Lacrimae rerum (Latin: [ˈlakrimai ˈreːrum]) is the Latin phrase for "tears of things." It derives from Book I, line 462 of the Aeneid (c. 29–19 BC), by Roman poet Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro) (70–19 BC). Some recent quotations have included rerum lacrimae sunt or sunt lacrimae rerum meaning "there are tears of (or for) things."
In this passage, Aeneas gazes at a mural found in a Carthaginian temple dedicated to Juno that depicts battles of the Trojan War and the deaths of his friends and countrymen. Aeneas is moved to tears and says "sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt" ("There are tears for [or 'of'] things and mortal things touch the mind.")
The genitive "rerum" can be construed as "objective" or "subjective." The scholar David Wharton observes that the "semantic and referential indeterminacy is both intentional and poetically productive, lending it an implicational richness most readers find attractive."  In English, however, a translator must choose either one or the other, and interpretation has varied. Those who take the genitive as subjective translate the phrase as meaning that things feel sorrow for the sufferings of humanity: the universe feels our pain. Others translate the passage to show that the burden human beings have to bear, ever present frailty and suffering, is what defines the essence of human experience. Yet in the next line, Aeneas says: "Release (your) fear; this fame will bring you some deliverance." Those who take the genitive as objective understand the phrase as meaning that there are tears for things (in particular, the things Aeneas has endured) evinced in the mural: i.e., the paintings show Aeneas that he finds himself in a place where he can expect compassion and safety.
Context and translations
The context of the passage is as follows: Aeneas sees on the temple mural depictions of key figures in the Trojan War – the war from which he had been driven to the alien shores of Carthage as a refugee: the sons of Atreus (Agamemnon and Menelaus), Priam, and Achilles, who was savage to both sides in the war. He then cries out:
"Sunt hic etiam sua praemia laudi;
sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.
Solve metus; feret haec aliquam tibi fama salutem."
"Here, too, the praiseworthy has its rewards;
there are tears for things and mortal things touch the mind.
Release your fear; this fame will bring you some safety."
Virgil, Aeneid, 1.461 ff.
The phrase is sometimes taken out of context, on war memorials for example, as a sad sentiment about life's inescapable sorrows. In the poem the phrase appears as Aeneas realises that he need not fear for his safety, because he is among people who have compassion and an understanding of human sorrow.
- "lacrimae rerum". Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 2007-12-20. The words themselves are from lacrima, -ae, a first declension noun meaning "tear" (appearing here in the nominative plural) and from res, rei a fifth declension noun meaning "thing" (appearing here in the genitive plural).
- Wharton (2008), p. 259.
- Willard Spiegelman, Imaginative transcripts: selected literary essays, Oxford Univ. Press, p.11
- Nicolae Babuts, Memory, metaphors, and meaning: reading literary texts, Transaction Publishers, 2009, p.173
- Seamus Heaney, Virgil's Poetic Influence, an essay broadcast on BBC Radio 3 as part of the Greek and Latin Voices series, 15 July, 2008 (23:00).