Just Too Cool: Leo XIII’s Latin Riddles

I have known about Pope Leo’s poetry for quite a long time. But this is great!

From CNS:

Papal puzzler: Leo XIII anonymously published riddles in Latin

Pope Leo XIII, born in 1810, is credited with being the founder of Catholic social teaching. (CNS/Library of Congress)

By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Going by the pseudonym “X,” Pope Leo XIII anonymously crafted poetic puzzles in Latin for a Roman periodical at the turn of the 19th century.  [When shall we see his like again?  Not anytime soon, I suspect.]

The pope created lengthy riddles, known as “charades,” in Latin in which readers had to guess a rebus-like answer from two or more words that together formed the syllables of a new word.

Eight of his puzzles were published anonymously in “Vox Urbis,” a Rome newspaper that was printed entirely in Latin between 1898-1913, according to an article in the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano.

A reader who submitted the correct answer to the riddle would receive a book of Latin poetry written by either Pope Leo or another noted Catholic figure.

The identity of the mysterious riddle-maker, however, was soon revealed by a French reporter covering the Vatican for the daily newspaper Le Figaro.

Felix Ziegler published his scoop Jan. 9, 1899, a year after the puzzles started appearing, revealing that “Mr. X” was, in fact, the reigning pope, the Vatican newspaper said July 20.

In the pope’s hometown, Carpineto Romano, which is about 35 miles southeast of Rome, students at the middle school now named for him have published 26 of the pope’s Latin puzzles in a new book titled, “Aenigmata. The Charades of Pope Leo XIII.

Three middle school teachers and their pupils said they have included puzzles they found, but which had never been published before.

One example of the pope’s Latin riddles talked of a “little boat nimbly dancing,” that sprung a leak as it “welcomed the shore so near advancing.”

“The whole your eyes have known, your pallid cheeks have shown; for oh! the swelling tide no bravest heart could hide, when your dear mother died,” continues the translation of part of the riddle-poem.

The answer, “lacrima,” (“teardrop”) merges clues elsewhere in the poem for “lac” (“milk”) and “rima” (“leak” or “fissure”).


A trained Vatican diplomat and man of culture, the pope was also a member of an exclusive society of learning founded in Rome in 1690 called the Academy of Arcadia, whose purpose was to “wage war on the bad taste” engulfing baroque Italy. Pope Leo, whose club name was “Neandro Ecateo,” was the last pope to be a member of the circle of poets, artists, musicians and highly cultured aristocrats and religious.

The pope was also passionate about hunting and viniculture. Unable to leave the confines of the Vatican after Italy was unified and the papal states brought to an end in 1870, he pursued his hobbies in the Vatican Gardens.

He had a wooden blind set up to hide in while trapping birds, which he then would set free again immediately.

He also had his own small vineyard, which, according to one historical account, he tended himself, hoeing out the weeds, and visiting often for moments of prayer and writing poetry.

Apparently, one day, gunfire was heard from the pope’s vineyard, triggering fears of a papal assassination attempt.

Instead, it turned out the pope had ordered a papal guard to send a salvo of bullets into the air to scare off the sparrows who were threatening his grape harvest. [OORAH!  A man after my own heart.]

I would very much like to get my hands on these.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Andrew says:

    Velim cuncta ejus legere aenigmata, sed, proh dolor, unum hoc tantummodo cognosco:

    Pars prior, interdum velis ornatur et auro;
    altera pars, prisco tempore, nummus erat.
    Uno juncta simul verbo pars utraque, gentem
    rapto viventem belligeramque notat.

    Aenigmatis solutio: pars prior ‘ara’. Pars altera: ‘bes’. Verba juncta: ‘arabes’. (Nota bene: ‘bes’ erat olim nummus aereus gentis Cassiae.

  2. JesusFreak84 says:

    I hope to see a Pope like him in my lifetime (NOT meant as a slam on any Pontiff, past or present,) if for no other reason than how the English-language media would have a stroke.

  3. Cafea Fruor says:

    I haven’t had the chance to read through all this yet, but this book on Leo XIII looks like it could be what you’re looking for, Father.

  4. Bea says:

    Wow, Cafea Fruor, watch there be a run on this book. That sounds just like what Fr. Z (and I bet many Latin speaking scholars would like).

    Pope Francis might not write riddles, but my husband was quick to interject: “Pope Francis IS a riddle”

  5. Thomas S says:

    [When shall we see his like again? Not anytime soon, I suspect.]

    I’m not so sure about that, Father. The reigning Pontiff seems to be quite adept at making puzzling statements.

  6. Uxixu says:

    How funny. I was just reading about Popes Leo XIII, St Pius X, and Benedict XV yesterday.

    Love it. My Latin is not nearly strong enough to fully appreciate it though I’m working on it. Have the most basic prayers & Credo down and will be cracking on Divinum Officium & some De Bello Gallico with the goal to read it unassisted at some point in the undetermined future.

  7. terryprest says:

    The Latin Poems of Leo XIII: Done Into English Verse (1886)

    Poems, Charades, Inscriptions of Pope Leo XIII: Including the Revised Compositions of His Early … (1902)

    Poems, charades, inscriptions of Pope Leo XIII, including the revised compositions of his early life in chronological order (1902)

    The Latin poems of Leo XIII, done into English verse by the Jesuits of Woodstock College. With a life of the pontiff by Charles Piccirillo (1887)

  8. OrthodoxChick says:

    Cafea Fruor,

    I just read through a few of the poems. I cheated and used the English translations. My Latin stinks. But even in English, his poetry is gorgeous. I wish people still used language in such a way today. He has a great poem in there about the battle against the muslims and how Europe needs to wake up. Of course, he said it much more eloquently than that. Still. Who do we have to talk to in order to get a pope like that again? P.E. B16 was probably the closest we’ll ever come to having the likes of a Leo XIII again in my lifetime.

    And to think, the Church was probably bursting with holy, faithful men like him as papal candidates – only a mere 134 years ago. How far we have fallen, and with such haste!

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  10. JARay says:

    I actually read all of Andrew’s post and I think that I translated it without having to look up most of it in a lexicon. Most interesting indeed. Thank you Andrew, I envy your ability with Latin.

  11. Animadversor says:

    The principal advantage of priestly Latinity is that the requiring of it puts off certain kinds of men from seeking said presbyterate. Sometimes I am ashamed to think this. Or rather, I think that I ought to be ashamed to think it.

  12. Moral_Hazard says:

    “[OORAH! A man after my own heart.]” Fr. Z, were you in the USMC?

  13. albinus1 says:

    VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Going by the pseudonym “X,” Pope Leo XIII anonymously crafted poetic puzzles in Latin for a Roman periodical at the turn of the 19th century.

    He was born in 1810, and he was publishing “at the turn of the 19th century”? Wow! That’s quite an accomplishment, getting published ten years before one is born!

  14. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Following up on Muv’s comment, if he drank it, I wonder what the Holy Father thought of the name, cobbled together from Latin ‘bovis’ and ‘Vril’ from the invented language in Bulwer-Lytton’s not uncreepy science fiction novel, The Coming Race (1871).

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