Laurels and What One Does With Them

By Maeve Maddox

I heard a newscaster–sports I think–say that someone was waiting on the laurels of someone.

Sometimes I feel like an ancient Roman watching Latin turn into French.

What did the newscaster mean?

He had a vague recollection of having heard something about laurels and an -ing verb.

The expression he was reaching for is resting on one’s laurels.

To rest upon one’s laurels is to expend less effort, to give up striving for new victories, to rely on past success to cover up current failures.

In classical times, winners of athletic contests and poetry slams were crowned with laurel wreaths because the laurel wreath was an attribute of the god Apollo, deity of music, poetry, and the arts.

NOTE: “art” didn’t mean the same to the ancients as it does in modern usage. For the Greeks, athletics belonged to the category of art.

To the major arts, according to Cicero, belonged political and military arts; to the second class belonged purely intellectual arts, i.e., sciences, but also poetry and eloquence; to the third class belonged painting, sculpture, music, acting, athletics. Dictionary of the History of Ideas

From this custom of crowning the best poets with a laurel wreath comes the term poet laureate, an official versifier appointed by a government to write poems for special occasions.

Roman custom extended the use of the laurel wreath to crown victorious generals.

During the Roman Republic, the second highest military honor was the Civic Crown, a wreath made of oak leaves. It was awarded to a Roman who had “saved the life of fellow citizens by slaying an enemy on a spot not further held by the enemy that same day. Wikipedia

The highest military honor was the Grass Crown, awarded to a general who broke a blockade around a threatened legion or army, saving it from annihilation. This one wasn’t awarded too often.

The association of oak leaves with military achievement survives to modern times. Certain miltary decorations make use of oakleaf clusters.

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3 Responses to “Laurels and What One Does With Them”

  • Karin-Marijke Vis

    Nice post Maeve, thanks.
    Civic Crown and Grass Crown were new to me.

  • neki rivera

    “watching Latin turn into French”
    what a great line!may i use it given the occasion? 🙂

    neki desu

  • Maeve

    neki,
    Be my guest. Just remember where you first heard it!
    🙂

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