Language is one of the keys to understanding a civilisation. Concerning Rome, fundamental are the words that define the virtues of the mos maiorum, the value system that guides citizens, especially during the Republican era. I will dedicate a separate article to virtus, fides, and gravitas: this time, to depict the Roman mentality I focus on other Latin words, coming from fields such as politics and friendship.
Differences between Latin and Greek words
Before starting to list the most significant Latin words, it is worth making a quick comparison with Greek.
Latin has an extraordinary capacity for synthesis. Thanks to this, it can create concise phrases that remain ingrained like slogans. However, the surgical precision with which it expresses a concept in a few words does not apply to its vocabulary. Latin words often embrace multiple meanings, even quite different from each other, and are less specific than Greek words. Opening a Latin dictionary is enough to verify this.
In Latin, it can also happen that words change meaning from singular to plural. For example, the singular copia means “abundance,” while the plural copiae means “troops.” It also occurs that the same word indicates opposite things, encompassing both a positive and a negative meaning. In this case, it is referred to as vox media. This applies to fortuna, as we will see later, but also to monstrum, which means “prodigious event,” and can be both a misfortune and a phenomenon worthy of admiration.
Latin: rigid or flexible language?
Latin is a language rich in words with multiple meanings that vary depending on the context. Only the context can help to choose the right nuance in a sentence, and this is precisely one of the biggest challenges that students face during Latin translations.
Romans did not feel the need to have precise words for everything and limited themselves to creating a detailed vocabulary only for certain areas: agriculture, war, and law. This already says a lot about the Latin culture and society, where the model of the farmer-soldier is central, and where a person finds his purpose only by participating in the public life of the community, in peace (as a citizen involved in comitia and tribunals) and in war (as a soldier).
In all other cases, words should be generic enough to encompass multiple meanings, chosen according to the situation. Latin needs versatile words, and this is another aspect that demonstrates the mentality of its speakers. One of the strengths of the Romans was precisely their flexibility. Just as they managed to adapt institutions to the events they faced in their history and integrate different peoples and cultures, words also knew how to adapt to different contexts.
5 words to understand ancient Rome
The term res publica seems to have an obvious translation: “republic.” However, the Latin word has a slightly different meaning. Let’s break down the two words separately: res means “thing,” and “publica” is the feminine form of the adjective publicus, which means “public.” Therefore, “res publica” translates to “public thing” or “public affair.” Res generally means “thing,” but it can also refer to “property,” “business,” “matter,” etc.
Res publica thus becomes the collection of public goods, the properties of the state, public affairs, government, administration, and the state itself. Res publica does not only indicate the republican order, that is the form of government opposed to monarchy. Within this word lies the idea of the state as a matter that concerns all citizens. It encompasses both rights and duties for those living in a republic. It embodies the concept of the common good, collectivity, and civic commitment.
The literal translation of res novae is “new things.” To us, it may seem like a nice word, but for the Romans, it meant something terrible: revolution. Perhaps what Romans feared most of all.
What does it mean to fear changes? One might imagine Rome as a closed community, hostile to any innovation, where it is impossible to integrate individuals from the outside. However, this description fits Sparta, not Rome. What allowed Rome to become the greatest empire of antiquity was its ability to establish relationships with other peoples, integrating their elites and gradually absorbing the population in its society.
Here lies one of Rome’s secrets: Romans were afraid of novelties, but they also knew that they were inevitable. Instead of closing their eyes or building walls all around them (walls that would eventually crumble), they confronted the problem directly. In short, Romans were capable of managing change.
Did the Oriental rite of Bacchanals risk creating disorder? They didn’t rush to ban it; instead, the Senate regulated it with a specific law. Was an ambitious foreign prince a threat? They offered him Roman citizenship to make him part of the system he could have fought against. Were too many former farmers ruined by wars flowing into Rome, being a potential spark for a revolt? They distributed bread for free to avoid starving the poor.
Managing the change
Romans didn’t love changes; in fact, they detested them. If they could, they would have lived as in the time of Brutus and Collatinus, at the birth of the republic. However, since the world was moving forward, they found a way to integrate the new while carrying the old along with them. They were reluctant reformers, yet extraordinarily skilled. This allowed them to almost always defuse the dangers hidden in social crises. They avoided the threat of “res novae”, a revolution that swept away the past and, besides undermining the foundations of society, brought violence with it.
Towards the end of the republic, however, too many things were changing, and the Senate was no longer able to govern the change. An emblematic example is that of the Gracchi, who fought to improve the living conditions of small landowners and were killed by the same ruling class they belonged to. Violence ended up spreading in the state, which was on the verge of collapse.
The political regime was no longer fit to manage such a res publica that had become an empire. The state needed modification: but how to change everything while giving the impression of returning to tradition and the past? It required a political genius: it required Augustus. With the creation of the principate, the government passed into the hands of one man, even though he followed ancient forms and, where possible, maintained tradition. Was he revolutionary? Not: Augustus was a restorer. At least in words.
Urbs means “city,” but it carries a whole world with it. First of all, there are urbs and Urbs: one indicates a city, and the other indicates THE city. Rome. Reading the Latin sources, one might be surprised to notice how rarely the word Roma appears. In the Republic, Rome was mostly referred to as Urbs, a term that also recurs in the system of calculating years: indeed, it is referred to as ab Urbe condita, “from the founding of the city.” The word Roma begins to be used more frequently from the Augustan period onwards: it is too limiting to speak of just a “city” when its dominion has now extended to almost the entire known world.
