Ancient History & Civilisation

Glossary of Terms

advocate A trained orator who spoke on behalf of the plaintiff or defendant in trials.

aedile A Roman civic official, concerned especially with the upkeep of the city, regulation of markets, oversight of the water and grain supply, and similar issues; aediles ranked above quaestors and below praetors.

amphora A large two–handled jar normally used for the transport and storage of wine, oil and other goods.

Atellan farce A traditional genre of native Italian plays that featured stock characters in slapstick situations.

augur An official diviner in the Roman tradition, trained in the interpretation of auspices; augurs constituted one of the chief colleges of public priests.

aureus Plural, aurei; see ‘coins’.

auspices A form of divination based on the observation of birds and used to determine whether the gods approved or disapproved of a proposed action. Roman magistrates took the auspices before every major decision affecting the Roman people: elections, political assemblies, and battles. Auspices originally were taken from the flight patterns of birds, but by the historical period they were normally based on the eating patterns of chickens that were kept on hand for this purpose: it was a good omen if they ate greedily, and a bad omen if they refused their food.

auxiliaries Non–citizen troops serving with the Roman army; from the reign of Augustus on, they constituted a formal and permanent supplement to the citizen legions.

bireme See ‘trireme’.

censor In the republican period, two censors were elected every five years to conduct a census, review the membership of the Senate and the equestrian order, and oversee public morals. The election of censors became very irregular in the late republic and ceased entirely after 22 BC; thereafter the emperors gradually assumed their functions.

centumviral court Literally, ‘the court of 100 men’, even though it numbered 105 men in the late republic and 180 in the empire; it dealt with cases of inheritance and other aspects of property rights.

centurion The commander of a century, a military unit of eighty men; centurions were the main professional officers of the Roman army, often promoted from the ranks.

civic crown A wreath of oak leaves, used as a Roman military decoration; awarded for saving the life of a fellow citizen in battle.

cognomen Plural, cognomina; see ‘names’.

cohort A general word for a military unit, especially a subdivision of a legion; there were ten cohorts in a legion, each notionally comprising 480 men.

coins The sestertius was the basic Roman monetary unit used for expressing sums of money. In the mid first century BC, three sesterces a day was the normal wage for an unskilled labourer (Cicero, Pro Roscio 28); in the early empire, the annual salary for an ordinary legionary was 900 sesterces. There were four sesterces to a silver denarius, and twenty–five denarii (or 100 sesterces) to a gold aureus.

colony A new foundation of Roman citizens established under the authority of officials in Rome; in the imperial period, it became increasingly common for pre–existing settlements to be given colonial status, sometimes with the addition of new settlers, so that their inhabitants acquired Roman citizenship. Both Caesar and Augustus used colonial foundations as a way to settle their veterans.

consul The chief executive official in the Roman republican constitution; traditionally, two consuls were elected each year, so that the annual consulships could be used for dating purposes: ‘in the consulship of so–and–so and so–and–so’. This practice continued in the imperial period, although the position of consul became largely honorary; it also became customary for the initial consuls of the year to resign before the end of their terms in favour of replacements (‘suffect consuls’). Provincial governorships were normally held by men of either consular or praetorian rank.

curule chair The official Roman chair of state, inlaid with ivory and used by the higher magistrates on formal occasions.

denarius Plural, denarii; see ‘coins’.

dictator Traditionally, a single executive official in the Roman republican constitution, appointed for a term of six months in times of crisis; Sulla and Caesar, by holdingthedictatorship foryearsat atime, transformed the office into something approaching a monarchy.

divus A Latin word meaning ‘god’, an alternative to the more common word deus; in the imperial period, used almost exclusively as a title for emperors who were officially deified after their deaths.

Eagle The standard of a Roman legion.

edict A formal proclamation issued by a Roman civic official.

Eleusinian Mysteries Secret initiations in honour of the goddesses Demeter and Kore, held at the town of Eleusis near Athens.

empire A word used in three distinct but overlapping senses. Geographically, it describes the territory ruled by Rome; constitutionally, it denotes the system of government in which supreme power lay in the hands of one man; chronologically, it refers to the period of Roman history in which this system of government was operative (conventionally said to start in 31 BC, with the defeat of Antony by Augustus).

eques Literally, ‘horseman’ or ‘knight’ (plural, equites ); the term designated a member of the equestrian order, the second tier of the Roman elite. Although in the republican period equites by definition did not hold political office, in the early imperial period they began to fill an increasing number of administrative positions and military commands. Equites had to possess property worth at least 400,000 sesterces, and had the right to wear a gold ring as a sign of their status.

fasces The bundle of rods that symbolized the authority of the senior Roman civic officials.

flamen A traditional Roman priest; unlike pontifices and augurs, flamens were assigned to the worship of individual gods – Jupiter especially.

freedman A slave freed by his owner, to whom he then owed various obligations and for whom he often worked as an agent or representative.

genius A man’s divine alter ego or guardian spirit; the genius of the head of a household traditionally received offerings from that man’s dependants.

grammaticus A professional teacher of language and literature, especially poetry; grammatici were particularly known for their mastery of minute details of linguistic usage and mythology.

haruspex A diviner of Etruscan origin who specialized in the interpretation of thunder, omens (unusual happenings of any sort) and especially the entrails of sacrificed animals; plural, haruspices.

