Gnothi seauton

Classics professor finds meaning in building inscriptions across campus

By Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

Princeton NJ -- When Professor of Classics Christian Wildberg walks through Princeton's campus, he sometimes notices visitors peering at the many Latin and Greek inscriptions on its buildings. There are more than 40 of them on dozens of structures -- from Nassau Hall to Frick Lab.

Christian Wildberg

One of Professor Christian Wildberg's favorite inscriptions is over a fireplace in a vestibule in Procter Hall at the Graduate College. It reads, "While I ponder, the fire will burn."


"They were looking at Alexander Hall, where there is a very prominent inscription, and I could see from their faces that they were drawing blanks," he said. "At the same time they sensed that the inscription was a very important feature of the building."

So Wildberg started translating some of the inscriptions for himself. But more than just figuring out the English translation, he realized, what he needed to do was research the history of the inscriptions to uncover their meaning. And, he decided, it would be useful to make that information available to others. He brought the idea to Paula Hulick, an academic technology specialist at the Education Technology Center, part of the Office of Information Technology.

"At Princeton it is just fabulous: You have an idea, you tell it to a couple of people and all of a sudden the sup-port you need is there. You have the resources to do it," said Wildberg.

The result is "Princeton Epigraphy," a Web site that offers links to photographs of every classical inscription on campus, accompanied by a translation and an explanation of the reference. A video by Wildberg offers a brief introduction to the site. Users can look at a campus map that highlights each building with an inscription and choose which ones to look at.

Hulick took the photos for the Web site, and Wildberg wrote the translations and the explanations. The archives at Mudd Library provided information about most of the inscriptions. Wildberg examined pamphlets produced when the buildings were dedicated that had explanations of their inscriptions, as well as documents outlining the plans for many of the buildings. ("Gnothi seauton," Greek for "know thyself," appears on Eno Hall -- see related story below).

Once they began their work, Wildberg discovered a 1938 article published by the Princeton Alumni Weekly that undertook a similar task. "The article helped enormously -- we could find out whether we'd missed anything," Wildberg said.

Hulick had a great time scouring the campus with her camera. "I saw areas of the campus that I don't normally see, and I really started to notice things, like the gargoyles on buildings," she said.

Her favorite inscription is on a mosaic above the stage in Alexander Hall. The mosaic depicts Homer with characters from "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" on either side of him. In a cubbyhole above that scene, three cherubs, standing before a golden background, surround a banner that reads, "A thousand years he reaches with his voice." The quote, attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, is alluding to the continued literary significance of epic poetry.

Some of the inscriptions were difficult for Hulick to find because they are eroding. To locate one on the south arch of Campbell Hall, she had to walk through the archway three times before spotting the fading letters down by her feet.

Hulick works with faculty members to develop course Web sites and tools that assist them in their lectures. She has helped create an interactive site for students studying Japanese and a map that displays the languages spoken in African nations.

Wildberg, who has been at Princeton since 1996, has found the Internet to be a very useful tool for the study of classics, despite the obvious irony. He previously designed a site for classical language instruction, which allows students to study pronunciation by listening to Greek and Latin texts read aloud.

"It makes the language come alive," said Wildberg, whose area of specialty is ancient philosophy. "Hearing Greek spoken is extraordinarily beautiful." And it offers students an opportunity to work on their pronunciation whenever they want. "I find you don't have time in class to help everyone practice their reading," he said.

The classical inscriptions throughout the campus contain tributes to friendship, knowledge and, of course, Princeton. Many were written by Andrew Fleming West, the first dean of the Graduate School. Some contain references to great works of literature and the Bible.

Under a stained glass window in Procter Hall at the Graduate College are the words, "And be ye not called masters, for only one is your master, Christ," which is attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. "It represents the religious sentiment of the time," Wildberg said. "We probably would not put this up today, but there it is."

The practice of decorating buildings with Latin or Greek inscriptions dropped from favor after World War II; only one or two were installed on campus after 1938. With Latin courses no longer a requirement for undergraduates, inscriptions are now in English and more often than not recognize the building's donor.

"One thing that fascinates me is how, in the last three generations, the culture of inscriptions has changed," Wildberg said. "In the past, the donor gave the edifice an inscription through which the building pointed beyond itself to a value of religious or spiritual significance that he wanted the world to be reminded of."

The inscription over a fireplace in 1879 Hall is a good example: "To our nurturing mother, out of great love, a little gift." "The focus is on the donor's love for the University," Wildberg said. "It expresses the spirit of the donation and the donor's humility."

One of Wildberg's favorite inscriptions is over a fireplace in a vestibule in Procter Hall at the Graduate College. ("The best inscriptions seem to be over fireplaces," he observed.) It reads, "While I ponder, the fire will burn."

"You imagine someone deep in thought in front of the fireplace," he said. "But it could also be taken to mean, 'A fire will be ablaze in my thoughts.' I couldn't think of a more apt description for a place of research, where the greatest adventures are in the mind."

Faculty, staff, students and alumni can find translations for "gnothi seauton" (know thyself) and other inscriptions by visiting "Princeton Epigraphy" at <Web page>.

The meaning behind the words


1. On the south facade of Alexander Hall (photo: Evelyn Tu)

3. Over a fireplace in Frick Laboratory (photo: Paula Hulick)

Here are a few of the inscriptions found on Princeton's campus, along with commentary on them from Professor of Classics Christian Wildberg.

1. On the south facade of Alexander Hall:

"To the glory of God, and for the increase of learning, Harriet Crocker Alexander gave and dedicated this building to Princeton University, June 9, 1894.

"Nothing is more welcome than to hold the lofty and serene heights, fortified by the learning of the wise."

Wildberg: "First there is a very straightforward inscription about the donor, but then there is a line from Lucretius that gives the building greater significance. These are the opening verses of Lucretius' second book, 'De Rerum Natura,' which addresses the blessings of philosophy. The 'lofty and serene heights' referred to here means that those who observe the tenets of philosophy gain peace over those who are preoccupied with wealth and power."

2. Over the south entrance of Eno Hall:

"Know thyself"

Wildberg: "These words were engraved above the entrance to the temple at Delphi and adopted by Socrates as his personal motto. It's so subtle that you hardly notice it as you enter Eno Hall."

3. Over a fireplace in Frick Laboratory:

"Happy is the person who is able to understand the causes of things."

Wildberg: "This is a famous quote from Virgil, and it's very appropriate for a science building."

4. Over the western fireplace at Procter Hall in the Graduate College:

"Enter good, go out better"

Wildberg: "The inscription is from a fifth-century Roman Christian house in North Africa. Splendid."


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