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CONTEXTUALLY YOURS (article first published : 2002-02-19)

This all started when the plumber asked if he could borrow a torch. (Don’t even ask – let’s just say that he came to fix the pipes.) I began wondering about the word “torch” and its origins. They turned out to be quite interesting, and, as so often happens, they go back a long way – about two and a half millennia.

“Torch” derives (via French) from the Latin verb “torquere”, to twist. The connection must be that the first torches were made up of some twisted material like rope, soaked in a flammable material such as wax or pitch and set alight.

But “torquere” has all sorts of other derivatives as well. The most obvious of these is “torque”, which is the measure of the turning effect of a force and is frequently mentioned in the newspapers’ motoring columns as an indication of the work you can expect from an engine at certain speeds. Another is “torture”, a form of agony often inflicted by twisting part of your victim’s anatomy – ask any schoolboy. But there’s more: “torque” (also, in this sense, spelt “torc”) can mean a necklace or bracelet, in the form of a twisted metal band or collar. The Latin word for it was “torques”.

“Torquere” gave rise to an adjective – “torquatus”, meaning “adorned with a necklace”, and this became the surname of a very conspicuous figure of his time (the 4th century B C), Titus Manlius Torquatus, and his descendants. He had a curious history.

As a boy he seems to have suffered from a speech defect, on account of which his father kept him secluded in the country. But public pressure induced him to bring the boy to Rome, where he became very popular and was soon made military tribune. In a war against the Gauls, he took on in single combat one of the enemy, a man whose gigantic stature had terrified the other Roman soldiers out of their wits. Manlius won; he stripped the Gaul of his arms and placed the neck-chain he was wearing around his own neck, thus earning the surname Torquatus. He was subsequently made dictator on two occasions, the first Roman to have achieved this without first having been consul, and was later elected consul three times.

A notable career, one would think, but it all came unstuck. In the year of his last consulship (340 B C), the Roman army faced a hostile force in Latium, at the foot of Mount Vesuvius. The consuls decreed that no Roman, on pain of death, should engage an enemy in single combat. Ironically – or inevitably, given his father’s history – this decree was violated by young Manlius, the consul’s son. He won his fight, but he was immediately executed in front of the assembled army. The severity of this sentence made Torquatus an object of loathing among young Romans for the rest of his life; he was awarded a triumph for the successful conduct of the war in Latium, but few people attended it.

Some time later he was offered the position of censor. He declined, on the grounds that the people could not stand his severity, and he could not stand their vices; a sad memorial to what might have been a life of heroic dimensions.

I sometimes think that we know too much about Ancient Rome. There is something sad about closed systems; for in them, there is no room left for redemption. Contextually Yours, Ulysses Online




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