Elegia VII: Alexandri Arbuthnaei orationibus de origine et dignitate juris praefixa (c. 1572)

Alexander Arbuthnott (1538-1583) took his undergraduate degree at St Mary's College St Andrews in the mid-1550s, and in 1560 was found fit to serve by the General Assembly as minister of St Andrews. However, he chose instead to go to Bourges to gain his licentiate in law, and returned to Scotland in 1566. He was appointed to the parsonage and vicarage of Logie Buchan in Aberdeenshire in 1568 and made the first Protestant principal of King's College Aberdeen in 1569, a post which he would hold until his death (James Kirk, 'Arbuthnot, Alexander (1538-1583)', ODNB. Arbuthnott published his Orationes de Origine et Dignitate Juris at Edinburgh in 1572, of which no knonw copy survives. This poem appears to have been a liminary verse appended to the text. Maitland references two ancient Greco-Roman festivals - the Cerealia held in honour of Ceres in April, and the Trietericae held for Bacchus every other year on Mount Cithaeron near Thebes - which honour the gifts of food and wine given by the respective gods (see Aeneid, trans. Fairclough and Goold (Cambridge, MA/London, 1999), p. 433) , and suggests that Arbuthnott deserves his very own festival for the gift of civilising law that his work has given to the Scottish people. Metre: elegiac couplets.

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ELEGIA VII: Alexandri Arbuthnaei Orationibus de Origine et Dignitate Juris praefixa

1Tempus erat cum glans dura Iovis arbore nata
et facilem vilis praebuit herba cibum.
Cumque foret vini nec adhuc bene cognitus usus,
sedavit gelidi fluminis unda sitim.
5Ast ubi Trinacriis errans dispersit in oris
frugiferae messis semina flava Ceres,
et cum pampineos proles Semeleia colles, 1
laetaque pinxisset vitibus arva suis,
amplius insuaves jam nemo ex ilice glandes,
10ex rivo gelidam nemo petebat aquam. 2
Hinc Cereri tribuit Cerealia festa vetustas, 3
sacra Deae Cnidiae non violanda jocis.
sacra racemiferi 4 sic et Trieterica Bacchi, 5
aera puellari queis sonuere manu.
15Sic quondam nobis, praeclara scientia Iuris
(praecipites error sic malus egit avos)
non bene culta fuit, nec enim gens effera legum,
constringi passa est libera colla 6 jugo.
At tu doctarum spes Arbuthnaee sororum,
20o decus o patriae 7 splendor amorque tuae,
eloquii postquam monstras velut amne citato, 8
gentibus humanis commoda quanta ferant.
Fallimur? 9 An legum reverentia sancta nepotes
obstringit, quae vix ante tenebat avos?
25Et nudor assuetis cohibens fera pectora fraenis
iustitiam referet, barbariemque premet.
Nec Cereris laudi, aut Bacchi tua gloria cedet,
si modo jus potius frugibus 10 atque mero est.
Quod si forte tibi sacra Arbuthnaea negantur,
30nomine nec niteant templa dicata 11 tuo,
at celebris memori tua fama sacrabitur aevo,
factaque posteritas grata stupenda canet.
Macte igitur, juris cultor doctissime; perge
34caelicolum laudes aequiparare tuis.

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Elegy VII: preface to Alexander Arbuthnott's Speeches on the Origin and Dignity of Law

There was a time when hard acorns sprung up from the garden of Jupiter and foul grass provided easy sustenance. And when man was not yet well acquainted with the use of wine, the flow of the icy river allayed his thirst. But when wandering Ceres scattered the golden seeds of the fruit-bearing harvest over Sicilian shores, and when Semele's offspring a had decorated hills with shoots and fields rejoicing with his grape-vines, no one then sought any longer bitter acorns from the holm-oak, or icy water from the stream. Hence antiquity offered up feasts, the 'Cerealia', to Ceres, things sacred to the Goddess of Cnidus which should not be disturbed by frivolity; and in the same way sacred 'Trietericae' were offered to cluster-bearing Bacchus, at which bronze rang out at the hands of girls. b So it was once with us, that the foremost science of law (such evil error passed among our headstrong ancestors) was not well cared-for, nor was the wild race of laws constrained to have its free neck bound with a yoke. But you, Arbuthnott, hope of the learned sisters, o honour, o splendour and love of your homeland, after you make a show like a rapid river of your eloquence, how many useful things are provided to humankind? Are we mistaken? Or has sacred respect for the law bound the descendants, which scarcely restrained the earlier ancestors? And I am stripped of my savage breast, checked by the bridles of custom, when respect sows justice once more, and prunes out barbarism. If only law were preferable to grain and wine, your glory would not cede its place to the praise of Ceres or to Bacchus. But if perhaps the sacred 'Arbuthnea' are denied to you, and temples dedicated to your name do not shine, at least your famous renown will be held sacred by a mindful age, and a grateful posterity will sing of your amazing deeds. Thus bravo, most learned fosterer of law; proceed knowing that the praises of the heaven-dwellers are equal to yours.



1: 'proles Semeleia' (same metrical position): Ovid, Metamorphoses III.520, V.329, IX.641

2: 'gelidam...aquam': Ovid, Remedia Amoris 552; Martial, Epigrammata XIV.106.2

3: Vergil, Aeneid I.177: 'tum Cererem corruptam undis Cerealiaque arma'; 'Cerealia' is also used extensively by Ovid, for example at Amores III.6.15 and Metamorphoses XI.121-122

4: Word unique to Ovid: Metamorphoses III.666, XV.413; Fasti VI.483

5: 'Triterica Bacchi' used in same metrical position in Ovid, Metamorphoses VI.587 and Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica II.623, but similar phrasing found in Vergil, Aeneid IV.302; Lucan, Bellum Civile V.74; Ovid, Remedia Amoris 593

6: 'libera colla' (same metrical position): Propertius, Elegies II.30a.8

7: Ovid, Tristia V.2.49

8: 'amne citato' (same metrical position): Lucan, Bellum Civile VI.366

9: Common word, but used by Ovid in the same metrical position, and as a question, in Amores I.6.49, III.12.7, and Fasti II.853; see also d2_MaiT_006, line 7.

10: Pliny, Naturalis Historia XVIII.96.5-6.

11: 'templa dicata': Ovid, Fasti I.610, 706 III.704


a: Bacchus.

b: See introduction.