“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”, wrote Charles Thomson in his report on the US Great Seal.
He made the Seal final design, but never provided a translation, that is, he never wrote what the Latin was to mean exactly. It says:
E pluribus unum,
Novus ordo seclorum.
Wikipedia derives the phrase Novus Ordo Seclorum from legends on ancient ritualists, sibyls, and Virgil’s Eclogues:
ab integro sæclorum nascitur ordo.
“The phrase is sometimes mistranslated as a New World Order, by people who believe in a conspiracy behind the design; however, it does directly translate to a New Order of the Ages”.
Direct translation from Virgil has never happened so far, and sibyls remain famed for enigmatic phrasings. The 1894 rendering of Virgil by Archibald Hamilton Bryce was purportedly literal. The preface for it yet says,
“Much has been done both by Foreign and by British scholars to amend the Latin text, and to bring out more clearly the poet’s meaning in the many obscure phrases and sentences which occur in his writings”.
Importantly, Virgil wrote for Octavian Augustus, who allowed the proscription and execution of Marcus Tullius Cicero. The Founding Fathers might have used Virgil to learn Latin, but would they have followed the poet for the sense in the US Great Seal? Cicero was inspiration to the American republican; Wikipedia tells abut his legacy.
To paraphrase the ab integro sæclorum nascitur ordo, we might say from one, many come to be. The Seal brings the opposite meaning: out of many, one.
Further, Charles Thomson was a Presbyterian. Would he regard a sibyl as an elder, an authority, or an executive agency? Sibylline rituals were pagan. They involved narcotics and burnt offerings. The women were uneducated; spoke instructed by their ancient ministers.
Pär Fabian Lagerkvist gave the ancient prejudice quite an adequate description in his story “Sibyl”. It is a narrative about a simple peasant girl taken to pronounce prophesies in a temple. She does not have mind as well as status enough to oppose the mythology. Education became available for girls hundreds of years after; legislation to let a woman run own business came later still. The ancient girl depended on the temple for food, clothing, and a roof over her head.
Finally, we would need a peculiar intellectual discipline, to hold age for unrelated to time. A phrase as a new order of ages naturally implies an altered temporal perspective, and we could not have Romanticism before Enlightenment, and Renaissance only after. It would be as trying to have the 19th century before the 18th, and the 16th century only after.
There is a feature in Mr. Thomson’s report. His Latin spelling did acknowledge the digraph ae. He wrote:
“… the new American Æra …”
The “sæclorum” in the Eclogue has the digraph, but the “seclorum” in the Great Seal does not have it. Differences as these were arbitrary, but they were not trivial to the ancients; they marked a discontinuity between the Classic and Roman Empire Latin. The distinctions remained with Latin language scholars, and Charles Thomson’s seclorum is classic Roman talk. It is really possible the Eclogue is not quoted here, and we can try to work out the Seal word sense on our own.
There was a man of talent for persuasion, whose thought influenced the Framers. The man was Thomas Paine. He titled his work Common Sense: unlike any altered view on time. Let us search the work for words related to the Latin word ordo, and paraphrase the usage.
Mankind being originally equals in the order of creation… — The design for the formation of the species was the same for everyone.
(Design as for DNA; before its discovery, words as order and form were used. Feel welcome to Simple English Aristotle.)
It is repugnant to reason, to the universal order of things, to all examples from former ages… — It is disgusting, on grounds of human knowledge, experience, and the objective mode for forms in this world…
England and America, with respect to each other, reverse the common order of nature… — The present connection between England and America brings imbalance against principles for natural structures.
He who can calmly hear, and digest such doctrine, hath forfeited his claim to rationality—an apostate from the order of manhood… — If you tolerate such teachings, you have given up on own ability to reason — you are departing from humankind…
Do they take within their view, all the various orders of men, whose situation and circumstances… — Do they think about those many kinds and communities of people, whose status and means…
Interestingly enough, if we wanted to render Thomas Paine’s phrase, “examples of ages” in classic Latin, the form would be aevi exempla, and not *seclorum exempla. The latter would imply we take people of some chronological age, as 50 or 60 years old, for our examples.
(It would be The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to tell about a changed order in human chronological age).
The classic sense for ordo most often was that for a type, structure or an organizing principle, however, and Thomas Paine’s usage was not exclusive to himself. Before we compare Latin, let us read some passages from Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography.
“The family had lived in the same village, Ecton, perhaps from the time when the name of Franklin, that before was the name of an order of people was assumed by them as a surname when others took surnames all over the kingdom.” — Autobiography.
Those times, second names often were assumed after the line of work or business, the walk of life. The Frankish word frank meant free, and the English Franklins were freeholders.
Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and Charles Thomson went to grammar schools. Thomas Paine wrote he never learned Latin at school, but was able to familiarize with all the Latin content he needed. This means they all began their acquaintance with Latin in early years of life. Linguistics says the years are those of language acquisition.
Benjamin Franklin wrote, “My elder brothers were all put apprentices to different trades. I was put to the grammar-school at eight years of age, my father intending to devote me, as the tithe of his sons, to the service of the Church. My early readiness in learning to read (which must have been very early, as I do not remember when I could not read), and the opinion of all his friends, that I should certainly make a good scholar, encouraged him in this purpose of his”. — Autobiography.
It is natural, in human language acquisition, to learn from usage. For the Classic Antiquity, we can compare the Second Phillippic by Cicero (whose death shows what discontinuity the Empire also was).
“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…”
If we wanted to picture what the Latin word ordo meant, we would probably think about a type or body of people, persons within an organizing structure, or people acknowledged according to some recognition.
Today, Latin is far more distant to the mind of the man in the street and we most often require a citation, to interpret the language. However, when the language is modern, as English or Polish, we do not insist for words to come from particular books.
Resources continue to differ in presenting the Latin language, and the word shape seclorum is a good example on that. The Rudiments of Latin and English Grammar by Alexander Adam, of 1786, page 141, present the form seclor as a consequent of sequor.
We can compare the Latin verb secludere, meaning “to stand apart”, “to become individual”. It had a participle, seclusus.
Quite regularly, Latin turned participles into nouns. Let us see the verb applicare, to apply:
For secludere, we can collate seclusus and seclum. The plural genitive of seclum is seclorum.
In English also today, we have the phrase how come, to ask or tell how something has become. The text here tells, how come:
“When in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the Causes which impel them to the Separation“, says the Declaration of Independence.
The Latin seclum was used to tell about people to have taken a separate stand, to have come to differ with a regard. With the Latin ordo as a type or organizing principle, we can comprehend the Novus Ordo Seclorum as A New People (has be)Come: some people have taken own stand for recognition, as of the country or form of government.
Ordo did not have to denote a linear arrangement, but it also could: moving through territories, Roman military happened to face local people, some in groups for welcome, some in battle formations, more or less as here, in the motion picture The Eagle. The people are not new to the Roman, they are Scottish.
We can caption the image:
Se Ordo Caledonicus secludit.
Records on Scottish parliamentarian activity have macaronic uses of the form secludit. Such uses were in practice all over Europe then.
The Acts of the Parliaments of Scotland, Volume 4
The Acts of the Parliaments of Scotland, 1424-1707
We might wonder why Mr. Thomson did not use the word populus, if he meant people (?)
Paths have happened to diverge, for word sense and etymology. Today, we derive the words equal as well as adequate from the Latin aequus. In practice, adequate remuneration may not mean equal money, and equal money might be inadequate for jobs of different specifics.
We derive the form of the word people from the Latin populus. However, the sense of Latin populus did not connote nationality or citizenship, in ancient times. The word often referred to laying waste or degrading.
Ancient Romans did not have much sentiment for nationality. Their culture favored status, and that beyond people’s rights. The Roman civitas gave origin to the word civilian, but the sense was inseparable from the city of Rome. Well, and the city was not as much or often a republic, as a practice at pretending a liberal government.
The Latin law had words as aerarius and aerarium, for residents who had to pay tax, but were not allowed to vote or hold offices. The regime conditions made business difficult, and gave no sense of national identity to the people at large. Without legal rationale, Caesars were able effectively to give death verdicts among any people within the military range.
The word ordo had a dignified sense, and the Seal does not follow the imperial Latin.
Out of many, one;
Favor to the endeavor,
A new people come.
Charles Thomson proved that when there are no linguistic means ready, the human being is able to form new language uses. “The instance is without a precedent; the case never existed before”, wrote Thomas Paine about America in 1776.
The people who went to war then had not been all born in America, and some of those who had been, did not have a citizen or civilian status, because of policies by George III. However, to reflect on nationality: place of birth does not in itself provide for values in common, and all nations are in fact ordines seclorum, where various people — secla — have a preferred recognition — ordo.
Well, and sibyls, their time, were women with word play at hand.
 Facsimile of the handwritten Report.
 Wikipedia, Novus Ordo Seclorum.
 Bryce, A. Hamilton. 1894. The Works of Virgil, A Literal Translation. London: George Bell. Internet Archive.
 Wikipedia, Marcus Tullius Cicero, legacy. See screenshot / live page.
I have released the article into the public domain and it can be used under any of the Creative Commons licenses: Attribution 2.5, BY-SA 3.0, or 4.0.
Feel welcome to read about saying the Seal Latin.
The Latin demeanor: pronouncing the Seal Latin.