Ancient History & Civilisation

GLOSSARY OF LATIN, MILITARY, AND TECHNICAL TERMS

ala—Literally “wing.” The allied operational equivalent of a Roman legion. Its configuration and armament are uncertain but are presumed to have been similar to that of a legion. Such units were accompanied by cavalry numbering nine hundred, or triple the size of the Roman horse units assigned to a legion.

aristeia—A Greek term for a serial display of heroic behavior.

as—The basic Roman bronze currency at the beginning of the Second Punic War.

augurs—Those who interpreted the signs and portents. Augurs were not career priests but came from the leading families and had normal career patterns.

auspicia—Those phenomena that were believed to reveal the will of the gods and were derived from a number of sources, including the internal organs of sacrificed animals.

Barca—Derived from the Punic word for “thunderbolt,” this was a nickname given to Hamilcar, father of Hannibal, and was subsequently used by historians to designate members of the family line and their supporters. “Barcid” is also used as a noun and adjective to refer to the Barca family.

campus Martius—The Field of Mars. An area outside of Rome used for ceremonial purposes including meetings of the Comitia Centuriata.

censorsTwo Roman magistrates normally elected at five-year intervals to hold a census and assign men to the various assemblies, including—most critical—the senate.

centurion—A key leader of the infantry ranks. Roughly equivalent in function to noncommissioned officers in the U.S. military.

century—Half a maniple, and also a voting unit in the Comitia Centuriata, since the origin of the century was the people at arms.

Cisalpine Gaul—That part of northern Italy inhabited by Gallic tribes south of the Alps.

clients—Those dependent in one way or another upon a Roman patron. Clients could include local farmers or workers, citizens defended in court, former soldiers, and even foreigners.

Comitia Centuriata—The assembly responsible for electing consuls, praetors, and censors, and for voting on war or peace.

Comitia Tributa—A tribal assembly that voted for lesser magistrates, such as quaestors, along with passing legislation.

Concilium Plebis—The council of plebs. Its functions were basically the same as those of the Comitia Tributa, except that patricians were not included. This body elected plebeian tribunes and passed legislation.

consul—Foremost magistrate of the Roman republic; two were elected annually. The role was largely a military one, and a consul had the power to make life-and-death decisions outside of Rome.

contubernium—A squad of eight Roman soldiers who ate and slept together. The smallest and most intimate unit in the army structure.

council of elders—A key body of Carthaginian notables, it represented the oligarchic element of the government. Continuity was probably maintained by a control element of either 104 judges or 30 key councilors, or possibly both.

Cunctator—“The Delayer.” The nickname applied to Fabius Maximus by the Romans.

cursus honorum—Literally the “course of honors.” This is the sequential order of elected office for men of the senatorial class, the highest being consul.

denarius—Silver coin circulated by Rome for the first time during the Second Punic War.

dictator—A single Roman magistrate chosen in emergencies to assume supreme power for a term not to exceed six months. During this time his imperium trumped all other magistrates’, with the exception of tribunes of the plebs.

equites—Literally “horsemen.” This was a group of wealthy Romans that during the Second Punic War was made up mostly of senators. This group occupied the eighteen centuries of horsemen in the Comitia Centuriata, and each was entitled to a state-supplied mount for service in the cavalry. Each man wore a gold ring as an insignia.

extraordinarii—A detachment of picked allied troops at the personal disposal of a Roman general.

gens—A clan or group of families sharing a common (second) name (e.g., “Cornelius” in the name Publius Cornelius Scipio). The Roman republic was dominated by a relatively few key gens, such as the Aemilii, Claudii, Fabii, and Cornelii.

gladius—The characteristic Roman cut-and-thrust short sword, likely adopted from the Spanish, thus the term “gladius hispaniensis.”

hasta—The traditional Roman thrusting spear. By the time of Hannibal’s invasion, the hasta was probably still employed only by the triarii.

hastati—Heavy infantry of the first line of maniples in the triplex acies. While these troops originally carried the hasta, the traditional Roman thrusting spear, by the time of Cannae, they were armed with the pilum and gladius.

imperium—A generalized power to rule, on the order of the Chinese Mandate of Heaven, except it was divisible and rotated yearly. Among magistrates who held it, the imperium was virtually without limit, subject only to certain rights held by all Roman citizens.

imperium pro—The extension of the imperium through the process of prorogation, usually at the end of a yearly term of office. A consul or praetor (occasionally others) might receive this extension so that he could continue operating as a proconsul or propraetor after new magistrates had been elected. This proved a useful instrument for overseas governance and military operations.