Since Rome was the city par excellence, all others had to imitate it. The empire was populated with cities that followed the same model and they all resembled one another. A city wall, a forum, an area for shows with a theatre and an amphitheatre, and an organized system of roads intersecting at right angles. However, the fact that Rome itself was chaotic and did not adhere to the orderly model of the colonies of the Augustan or Trajanic age is another story.
The Roman Empire was an empire of cities. The very word that indicates civilization, civitas, gave rise to the term “city.” For the Romans, civilization passed only through the urban system, and the barbarians were those peoples who lived in settlements less complex than those of the Mediterranean world, such as the Germans, or nomads who were in constant movement, like the Huns. The city was the symbol of man’s ability to overcome the adverse forces of nature and to order the chaos around oneself.
Fortuna is a vox media, as it means both good and bad luck. The ambiguity of the term expresses what the Romans thought about luck, ever-changing, an element on which one cannot rely. In theory, fortuna could also be translated as “destiny,” but for us, this word has a different meaning, more similar to the Greek “ananke.” For the Greeks, destiny was something immutable, against which men could fight, but in vain. Classical tragedies draw heavily from this concept.
Romans, on the other hand, believed that, although elusive and deceitful, fortuna could be tamed. The individual had at least some chance of imprinting the direction they desired on the course of events: man was faber suae fortunae, «maker of his own fortune”, as an ancient saying goes. Each person was the architect of their destiny.
Fortuna, however, also has other meanings, such as “wealth.” It is not by chance that the same word means “patrimony” and “luck”, as the two are interconnected and, once again, express the Roman way of thinking very well. During the Republic, citizens were organized into classes, based on census and dignitas (prestige), which determined their eligibility for military service and voting rights. As we have seen, fortuna does not only mean wealth: just as luck changes, so assets can vary over time, influencing the reputation of the citizen and their family (dignitas).
The nobility of Rome (patricians) was not a rigid and unchanging class based on an almost magical conception of bloodline. It was a more fluid entity, from which one could be expelled if their patrimony decreased or if they engaged in immoral conduct. The censors, among the most important magistrates of the Republic, elected every 5 years, were responsible for this demotion. For the Romans, it was necessary to fight to keep their family in the upper class and to engage in war and politics to acquire dignitas and wealth.
Fortuna, however, did not only concern the patricians. On the contrary, those who managed to accumulate wealth and honours could aspire to climb the social ladder, while slaves, in exchange for good service, could gain freedom. Social mobility became easier, especially in the first two centuries of the empire (1st-2nd century AD), and even non-Italian citizens, the provincials, could aspire to increasingly important positions, even becoming emperors. The first was Trajan, of Hispanic origin.
Amicitia means “friendship,” but once again, the Latin word has a different meaning than ours. The Romans were a people with a strong sense of community: they shunned individualism and for them, social bonds were more important than personal ones, especially in the archaic period.
Amicus means “friend” but also “ally.” It was indeed possible to be friends while hating each other, as in the case of Pompey and Crassus. The closest circle of a powerful individual comprised amici (friends), and a foreign king under the influence of Rome was a “friend of the Roman people.” Amicitia is not always an equal bond either because even patrons, to whom clients owed loyalty, were considered amici.
It may seem that for the Romans, friendship served an exclusively utilitarian purpose: Do ut des, you give me something, and I reciprocate. However, for the Romans, friendship was intertwined with sodalitas, the union of multiple people united by a common purpose. Their bond was based on trust and loyalty, the fides, one of the most important virtues for Romans. Fides was the foundation of every social relationship, both private and public.
The fact that the term amici encompasses both the public and private spheres is due to the enormous importance that politics and a life in service of the state had in the Republic. A Roman could not find fulfilment solely in personal relationships because their life only had meaning when embedded in the community. A man without friends had no place in the civilized world and corresponded to an outcast expelled from society.
Further reading about Latin words
Many of the most significant Latin words are linked to tradition and the founding of institutions, narrated in semi-legendary form in myths. To explore the mythology of Rome, which is completely different from Greek mythology in terms of stories and the underlying value system, I recommend the beautiful book “Miti romani. Il racconto” by Ferro and Monteleone (2010). Unfortunately, it is available only in Italian.
For a more specific focus on political terms, a good volume (again only in Italian) is “Il pensiero politico romano. Dall’età arcaica alla tarda antichità” by Giuseppe Zecchini (2018).
Language expresses the thoughts of a people, influencing everyday life. To immerse oneself in the daily life of the Romans, I suggest two foundational essays in this field: “Daily Life in Ancient Rome: The People and the City at the Height of the Empire” by Jérôme Carcopino (1991) for the Imperial Rome and “Daily Life in Ancient Rome” by Florence Dupont (1992) for Republican Rome.
Finally, if, while reading about the myriad meanings of Latin words, you find yourself eager to delve into the language itself, there is a little book written by an Oxford professor: “Viva il latino. Storie e bellezza di una lingua inutile” by Nicola Gardini (2015). It is only in Italian: if you know similar books in English, feel free to contact me and I’ll have a look at them!
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