Latin Words and Grammar

Cygnea Cantio: The Swan-song

This article has been reviewed in accordance with our editorial policy.

A cygnea can­tio, or a swan-song, is a final ges­ture or per­for­mance giv­en just before death (or retire­ment from one’s career, if you want to be dra­mat­ic when you leave your job). It is the last song you sing before you are fin­ished, so to speak.

Singing Swans

Today we use the swan’s singing as a proverb as many have done through­out the ages. The expres­sion is found in Eras­mus of Rotterdam’s Ada­gia, that came out in dif­fer­ent edi­tion, one greater than the oth­er, from 1500–1536. Eras­mus believed the proverb to spring from the swans’ song just before they die.

This idea of swans singing before they die is much old­er than Eras­mus, ancient real­ly. Many Ancient Greek schol­ars spoke of the swan as a singer and point­ed out that they sing the most beau­ti­ful­ly just before they die.

Learn about more proverbs: Omnia Vincit Amor: Love in Ancient Rome

Many Romans also described the swan as a singer and the con­nec­tion between their song and death. Mar­tial wrote in one of his famous epigrams:

“Dul­cia defec­ta mod­u­latur carmi­na lingua,

Can­ta­tor cygnus funer­is ipse sui. ” 

— Mar­tialis 13.77

i.e. ”The swan, chanter of its own death, mod­u­lates sweet songs with fail­ing tongue.” (transl. Shack­le­ton Bai­ley, 1993)

Ovid too, men­tions the fatal song in his Meta­mor­phoses:

“Illic cum lacrim­is ipso mod­u­la­ta dolore
ver­ba sono tenui maerens fun­de­bat, ut olim
carmi­na iam moriens can­it exe­quialia cygnus.”

— Ovid­ius, Met. XIV. 428–30

 i.e. “In tears she poured out words with a faint voice,
lament­ing her sad woe, as when the swan
about to die sings a fune­re­al dirge.” (transl. More, 1922)


Pliny’s Position

Pliny the Elder, how­ev­er, was not a believ­er of the swan-song stat­ing that obser­va­tions of swans have shown that the sto­ries of dying swans’ singing were false.

He wrote in his Nat­u­ralis His­to­ria:

“olo­rum morte nar­ratur flebilis can­tus, fal­so, ut arbi­tror, aliquot experimentis, ”

— Plin­ius, Nat. Hist. X.32.

i.e.  ”A sto­ry is told about the mourn­ful song of swans at their death—a false sto­ry as I judge on the strength of a cer­tain num­ber of expe­ri­ences” (transl. Rack­ham, 1938)


Mar­tial. Epi­grams, Vol­ume III: Books 11–14. Edit­ed and trans­lat­ed by D. R. Shack­le­ton Bai­ley. Loeb Clas­si­cal Library 480. Cam­bridge, MA: Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1993.

Ovid. Meta­mor­phoses. Brookes More. Boston. Corn­hill Pub­lish­ing Co. 1922.

Pliny. Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, Vol­ume I: Books 1–2. Trans­lat­ed by H. Rack­ham. Loeb Clas­si­cal Library 330. Cam­bridge, MA: Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1938.

Amelie Rosengren

Amelie Rosengren

Amelie Rosengren, M.A. and co-founder of Latinitium, is a published author, illustrator and historian. She specializes in daily life, has a soft spot for historic curiosities, and works as a museum educator at the world’s oldest open air museum, Skansen.
Written by Amelie Rosengren

Written by Amelie Rosengren

Related articles

The Supine in Latin Grammar: What it is and What its Function is

The Supine in Latin Grammar: What it is and What its Function is

Among Latin’s many verb forms, the supine, causes students quite a lot of confusion. In this article, I will ...
Dimensions in Latin: The Accusative and Genitive of Measure

Dimensions in Latin: The Accusative and Genitive of Measure

Latin uses several ways to express dimensions or measurements. I often get students asking about this, so today, ...