Sense and Nonsense: The Southern Epitaph

Russell Hittinger, whose father, grandfather, and other relatives are buried in Arlington Cemetery, had mentioned to Michael Jackson and Terry Hall a couple of months ago the existence, somewhere in the cemetery of a monument to Southern soldiers. I believe one of them even asked me to translate the Latin inscription on it. This is very vague in my mind, but I do recall Jackson or Hall telling me that the inscription was most curious and had to do with Cato and the gods in the cause of the South.

Largely because of a section in Josef Pieper’s Scholasticism on Boethius, the sixth century Roman politician and philosopher, I had assigned as the final book on Rome, for my spring semester “Classical Political Theory” course, Boethius’ De Consolatione Philosophiae, one of the most widely read books in the history of the West. Boethius was executed by the Emperor Theoderic in 525 AD. The Consolation of Philosophy tries to explain this dire event to Boethius and to us.

Now, the book we read prior to Boethius was Tacitus’ Annals, that most sobering, powerful account of the lives of the first four Roman emperors and their women, as devastating an indictment of moral-political corruption as has ever been written. In recounting Nero’s astonishing reign, Tacitus had spoken of the poet Lucan, who was annoyed because Nero pretended to be a legitimate poet. Nero finally resolved this problem by doing away with Lucan. I did have a few pages of Lucan in an anthology somewhere, on Julius Caesar, but thought no more of the matter until I came across a reference to Lucan in Book Four of Boethius.

Condemned, Beothius was trying to marshal arguments to sustain and understand his plight. Then “Philosophy” in the dialogue asks him, “Has not our fellow philosopher Lucan told us how ‘the conquering cause did please the Gods, but the conquered, Cato’?” I read this passage over a couple of times trying to recall where I had heard it. Suddenly, I felt sure it had to do with the Southern Monument in Arlington Cemetery, which, I thought, Michael Jackson had told me was just inside the Fort Meyer Gate. The footnote indicated that this famous passage was from Lucan’s Pharsalia (I, 128). It referred to Julius Caesar’s victory in 46 BC at Thapsus, when Cato, the representative of Roman virtue, saw the Republican cause was doomed. He committed suicide rather than endure Caesar.

So on a lovely April day, I told the morning class that immediately after class I was going to walk across Key Bridge, to the cemetery, to check this monument. I climbed into the cemetery by the nearest Fort Meyer Gate and roamed around for about a half an hour looking for this monument. Nobody seemed to be around. Finally, as I was about to go out the Memorial Gate, I spotted a Cemetery Service Vehicle with two workers in it. I waved them down. Neither man had heard of the place. But I assured them it was there on the authority of Jackson, Hittinger, and Hall. When another service truck came by, the two men honked it down. “Go talk to that guy; he’s in charge of grave locations,” “Just my man,” I thought to myself.

I described what I wanted. He said there was some kind of a Southern monument on the other side of the cemetery. “Hop In.” He told me the Kennedy Graves were still the most popular sites next to the Unknown Soldier. I introduced myself. He replied, “My name is Kennedy, no relation.” I liked him.

We got to the monument, It is in a well-kept separate area. The Southern graves, usually just with the name, state, and CSA inscription, were in a circle around the monument. The monument was designed by Moses Ezechiel in Rome in 1912 and cast in Berlin. Ezechiel is buried next to it. The monument is quite large, noble; a womanly figure is on top. It was dedicated by the Confederate Daughters of America to their fathers and brothers. And there in Latin, no translation, was indeed the passage, which I showed Mr. Kennedy, from Boethius. The Latin was, “Victrix causa diis placuit, sed victa, Catoni.” It struck me that in 1912, the educated Southerner probably could translate that and some even knew, unlike myself, where it was from.

What did it mean? This is what Hittinger, Hall, and Jackson had wondered about. The Southern ladies probably did not get the passage second-hand from Boethius, where it was used as an example to explain the difference between God’s judgments and ours in human events. Lucan undoubtedly meant to praise Cato, the Stoic philosopher, who preferred death to tyranny. What about the Southern ladies, Christians all, nearly? No doubt, the Southern ladies did not intend to suggest that the Southern men committed suicide. What they meant was that while the Gods decreed the Union victory, still the defeated preferred Cato, preferred death to what was perceived as tyranny. Maybe that was why it was left in Latin: few would catch its nuances, except now and then some young philosophers.

I walked back to Georgetown through Fort Meyer. As I recrossed Key Bridge, I thought of Robert E. Lee, on whose land Arlington Cemetery now stands, crossing a bridge nearby on April 20, 1861, to tender his resignation in the Federal Army because he could not fight against his own people. I have a book of Lee’s Letters which Fr. Cornelius Monacell gave me in San Francisco several years ago. I read it for a while. In July of 1863, Lee’s own son was captured by the Union forces. Lee wrote to his mother, “We must bear this additional affliction with fortitude and resignation, and not repine at the will of God. It will eventuate in some good that we know not of now. We must bear our labours and hardships manfully.” I thought, “How like the spirit of the Romans, how even like Boethius’ philosopher, were these words.” The Southern ladies choose well, even “manfully,” as Lee told his own mother. Victrix causa diis placuit, sed victa, Catoni.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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