Glossary of Latin Terms


apex – the white, conical linen hat worn by a flamen, symbol of his sacred office.  It sometimes had a branch – a short wooden rod with a rounded-off end – protruding from its top.  If the apex fell from the head of a flamen during a rite it was considered a terrible omen and the flamen was forced to resign.

Charun – the Etruscan teamster and tormenter of the dead, inherited by the Romans.

ecce – behold.

eheu – very roughly, alas.

eu – great, wonderful.  Almost always ironic when used as an interjection.

familia urbana – the Roman household, with the Father and Master at the head of a body made up of his family, his household freedmen, his slaves, and, to some extent, his clients.  Unlike familia rustica, which had become a rather cruelly mocking term to describe a single plantation’s staff within the empire’s almost industrialized agricultural system, the familia urbana was still viewed as an intimate, if highly hierarchical and organized, body.

flamen – a sacrificial priest of a particular ancient god within the Roman state religion.  There were twelve (or fifteen)  flaminis of twelve (or fifteen) different gods, some of whom were so obscure that their rites were cryptic even to the imperial Romans.  All of the flaminis seem to have been subject to varied and sometimes elaborate taboos which could make it hard to hold political office.  Being Romans, there were determined men who managed to do both things.  The three most important, and thoroughly hedged-about, of the flaminis were the patrician flaminis majores, among who was numbered the flamen quirinalis (see “Quirinus” below).

gravitas – a deep-rooted seriousness of spirit, a moral weight, that was supposed to buttress the strength of character needed to be a true Roman.  Its visible expression was unmoving, somewhat implacable features.  We’d call the look stone-faced.  By the middle Empire true gravitas aroused the same mixture of awe and mockery with which a modern American greets a cowboy or Mountie.

hem – very roughly, here you are, there you are

heus – very roughly, hey.  A cry for attention.

iura ingenuitatis – an act of the emperor by which any freed slave, using sovereign power, could be made of free birth by appealing to the original state of freedom held to be natural to all men.  This legal distinction in the method of manumission was very important to the Romans because iura ingenuitatis both granted full civic rights to the ex-slave and broke the otherwise mandatory bond of patronage between the slave and his former master.  In other words, the ex-slave was now freeborn and supposedly completely clean of the taint of slavery.

larvae – spirits of the malicious dead, who terrified the good and haunted the wicked and impious.

lunulae – silver decorations shaped like crescents worn on sandals and shoes to distinguish a senator from lower orders.

lupis – a Roman name derived from lupus, wolf.

paterfamilias- Father of the family, the oldest living male, who retained many more legal rights over his wife, off-spring, slaves, and dependents than are common in our time, including some rights of life and death.  The term also refers, more nebulously, to the master of a familia, or associated group of a family, slaves, and clients.  Probably the best rough equivalent for the sake of comprehension to an American would be Don Vito Corleone and his mafia family.

peculium – the small fund of tips and commissions that, by custom, a slave was allowed to consider his own.  Under Roman law, this money was owned and administered by the slave’s master.  If the master was honest and benevolent, he and a slave could form an agreement for the peculium to be used for the slave’s self-purchase, or the money would be passed on to the slave as a seed fund when he was freed.  It’s questionable as to how often this happened.

Quirinus – an ancient Sabine god of defensive warfare and agriculture, sometimes identified with the deified Romulus, legendary founder of Rome.

tribune – normally, the second step on the road of honor, the career path of a Senator.  For two to three years when he was in his late teens or early twenties the young man would become a field-grade officer in a Legion.

vah – very roughly, bah.

vigils – squads of state slaves who, under citizen supervision, served as both night patrols and fire brigades.  Their primary purpose as firefighters was not to enter or save structures on fire, but to pull down, and dampen the rubble of, adjacent buildings in an effort to keep the entire city from burning down.

vigintiviri – first step on the road of honor for a young Roman destined for the Senate.  For a year when he was around eighteen or twenty, the young man would help care for the roads, the prisons, or the mints, or be a judge of cases involving slavery and freedom.

vindicta – one of the three formal legal forms by which a slave might be freed, and the only one by which the freedman could become a Roman citizen before his thirtieth birthday, if one with no right to hold civic office, with his ex-master as a mandatory patron, and under certain other legal restrictions.  In effect, a mock case was brought before a magistrate by some citizen, one that the master did not contend, “proving” the slave had always been free.  If the slave was under thirty, the reason for the freeing also had to be deemed legitimate by council.


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