Latin Proverb # 26 – Arcem facere e cloaca
Written by Amelie Rosengren, M.A.
Have you ever tried to make a fortress out of a sewer? No? Good for you! That probably means you are rather level-headed and play it cool in most situations.
In his speech on behalf of Gnaeus Plancius, Pro Plancio (95.2), Cicero uses the Latin (quis crederet?) proverb Arcem facere e cloaca, i.e. "To make a fortress out of a sewer".
This simply means to make a major issue out of a minor one. It means that you exaggerate the importance of something small and trivial, that you perhaps overreact and blow things out of proportion.
Erasmus of Rotterdam, that grand humanist, cites a similar proverb in his Adagia. His proverb however does not concern fortresses and sewers but elephants: Elephantum ex musca facis, i.e. ”you make an elephant out of a fly”.
Erasmus’ proverb is unfortunately of Greek origin (see Lucianus Musc. Enc. 12) and Erasmus just translated it into Latin, meaning we cannot know to which extent it was actually used in Latin by the Romans themselves – if at all.
In English there are several equivalents to making a fortress out of a sewer or an elephant out of a fly:
To make a mountain out of a molehill, Much ado about nothing or To make a song and dance about nothing.
In Sweden you would say Att göra en höna av en fjäder, i.e. ”To make a hen out of a feather”.
Arcem facere e cloaca in other languages thanks to your great readers:
český jazyk: dělat z komára velbouda, i.e. "to make a camel out of a mosquito".
Deutsch: Aus einer Mücke einen Elefanten machen, i.e. "Make an elephant out of a mosquito"
Français: Faire de rien une montagne, i.e. "Make a mountain out of nothing".
Português: Fazer tempestade em copo d'água, i.e. "To make a storm in a glas of water".
Română: A face din țânțar armăsar, i.e. "To make a stallion out of a fly".
ру́сский язы́к (rússkiy yazýk): сделать из мухи слона (zd'elat 'iz mukhi slan'a), i.e. "Make an elephant out of a fly".
Türkçe: Pireyi deve yapmak, i.e. "To make a camel out of a flea"; Habbeyi kubbe yapmak, i.e. "To make a dome out of a bubble", and; Bire bin katmak, i.e. "To add a thousand to one".
Plus some more English ones: Tempest in a teacup, or; Storm in a teacup. (These two are not exactly the same as making a mountain out of a molehill, but similar and are used in heated discussions, unsatisfactory outcomes in arguments or debates to get your point across.)