. 7
( 44 .)


they all bore. Their title also included the word imperator, which is
the source of the English word ˜emperor™ and which in turn came to
us via the French empereur.
The word imperator literally means ˜commander™ and belongs
with the verb imperare ˜to command™ and with the abstract noun
imperium ˜command, power, authority™. Whoever had been given
the power to command by the Senate, usually for a year or for the
duration of a particular military undertaking, had imperium and was
called imperator. What Augustus introduced was the principle that
he always had the highest power, summum imperium, and therefore
was always imperator. Of course, that also meant that he was always
able to get his own way, by force if necessary, throughout the whole
territory in which his authority ran. Hence this territory was also
called imperium, from which comes our modern word empire. The
Roman empire was then the imperium romanum.
Augustus ruled for a long time and by and large he ruled well;
civil strife came to an end, the economy was strong, and the quality
of the administration in the provinces was improved. This was
the beginning of a very long period of stability. It was more than
two centuries before the empire was beset once more by a lengthy
crisis; but even that passed, and imperial rule continued until the
dissolution of the empire in the ¬fth century ad, when various
Germanic tribes invaded the western part and divided it up amongst

Name and family
The Roman way of naming people was very different from ours.
Roman men from distinguished families always had three names, as
in Marcus Porcius Cato or Gaius Julius Caesar or Marcus Tullius
Cicero. Just like us, there was a ¬rst name, called the praenómen

A natural history of Latin

˜forename™, though with the difference that there were very few ¬rst
names, no more than about twenty in all. It was possible to abbreviate
most of them to one or two letters without misunderstanding.
Marcus was shortened to M, Quintus to Q, and so on. The name
Gaius is, strangely enough, abbreviated with the letter C, because
this letter was once, when the alphabet was in its infancy, used both
for the ˜k™ sound and for the ˜g™ sound. For the most part these ¬rst
names did not have meanings as far as we know, but some of them
are easy to interpret: Quintus means ˜the ¬fth™, Sextus ˜the sixth™
and Decimus ˜the tenth™. Families with many children evidently
resorted to the numerals as a way of keeping tally!
The middle name, which ended in “ius, was called the nomen
˜name™ or sometimes nomen gentis ˜family name™. This represented
the wider family or lineage to which one belonged and might be
borne by a large number of people. Compare the Scottish use of clan
names such as Campbell, McDonald, and Stewart. Finally, there
came the cognómen or surname, which indicated one™s immediate
family, a much smaller group of people.
Roman men who did not belong to one of the leading families
but who were nonetheless free citizens for the most part only
had two names, a praenomen and a nomen, and no distinction
was made between lineage and family. At the very bottom, of
course, were the slaves, who only had one name. It was never a
Roman ¬rst name, but was often a descriptive label such as Syrus
˜the Syrian™.
Women in Rome mostly had one name too, even if they belonged
to a distinguished family. That name was often quite simply the
name of the father™s lineage in the feminine.The daughter of Marcus
Tullius Cicero was called Tullia. There were also other patterns. The
daughter of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa was called Vipsania
Agrippina, and her three daughters were called Agrippina, Livilla,
and Drusilla. The ¬rst got her mother™s name and the next two were
called after their famous great grandmother, Livia Drusilla, who had
been married to Augustus.

