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The bovine sound of earthquakes.

Pliny on earthquakes (Naturalis Historia 2.82):

praecedit vero comitaturque terribilis sonus, alias murmuri similis, alias mugitibus aut clamori humano armorumve pulsantium fragori, pro qualitate materiae excipientis formaque vel cavernarum vel cuniculi, per quem meet

Indeed, a terrifying noise goes before and along with it, sometimes a rumbling, sometimes like bellowing or human shouting or the clash of striking arms, depending on the quality of the matter receiving it and the shape of the caverns or the tunnel through which it passes.

I must confess that the first impression I got from this text is that the Romans must have had a greatly different perception of the characteristic sounds made by cattle (mugitus) than we do.  Cattle low and bellow, which works, but the former is obscure on its own without reference to the animal, and the latter doesn’t necessarily carry a bovine reference; unfortunately the everyday word, at least for us city folk, is wholly inappropriate–certainly an earthquake doesn’t moo.

Armorum pulsantium fragor (‘the clash of striking arms’) seemed like a thing that would have a set equivalent in English–the image is familiar enough–though I wasn’t able to find one.   “The clash of resounding arms” is said to have been in Patrick Henry’s famous speech, though resound, like clash, is an auditory image, while pulsare seems to be more of a physical one.

As for qualitas, the word we’re coming to this passage for… this is our first occurrence where it isn’t handled with scare quotes, and its use is very straightforward–if qualitas is literally ‘what-sort-ness’, it carries a lot of that sense here; pro qualitate materiae could be rendered ‘depending on the quality of the matter’ or ‘depending on what kind of matter,’ especially in this context: this extract is followed by several kinds of passages for sound and the effect they are purported to have on the sound of the tremor.

[From  qualitas.]

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