Stemma: a term evolves in Latin


The Latin term stemma is a loan-word from the Greek στέμμα where the original meaning was garland. (Sole biblical use: ταύρους καὶ στέμματα ἐπὶ τοὺς {oxen and garlands to the gates}, Acts 14:13.) Latinists generally suggest that stemma's later abstract meanings have their origins in the garlanded wall or niche where imagines, or paintings of ancestors, were displayed in a patrician home and became sooty from the burning of lanterns.

In the following collation of the evidence, we can see the evolution of the word from designating this interior-decoration feature to a figure of speech for the type of nobility evidenced by a person's ancestry, followed by the term's decline into a looser literary term for the type of glory conferred by a thing's long past, accompanied in Late Antiquity by its development into a terminus technicus for a ramifying diagram.

This page is intended only to gather and order the recorded uses during antiquity of the word stemma in Latin, a language in which I have no expertise whatever. The grammatically varied forms of stemma have been underlined, along with imagines and linea and a couple of other related terms where they occur.

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The concrete object: a display

Stemmata uero lineis discurrebant ad imagines pictas {the lines run from all sides towards the painted images of the stemmata}. Pliny, Natural History 35.2. Text. [*]For a comprehensive discussion which shows why the "lines" are not likely to have been a diagrammatic system, see: Corbier, Mireille. “Painting and Familial and Genealogical Memory (Pliny, Natural History 35, 1-14).” In Vita Vigilia Est: Essays in Honour of Barbara Levick, edited by Edward Bispham, Greg Rowe, and Elaine Matthews. London, 2007.

Coenus stemmata {Coenus painted pedigrees}. Pliny, Natural History 35.51. Text.

Qui imagines in atrio exponunt en nomina familiae suae longo ordine ac multis stemmatum inligata flexuris in parte prima aedium conlocant, non noti magis quam nobiles sunt? {those who display portraits of their ancestors in their halls, and set up in the entrance to their houses the pedigree of their family drawn out at length, with many complicated collateral branches, are they not notorious rather than noble?} Seneca, De Beneficiis 3.28.I. Text.

Si quid est aliud in philosophia boni, hoc est, quod stemma non inspicit... Non facit nobilem atrium plenum fumosis imaginibus {if there is any good in philosophy, it is this: that it never looks into pedigrees. .... A hall full of smoke-begrimed ancestral paintings does not make the nobleman}. Seneca, Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales 44, 5.

Stemmata quid faciunt? quid prodest, Pontice, longo sanguine censeri pictas ostendere uultus maiorum ..? [...] quis fructus, generis tabula iactare capaci Coruinum, posthac multa contingere uirga fumosos equitum cum dictatore magistros ..? {what’s the point of a pedigree, Ponticus? Where’s the profit in being judged by the length of your bloodline, of displaying portraits of your ancestors? ... the value in being able to boast a Censor in your extensive family tree, or be connected through a tangle of branches with a dictator, and sundry smoke-stained masters of horse? (adapted, Kline)}. Juvenal, Saturae, 3.8.

Atria Pisonum stabant cum stemmate toto {when the Pisos' hall stood with all its ancestry}. Martial, Epigrammata 4.40. Text.

An deceat pulmonem rumpere uentis stemmate quod Tusco ramum millesime ducis censoremue tuum uel quod trabeate salutas?  Persius, Saturae 3.28. The meaning of this important citation is discussed in detail on my Isidore page. See also the discussion by Maurus Servius Honoratus. [*]Of particular importance because the word ramus occurs in the same context.

Imperator vero etiam stemma in atrio proposuerit, quo paternam originem ad Iovem, maternam ad Pasiphaam Minonis uxorem referret {the emperor (Galba) even put up a genealogy in his entrance hall that claimed a paternal line back to Jove and a maternal line back to Pasiphae, the wife of Minos}. Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum, Galba 2.

Cassio Longino iuris consulto ac luminibus orbato, quod in uetere gentilis stemmate C. Cassi percussoris Caesaris imagines retinuisset {the charge against Cassius Longinus, a lawyer who had lost his sight, was that he kept in his display of ancestral paintings one of Caius Cassius, who was concerned in the death of Julius Caesar}. Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum, Nero 37. Text.

Syrum se dici nolebat sed a maioribus Romanum et stemma generis depinxerat, quo ostendebatur genus eius a Metellis descendere {he did not like to be called a Syrian and asserted that his ancestors were Romans, and he had his pedigree displayed showing that he was descended from the Metelli}. Anon., Scriptores Historiae Augustae, Alexander Severus, 44.3. Bilingual text.