legion—The primary operational element of the Roman army, normally with a strength of forty-two hundred (twelve hundred velites, twelve hundred hastati, twelve hundred principes, and six hundred triarii) plus three hundred citizen cavalry. In special circumstances, such as at Cannae, these numbers could be increased.

legiones Cannenses—Strictly speaking, these are the units organized around the survivors of the Battle of Cannae, but the term came to include other defeated troops who were sent to join the survivors of Cannae in disgrace and exile.

lictor—A bodyguard assigned to Roman magistrates (dictators got twenty-four, consuls twelve and praetors six). Outside of Rome, each lictor carried an ax wrapped in a bunch of rods. This insignia connoted the magistrates’ right to inflict corporal and capital punishment.

maniple—Literally “handful.” Maniples were at the time of the Second Punic War the basic tactical unit of a legion. Besides velites, a legion had ten maniples each of hastati, principes, and triarii. Each maniple of the first two elements had 120 men, but each maniple of the triarii had only 60 men. Each maniple was made up of two centuries.

master of horse—The junior associate of a Roman dictator. Like the dictator, the master of horse had a six-month term of duty.

nobiles—Members of a Roman family whose relative had achieved consular rank at some point in the past.

novus homo—A “new man” or one who is the first in his family to reach the consulship.

ovation—A kind of consolation prize for a commander who did something heroic but not sufficient enough to be granted a triumph. The commander and his soldiers either marched or rode on horseback into the city of Rome, to the acclaim of the populace.

patrician—The higher of the two basic designations of Roman citizens (the other being plebeian). The term roughly equates to “first families.” By the time of the Second Punic War patricians had lost much of their political potency, since a number of plebeian families had reached the consulship. Thus, “patricians” and “nobiles” were decidedly not synonymous.

patron—The other half of the client-patron relationship. A patron was a person who had a number of dependents and looked after their interests. In return he could demand their loyalty and support.

pectorale—A small plate worn on the chest of most Roman line infantry as a heart protector.

pilum—The heavy javelin or throwing spear used by hastati and principes, generally at the outset of combat.

plebs—All Roman citizens except patricians. At the time of the Second Punic War the connotation of “commoner” was belied by the fact that several plebeian families such as the Fulvii Flacci and Sempronii Gracchi were virtually as wealthy and influential as any patrician equivalent.

praetor—An important elected magistrate at the tier below consul. During the Second Punic War, four praetors were elected each year and received the imperium, which enabled them to command in wartime in the absence of a consul.

principes—Heavy infantry of the second line of maniples in the triplex acies. They were armed in the same manner as the hastati.

Punic—From the Latin punicus or Phoenician, the term refers to Carthage and all things and people Carthaginian.

quinquereme—The standard Carthaginian warship during the Second Punic War. It was a ram-bearing galley, and the exact configuration of its oarsmen remains uncertain. Roman quinqueremes were probably similar to Carthaginian models, though they may have differed in details and features.

scutum—The heavy shield of the Roman legionary.

senate—A consultative council, and the only one of the Roman assemblies that met in continuous session. Senatorial authority involved advising consuls, generally on foreign policy. Of all Roman governing elements, it was the most powerful, but that power was shrouded.

senatus consultum—Strictly speaking, this was the “advice” arising from a senatorial discussion and vote; in a deferential society like Rome, it had nearly the force of law.

spolia opima—The most honorable spoil, refers to the armor that a Roman commander would strip off an enemy leader after killing him in single combat.

suffete—Senior executives of the Carthaginian government. Two suffetes were elected annually by the time of the Second Punic War.

triarii—The third line of troops in the triplex acies. At the time of Cannae they were likely armed with the hasta, the traditional Roman thrusting spear.

tribunes of the plebs—Officials originally elected to protect the interests of the plebs in the face of the patricians. Tribunes retained the power to veto legislation and acts of the magistrates.

tribunes of the soldiers (tribuni militum)—The six officers assigned to each legion. They were generally young men of senatorial rank with political ambitions.

triplex acies—The three-line checkerboard pattern into which Roman heavy infantry characteristically deployed.

triumph—The honor accorded to a commander who had won a victory over a foreign enemy. A personal parade would be held in the city of Rome, with the recipient in a chariot followed by his troops and sometimes by the defeated enemy leader on his way to execution. All were cheered by the Roman populace.

turma—The basic tactical unit of Roman cavalry.

velites—Roman light troops or skirmishers. Twelve hundred were attached to each legion and were apportioned equally over all thirty maniples.

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