The Great Seal

Epic poetry is everywhere.

The Great Seal of the United States, found (among other places) on the back of the one-dollar bill, contains two Latin mottoes on its reverse, which is on the left side of the bill. The seal was officially adopted by the U.S. government in 1782.


I had never looked into these two bits of Latin—assuming them to be something the American Founding Fathers had thrown together and wished to sound impressive. But something struck me when I was reading the beginning of Vergil’s first Georgic. The invocation there, initially addressed to various gods and goddesses associated with agriculture, concludes with a lengthy invocation of Octavian (the soon-to-be Augustus Caesar, and the official addressee of the Georgics), which itself ends as follows:

da facilem cursum atque audacibus adnue coeptis, 40
ignarosque viae mecum miseratus agrestis
ingredere et votis iam nunc adsuesce vocari. (Georgics 1.40–42)

Grant [me] an easy journey and nod in approval of the bold things begun [by me],
and—having pity on farmers ignorant of the way, and on me—
proceed, and now get used to being called with prayers.

40   audacibus audāx dat pl ‘bold, daring’; cf. audeō ‘dare, be brave,’ Eng audacious; here it agrees with coeptīsadnue ad-nuō 2 imp ‘nod to [in assent or approval]’; even though ad takes the accusative when it occurs as an independent preposition, its prefixation here causes the whole verb to take an indirect object in the dativecoeptis incipiō pass part dat pl; this is really the neuter plural coepta ‘things that have been begun’; the morphological succinctness of the Latin word is to blame for the variety of translations for this motto (although ‘bold undertakings’ for audācibus coeptīs, substantivizing the participle, is good enough for me).

As it turns out, Vergil recycles this piece of the line word-for-word in his Aeneid, at the beginning of a short prayer to Jupiter by Ascanius (again in the second-person singular imperative, ‘nod…!’):

Iuppiter omnipotens, audacibus adnue coeptis. (Aeneid 9.625)

Almighty Jupiter, nod in approval of my bold undertakings!

For the seal, this phrase was slightly amended. The plea annue! (which is the same as adnue, with the assimilation of d to the following n made clear in the spelling), originally in the imperative mood, was recast into third-person indicative annuit, which is ambiguous with respect to tense; it can either be read as the present-tense ‘(s)he is nodding’ or as the perfect ‘(s)he has nodded.’ The implied subject is God, or Providence.


The other bit of Latin (novus ordō saeclōrum), on a scroll unfurled beneath the pyramid, is also paraphrased from Vergil.

Ultima Cumaei venit iam carminis aetas;
magnus ab integro saeclorum nascitur ordo. 5 (Eclogues 4.4–5)

The final era of the Cumaean [Sibyl]’s song has now gone;
a great series of ages is born anew.

5   saeclorum saeculum gen pl ‘age, lifetime, century’; the word comes to mean ‘century, count of 100 years’ in the Romance languages (cf. Fr siècle, Sp siglo, It secolo, Rom secol), but the Classical meaning is never so precise; note that the syncope of saeculōrum (ˉ ˘ ˉ ˉ) > saec’lōrum (ˉ ˉ ˉ) is a necessary change, since the sequence ˉ ˘ ˉ cannot occur in dactylic hexameter.—nascitur nascor 3 sg pres ‘is born, is coming into being’—ordo masc nom sg ‘row, series, order’

These lines from the fourth Eclogue tell of a new and untold age approaching, and the relevance of this concept in the United States of the 1780s is obvious. In the seal, the adjective magnus ‘great’ is replaced with novus ‘new,’ although the verb nascitur in Vergil already really conveys the sense of newness, so this addition is not an audacious one.

I find it curious—although probably without solid explanation—that the ligature in <cœptis> made its way onto the seal (rather than *ceptis) but the one in <sæclōrum> did not.


An earlier design for the reverse seal, by William Barton, had the mottos Deo favente and Perennis.

Deō favente is an ablative absolute. ‘with God being favorable, if God is favorable’ (cf. faveō ‘be favorable’); cf. deō volente ‘(with) God willing, if God wills,’ which itself is a Christian parallel to the better-known Arabic إن شاء الله inshallah.

Perennis is an adjective meaning ‘everlasting, all year long’ (cf. perennial).


The obverse ‘front side’ of the Great Seal is less exciting from a Latin standpoint, as it contains only the much better known motto E pluribus Unum ‘out of many, one.’

I had always considered it interesting that ūnum is in the neuter, as opposed to masculine ūnus [populus] or feminine ūna [cīvitās], and I wonder what those who chose the phrase for the seal intended as the referent. It is apparently a phrase that, before its use in the seal, was the motto of various periodicals, which boasted to be “one [magazine] out of many [articles].”

Even earlier, the phrase—which is admittedly not as lexically distinct as annuit cœptis or novus ordo seclorum, and therefore harder to trace historically—was also applied to recipes (since out of many diverse ingredients, one product emerges). The Latin recipe-poem Moretum, which provides instruction on how to make a sort of cheesy pesto, includes a line ending

color est e pluribus unus

there is one color, out of many.

The Moretum is in fact a component of the Appendix Vergiliana, a body of work probably falsely attributed to the poet Vergil.

But there is no indication that this pesto recipe was the source of inspiration for the American motto. And so it is that ē plūribus ūnum, the only one of the three phrases actually to fit the hexameter as it appears on the seal, is the only one probably not taken directly from a classical source.


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