The figurative use: blue blood

Cyrum et Cambysen et totum regni Persici stemma percense {consider Cyrus and Cambyses and all the royal line of Persia}. Seneca, De Beneficiis 7.3. Text.

Unum ex Afris et quidem Hadrumetinis, fingentem quod de Ceioniorum stemmate sanguinem duceret {a man from Africa, a native of Hadrumetum, who pretends to derive descent from the blood of the Ceionii}. Anon., Scriptores Historiae Augustae, Vita Clodii Albini, 12. Text. Translation.

Non tibi clara quidem, senior placidissime, gentis linea nee proavis demissum stemma... {gentlest of fathers, yours was no shining lineage, no pedigree bestowed by ancestors (Kline)}. Statius, Silvae 3.3. Text.

Sed famulum gemis, Urse, pium, sed amore fideque has meritum lacrimas, cui maior stemmate iuncto libertas ex mente fuit {faithful Ursus, who by his love and loyalty earned tears, to whom freedom of thought was dearer than lineage (Kline)}. Statius, Silvae 2.6. Text.

Stemmate materno felix, virtute paterna {fortunate in your mother’s lineage, and your father’s courage (Kline)}. Statius, Silvae 4.4. Text.

Per iugera circi, cum pulcher visu, titulis generosus avitis exspectatur equus, cuius de stemmate longo felix demeritos habet admissura parentes {in the Roman Circus the audience awaits a stallion, handsome to view, and glorying in noble pedigree, one of the happy matings of parents of worthy ancestry (from Kline)}. Statius, Silvae 5.2. Text.

Longumque pulchra stemma repetit a Leda {while he was tracing down his long pedigree from the beautiful Leda}. Martial, Epigrammata 5.35. Text.

Habet hinc patrem maritus, habet hinc puella matrem geminaque parte ductum Caesareum flumineo stemma recurrit ortu {hence came the bridegroom's sire, hence the bride's mother; from either branch flows the blood of the Caesars, like twin streams reunited.} Claudian, Fescinnina de nuptiis Honorii Augusti, 2.

Is enim liber debet omnia quae ad stemma generis pertinent continere, qui habet principem de quo plura dicenda sunt {all that pertains to the pedigree should be included in the work which deals with a prince of whom there is more to be told}. Anon., Scriptores Historiae Augustae, Helius, 2.10.

Qui notat omne genus carnalis stirpis ad usque corporeum Christum, per sex septena virorum nomina descendens, et venam sanguinis alti ex atavis longo texens per stemmata filo... {for he marks the whole race of the carnal stock right down to the bodily Christ, coming through forty-two names of men and tracing the course of noble blood from his ancestors in a long line, generation by generation}. Prudentius, Apotheosis 3.985. Bilingual text.

Exponam illustrem familiam, alti sanguinis decus et stemmata per consules et praefectos praetorio decurrentia {neither giving her illustrious family and lofty lineage, nor tracing her pedigree through a line of consuls and prętorian prefects}. Jerome of Sidon, Epistulae, 127. Text. Translation.

'Non possum fidei causa ostendere imagines maiorum meorum,’ ut ait apud Sallustium Marius, nec deductum ab heroibus genus vel deorum stemma replicare {I cannot display images of my ancestors to promote my reputation, as Marius says in Sallust, nor trace back to the gods a proof of heroic descent} Ausonius, Vasatis Gratiarum Actio ad Grati Angratianum Imperatorem Pro Consulatu, 8.

Stemma tibi patris Haeduici, Tarbellica Maurae matris origo fuit: ambo genus procerum {both your parents were illustrious: Your father was of Aedui origin, your Moorish mother born in the Tarbelle country}. Ausonius, Commemoratio professorum Burdigalensium, 16.

In studiis, quod ius pontificum, quae foedera, stemma quod olim ante Numam fuerit sacrifici Curibus {studies such as pontifical law, what the treaties, what the pedigree of the sacrificial priest at Cures Sabini before the time of Numa}. Ausonius, ibid. 22. Text. Translation.

Glabrio, te maestis commemorabo elegis, stemmate nobilium deductum nomen avorum {I commemorate in mournful verse Glabrio, a name drawn from a line of famous ancestors}. Ausonius, ibid. 24. Text. Translation.

Antiqua captans stemmata, Martem Remumque et conditorem Romulum privos parentes nuncupans {hankering after an ancient pedigree and claiming Mars, Remus and founder Romulus as his own}. Ausonius, Epigrammata Ausonii de diversis rebus, 45. Text. Translation.

