David Beckham's new tattoo -- a classicist writes
Amongst the many designs now decorating the celebrity right forearm is what was originally a Latin slogan, here rendered in English: “Let them hate (me) as long as they fear (me)”. The idea is, or so I have read, to express something of Becks’s anxieties about the transatlantic move, and his determination not to be battered by any adverse publicity.
I don’t mind if they don’t actually like me, so the message runs, but don’t let them mess with me. Or, to quote “a source”: “David . . . .believes his tattoos can ward off negativity and help him battle adversity.”
The original reads in Latin: “Oderint dum metuant” (a nice example for you Latinists of the use of “dum as proviso, plus the subjunctive”). According to the Daily Mail, Becks first of all wanted the real Latin, but it was the word dum (“provided that/as long as”) that caused the problem. Could it be taken as a reflection of the mental agility of Mr Beckham? Better perhaps to play safe by avoiding it entirely?
In fact as any classicist must know, the word ‘dum’ is only part of the reason why having “oderint dum metuant” or its English equivalent might be an own goal.
So far as we can tell, the slogan goes back to the second-century BC Roman tragedian Accius. Almost all of Accius’ work is lost, but it is pretty certain that this phrase came from his play Atreus, and from the mouth of the title role itself. In ancient mythology and culture, this King Atreus was the limit case of tyranny and monstrosity – in fact, so much the limit case that he was the man who, so the story went, chopped up the children of his brother Thyestes, and then served them up to him in a stew (minus the hands and feet).
From then on, it became a catchword for the kind of ethics that a proper constitutional Roman deplored in a tyrant. Cicero and Seneca both regarded the sentiment as beyond the pale (hardly surprising, Seneca acerbically observed, that Accius’ play was written during the dictatorship of the bloodthirsty dictator Sulla).
According to Suetonius, it was a favourite saying of the bonkers and wicked emperor Caligula – enough said? It was so well known that the wily emperor Tiberius seems to have parodied the phrase, pointedly. Confronted with some nasty popular squibs, he apparently responded “Let them hate me, provided that they respect what I am doing.” No rule of terror here, was the (somewhat disingenuous) message.
So our celebrity hero is sporting a slogan that, for the Romans, its originators, was the instant identifier of the excesses of tyranny? Enough said?