The debate between a Greek scholar and a Roman ruffian

I mentioned above that my favorite story in the Libro de Buen Amor (Book of Good Love) is the dispute between the Greeks and the Romans. The debate was to determine if the Greeks would give their Law to the Romans. They didn’t speak each other’s language, so agreed to debate by sign language. Each misinterpreted the other’s communication, based on their own expectations. But in the end the Romans did get the Law.


These are the words of the sage Cato,
Who said that man should mingle pleasures
And happy talk with his cares,
For great sadness leads to great sin.

Because no man can laugh at serious matters,
I have included some comic tales.
Do not reflect upon them when you hear them,
Except in the way they were composed.

Understand what I say and consider its meaning.
I want no repeats of what happened to the learned Greek
And the uncouth Roman ruffian with his scant knowledge,
When Rome asked Greece for learning.

It happened that the Romans had no laws,
And asked the Greeks to give them some.
The Greeks answered that the Romans were unworthy
And would not understand them because of their ignorance.

If they wanted to use the laws themselves,
They would first have to hold a debate with the Greek sages
To see whether they understood them and deserved them.
They said this pretty piece by way of a deterrent.

The Romans replied that they would gladly do so,
And made a firm agreement over the debate,
But since they did not understand Greek, they requested
That they should debate using learned signs.

They fixed a date for the debate.
The Romans were worried and did not know what to do,
Because they were uneducated and could not understand
The Greek doctors with their great knowledge.

Amid their concerns, one citizen suggested
They should employ a ruffian, a Roman thug;
God would show him how to use sign language
Like the Greeks did. It was good advice.

They approached a thug, burly and bold,
And said: ‘We have challenged the Greeks
To a debate using sign language. Ask anything
You want of us, but get us out of this contest.’

They dressed him well in expensive clothes,
As if he were a doctor of philosophy.
He mounted a tall dais and said in his foolishness:
‘Now let the Greeks come with all their challenges.’

A Greek arrived, an elegant doctor,
Chosen among Greeks, praised by all;
He mounted another dais, with everyone around,
And began the sign language as they had agreed.

The Greek stood up calmly, with tranquility,
And showed only his first finger,
Then he sat down in the same place.
The ruffian arose, puffed up and belligerent.

He showed the Greek three raised fingers,
His thumb and the two adjoining,
Holding the other two bent like a harpoon.
The idiot sat down, preening himself.

The Greek stood up and showed the flat palm of his hand,
Then sat down again with a quiet conscience.
The ruffian arose with a flourish
And showed his fist, spoiling for a fight.

The wise Greek told his countrymen:
‘The Romans do deserve the laws, I cannot deny.’
Everyone stood up quietly and calmly.
Rome gained great honor through a worthless vagabond.

They asked the Greek what the Roman had said
In sign language and what his answer had been.
He replied: ‘I said there was one God – the Roman
Said He was three persons in one, using this sign.

I said everything was God’s will and he replied
That He held the world in His power, and that was right.
When I saw that they understood and believed in the Trinity,
I realized that they truly deserved the Laws.’

The ruffian was asked how he had understood it;
‘He told me he would poke my eye out with his finger;
It upset me, and I got very angry,
And replied with rage, ire and ill humor,

That in front of all these people, I would poke out his eyes
With two fingers, and break his teeth with my thumb.
Then he told me to pay attention,
And that he would box my ears thoroughly.

I answered that I would give him such a punch
That he would never be avenged in his lifetime.
When he saw that the fight was ill-matched,
He stopped making threats where it wasn’t appreciated.’

The wise old woman’s proverb goes:
‘No evil word is spoken, if it is not thought to be evil.’
You will see that something is well said if well understood.
Understand my book correctly and you’ll have a lovely lady.

Do not look on the humor as worthless.
Understand the subtle teaching of the book,
good and bad knowledge, elegant and cryptic language;
you will soon find I’m one in a thousand poets.

You’ll find a lot of herons, but not a single egg.
Not every new tailor knows how to mend properly.
Don’t think I am moved to write through mad passion.
I will prove to you that what good love says is true.

In general, my book speaks to everyone, like Scripture.
The wise with good understanding will grasp its wisdom,
but frivolous lads should beware of foolishness.
The luckiest one chooses most wisely.

The words of good love are secret words.
Try hard to find the clearest signs.
If you follow the argument or hit on the meaning,
speak no ill of the book you criticize now.

Where you feel it is false, it speaks the deepest truth:
the deceptions of rhetoric are ugly indeed.
Judge it good or bad depending on each case,
praise or denounce the music of my verses.

I, the book, am ancestor of all instruments,
I can tell how well or badly you pluck my strings.
You will find in me whatever you choose to find –
if you know how to play me, I shall stay in your mind.