Seneca, Cicero and the Doctor

One of the odd things when you learn Latin is that you start to see it everywhere. It’s so embedded into Western culture, that you need look no further than your own pocket to find some Latin (assuming you have a couple of coins in your pocket, that is). But what’s even weirder is that you start seeing a hearing  a lot of fake Latin. The place-filler text lorem ipsum is a common one – it looks reassuringly Latinate without really appearing to mean very much. The song Adiemus is another. So when I hear music that sounds Latin-ish, I am sometimes suspicious, especially if the meaning of the lyrics is essentially unimportant.

So, one example of this has been bothering me for a while, but has just come to a quite satisfactory conclusion. That is – the song of the Ood, also known as Songs of Captivity and Freedom, in Doctor Who (you can hear it on YouTube here). It’s a very nice piece, and has Latin-sounding words, but I could never quite catch what they were saying. For plot reasons, I thought it might actually be quite interesting what the Ood were singing (short version for those who don’t know Doctor Who – the Ood are aliens who are enslaved by humans at some point in the future, who are then freed by the Doctor and Donna Noble, aka David Tennant and Catherine Tate).

All online versions of the lyrics look something like this:

Cum tacent clament.
Cum tacent clament.
Serva ne,
Servan tuter.
Sevan servan tuter.
Dum inter homines sumus colamus humanitatem.
Cum tacent clament.
Dum inter homines sumus colamus humanitatem.
Cum tacent clament.

Now, some of this looks like reasonable Latin, but some of it just doesn’t make sense (the serva ne, servan tuter bits specifically). And even the bits that look right are accompanied by translations that make little sense. This set of lyrics has been copied over and over again, but are probably just based on what someone thought they could hear, reasonably enough.

Fortunately, I eventually found that the BBC provides this much better transcription on their episode guide:

Cum tacent clament. Serva me, servato te
“While we are silent, we are screaming. Save me and I will save you.”
Dum inter homines, sumus colamus humanita (cum tacent clament)
“When amongst humans, we should be humane.”

Much better! Well, the Latin at least. But the translation still isn’t right, and there are still things in the Latin that look a little odd – for a start, the phrases are fairly disjointed – and I started to wonder if this was actually from some original Latin source.

The ever impressive Chris Brooke immediately identified dum inter homines sumus, colamus humanitatem as a quotation from Seneca’s De Ira 3.43: “while we are among humans, we should look after humankind”. A rather lovely sentiment from the Ood there, though the BBC haven’t translated it quite right. A quick search found that cum tacent, clamant is actually from one of Cicero’s speeches against Catiline (1.21), which is a bit of an odd one – this forms part of of Cicero’s accusation of Catiline, and he’s saying that the silence of the senators around him speaks louder than any words. This speech has been in the news a bit lately, as Ted Cruz basically read it out a few years ago and changed “Catiline” to “Obama”; this has obviously come back into people’s awareness now that Ted Cruz is running for the Republican presidential nomination.

I’ve not found a source yet for serva me, servato te “save me, and let him save you” – any suggestions welcome. If it’s actually serva me, servabo te  “save me, and I will save you” – which it just about could be from the recording – then it seems to be from Petronius’ Satyricon 44. It’s said by one of the freedmen during the dinner conversation, and in context means something a bit different than “I will save you”. “Damn the magistrates, who play ‘Scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours,’ in league with the bakers,” is the translation on Perseus. I’m not sure if that rather sarcastic phrasing would be what the Ood mean here.

An odd combination of sources for the Ood’s song, then – first, channelling Cicero at his most powerful and accusatory, combined with a freedman complaining about the local bigwigs, while they are in captivity; then embracing the philosophy of Seneca later when they are freed. As a (very niche) public service, then, here are the correct lyrics to Songs of Captivity and Freedom, composer Murray Gold, with translation.

cum tacent, clamant. – When they are silent, they are screaming. (Cicero)

cum tacent, clamant. – When they are silent, they are screaming. (Cicero)

serva me; servabo te. – Save me;  I will save you. (Petronius)

serva me; servabo te. – Save me; I will save you. (Petronius)

dum inter homines sumus, colamus humanitatem. – While we are among humans, we should look after humankind. (Seneca)

cum tacent, clamant. – When they are silent, they are screaming. (Cicero)

Amazingly, I’m not the first person to write a post about Latin in Murray Gold’s Doctor Who soundtracks. Penelope Goodman has beaten me to it by about six years with a post about the lyrics of the piece Vale Decem. Her conclusion is also that the lyrics have been pieced together from short Latin phrases found elsewhere – so this seems to be Murray Gold’s modus operandi (as it were). You can also find out more about Classics references in Doctor Who generally in these two posts by Philip Boyes at Res Gerendae.

If you are not a Doctor Who fan, this is probably more than you ever needed to know – but it goes to show that it’s worth finding out more about the Latin-ish lyrics that you hear – occasionally they turn out to have very interesting sources.




4 thoughts on “Seneca, Cicero and the Doctor

Add yours

  1. If I find some images, I can give it a go! Not sure I can see any Latin in the “Human Nature” images though.


  2. Ah, this is great, and I’m so glad you did the Ood songs! A couple of people asked me about them in comments on my own post, and I really meant to get round to doing them – indeed made a few notes as I recall. But I never actually wrote it up properly and posted it, so now you’ve saved me the trouble. 🙂

    From the context of the episode, I’d guess the line which the BBC have transcribed as ‘serva me, servato te’ is indeed meant to be ‘serva me, servabo te’, as that’s exactly what the Ood end up doing for the Doctor.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Given that Murray Gold seems to have form for this, it’s interesting that there’s no Latin in the soundtrack of the Pompeii episode (as far as I remember), which instead opts for a generic post-Gladiator Waily Woman soundtrack.

    Wonder if it would be worth doing a written Latin follow-up? There is Latin in the Doctor’s journal in ‘Human Nature’ which is carried over, mistakes and all, from the 90s novel version, and I think Ashildr’s diaries were at least partly in Latin in the most recent series.

    Liked by 1 person

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