Ides See ‘time–reckoning’.

imperator A Latin word meaning literally ‘commander’. It was originally bestowed on a victorious general by the acclamation of his roops, but was granted to Caesar as a permanent title and adopted by Octavian as his praenomen. It gradually came to function as one of the imperial titles, whence its modern derivative ‘emperor’.

Kalends See ‘time–reckoning’.

legate A representative of a Roman official who exercised command under that official’s authority. Legates served most often as army commanders, but from Augustus on emperors governed their personal provinces through legates as well.

legion The largest division of the Roman army. Only Roman citizens could serve in a legion; non–citizens served in the auxiliaries. By the late republic, a legion notionally consisted of ten cohorts, each containing six centuries of eighty men, for a total strength of 4,800. Each legion had its own commander and title, which consisted of a number and a name, e.g. Legio V Alauda.

lictor An attendant of Roman public officials, who normally carried the fasces.

Lupercalia An ancient Roman festival celebrated on 15 February by an association of men called the Luperci; after sacrificing goats, they would race through the city, naked except for a covering of goatskin, striking the bystanders with goatskin thongs.

maiestas A Latin word meaning ‘majesty’; in legal terminology, an abbreviation for the phrase maiestas minuta, ‘the diminution of the majesty of the Roman people’, a criminal category that covered any sort of treason or dereliction of duty. In the imperial period, it also came to cover disrespect towards the emperor.

master of the horse In the Roman republican constitution, the secondin–command to a dictator.

military tribune The senior officers of the Roman army, serving just below the legionary commander; there were normally six to a legion.

names Traditional Roman names for men had three elements: first, the praenomen or personal name (e.g. Gaius); second, the nomen or family name (e.g. Julius); third, the cognomen, which usually distinguished a particular branch of the larger family (e.g. Caesar). The number of traditional praenomina was very small, and they were therefore normally abbreviated; the standard abbreviations are provided in the List of Abbreviations. Women traditionally had only one name, the nomen with the feminine ending (e.g. Julia). Slaves had only a personal name; when freed, they adopted the praenomen and nomen of their former masters, and retained their personal name as a cognomen. Among the aristocrats of the early imperial period, especially in the imperial family itself, it became fashionable to deviate from these norms in order to include more family names; thus, for example, the emperor Tiberius’ younger brother was given the name Nero, the cognomen of his paternal grandfather, in the place of a traditional praenomen. Similarly, elite women began to have two names, the second derived from a cognomen (e.g. Livia Drusilla) or some other family name (e.g. Domitia Lepida).

nomen Plural, nomina; see ‘names’.

Nones See ‘time–reckoning’.

optimates A term loosely used for political leaders in the first century BC who supported the political dominance of the Senate and the ascendancy of the established elite; defined in opposition to populares.

ovation A victory procession of a lower grade than a triumph.

pantomime A sophisticated art form in which a solo dancer enacted stories from myth to musical accompaniment; introduced at Rome in 22 BC, it became widely popular in the imperial period.

Papian–Poppaean Law A law passed in AD 9 which modified and supplemented Augustus’ original marriage legislation of 18 BC (see Aug. 34); it granted certain benefits and privileges to people with three (or in some cases four) children.

patrician An elite hereditary status in Rome, contrasted with plebeian status. In archaic Rome patricians monopolized the most powerful public offices, but by the late republic only a few largely ceremonial positions were reserved for them, and the ruling elite consisted of both patrician and plebeian families.

Pedian Law A law passed in 43 BC, sponsored by Q. Pedius but promoted by Octavian, that set up a special court to try the assassins of Julius Caesar (see Aug. 10); all were condemned in absentia.

plebeian A hereditary status in Rome; traditionally, plebeians were subordinate to patricians, but by the late republic the legal distinction was for most purposes no longer significant; the term came instead to denote ‘lower class’ or ‘common’.

pontifex A member of one of the main colleges of public priests in Rome; the pontifices had general oversight of public cult, the calendar and burial law. The president of the college was the pontifex maximus, a position always held by the emperor from Augustus on.

populares A term loosely used for political leaders in the first century BC who appealed to the interests of groups outside the Senate and used popular support to further their political careers (singular, popularis ); defined in opposition to optimates.

praenomen Plural, praenomina; see ‘names’.

praetor The second highest of the civic officials in the Roman republican constitution; praetors had particular oversight over judicial matters. From 81 BC on, eight praetors were elected every year; Augustus raised the number to first ten and then twelve. Provincial governorships were normally held by men of either consular or praetorian rank.

