Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.07.30

Christopher Francese, Ancient Rome in So Many Words.   New York:  Hippocrene Books, Inc., 2007.  Pp. 248.  ISBN 9780781811538.  $12.95.  

Reviewed by Betty Rose Nagle, Indiana University (


What is the Latin for "bar pick-up line?" When did the word paganus start to mean "non-Christian?" Why did the Romans crucify dogs? How many unclaimed corpses turned up in early imperial Rome each year? What Latin prose text, other than the Bible, survives in the most manuscript copies? The answers to these questions and many other such nuggets appear in Christopher Francese's book of Latin word histories.1

Inspired by America in So Many Words: Words That Have Shaped America,2 Christopher Francese presents an engaging and accessible collection of word histories which offers the general reader an introduction to Roman social and cultural history by way of a sampling from the Latin lexicon. The entries are organized topically into twenty sections, from "Childhood" to "Final Moments." Related topics cluster together, e.g., in the four sections "Public Places," "Life in the Country," "Money and Business," and "Jobs and Professions."

An "Introduction" outlines Francese's approach and criteria for selection, (e.g., a preference for words with English or Romance derivatives), states his intention to make use of the abundant recent scholarship on social relations and Rome's "seamy underbelly," and notes that the choice of words will reflect his own interests in economics, work and technology. His historical terminus is, like that of the TLL, 600 CE, so his entries cover not only classical but also Christian usage. This part of the book also offers some basic background information, e.g., on the terms used for periods of Roman history. Francese's apparatus also includes a two-page annotated list of "Abbreviations" (he characterizes the Prosopographia Imperii Romani as the "Roman phone book;" surely that is better described as a "Who's Who"); a succinct page of "Suggestions for Future Reading" which offers guidance on available translations and a very short list of secondary works on Latin, Roman history, and Roman daily life;" an "Index of Authors Quoted" (with their dates); and an "Index of Latin Words," which signals the "featured words" in full capitals.

Many of words featured are the usual suspects for a roundup of this kind—paterfamilias, plebs, cliens, auctoritas, mores, amor—but many are not--crepundia, pistor, vespillo, cucullus, acroama. Each section begins with a definition, giving the full range of meanings, followed by several illustrative quotations (in Francese's own translations) from a wide-range of ancient sources; in a few pithy instances Francese includes the original along with his version, e.g, Barbari in ferrum ruunt, vulgus in rixas (p.48; St. Ambrose) and Dicunt amicitiam animam unam esse et duo corpora (p.108; Porphyrio). The definitions and quotations always appear on the left-hand page, further distinguished by a grey background and a sprinkling of palmate dingbats. These quotations are wide-ranging and give a reader a good sampling from the diversity of material available—along with the classical poets and prose authors, one finds numerous inscriptions, as well as material from technical writers, ancient writers on the Latin language, ancient commentators on classical authors, Christian writers, and of course those wonderful repositories of factoids and trivia: the Elder Pliny, Macrobius, Aulus Gellius, and Valerius Maximus. The quotations provide the point of departure for an essay on the word's history, from classical through Christian times. Francese's discussion of barbarus, for example, moves from the pragmatism of Roman foreign policy, through a litany of the stereotypic negative traits associated with "barbarians," to the contrast between Romans' relative open-mindedness and their lack of interest in or curiosity about other peoples (pp.130-31). Often the lemma serves primarily as the point of departure for a much broader discussion. Francese has very little to say, for example, about the ergastulum as a material reality, but focuses instead on how the impact of the vocabulary of slavery on Roman thinking is manifest in philosophy and religion (pp.170-71). The rubric felix, included in the section on slavery, prompts treatment of Roman slave names and their implications (pp.168-69). Each section ends with references to material in the essay, both primary and secondary, beginning with a TLL citation, or for words after "p," one from the RE.

Francese excels at elucidating the social and cultural implications of language, and is particularly good at showing how the use and development of the Romans' language reflect the history of their culture. Starting from the range of meanings for ingenuus, for example, Francese constructs the Roman ideal of a free-born person, and by contrast, the stereotypical slave (p.167). One interesting discussion notes the lack of symmetry between the words patrimonium and matrimonium and comments on the implications of that (p.89). Elsewhere Francese contrasts the single Latin word taberna with the different Greek words for inn, workshop, and retail shop, to comment on the "perceived unity" of the Roman establishments (p.155).