Latin and the Romans

Names then clearly showed a person™s position in society: the more
names you had the higher up the social ladder you were. To have
three was very good, but important people could have even more, as
they were given different honorary names which recorded real or
invented exploits. Most men, though, had to make do with two, and
women and slaves had to put up with one. Sometimes people were
given an extra name because of a change in status. We mentioned
earlier that the young Gaius Octavius was adopted by Caesar in his
will, something which to us rings very strange, but adoption was
quite a common practice among Rome™s leading families. It was done
partly to ensure suitable heirs for large fortunes and partly to
strengthen ties between families.The person who was adopted would
then get his new father™s nomen and cognomen. The young Gaius
Octavius therefore became overnight Gaius Julius Caesar, taking the
names of his dead adoptive father, but he added to these Octavianus,
which shows that he previously belonged to the Octavius family.
Finally, the Senate gave him the honorary name Augustus, and his
complete name became Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus Augustus.
Slaves who were given their freedom also acquired new names.As
free men they were allowed to have both a ¬rst name and a family
name, and for the latter they usually took the name of their former
owner. The very rich dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla set a great
number of his slaves free, with the consequence that there were sud-
denly thousands of people with the name Cornelius in Rome.
Which name people actually used in their everyday lives clearly
varied. Famous people were generally referred to by their last name
or cognomen. Marcus Tullius Cicero is known as Cicero, and Gaius
Julius Caesar was usually called Caesar. But there are exceptions.The
successor and stepson of Augustus was named Tiberius Claudius
Nero but was always known as Tiberius, which is one of the few
Roman ¬rst names. Later one of his nephews became emperor. His
name was Tiberius Claudius Drusus, but he was always called
Claudius. In principle one could be known by any one of the three

A natural history of Latin

Years and months

The Romans had a way of reckoning time which continues to be of
interest, as we mainly still use their system and have kept their
names of the months. The oldest Roman calendar was already intro-
duced at the time of the monarchy, and the inspiration probably
came from the Etruscans. In the beginning it seems there were only
ten months, the ones we call March to December, with January and
February being added later. How that might have come about is
rather unclear, but it is absolutely certain that the original Roman
year started on the ¬rst of March, as can be deduced from the names
of four of the months, which in Latin are called mensis September,
mensis October, mensis November, mensis December. Mensis
means ˜month™, and the other parts of the names clearly derive from
the numerals septem ˜seven™, octo ˜eight™, novem ˜nine™, and decem
˜ten™. Hence in the beginning March must have been the ¬rst month.
The names of the months that do not come from numerals most
often have to do with Roman religion. Somewhat surprisingly, the
names of the months are adjectives which are attached to the noun
mensis. Mensis Martius means something like ˜Martian Month™.
Martius is an adjective formed from Mars, the name of the god of
war. In the same way mensis Maius is the month of the goddess
Maia, and mensis Ianuarius is connected with the god Janus. This is
the god who is depicted with two faces, one on the front and one on
the back of his head. He had to do with beginnings and endings, and
we can conclude that the month name Ianuarius was coined with the
idea of marking the start of the new year.
Two of the months were given names by the Senate. The one
which had originally been called Quintilis (from quintus ˜¬fth™) was
renamed Iulius to pay tribute to Julius Caesar, and the next one,
originally Sextilis (from sextus ˜sixth™) was called Augustus in
memory of the ¬rst emperor.These demonstrations of servility have
had a depressingly long-lasting effect.

Latin and the Romans

There is,though,one good reason to remember Caesar in connection
with the calendar. It was he who saw to it that the calendar year had the
length that it still has today. As we know, the earth orbits the sun in
approximately 365 and a quarter days. Astronomers in antiquity had
known this fact ever since the days of the Babylonians. But in Rome
until 47 bce the twelve months of a normal year consisted of only 354
days, and to avoid a serious lack of ¬t with the actual seasons an extra
month was inserted now and again. This was an impractical and con-
fusing system, so Caesar turned to astronomical expertise from Egypt
to establish the new calendar, called the Julian calendar, with the num-
ber of days in each month which we still have and with a leap day every
fourth year.We still use this calendar today, though with a slight mod-
i¬cation of the leap day system which was introduced in the sixteenth
century by Pope Gregory XIII and adopted in Britain in 1752.
The length of the year and the names of the month are things we
have inherited from the Romans. They were, however, less success-
ful in other aspects of the calendar, and in particular in dealing with
the problem of how to identify an individual year.
As we have said, in the beginning March was the ¬rst month, and
it remained this way until 153 bce, when it was decided that the
consuls should take of¬ce on the ¬rst of January each year. In this
way, the beginning of the year was also changed. The consuls™ ¬rst
day in of¬ce was crucial, as the Romans named their years after
the two people who were consuls at the time, and these names were
used for all dating. For example, it says in the biography of the
emperor Augustus: natus est Augustus M.Tullio Cicerone C.Antonio
consúlibus ˜Augustus was born during the consulship of Marcus
Tullius Cicero and Gaius Antonius™, which is the Roman way of say-
ing he was born in 63 bce.This is obviously a very impractical system,
since if you wanted to know when something happened, you had
either to know by heart the whole chronological order of consulships
or else go and check them in the of¬cial record. Nevertheless, the
Romans stubbornly stuck to this system throughout antiquity,
although some writers tried to replace it with a more manageable

