“The Date underneath is that of the Declaration of Independence, and the words under it signify the beginning of the new American Æra which commences from that Date”, says Charles Thomson in his report on the design of the Great Seal to have become the accepted pattern.
Wikipedia relates the Great Seal motto, NOVUS ORDO SECLORUM, to Virgil’s Eclogues and ancient pagan ritualists, Sibyls.
Arguably, the picture on the left is not to suggest aprons or paganism; the Great Seal is associated with American executive powers. Charles Thomson, the author of the Great Seal design, was a staunch Presbyterian. He — same as many people, not only Presbyterian and me included — would not have a Sibyl for an elder. Let us mind that those pagan rituals relied on narcotics and burnt offerings.
Importantly, Charles Thomson was also a sound expert at Latin and Greek. His spelling did acknowledge the digraph “æ”, as may be seen in the preserved original image on the right. And the word ‘seclorum’ in his Seal design does not have the digraph.
… the new American Æra (Charles Thomson’s report)
Novus Ordo Seclorum (the Great Seal)
ab integro sæclorum nascitur ordo (Virgil’s Eclogue quoted for the source)
The phrase is sometimes mistranslated as “New World Order” by people who believe in a conspiracy behind the design; however, it does directly translate to “New Order of the Ages”, says Wikipedia.
Hardly anybody will believe in a time without a place on this planet, therefore the translation ‘a new order of (the) ages’ can cause doubt. Does the Seal say it, however? Telling the time by the people would have been an endeavor too haphazard even to the human as irrational as an ancient Roman. :)
I do not believe the Seal would have a misspelling. I abandon the Eclogue hypothesis and find the Latin form seclum for earlier than saeclum and seculum. These forms were also used in ancient Rome and not only in the Middle Ages, as Wikipedia claims. The lexical item ordo seclorum could refer to people, a kind, and a generation. Let us compare Cicero and the Philippics:
Accuse the senate; accuse the equestrian body, which at that time was united with the senate; accuse every order or society, and all the citizens; (…) at all events you would never have continued in this order, or rather in this city; (…) when I have been pronounced by this order to be the savior of my country; (…) when you, one single young man, forbade the whole order to pass decrees concerning the safety of the republic (…)
There is an aspect of language use we should take into account interpreting Latin. When we speak, we may not refer our words to written resources ― do we say “morning” early in the day because there would be a Whig journal to come with the Oxford Companion? ;)
Latin experts have been our human contemporaries. The persons could not have just memorized dead text. They have developed the capability to use Latin generatively. I believe Charles Thomson formed the motto himself. This would explain why his report does not provide any bibliographical reference and it gives a rendition of the meaning and not its direct translation ― Attat (!) :)
… the words under it signify the beginning of the new American Æra (Charles Thomson).
The word people may help see how word meanings change. The noun people is derived from the Latin populus. It did not connote nationality in ancient times and often referred to laying waste or degrading: perpopulor, to devastate, pillage; populabilis: destructible. Ancient Romans did not have much of a sense of nationality. Their militaristic culture recognized mostly status. Latin had words aerarius and aerarium for residents who had to pay tax but were not allowed to vote or hold offices, and the part of the temple of Saturn for the public treasure as different from that of the elites. The word Aera in Charles Thomson’s note refers to time in the modern sense of an era.
Nowadays, the noun people means a group of human beings, or a nationality. As a group, it takes a plural verb: The people here all speak English. Only as a nationality or ethnicity, the noun may take on the plural itself: The peoples of Europe have formed a Union. Status does no longer decide on civil rights.
I think Charles Thomson knew about these aspects of language change. Forming the motto, he used the Latin ordo to avoid the unfavorable ancient connotations. Ordo had a dignified sense, as we may compare in Cicero. Naturally, it did not necessarily denote a linear array. The modern word order comes from Latin ordo, an arrangement, group, or class.
The contemporary word to seclude can give us some light on the seclorum in the Seal. Latin secludere meant to separate, become distinctive with a regard. Seclorum is a participal form, hence a new people come (a new people to have become).
I propose voluntary extra practice on comprehension and language in my grammar book, too.
“Hailing the Nation: the American Great Seal” is another project of mine.
Pär Lagerkvist wrote a few interesting books on the history of human conflict and ancient influences.
The Sibyl may tell — this depends on the focus — about the primitive treatment pagan temples gave women as well as the nonsense of the pagan practice and belief.
The Dwarf describes a persistent propensity for contradiction and strife.