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.
sarcophagus: from the Greek, meaning flesh eater; a coffin, usually made of stone, for burial of the dead. Burial replaced cremation as the prevailing method of disposing of the dead in Rome during the second & third centuries AD (Dersin).
Samnites: a warlike people inhabiting south central Italy who contested Roman supremacy for much of the republican period. The name Samnite was also applied to a type of gladiator who wore a visored helmet and carried a sword and shield (Dersin).
scortum: a harlot, prostitute.
scriba: a clerk, secretary or notary.
secundae mensae: dessert. Often included cake, custard, oysters, snails, figs or apples.
sepulchrum: a place of burial; a grave or tomb.
senate: effectively, the governing body of Rome during the republic; composed of ex-officials from patrician and, later, wealthy plebian, families, who served for life. Though its formal role was consultative, the Senate exercised great power over Rome’s officials and assemblies. During the imperial age the Senate’s power was considerably diminished and membership was extended to the provincial elite.
servi: slaves captured in war or born of slave parents, (vernae). Captives were often better trained or educated than their master, especially if the slave was Greek.
Sibylline Books: a collection of oracular responses. The original collection was believed to have been purchased by one of the last kings of Rome from a woman of prophetic power called (the) Sibyl who came to Italy from the east and settled at Cumae (Shelton).
soleae: slippers or sandals worn inside the home. If one went out to dinner he took his soleae with him.
spina: central partition in a Circus, around which chariots raced.
Stoicism: the founder of the Stoic school of philosophy was Zeno, who taught in Athens until his death in 263 BC. Zeno met with his disciples in a large stoa in Athens, called the Stoa Poikile and they were therefore called Stoics. The Stoics preached self-discipline, perseverance and steadfastness, qualities that had also defined the Roman code of behavior from Rome’s earliest history. They believed the universe was material. The matter of the universe was a single substance whose quality could range from coarse to very refined. The most refined form of matter was variously identified as fire, fiery ether, breath, or embodied spirit. This fiery spirit was the active, creative force in the universe, the spirit or soul of the universe, as it were, acting on the coarser and passive forms of the matter. The spirit of the universe, which permeated the body of the universe, was thus material as the body. This material spirit was rational & called Reason (Fate, God, Nature). It was the plan or purpose of the universe. The human body was a microcosm of the universe. The summum bonum of Stoicism was harmony with Nature (Shelton).
stola: an elegant version of the tunic, fuller & flowing, reaching to the ankles & worn by women.
strigil: a curved implement in bronze, iron, or bone used after bathing to scrape sweat, oil & dead skin from the body (Dersin).
strophium: a breast-band; a head-band or chaplet.
stilus: pen, of wood, metal or bone, used for writing on wax tablets.
subligaculum: undergarments or shorts.
Subura: bustling working-class district in Rome.
sudarium: sweat room in a bath.
sui generis/ sui iuris: paterfamilias without any immediate family.
tablinum: a room or alcove off the atrium; possibly used as an office by the dominus.
tepidarium: “warm room”. Warm air was piped into the floors and walls. In some Roman baths, the tepidarium had a tub or a basin full of warm water piped from the furnace room (Shelton).
Tiber: river in central Italy, third longest of the country, rising in the Apennines of central Italy, near the source of the Arno River. It flows through Rome, where Tiber Island provides the easiest crossing point.
toga: the standard outer garment of Roman citizens, semicircular in shape & made of wool. Togas were generally five to six yards long & three to four yards wide. They were worn draped around the body and over the shoulder without fasteners (Dersin).
tribune of the plebs: annually elected officers of the plebians who protected their rights, lives, and property. The tribunes gained veto power over laws, elections, and officials’ acts and were immune from prosecution. Rome’s emperors assumed the tribunes’ powers or delegated them to their preferred heirs.
triclinium: dining room.
triumph: the celebratory procession awarded to a victorious Roman general. Traditionally, the purple-garbed general rode in an ornate four-horse chariot through Rome to the Temple of Jupiter, with soldiers, officials, notable captives, spoils & sacrificial animals in his train (Dersin).
tunic: informal menswear; worn either under the toga or as an outer garment. Imagine a long-bodied short-sleeved t-shirt going to just below the knees.
Twelve Tables: the first written code of Roman law, passed about 450 BC. Previously laws had been handed down orally from generation to generation. The establishment of a written code was a landmark in Roman legal history (Shelton).
umbra ("shadow"): an uninvited guest or invited at the last minute to fill out the number of guests.
usus: common law marriage. Did not carry manus.
vernae: slaves born to 2 slaves of the master and kept on; often very close to their masters and their masters' families.
Vestal Virgins: Vesta was the deity of the hearth fire. Every home had a temple to Vesta because of the need to heat the home & cook. The hearth was a central element and all family members gathered once a day for a sacrifice to Vesta. There was also a city temple to Vesta, before which city residents could gather as one big “family”. At this temple, religious officers assumed the responsibility, on behalf of the community for maintaining a good relationship with Vesta. Vesta was not represented by statues; instead, the eternal fire burning on her altar represented the deity, and it was the responsibility of her priestesses, the Vestal Virgins, to keep the fire burning at all times (Shelton).
vilicus: a bailiff, steward or overseer of a country estate.
volumen: separate sheets were joined edge to edge and rolled into a cylindrical scroll.
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