A natural history of Latin

system, according to which events were dated from the foundation
of the city of Rome, which was supposed to have taken place in
753 bce. Our modern system of dating by reference to the birth of
Christ was invented in the sixth century ce and did not become
common until many centuries after that.
The Romans also had a very strange way of naming the days of
the month. They numbered them starting from three ¬xed days in
each month, which had their own names: Kalendae, the ¬rst of the
month, Nonae the ¬fth, and Idus, the thirteenth, except in March,
May, July, and October, when the Nonae was the seventh and the
Idus the ¬fteenth. From these days other dates were reckoned
by counting backwards. For example, they had to say ante diem
quartum Nonas Februarias ˜on the fourth day before the Nones of
February™ when they meant the second of February, or ante diem
d©cimum Kalendas Martias ˜on the tenth day before the Kalends of
March™ for 20 February. Fortunately, that system disappeared for
good in the Middle Ages and was replaced with the system we still
use, with the simple numbering of the days from the ¬rst to the last
day of the month.
A last residue of the Roman dating system is to be found in the
term for a leap year in French and Italian, ann©e bissextile and anno
bisestile respectively. This is so-called because the Romans dealt
with the problem of the extra day in a leap year by doubling one day,
namely the sixth day before the Kalends of March (i.e. 24 February),
and described this day as bisextus or bisextilis, which means ˜double

Latin becomes the language of Europe
Under Augustus the Roman empire grew to the size which it then
kept for about four hundred years. It included all the land to the west
of the Rhine and south of the Danube, and all the countries along the
eastern and southern coasts of the Mediterranean. For this reason

Latin and the Romans

the Mediterranean was sometimes called mare nostrum ˜our sea™,
and the Romans were in complete control of all its coasts. The two
of¬cial languages in the empire were Latin and, in the east, Greek,
as we have already mentioned. Yet at the time of Augustus most of
the population certainly spoke other languages than these. In the
eastern part Latin never gained a ¬rm foothold, but in the west most
people gradually adopted Latin as their language.
We have already mentioned that Italy was multilingual. What is
now France had recently been conquered and there the majority
spoke a Celtic language. In Spain and Portugal too there were many
speakers of Celtic languages, but there were also Ligurians and
the Vascones, the ancestors of today™s Basques, with their own
languages. In north Africa, in modern Morocco and Algeria, the
majority of the population probably spoke Berber, and languages
belonging to that group are still used by large numbers of people in
those countries. In the middle of what is now Tunisia lay Carthage,
which had been founded by Phoenicians from modern Syria, and
hence many people there spoke the Phoenician language (related to
ancient Hebrew), which the city™s founders had brought with them.
All these areas came under Roman rule. Italy obviously had a
special status, but all the other regions became provinces, which
meant that they were ruled by a governor appointed by Rome. The
governor naturally had a staff of Romans and in addition there were
always one or more garrisons, but apart from these, in a new
province there were not necessarily many people who knew Latin.
This state of affairs gradually altered in the peaceful conditions
which obtained during several centuries of empire, as more and
more people learnt Latin, giving up their native language in its
favour. The soldiers and the attendant military organization consti-
tuted an important factor. The army used Latin for all its business,
which meant among other things that the young men in the
provinces who became Roman soldiers had to learn that language.
Colonies of veterans were also set up in the provinces, from which
sometimes sprang quite large towns whose language was of course

A natural history of Latin


. 7
( 44 .)