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Divide and conquer. September 29, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben grew up with the understanding that the Roman Empire lived by the motto “divide and conquer.” So I was more than a bit embarrassed to discover yesterday that the actual Latin was divide et impera, which is to say, “divide and rule.” (Note that our word “divide” comes directly from the Latin, though they would have pronounced it “dee-VEE-day.”)

Obviously, Roman history isn’t our friend Ben’s strong suit, despite something of an obsession with Roman Britain. (When I was 19, I spent the summer helping to excavate a Roman villa at Verulamium, modern-day St. Albans.)

To our friend Ben, this is yet another demonstration of the power of words, the importance of finding the right word. Both “divide and conquer” and “divide and rule” point to the same strategy. But “conquer” implies subjugation, while “rule” suggests wise leadership. It shifts the focus from the military might of Rome and places it on the Emperor. The phrase originated with the great military strategist and general Julius Caesar, but it clearly shows Caesar’s imperial ambitions as well: It was Caesar who changed Rome from a Republic to an Empire, though because of his murder, the first Emperor was his nephew and heir, Augustus Caesar.

Divide and conquer, or divide and rule? Choose your words carefully; as Marc Antony notes in Shakespeare’s play “Julius Caesar,” they may live after you.

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