Arborium, Haeduico ductum de stemmate nomen {Arborius, who derived his name from a line of Aeduan ancestors}. Ausonius, Parentalia, 4. Text.

Ab exortu stemmata Burdigalae, teque tuumque genus memoret {the houses of Bordeaux, illustrious from their first arising}. Ausonius, Parentalia, 8. Text. Translation.

Nobis ab stemmate primo et non cognati {(names) from the male line, not connections by marriage}. Ausonius, Praefatiunculae, 1. Text. Translation.

Aniciorum stemmata {the Anician pedigree}. Ausonius, Epistularum, 12. Text. Translation.

Non tamen eatenus explicandis antiquorum stemmatibus exinaniretur, ut ob hoc ad narrandam gloriam tuam fieret obtusior {the quill should not be so spent by the unfolding of your genealogy as to grow too blunt for the record of your own achievements}. Sidonius Apollinaris, Epistulae, 7.12.2 Text. Translation.

Descendit itaque ab eo per singulas successiones regium stemma perductumque est usque ad Herodis tempora {from him the royal race descended from father to son and lasted till the days of Herod}. Boethius, De Fide Catholica. Text. Bilingual text.

Weak figurative sense: glorious ancientness

Argenti fumosa sui cum stemmata narrat garrulus et verbis mucida vina facit {when long-winded (Euctus) boasts the early provenance of his smoky silver cups, he makes the wine seem musty}. Martial, Epigrammata 8.6. Text.

Ornabat semper claros intrare penates adsuetum et felix dominorum stemmate signum {accustomed to be placed in the homes of the great, its ancientness underlining the fortune of a great house}. Statius, Silvae 4.6. Text, translation.[*]The object being described is a figurine of Hercules.

Referre prisci stemma nunc ieiunii {I will now recount the history of a fast in ancient times /or/ now let us tell of olden fasts}. Prudentius, Cathemerina 7. Bilingual text. [*]Both useless translations, but I cannot do a better.

Fundavit et fixit petras, apostolorum stemmata {placed these (twelve) stones (in the riverbed) as ancient forerunners of the apostles}. Prudentius, Cathemerina 12. Text. Translation. Blog post. [*]Follow the link to my blog post for a 10th-century editor's gloss, which explains the word with the synonym ordines.

Quali radiarint stemmate pila {the old lustre with which the javelins gleamed}. Prudentius, Contra Symmachum 1.1. Text. Translation.

Pollet hoc felix per orbem terra Hibera stemmate {for this glory the land of Spain has the fortune to be honoured throughout the world}. Prudentius, Peristephanon Liber, 1. Text. Translation.

A body of kinship data

στέμματα cognationum directo limite in duas lineas separantur, quarum altera est superior, altera inferior. Ex superiore autem, et secundo gradu, transversae lineae pendent: quas omnes latiore tractatu habito in librum singularem conteximus {the stemmata of cognate relationships are separated by a straight line into two lines, one of which represents the ascendant and one the descendant. But from the ascendant there are also horizontal lines starting in the second degree, all of which we have incorporated into a sole book with rather broader treatment}. Pauli Sententiae libri IV = Justinian Digest 38, 10, 9.[*]Perhaps the most difficult text to explain, as it is not even clear what is being described: a stemma that is descriptive of real family, some species of analytical arbor consanguinatis or a mnemonic scheme. The Italian jurist Andrea Alciato (1492–1550) opposed the principle of lectio difficilior potior and proposed emending stemmata to "schemata". Iolanda Ruggiero, in a recent guide to a century of furious debate about both the authorship and meaning of this passage which is commonly dated to about 300 CE, argues that it is an analysis of the layout of descriptive stemmata, possibly employing terms similar to those used in Roman land surveying or augury. (“Gli stemmata cognationum: Pauli Sententiae ed Etymologiae.” In Ravenna capitale. Uno sguardo ad occidente. Romani e Goti, Isidoro di Siviglia, edited by Gisella Bassanelli Sommariva and Simona Tarozzi, 101–16. Santarcangelo di Romagna: Maggioli Editore, 2012.) Alciatus. Ruggiero.

Stemmata dicuntur ramusculi, quos advocati faciunt in genere, cum gradus cognationum partiuntur, ut puta: ille filius, ille pater, ille avus, ille agnatus, et ceteri, quorum figurae haec {By stemmata one denotes the twigs that lawyers draw so they can then measure the degrees of kinship, for example, he's the son, he's the father, he's the grandfather, he's a father's side cousin, and so on using elements from the following figures}. Isidorus Hispalensis, Origines See Isidore page for further discussion.

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