The triumph of the Cross

Fr. John Hunwicke has a fascinating post about certain philological aspects of Venantius’s hymn, Pange lingua gloriosi, not to be confused with Aquinas’s hymn, Pange lingua gloriosi. (There is, as you might imagine, a fascinating article in the old Catholic Encyclopedia about both hymns.) Pange lingua is in trochaic tetrameter catalectic meter. And it is about that meter that Fr. Hunwicke makes this point, after explaining some of the low, low origins of the meter, which is especially important during Holy Week:

So how did this frivolous, indeed indecent, metre come to be used for what we might think of as the stateliest and most dogma-laden hymns of our Latin tradition? One possibility: Think Roman Squaddies. Think Roman Squaddies in a happy mood, particularly after a great victory; they have returned to Rome; the Senate has voted a Triumph; and so the troops, heavy with gold and alcohol, are singing in the Triumph Procession as they process behind their general. You may be surprised by this; but they are singing obscene songs insulting the general, probably to avert from him divine jealousy. And Suetonius preserves for us three lines in just this metre which were sung during C Iulius Caesar’s Gallic triumph (interesting that, just as with the Christian hymnographers, three lines seem to make up a stanza):
Gallias Caesar subegit, Nicomedes Caesarem:
Ecce Caesar nunc triumphat qui subegit Gallias;
Nicomedes non triumphat qui subegit Caesarem.

Which is best left untranslated; well, anyway, I am going to leave it untranslated.

(Emphasis supplied.)

In other words, Venantius’s meter is the exact same meter that Caesar’s troops used at his Gallic triumph. This fact cannot have been lost on Venantius when he composed Pange lingua, just as it could not have been lost on Prudentius when he composed the hymn upon which Pange lingua was based. This is, of course, one of those fantastic bits of Romanitas that have been preserved in the Church.

Read the whole thing there.