Words are treated in linguistic context as well. Francese frequently discusses the inferences one can draw from the constellation of adjectives found with a given noun, e.g, the adjectives which modify coniunx on epitaphs (p.31), and the adjectives which serve as quasi-titles with the names of equestrians (p.53). Likewise he often differentiates between a cluster of near-synonyms: his discussion of plebs distinguishes it from turba, mulititudo, and vulgus (p.51), and his consideration of decus notes its aesthetic nuance which is absence from other words for personal honor such as dignitas, honor, pudor, and fama (p.225). Also, he considers the metaphorical use of words, such as the metaphors for eating and the like in the verbs used for spending down one's patrimoniumconsumere, comedere, mordere, and devorare (p.89). By contrasting the metaphors associated with "love" in English and amor in Latin, he explicates the very different, far from benign, Roman conception of that emotion (p.159). So too he comments on the inferences to be drawn from extended and figurative uses, e.g., the vocabulary of emotion derived from crux (p.183), and the typically Roman application of furor to a revolutionary enthusiasm for change (p.203).

The focus of these essays is often the mutual influence of language and culture. One amusing instance involves the change from fornix to arcus as the word for "arch." Because of its association with prostitutes (reflected in the word "fornication"), fornix gave way to arcus, a word without unseemly associations, when triumphal arches came into vogue (p.147). Again, save for architectus, classical Latin had few words compounded with archi-, but those proliferated along with the burgeoning of late antique governmental and ecclesiastical bureaucracies (p.144). Equally revealing are those instances when a cultural change is not reflected in the language. As important an innovation as concrete was, Francese notes, it made "next to no impact on the Latin language," with the existing word for "rubble" (caementa) adapted to the new material (p.143). And yet, the Romans had plenty of words for kinds of marble. Francese speculates about this discrepancy, suggesting that if the Romans had any feelings about the new material, they were "akin to the feelings many have today about sheet rock" (p.143). Francese also finds occasions to comment on the conservatism of written Latin, noting that Romance words for "baker" derive from the late (primarily spoken) molinarius, which written Latin continued to call pistor (p.97).

For the most part Francese's essays are structured chronologically; hence they often conclude with a nugget of information about Christian adaptation of Latin expressions and practices. From the entry on candidus, for example, one learns that dressing the newly baptized in white, and referring to them as candidati, both were late developments of that Roman electioneering practice (p.119). Similarly, the entry on colonus ends by mentioning the metaphorical use of coloni originarii by a Christian author (p.75)—on Judgment Day God will call mankind back, like hereditary serfs who have roamed from the estate to which they are legally bound, back to tend the Garden of Paradise.

Another commendable feature of Francese's work are the correctives his provides for such stereotypes as the tyrannical paterfamilias (pp.128-29), and for both Roman conservatism--noting the Roman genius for adaptation and innovation (p.141), despite the values and attitudes implied by their use of the words antiquus and novus)—and Roman luxury--noting that our views of Roman decadence stem from puritanical Roman moralizers themselves (p.153).

The quotations and essays are enlivened by Francese's idiomatic translations. Horace's freedman steward longs for a "greasy spoon" (uncta popina) and a taberna where he can drink and "do the stomp" (salias terrae gravis, p.155). Martial speaks of "trying to score" a dinner invitation (cenam captare. p.156). Francese renders lethargici neatly as "roughly, 'the depressed'" (p.201), and conveys the nuances of carnifex by translating it as "scum" in one example from Plautus, and "you brute" in another from Ovid (p.213).

Francese's adeptness with analogies helps make his presentations accessible. A few of these are merely clever—St. Jerome's student-copyists were "perhaps the first recorded interns" (p.35). Most of them, however, further a reader's understanding, e.g., a description of the basilica as "mall, courthouse, and bank all in one" (p.69). He notes that while latifundium roughly means "plantation" it has a bit of the flavor of "agribusiness" (p.79), a good corrective for American readers who will hear "plantation" and think "Tara." He notes insightfully that the patron-client relationship was as basic to Roman society as the corporate-consumer relationship is to ours (p.107). To convey the blend of moral and legal sanctions in infamia, he compares it to the military's dishonorable discharge (p.181). Translating Romulus Arpinas as "The George Washington of Dubuque" (p.209) ingeniously captures the spirit of that insult aimed at Cicero, but Francese also takes the opportunity to contrast the attitude it conveys with the pride a politician in the US can take in having small town roots.

