Sine fine, or: Imaginations of Infinity, Unlimitedness, and Limitlessness

Jupiter, in the first book of Vergil’s Aeneid, outlines his vision for the future and develops a strategy for the Roman Empire. One of the highlights of his speech is a well-known, rather extraordinary promise (Verg. Aen. 1.278-9):

His ego nec metas rerum nec tempora pono,
imperium sine fine dedi. (…)

To them I set neither goals for their fortunes nor seasons,
I granted rule without limit. (…)

Roman affairs (res), according to this, will be free from divinely imposed (nec … pono) restrictions in space (metae) or time (tempora) – resulting in the award of an imperium that has no boundaries (sine fine).

By this, the Romans were – poetically – granted an unlimited imperium, unlimited rule, by a higher authority, for Jupiter could have interfered with their success story by means of imposing restrictions. Restrictions and limits are typically imposed by authorities and natural necessities whose power rules supreme, but here Jupiter, as a benign spiritus rector, chose not to exercise his powers, thus supporting the (imagined) sustained prosperity of the Empire through the removal of otherwise limiting features.

Sine fine, ‘without limit’, is not an uncommon motive in Latin literature – there are over sixty instances for it, many of them poetical. What stands out in Vergil’s use of it, however, is its proximity to terms that denote the deliberate, divine (lack of) imposition of fines, making Jupiter’s promised ‘infinity’ something that is unlimited, not limited by constraints, rather than something that is actually limitless.

Unlimitedness, according to this, creates certainty and ultimately also prosperity: it is a state of affairs that allows its beneficiaries to have something to rely upon and to build upon.

The same cannot be said for the concept of limitlessness, expressed by the same phrase sine fine, which in Latin literature is an inherently vague, potentially deeply unsettling, and in fact threatening state.

Lucretius, in his didactic poem De Rerum Natura (‘On the Nature of Things’), describes the infinity of the universe, imagining a void in which all atoms move. The limitlessness of this void results in the atoms’ inability to settle permanently and to build up in a constructive fashion, resulting in definitive clusters (Lucr. 2.90-4):

(…) reminiscere totius imum
nil esse in summa, neque habere ubi corpora prima
consistant, quoniam spatium sine fine modoquest
immensumque patere in cunctas undique partis
pluribus ostendi et certa ratione probatumst.

 (…) remember that overall there is no bottom of the Universe, nor is there anywhere for the atoms to settle, for space is without limit and measure, and I have shown and proven with reason and certainty that it extends itself unfathomably everywhere in every direction.

In the Vergilian passage, Jupiter is imagined as having lifted constraints, granting unlimited rule. Limitlessness, too, can be imposed – famously exemplified in the suffering of the eternal sinners of the ancient world.

The Roman fabulist Phaedrus, in the seventh poem of his Appendix, entitled Sensum aestimandum esse non uerba (‘The meaning is to be considered, not the mere words’), writes (Phaedrus, Appendix 7.1–6):

Ixion quod versari narratur rota,
Volubilem Fortunam iactari docet.
Aduersus altos Sisyphus montes agit
Saxum labore summo, quod de uertice
Sudore semper irrito reuoluitur,
Ostendit hominum sine fine esse miserias

‘The story of Ixion, whirling round upon the wheel, teaches us what a rolling thing is fortune. Sisyphus, with immense labour, pushing the stone up the lofty hill, which ever, his labour lost, rolls back from the top, shows that men’s miseries are endless.’

(transl. H. Th. Riley)

Imposed limitlessness in this story means endless suffering and complete absence of hope for Sisyphus to regain control over his life – it remains permanently under the control of supreme powers. It is thus the exact opposite of the unlimitedness that results from lifted restrictions that regulate one’s fate, even though the language – most notably its key phrase sine fine – is so deceptively similar.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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