod nobis quoque semel atque iterum experiri volentibus ita esse propemodum visum est. (Which to me, wanting to see for myself a number of times, roundabout seemed to be so; Gell. 9, 7)
    • Non tenui igitur diutius lacrimas, immo percussi semel iterumque manibus pectus (So I held my tears no longer, no, I beat my breast again and again with my hands; Petron. 115).
    • Cum his [Germanis] Haeduos eorumque clientes semel atque iterum armis contendisse (with these the Haedui and their clients fought time and again; Caes. BG 1, 31)

    I think “more than once” would also be an elegant way to translate this.

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  • I don't think I'd ever translate that phrase "more than once." If the intention is to communicate exactly twice, "more than once" fails completely. If the intention is to communicate "repeatedly," I find "more than once" too weak. Generally, "more than once" means only a few times, like three or four, and doesn't have the desired connotation of dogged persistance. Commented Mar 30, 2023 at 14:08
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    @Kingshorsey Intuitively, I would think the difference between semel atque iterum and iterum atque iterum would be that the former does not express something like "dogged persistence" as much as the latter. Commented Mar 30, 2023 at 22:51
  • That sounds reasonable Commented Mar 31, 2023 at 21:26

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