Occasional typos and other lapses have not been weeded out. The martyr Eulalia is "modest of gate" (p.16). The word "pupus" should be italicized (p.18). The reference to Horace's Epistle 1.12 should be to 1.14 (p.155). The first word in the title Construction of the Classical Body should be plural (p.163). The phrase nota censoria appears in passing without being defined (p.181). The word phrensis is missed its second "e" (p.200). The missing comma between "leading" and "senatorial" in "The leading senatorial class was called the patres" (p.52) could result in a misunderstanding; the next sentence begins "The second class was the 'equestrians'," so a reader might naturally conclude that they too were senatorial. One quotation, from the SHA about Lucius Verus' slumming activities, appears twice, to illustrate both taberna (p.154) and cucullus (p.172.). I would quibble with glossing Subura as being "often mentioned as a center of nightlife" (p.62), rather than as a slum where higher status people went "slumming" at night. So too the board game latrunculi is better characterized, not as a children's game (p.211), but as a game of strategy like chess. Francese has researched such a wide array of topics that an occasional lapse in mastery is understandable. He asserts, for example, that perfumers and incense traders "were important members of the Roman aristocracy" (p.163), when in fact his source maintains that these professionals had "contacts with" (my emphasis) those aristocrats.3

Generally Francese's translations are excellent, with nicely idiomatic touches. Occasionally, however, an infelicitous cognate appears, e.g., "aureate bracelets" (p.16), rather than "golden" or "gilt" ones. Elsewhere someone is said to have "subvented the annona" (p.90), rather than to have "subsidized" it (the OED characterizes both "subvent" and "subvene" as "obs. rare"). In documenting his sources Francese is judicious. All the illustrative quotations are fully attributed. Other references are not footnoted, but collected at the end of each entry beginning with a citation from the TLL or RE for the definitions, followed by citations of ancient authors and modern scholars, sometimes keyed to a a word or phrase in Francese's essay. It can sometimes be difficult to correlate these citations with the text, especially because not all details are documented (on what principle, I could not determine). I had to do my own sleuthing, for example, to track down the anecdote of the woman who kept her mother alive in prison by breast-feeding her during visits (p.223); Francese frequently quotes and cites Valerius Maximus, whose Memorable Deeds and Sayings he characterizes as "Chicken Soup for the Roman Soul" (p.39), but not for this exemplary pietas. I would also have liked some evidence for Francese's positing a "just possible" connection between the Roman bulla and the bolo tie (p.23; as an aside, the bolo tie is not "Spanish" but Southwestern/ Western US, and may have originated as recently as the mid-twentieth century).4. My last quibble concerns the book as a physical object: the narrow margins and tight binding mean that the reader of this paperback volume must keep forcing it open. Oddly, the publisher made generous allowance for blank space on the pages to prevent over-crowding everywhere except the margins.

I recommend this book not only for its primary intended audience of general readers, but also for classroom use. The intended reader will receive a good introduction to an interesting assortment of Latin words and to roughly a millennium's worth of Roman cultural and social history. Non-specialists will not only learn a good deal of interesting information about Latin words and Roman culture, but will also be exposed to the great variety of extant Latin, to the nature and variety of sources, and to some of the topics and approaches of recent scholarship (most of the titles date from the last two decades). Instructors of elementary Latin will find it a useful resource, especially graduate teaching assistants whose reading and study have not yet supplied them with the anecdotes and factoids which students remember long after declensions and conjugations have faded from memory. This book could also be mined for information by teachers of courses in Roman civilization, and might even be assigned as a text in such a course. Additionally, this would make a fine "in character" present from a Latinist to friends and families. Word geeks will love it.


1.   Bar pick-ups lines: tabernariae blanditiae (p.155); paganus: in the lifetime of St. Augustine (p.192); crucified dogs: one ritual sacrifice a year, because dogs failed to bark a warning when the Gauls attacked in 380 BCE (p.183); corpses: ca.1500, in the estimate of John Bodel, "Dealing with the Dead: Undertakers, Executioners and Potter's Fields in Ancient Rome," in V. Hope and E. Marshall, eds., Death and Disease in the Ancient City (London: Routledge, 2000) 138 (cited on p.101); most copied: Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds and Sayings (p.39).
2.   David K. Barnhart and Allan A. Metcalf, America in So Many Words: Words That Have Shaped America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997).
3.   David S. Potter, "Odor and Power in the Roman Empire," in J. I. Porter, ed., Constructions of the Classical Body (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999), 179 (cited on p.163).
4.   See the Wikipedia entry for "Bolo tie", retrieved May 22, 2008.

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