Posted on October 21, 2015

by Tim Griffith
Fellow of Classical Languages

During a translation project a number of years ago, I was looking for a good Latin equivalent for our English word “adventure”. Considering that the ancient world was regularly full of what we would now call adventure, I was surprised to find that the Romans had no word quite like it. The word casus in some places could certainly be rendered “misadventure”, and labores often indicates the “trials” and “tribulations” one must endure before realizing some desired goal. But casus was for the Romans a thing always to be avoided, and labores only to be suffered out of necessity—neither was a good thing. For us, however, while adventure is difficult and frequently dangerous, it also involves new experience and a kind of pleasure born of excitement—it leaves us with new knowledge and sometimes wisdom. Latin does have phrases that capture this second and unequivocally positive aspect of adventure: res novae or mira et nova; but these phrases convey no sense of the first aspect.

Yet, the danger and the difficulty in our idea of adventure are not mere accidents: they are integral and essential to it. When we gain new experience and knowledge in the safety and comfort of our own homes, like when reading a book or watching a film or documentary, it is not adventure. In fact, it is often people who spend too much time reading books and watching films that crave (and need) adventure the most. The truth is that the difficulty and danger of adventure breed a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment resulting from a trial passed, danger survived, a foe conquered. In my opinion, this elation of victory and the confidence it inspires are goods even greater than the knowledge acquired from new experiences and are the real reason people often long for adventure. We crave difficulty and danger, so we can overcome them and know that we can overcome the next challenge to come our way.

So, why would Latin fail to have language to convey an idea that seems to us so natural? Given that the austere Romans frequently idealized virtue and victory, it seems odd that Latin lacks a more positive word to communicate such opportunities to build virtue and win victory. My suspicion is that it had nothing to do with the Roman character and more to do with the world in which they lived. The people of the ancient world (with the exception of the extremely rich) generally lived their lives with far more physical difficulty and danger than we do today. As they had ample opportunities for physical pain and death, they naturally were not looking for more.

In many parts of the world today, however, food is abundant, travel on foot is rare, roads are safe, murder is uncommon, beds are comfortable, showers are heated and daily, air is maintained between 60 and 70 degrees, revolutions are unlikely, clothing is comfortable, and tools are powered by electricity and gas—physical difficulty and physical danger have indeed become rarities. Plato once observed that things are considered “good” (καλά) when they are “difficult” (χαλεπά). Oddly, many of us now live in a world where at least physical difficulty and danger are often ... well ... difficult—difficult to find and difficult to have time for. I suspect this is at least in part why English needs a word like “adventure”. There is benefit in physical difficulty and danger (at least, when overcome), and many today are in great shortage of them. Just as people do not think about food until they are hungry, people do not think about needing adventure until their lives completely lack it. Modern comfort and excess of safety have thus made us conscious of a need for adventure and has shaped the word accordingly. But I suspect the ancient world had no need of such a word, and perhaps many harsher parts of the modern world still do not.

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