The reader of Roman fiction encounters ancient Roman words that may not be familiar. This portion of the site will help the reader understand the meanings behind these words.
All terms are listed alphabetically. To find the term you are looking for click onto the letter that begins the particular word. If you have any problems please feel free to contact Fred Mench or Ruth Breindel.
advocate: skilled speaker, trained in the law, who presented the case of a party at a Roman trial (Dersin).
aedile: four annually elected officials with responsibility during the republic for Rome’s public games & buildings, streets, markets, and grain supply. By the early empire the management of the games and grain supply had been transferred to other officials. Other Roman towns also had aediles. The name comes from aedes, meaning temple structure (Dersin).
alae ("wings"): small rooms off the atrium in which imagines (masks) of ancestors were kept.
amphitheater: an oval building designed for the staging of gladiatorial and animal spectacles. The most famous is the Colosseum (Dersin).
animism: the attribution of a spirit to a natural phenomenon or to an inanimate object (Shelton).
anthropomorphic: later Roman gods took on this form, shaped like men.
apodyterium: dressing room with benches where slaves watched their masters' clothes.
arca: a chest for blankets or clothes.
assemblies or Comitia: a term applied to the formal legislative or elective assemblies of the people of ancient Rome, as distinguished from a contio, a public meeting, or a concilium, a council with selective membership.
atrium: the main reception area or salon of a Roman house (Shelton).
auctoritas: “authority” or aura of power a man has.
augur: the official diviners of Rome, organized in their own priestly college to which they were elected for life. The augurs interpreted signs from the gods to determine if an upcoming event, such as a military campaign, would meet divine approval. They also announced unsolicited portents of doom (Dersin).
auspicium: “bird watching”; interpreting the will of the gods by interpreting movement of the birds.
bracae: trousers worn only by foreigners or soldiers living in cold climates.
calamus: reed pen, dipped into ink and used on papyrus.
calcei: heavier, leather-tongued and four- thonged shoes for outdoors.
caldarium: “hot room”. Hot air was piped into the floors and walls, and hot water for the hot tubs was piped from a large tank or cauldron in the furnace room (Shelton).
Campus Martius: "Field of Mars" traditional area in Rome for young men to practice their athletic skills, running, boxing, wrestling, discus and javelin throwing, as well as riding and chariot driving and a variety of games. Later, when a succession of emperors built spacious baths (thermae) there were areas in them specially provided for athletic exercises, wrestling & ball games.
Capitoline: one of the Seven Hills of Rome. Originally it had two peaks, and in ancient times the Arx, or Citadel, occupied the northern summit and the great temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus (originally built 508 BC) the southern summit.
cena: dinner, the main meal of the day. The meal itself had 3 courses: each might have had several dishes.
censor: magistrate whose duty was to review the list of senators and to keep a close check on the registration and classification of citizens. A censor was an ex-consul & the position was elected every five years.
centurion: officer commanding a century in the Roman legions. A century was made up originally of 100 men, and 60 centuries constituted a legion. Within each Roman legion, centurions held degrees of rank; the senior centurion took part in councils of war.
century: see centurion
Charon: boatman who ferried souls over the River Styx to Hades.
cingulum: a girdle or sword-belt.
clepsydra: a water clock, esp. as used to measure the time allotted to orators.
cliens (client): a man who entered into a dependent relationship with a patron, offering him political support and attending on him at home & in public, in return for protection and benefits such as food or money (Dersin).
codex: a book originally made up of wooden tablets, covered with wax. In the early Empire, pages of parchment were sewn into a book. In the later Empire, a codex was a collection of (Imperial) statutes.
coemptio: marriage service for plebians. Groom symbolically buys his bride during the ceremony. Carries manus.
cognomen: last or family name. Sometimes an acquired nickname. (example: Caesar in Gaius Julius Caesar)
comitia centuriata: originally the army as a civil gathering. It was based on the military unit, the century, or centuria. The assembly was long dominated by the aristocracy, to whom the largest number of centuries was assigned, an important factor since voting was unit voting. Elected the most important magistrates, those with imperium.
comitia curiata: based on the 30 curiae, or territorial divisions of Rome; the members of each curia voted as a unit on such questions as the regal succession or a declaration of war. Rapidly became pro forma, with the votes being cast by designated functionaries.
comitia tributa: assembly of the whole populus Romanus (Roman people) arranged according to the 35 tribes to which citizens belonged, not according to wealth, as in the centurial assembly. Elected non-imperium-bearing magistrates and became in the the later republic the main legislative assembly.
compluvium: opening in the ceiling of the atrium through which light, air & rainwater entered. The rainwater emptied into the impluvium below.
