Navigare necesse est

…vivere non necesse est.

I often see this quoted (well – often, relative to the number of people with enough of a classical education to remember it) as though Pompey were making a statement about the importance of keeping the sea lanes open. For some reason Norwegians seem especially prone to this, perhaps because, before we had oil, we made most of such money as we had on the merchant fleet. Which was also our main contribution to the Allied cause during the war, and where we had most of our casualties, and there’s Bjørnson with “Our honour and our might, we got from white sails bright”, and the long ships landing to raid a monastery. Generally speaking Norway is just the sort of place for “It is necessary to sail, not to live” to become popular among people with enough education that they don’t in fact have to put themselves in the path of any North Sea storms, much less torpedoes.

What’s usually forgotten is the context. Pompey was not making a speech before the Senate on the relative merits of investing in ships versus legions; he was running for his life from Caesar’s troops, and the captain of the ship he was planning to take to Africa was nervous about the weather. I think the proper translation is more along the lines of “I require that this ship sails. I don’t particularly require that you be alive to command it.” A compact language is Latin!


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