The university motto: perspectives from the Department of Classics

For our second Nottingham Ambition Giving Day, we’ve found inspiration in our university motto: 'Sapientia Urbs Conditur', 'A city built on wisdom'. But what's in our motto's name? We asked Professor of Classics, Helen Lovatt, to look into the origins of the university's motto and its historical significance.

University of Nottingham shield on gates

The Latin motto blazoned under the University of Nottingham coat of arms is sapientia urbs conditur (‘A city is built on wisdom’). As a current member of academic staff, I like this motto. It brings out the importance of civic mission for the university (we are part of Nottingham, and have strong local connections, as well as being one of the biggest employers in the city) and the importance of learning of all types for community.

The university has always been intertwined with the City of Nottingham. The very first institution associated with the development of the university was a teacher training college, and University College Nottingham was founded in 1881 from an anonymous donation backed up by the Corporation of Nottingham. The gift of University Park and the close connection with Boots further cements the importance of learning underlying the city’s prosperity.

I like the use of the word sapientia, ‘wisdom’, which implies a broad and liberal attitude to learning, both abstract and applied. From its beginnings, the university covered a broad range of subjects: Literature, Physics, Chemistry and Natural Science. The next four were Engineering, Classics and Philosophy, French and Education. The university was always a practical institution, and one that cares about the Arts as well as the Sciences. 

First printed use of our motto in June 1904

As a Latinist, I can’t help seeing a connection with Virgil’s great poem of the founding of Rome, the Aeneid, which begins and ends with the verb condere (‘found, bury’). The first seven lines of the poem talk of all the Trojan hero Aeneas suffers to found Rome: dum conderet urbem (‘while founding the city’, Virgil, Aeneid 1.5). The poem focuses on the anger of Juno and her hatred of Trojans. This anger leads to the sufferings of the Trojans and Italians as they fight over the migrants’ settlement plans, even though they will eventually join together to form one race.

The poem ends with the death of Turnus, the young man who led the Italians in war, symbolising both victory and loss. The last three lines of the poem (Aen. 12.950-2) run as follows:

hoc dicens ferrum adverso sub pectore condit 950

fervidus; ast illi solvuntur frigore membra

vitaque cum gemitu fugit indignata sub umbras.

Saying this, he buries the sword deep in the breast before him,

Seething with anger; but those limbs are released in cold

And the outraged life flees with a groan down to the shades.

The same verb used of the founding of Rome at the beginning is also used of the killing of Turnus at the end (condit).

The Aeneid was a poem born of civil war, the war which led to the end of the Roman Republic and the establishment of Augustus as emperor. The poem both does and undoes the founding of Rome, suggesting and dissolving an ideal of civic unity. Sapientia (‘wisdom’) features in neither the beginning nor the end: true wisdom, through education and understanding, might have kept the community together and avoided war and autocracy.

The Department of Classics at the university is now paired with Archaeology. Classics and Archaeology continues the tradition of civic engagement. The City of Caves project is collecting oral history about public experiences of the caves and my colleague Dr Lynn Fotheringham runs Nottingham Does Comics. I am currently working on the Aeneid as a way of thinking about loss and resilience (‘The Power of Sadness in Virgil’s Aeneid’), exploring how grief behaviour interacts with power structures in the poem and its receptions. I hope to work with local groups on using ancient texts to think about grief and loss. Long may we continue to learn and build wisdom together in Nottingham!

For some more on university mottoes, read this blog by the Registrar, Dr Paul Greatrix.

If you would like to support our Giving Day and help wisdom continue to flourish at the university, you can find out more here >