compotatio: drinking party following a dinner.
concilium plebis: a quasi-assembly composed only of plebians, with patricians not included. Presided over by tribunes of the plebs, whom the concilium also elected. Arrangement was much like the comitia tributa, whose legislative functions it shared, once plebiscites (decrees of the concilium plebis) acquired equal force with leges (laws passed by an assembly).
confarreatio: a marriage service exclusively for patricians & performed by the Pontifex Maximus. In the ceremony the cake eaten by the bride & groom was made of spelt. Included manus.
consul: top military and civil official of the republic. Two consuls were elected to serve simultaneously for a one-year period. Though still prestigious, the consulship offered little real power in the imperial age. The term of office was shortened, and emperors held the consulship themselves or filled it with their friends and relatives (Dersin).
contubernia: marriage between slaves; slaves matched up by master for reproduction.
cremation: burning of a body.
Curia: Senate House.
cursus publicus: posting stations between 6 and 16 miles apart where the official messengers of the Empire could rest or change horses. Upwards of a dozen horses would be kept at some of them for these official postmen.
dictator: during the republic, an official appointed to exercise supreme authority during a crisis, for a period of up to six months. By the first century BC, Roman politicians were using the position to control the government (Dersin).
dies fasti: days on which the praetor could administer justice, court-days.
dominica potestas: power of the master.
dominus: master of the slaves.
Epicureanism: The Epicureans were disciples of Epicurus, a Greek philosopher who taught in Athens until his death in 270 BC. Much of our knowledge of Epicures comes from the writings of Lucretius. Epicurus believed that the summum bonum of life (that which made man truly happy) was pleasure, but he defined pleasure not as sensual enjoyment, but as peace of mind, freedom from anxiety. He taught that the body needed only a few simple things to alleviate mental and physical distress: just enough food to prevent hunger, just enough water to prevent thirst, just enough clothing to prevent chill. Luxuries cause pain. He did not think that the gods influenced human life in any way. He believed that the human soul was both mortal and material, and perished along with the body at death. He therefore denounced Religion because he thought that fear of the gods and of an afterlife created anxiety and prevented people from achieving real pleasure (peace of mind). Scientific knowledge about the composition of the universe & natural phenomenon could allay human fears (Shelton).
eques (equites or knights): the order of business-oriented Roman landowners ranking below the senatorial order; its members engaged in finance, trade, agriculture, public contracting and tax collection but generally did not directly involve themselves in politics. Under the empire, equestrians served as military officers & bureaucrats. The name comes from equites, which originally referred to members of the cavalry, in turn derived from equus, meaning horse (Shelton).
exedra: oblong room or hall used for entertaining guests (Shelton).
Falernian Wine: an exceptional first-growth wine, that elicits the most praise. Horace and Martial both mention it. Made from the Aminean grape, a variety brought to Italy by Greek colonists who first settled at Cumae near the Bay of Naples. Falernian was full-bodied and strong (firmissima), with an alcohol content as much as 15 or 16 percent. A white wine, it was aged for 10 to 20 years, until it became the color of amber.
familia rustica: farm family; slaves were often farmhands, etc. & had tougher life than urbana.
familia urbana: city family; slaves were often butlers, cooks, hairdressers, etc.
fasti: a list of these days, with festivals, etc., the Roman calendar; a register, record; a list of magistrates.
fauces: entrance passage or hallway leading from the door of the house into the atrium.
fibula: a buckle, brooch or clasp.
Flamen Dialis: the priest of Jupiter.
flamines: individual priests who were dedicated to the service of one particular god.
Forum: a large, open area, typically rectangular in shape and surrounded by public buildings, which served as the political, social, and commercial center of a Roman town. Large cities, such as Rome, often had more than one forum. (Dersin) Unless labelled as one of the Imperial Fora, "forum" normally means the old Republican forum at the foot of the Palatine and Capitoline Hills.
frigidarium: “cold room” in a bath.
fullers: people who perform the last steps in making cloth or who clean clothes.
garum: a strong fish sauce made by fermenting intestines and other fish parts for several months. (Dersin).
genius: guardian spirit. Each man had his own genius; each woman had a comparable spirit known as a juno.
grammaticus: teacher at second stage of schooling. Many children left school before this stage, esp. girls, which involved the study of grammar and literature (Shelton).
gustatio/gustus: appetizer course which consisted of raw vegetables, cheeses, dormice, shellfish, fish and egg dishes. Eggs were commonly served at the gustatio and fruit for dessert. The Latin expression which describes a many-course dinner and corresponds to our phrase “from soup to nuts” is “from eggs to apples”.
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