Latin Legacies

If you pay attention to the topics dealt with in this newsletter each week, you can get a glimpse into my life. Recently, I’ve been watching the excellent HBO series Rome, about Julius Caesar and playing the extremely addictive computer game Rome: Total War. These two sources are the inspiration for this week’s article.

We all know that many English words are derived from Latin roots. Most commonly, these words come to us from Old French as a result of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 or are modern scientific and technical terms created in modern times from Latin roots. But there are a few that come to us directly and mostly unaltered from the traditions and practices of ancient Rome. Here are some of those words.

censor, n., a Roman official charged with maintaining the census and supervising public morals. From censere, to account, to reckon. English use of the term, other than references to the ancient Roman office, dates to 1592. By 1644, the word was being applied specifically to one who reviews and expurgates literature. Use as a verb is much more recent, dating only from 1882.

cohort, n., a unit of soldiers, one tenth of a legion. In use to mean a group of modern soldiers from c.1500 and a group united by a common bond from 1719. The statistical sense, meaning a group sharing a common statistical characteristic, such as being born in the same year, dates to 1944. Since 1952, the word, especially in American usage, has been used to mean an assistant or accomplice. This individual meaning is considered by some to be an erroneous usage.

consul, n., one of two officials, chosen by the Senate, who ruled the Roman Republic. From con- together + sal walk, literally those who walk together. The title, without the attendant power, was maintained during the Empire. Starting in 1601 it began to be used in English to mean a representative of the foreign merchants in a port or city who negotiates with the government and promotes commercial relationships. This grew into the current sense of a diplomat who assists citizens abroad and promotes commerce with his home nation.

decimate, v., Roman military punishment for mass desertion or cowardice in battle where one in ten soldiers in a unit would be killed. In English use since 1600 to mean to destroy one tenth of something and later used more loosely meaning to destroy something.

dictator, n., Roman official with absolute authority to rule the state during periods of emergency. Upon recommendation of the Senate, the Consuls would nominate a dictator who would rule for no more than six months. Sulla, in 82 BC, extended the term of office for several years. Julius Caesar made himself dictator-for-life in 45 BC. The office was abolished after his assassination. Traditionally, Roman dictators would resign after addressing the emergency at hand without waiting for their six-month term to expire. It has been in modern use since c.1592.

duke, n. this is one that is modified in form somewhat from the Latin word. It is from dux, literally leader, the commander of two or more legions. It’s been in English use from the 14th century as a title of nobility ranking below a prince.

forum, n., a Roman marketplace. From 1735 it has meant a place of public discussion. The use of the word to apply to on-line or electronic discussions dates to 1971. Starting in 1848 it acquired a legal sense meaning a court or jurisdiction. The term forum shopping, meaning to attempt to find a jurisdiction that will be most favorable to your case, is from 1954

legate, n., the officer commanding a legion or the governor of a province. It has been used since the 12th century to mean a representative of the pope and since the 14th century to mean a diplomat in general.

legion, n., a Roman military unit composed of (depending on the era) from 3000 to 6000 men. From the Latin legio, or levy. From before 1300 to refer to a multitude. From 1598 to refer to specific modern military units.

pantheon, n., a temple in Rome, noted for its great dome, consecrated to all the gods. From the Greek pan-, meaning all + theos, god. In modern use, it is used to refer to a group of people or things that are venerated or have great importance, 1834.

pontiff, n., high priest. A pontifex was one of several high priests in Roman religion, the collegium of the Pontifices was led by the Pontifex Maximus. From pont, bridge, + fic, to make, literally a bridge builder. But the first element is possibly a corruption of the Etruscan puntis, or propitiatory offering. Pontiff has been applied to bishops, esp. the Bishop of Rome, since the 17th century. One of the official titles of the Pope is Pontifex Maximus.

senate, n., a body that ruled the Roman republic, originally composed of representatives elected by the patrician class, later by appointment and by men who had held specific offices. Technically, the Roman Senate was not a legislative body and could only advise the consuls and people’s assemblies, but in practice the Senate’s advice was binding. Literally, senate means a council of old men. It has been applied to various governing bodies in Europe from the 14th century and most famously is the name used for the upper house of the US Congress.

tribunal, n., from tribune, a Roman official. A tribune of the people was one of several officials who represented the interests of the plebian class. A military tribune was one of six officers in a legion. The tribunal was a raised platform from which a tribune would give commands and adjudicate disputes. It has been used since 1590 to mean a court.

triumvirate, n., a group of three rulers in ancient Rome. The First Triumvirate was Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus and dominated Roman politics from 59-53 BC, ending with the death of Crassus. The Second Triumvirate consisted of Octavian (later Augustus), Mark Antony, and Lepidus. Unlike the First, this Second Triumvirate was formalized in law and ruled Rome as a tripartite dictatorship starting in 43 BC, although Lepidus was stripped of most of his power in 36 BC when he attempted to take up arms against Octavian. Octavian and Antony continued to rule until the expiration of the triumvirate’s term in 33 BC Subsequently, the two went to war with each other, culminating in the sea battle at Actium where Octavian defeated Antony and Cleopatra and, all his political rivals gone, had himself appointed the first emperor, ending the Roman Republic. Triumvirate has been in use since 1584 to mean any rule by three authorities.

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