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Resident Fresher ‘Latinist’ Jules Vahl does a deep dive into the mystical world of Latin mottos, interrogating everything from Sydney high schools to St Andrew’s College itself.
It’s Monday evening: Formal Dinner at St Andrew’s College. All the normal pomp and circumstance. Before we eat, Principal Wayne Erickson speaks an ancient, supposedly “dead” language that evokes painful reminders of boredom for some, placid indifference for others, and great excitement … for me.
Benedictus, Benedicat, per Jesum Christum Dominum Nostrum
(Blessed one, may he bless, through Jesus Christ our Lord).
Especially at a place like the University of Sydney, Latin is all around us. It hides in plain sight.
After it was adopted by the Christians in Rome in the 4th century AD, Latin became the lingua franca for the church and its sacred texts. The English broke from this tradition after Henry VIII created the Church of England to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. However, Latin continued to be taught in British schools. Up until the 1960s, the study of Latin was even a requirement for entry into undergraduate Medicine and Law degrees at English Universities.
As a multicultural, ethnically diverse nation, Australia has not fully inherited the Eurocentric ideals associated with Latin: the idea that Europe is the centre of academic, religious and philosophical thought, and rightly so. But Latin is still taught at universities and at some private schools.
Latin has often been claimed as an elite language: most private schools have devised a concise Latin phrase to encapsulate their values and ideology as educational institutions. These are the phrases that tend to pass us by. The phrases embroidered on banners in small font, condemned to insignificance. There are at least two such phrases that you can see in the Dining Hall.
As your resident fresher ‘Latinist’, I’ll be taking you through some of the mottos of schools, Colleges and Universities to shed light on their history, meaning, and cultural significance.
Let’s begin with the mottos of some of Sydney’s top private schools. Whether the students or alumni of these schools embody the values contained in the Latin, I will leave for the reader to decide.
Tempus celerius radio fugit
(Time flies more swiftly than a weaver’s shuttle)
This motto was adopted by Abbotsleigh in 1924. It is intended to evoke how Abbotsleigh grows in cultural complexity as time passes, and as the weaver continues her craft. Interestingly, the word radio also refers to a teacher’s pointer, but I doubt these ever flew, unless frustrated teachers hurled them at disobedient students.
Vitae lampada tradunt
(They pass on the torches of life)
This motto was taken from Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, a poem written in the 1st century BC intended to educate readers about Roman philosophy. The context of the motto is not quite complete: the Latin around this fragment suggests that the “torches of life” – life itself, but metaphorically an education – are passed down from generation to generation, explaining why Shore unveiled this statue in 2015:
Per Aspera Ad Astra
(Through harsh things to the stars)
This motto is a very popular way of saying that confronting challenges forges greatness. Its concise and reformist message has been adopted in popular culture worldwide. In 1925, Queenwood’s founders wanted their female students to embrace not only educational challenges, but also to reform a world that was in many ways geared against them.
(so that I may serve)
Wenona’s motto has existed since the school was established in 1886. The contrast between this motto and Queenwood’s motto in terms of the role of women in Australian society is quite striking. The motto reflects the common 19th century Western view that women’s education should be geared towards servitude as opposed to independent critical thought. However, the phrase is still open enough to mean “so that I may do good things/serve others/so that I may benefit.”
St Ignatius’ College (Riverview)
Quantum potes, tantum aude
(Dare as much as you can)
This motto was taken from a 13th century hymn composed by Thomas Aquinas. An elaborate way of saying try your best, the motto is intended to reflect the themes of Jesuit teaching and the qualities of each Riverview student. This ethos seems to have served the school well judging by its decorated history at Head of the River.
Vi et animo
(With strength and soul)
This simple phrase was adopted as Ascham’s motto in 1911, after it was taken from the family crest printed on Delamere, a gothic mansion in Darling Point, where the school operated between 1893 and 1909. The motto encourages Ascham students to be strong in both mind and body: Vi refers only to physical strength, whereas animo can refer to strength of mind or character.
Esse quam videri
(to be rather than to seem)
This fragment was taken from Sallust’s Bellum Catilinae, a history of the infamous Lucius Sergius Catilina, who mounted an armed revolution against the Roman senate in 63BC after consecutive election losses. The full quote endorses sincere goodness, and the rewards one may reap from it: “He was preferring to be good rather than to seem good, and so the less he was seeking glory, the more it was following him.” This fullness of identity connects strongly with Cranbrook’s Anglican ethos.
Moving on to the University of Sydney and its Colleges …
Deo, Patriae, Tibi
(For God, for the fatherland, for you)
The “you” in St Paul’s motto presumably refers to St Paul himself, a Christian apostle who spread the teachings of Jesus in the first century AD. The swords on the St Paul’s College coat of arms allude to his beheading at the hands of the notorious Roman emperor Nero.
Nisi Dominus frustra [laboramus]
(Without the Lord, we labour in vain)
This motto is a common summation of the first two verses of Psalm 127 from the Book of Psalms. The Psalm describes how any mortal conduct is powerless without the will of God. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining their Rawson rugby campaign.
In sapientia ambulate
(Walk in wisdom)
In addition to its motto, Sancta Sophia’s very name was created from a combination of Latin and Ancient Greek (sancta σοφια = holy wisdom). The motto was chosen to convey the hopes of the founders of the College that the women who resided there would be guided by their wisdom throughout their lives.
Ministrate in fide vestra virtutem
(Serve virtue in your faith)
This motto is taken from Chapter 1, verse 5 of the Second epistle of Saint Peter. The motto forms the first half of a double-barrelled verse: “Supply your faith with virtue but supply your virtue with knowledge.” Interestingly, Newington’s motto (in fide scientiam: “to your faith add knowledge”) is taken from the same source.
Christo, Ecclesiae, litteris
(For Christ, for the church, for scholarship)
This motto was likely written by legendary Professor of Classics Charles Badham, who also composed the motto for the state of NSW (orta recens quam pura nites: “newly risen, how brightly you shine!”). The motto appropriately places academia (litteris) as one of the core values of the College, along with Presbyterianism .
The University of Sydney
Sidere mens eadem mutato
(The same learning under changed stars)
Written in 1857, this motto reflects USYD’s prestigious status as the first Australian university. The education (mens) provided by the newly minted USYD is the same (eadem) as the education provided in England, which is symbolised by the golden lion atop the Coat of Arms. The stars are “changed” (sidere … mutato) because this education is taking place in the Southern hemisphere, as opposed to the Northern hemisphere. The motto pays tribute to the role of Oxford and Cambridge in inspiring the development of an Australian tertiary education institution. The open book at the centre of the Coat of Arms is taken from Oxford’s own, and the lion from Cambridge’s.
The prevalence of these mottos is a testament to Latin’s historical significance and its capability to express the core values of educational institutions concisely and elegantly. It is unfortunate that Latin has come to be condemned as a dated, elitist language when it has such potential. Latin lives forever through these mottos, as an eternal record of the values and thoughts of others. Latina immortalis est.
 I must credit the late Professor Ian Jack’s excellent analysis on the St Andrew’s College website for its assistance in this section.