praetorians Members of a permanent military force (originally nine cohorts, but the number increased over the years) established by Augustus to serve as his bodyguard and suppress disturbances in the city of Rome. They were under the command of either one or two equestrian officers known as praetorian prefects.

prefect of the city A senatorial officer, first appointed by Augustus, with the duty of maintaining peace and order in the city of Rome; he presided over his own court, and had command of the urban cohorts.

primipilaris In a Roman legion, the centurion of the first century of the first cohort; the position brought with it enough pay and benefits that a primipilaris was often able on retirement to obtain equestrian status.

princeps Latin word meaning ‘first’, especially ‘first in authority, chief ‘; by Suetonius’ time, used as a term for the emperor.

procurator A Latin word simply meaning ‘supervisor’, used for a variety of officials; the most important were the non–senatorial governors of certain provinces (including Egypt) and the emperor’s financial agents in provinces with senatorial governors.

publicans The collection of taxes in republican Rome was contracted out to the highest bidders, who would make their profits out of the funds that they collected; such businessmen were called ‘publicans’, because they were in charge of public revenues.

quaestor The lowest ranked of the major civic officials in the Roman republican constitution; from 81 BC on there were normally twenty quaestors elected each year. Quaestors generally served as assistants to senior officials.

Quindecimviri See ‘sibylline Books’.

Quinquatrus A five–day festival in honour of the goddess Minerva, held on 19–23 March.

quinquereme See ‘trireme’.

republic The conventional name given to the Roman system of government in which popularly elected annual officials held the chief executive power and the Senate acted as the chief policy–making body. ‘The republic’ is also used to denote the period of Rome’s history during which this system of government was operative, conventionally 510–31 BC; the period 133–31 BC is known as the ‘late republic’.

Saturnalia An ancient festival in honour of the god Saturn. The chief rituals took place on 17 December, but the holiday continued for three days thereafter; Caligula added a fourth day, and Claudius a fifth. The festival was marked by the exchange of gifts and the relaxation of normal standards of propriety.

Senate A deliberative body in Rome consisting in practice of all current and former civic officials. In the republican constitution, although the Senate’s role was in theory merely advisory, it acted in effect as the chief policy–making body; under the emperors its effective power was considerably reduced, although senators continued individually and collectively to play a major role in the administration of the empire. Senators had the right to wear certain distinctive items of clothing, most notably togas bordered with purple stripes.

sesterces See ‘coins’.

Sibylline Books An official collection of Greek oracles that was consulted at times of crisis; the priests in charge were called the Quindecimviri (‘the Fifteen Men’).

talent A Greek unit of weight; a talent of silver (approximately 26 kg according to one standard) was used as a currency unit for very large sums.

time–reckoning The Romans designated years not by reference to a fixed point but by the names of the annual consuls; for example, the emperor Claudius was in Roman reckoning born not ‘in 10 BC’ but ‘in the consulship of Iullus Antonius and Fabius Africanus’. The days of the month were not numbered sequentially, but were reckoned from three fixed days: the Kalends, which always fell on the 1st, the Nones, which fell in some months on the 5th and in others on the 7th, and the Ides, which fell in some months on the 13th and in others (including March) on the 15th. The Kalends of January was the start of the new year; the consuls who took office on that date were the ones who gave their name to the year. The Roman day from sunrise to sunset was divided into twelve hours, the seventh hour beginning at noon; the hours were of varying length depending on the length of the day. The night was similarly divided into four watches.

tribe A division of the Roman citizen body that served as the voting unit in political elections as well as the basis for the census. Every Roman citizen had to belong to a tribe, even after tribes lost their chief political function with the abolition of popular elections in AD 15.

tribune of the people A civic official in the Roman republican constitution, charged especially with upholding the rights of the people; a tribune could veto any proposed legislation that he considered harmful to the people, and his person was sacrosanct: that is, no physical force was to be brought against him. Ten tribunes were elected each year. See also ‘military tribune’.

trireme The standard warship of antiquity, with three banks of oars arranged so that there were three men to an oar. The bireme similarly had two men to an oar, the quadrireme four, and the quinquereme five.

triumph A major Roman ceremony in which a general who had won an important victory processed with his troops through the city to the temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill. In the imperial period, when the right to celebrate a triumph was limited to emperors and members of their immediate families, it became customary to award other victorious commanders the decorations worn by a triumphing general, in lieu of an actual triumph.

Troy Game A traditional pageant in the form of a sham fight performed by young boys on horseback; it was thought to have been established by the Trojan hero Aeneas.

urban cohorts The police force of Rome, established by Augustus and placed under the command of the prefect of the city.

Vestal Virgins The six priestesses of the goddess Vesta, who enjoyed a significant public role and important privileges.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!