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.
haruspex: a soothsayer who judged the will of the gods through study of sacrificial animals’ entrails (esp. the liver).
hetaira: "companion"; a high-priced call-girl, generally a freedwoman set up in business for herself.
hypocausts: central heating systems reserved for the private houses of the rich, and for public buildings. Small stoke-holes were built at the side or basement of the main buildings. Fires were lit, and hot air and smoke from these were allowed to circulate under the floors, which were supported on pillars, and passed up special flues in the walls.
Ides: middle of the month, falling on the 13th or 15th day.
imagines: waxen figured portraits of ancestors.
Imperator: “emperor"; during the republic, a victorious general was hailed “imperator” by his troops & subsequently used the title with his name until his triumphal procession in Rome. Augustus received the title from the Senate in 29 BC and made it a permanent part of his name. The title came to signify the supreme ruler (Dersin).
imperium: power to command an army (and execute capital punishment) & only held by consuls, praetors and dictators.
impluvium: ornamental rain-water basin in the atrium of a Roman house.
inhumation: burial of a body.
insula ("island"): huge multi-storied apartment buildings which took up an entire city block.
Isis/Osiris: Isis was a goddess whose worship originated in Egypt and was already of great antiquity by the time the Romans became acquainted with it. ... The central myth of this religion involved the death & resurrection of Isis’s husband, Osiris, and thus the promise to initiates of resurrection after death and a blessed afterlife. Isis was a goddess of fertility, and also of marriage and sailing. She became a universal goddess. By the early 1st century BC she had acquired a large following in Rome. By 30 she was harshly oppressed in Rome by Octavian because it was a religion of his enemy, the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. But her following could not be suppressed and by the 1st century AD it was flourishing again (Shelton).
iudex ("judge/juror"): The praetor did not try cases but presided only in preliminary stages, determined the nature of the suit and issued a "formula" precisely defining the legal point(s) at issue, then assigned the case to be tried before a delegated judge (iudex).
iuris consulti/ iuris prudentes: individuals authorized to pronounce on the meaning of the laws consulted by the advocati who were building their cases.
jentaculum: breakfast; very simple, a cup of water perhaps a morsel of bread and honey, or something cold left over from the day before.
Kalends: first of the month.
laconica: very hot room with water in it as a sweat bath.
Lares: each household had its own Lar who would protect the household if properly propitiated. It was the responsibility of the paterfamilias to establish within the home a shrine (lararium) and to keep the Lar appeased. As the early community at Rome expanded, the Romans recognized Lares who protected a whole neighborhood (Lares Compitales) and Lares who protected the whole city (Lares Publici or Praestites) (Shelton).
latus clavus: the purple stripe that adorned the senator’s tunic, which ran from the neck to the waist or the lower hem. A knight’s tunic had two narrower stripes (angusticlavi).
latifundia: a large landed estate.
lectus: couch or bed.
lectus imus/medius/summus: low, medium & high couches sat upon during cena. Individuals' placement on the lectus was based on their social status. At a dinner, each lectus was normally reclined on by 3 people.
legion: the largest unit in the Roman army; the number and size of legions varied over time (Dersin). Paper strength may have been 6,000 men (5,000 under the empire), but actual muster was probably lower.
Legionary legate: under the empire, the commanding officer of an individual legion in the provinces; the legate was from the senatorial class (Dersin). During the republic, a legate functioned under the provincial governor and commanded units of varying size.
libertus: freedman; a slave who had been freed by his or her master through manumission. Roman law provided for most to become citizens. Although not eligible for major political offices, freedmen figured prominently in the imperial bureaucracy in the first century AD. The sons of freedmen were “free” citizens and did not owe their father’s patron any of the duties their parents had owed to those who had freed them. They were also eligible for public office, unlike their fathers (Shelton).
lictors: public slaves; bodyguards to consuls & praetors.
litterator: teacher of elementary school (ages 7- 11).
ludus: elementary school where almost all children, including girls, attended. There the children learned the alphabet, mathematics & basic writing.
lupa/leno: a she-wolf; a prostitute/ a procuress, bawd.
magna mater (Great Mother): Cybele was introduced to Rome by government leaders and immediately given an official position in Roman society. She was considered the mother of humans, of animals, indeed of all living things and a universal Mother Earth deity. The death & resurrection of her consort, Attis, which was commemorated by an annual celebration, gave promise of immortality to those initiated into her cult. The Romans soon were shocked by Cybele’s cult practices. Initiates to the cult seemed to act in a state of emotional frenzy; their music was shrill & raucous. And the self-mutilating priests of the cult (Galli) were particularly offensive to the staid and sober Roman temperament. Apparently the Galli slashed their arms & shed their own blood during the annual celebration of Attis’ death & resurrection. As soon as Roman officials realized the nature of the cult activities, they took immediate measures to keep the cult tightly restricted. It was placed under the close supervision of the priests who dealt with the Sibylline books, and no Roman citizens were allowed to become Galli (Shelton).
manumission: the freeing of a slave by a master.
Mediterranean triad: wheat, olives, grapes.
meretrix: a harlot.
meta: a pyramidal column used as a turning-post in the Circus or winning-post; any turning point; a goal, end, boundary.
miliarium aureum: golden milestone in the Roman Forum with distances to major cities indicated.
Mithra: most important imported god for men, esp. soldiers. Very similar to Christianity with resurrection. God of light/power. Dualistic religion: unlike Roman/Greek religions, there was a strong emphasis on moral opposition between good and evil.
mos maiorum: tradition or custom of ancestors; if there was not a law for something then the law makers simply went with tradition. Mos maiorum tended to hinder precipitate changes in the laws.
mulsum: wine mixed with honey.
munera: gladiatorial games ranging from skill contests to slaughter of criminals to bouts with animals.
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