Scholia Reviews ns 17 (2008) 23.

Christopher Francese, Ancient Rome In So Many Words. New York: Hippocrene Books, Inc. pp.248. ISBN 978-0-7818-1153-8. US$12.95.

Gail Solomons,
Classics, University of Cape Town, South Africa

What a delight! In this book, Francese has combined history, culture, and philology in a way that will be of interest both to teachers and students of Latin and Classical Culture courses, as well as to those with no formal Latin training who are simply fascinated with etymology and interesting stories associated with certain words. He states that his ‘goal is not to write an encyclopedia but to stimulate people to learn and read more deeply in this amazing and still powerful language’ (p. 12). In this he is sure to succeed. And for those who may never learn to read Latin in the original, by focusing on key words in the Latin lexicon, he gives a wonderful insight into the Roman way of life. All the words he has chosen act as the paintbrush which he uses to paint a picture of the social, political, economic, and religious aspects of life in ancient Rome. Importantly he includes discussions of the Roman understanding of the abstract yet culturally significant terms such as virtus, honos, libertas, humanitas.

In its presentation, this is not a traditional book on etymology. Many books on etymology trace the development of a word to its present day meaning and give some interesting historical facts about that word, focusing on its present day usage. To this end, most include word-building exercises [[1]]. Ancient Rome In So Many Words does not offer word-building exercises nor does it focus on the current usage of words derived from Latin and Greek roots. Instead Francese demonstrates, with quotations from original Latin, the various meanings of words as they were used in ancient Rome and contextualizes them in the culture and history of the time. He also weaves the etymologies of other related words into the discussion which follows.

Francese divides the book into twenty chapters, each of which deals with an aspect of Roman social life: ‘Childhood’, ‘Family’, ‘Education’, ‘Status and Class’, ‘Public Places’, ‘Life in the Country’, ‘Money and Business’, ‘Jobs and Professions’, ‘The Social Contract’, ‘Government and Politics’, ‘Army and Empire’, ‘Technology’, ‘Debauchery’, ‘Slavery’, ‘Crime and Punishment’, ‘Religion and Magic’, ‘Madness’, ‘Insults’, ‘Virtues’, and ‘Final Moments’.[[2]] Each chapter is further sub-divided, using key Latin words which ‘effectively tell some of the central stories of Roman history and culture’ (p. 8). For example, in the chapter on ‘Family’, the words around which the sub-sections are based are familia, pater familias, coniunx, noverca, alumnus. His method is to choose striking quotations, coming from a variety of eras and authors, which illustrate as clearly as possible the various important meanings of the word. The quotations are most often in English although he has occasionally included the original Latin version. By his own admission, Francese's policy in translating has been to go for the sense (p. 9), using a colloquial rather than the usually more formal style of the original. His translations therefore are often not literal as his intention is to capture the essential meaning of the Latin rather than giving an English word for every Latin word. This works well and makes for easy, fluid reading. As he is most interested in the sense of individual words or phrases, he has not cited full Latin texts for everything, but he does provide exact references for each quotation for those readers wishing to look up the Latin text. For example, in the chapter on ‘Family’ he uses the following quotations to describe some of the uses of the Latin word familia: Familia: household; group of slaves under one owner; family.

‘Orgetorix . . . gathered his entire familia from every direction, about ten thousand men, and brought together all his clients and debt- bondsmen’ (Julius Caesar, The Gallic Wars 1.4.2).

‘He was sent away into distant fields, so as not to contaminate the familia.’ (Apuleius, referring to an epileptic slave, whose fellow slaves refused to eat or drink with him for fear of infection, Apology 44).

He obtained, I believe, a familia of gladiators - quite handsome, distinguished and glorious; he knew what people like, he saw that they would cheer and crowd around him.’ (Cicero, on his political adversary Vatinius, Pro Sestio 134).

‘I never had any doubt that the Roman people would unanimously vote you consul, based on your outstanding services to the state and the great distinction of your familia.’ (Cicero to Lucius Aemilius Paulus, consul in 50 BC, Letters to His Friends 15.12.1).

‘Marriage ties long ago mixed many famous and powerful familiae. (Livy, Roman History 23.4.7).

The key words and quotations form the core of the discussions which follow (usually a page or so in length) and which contextualise the historical and cultural background. His style is light-hearted and readable and, at times anecdotal, which makes it accessible and entertaining to all types of readers: teachers, students, and the general public. He does not confine his discussion to aspects and events in chronological order -- it is rather the word which gives direction to the pertinent history and background. To assist the reader in distinguishing the periods to which he refers in the discussions, in his introduction (pp. 9f.), he gives a brief chronology of the eras: Republic, late Republic, Augustan, Principate, late Empire and Early Christian. Where the modern meaning of the word differs markedly from its meaning in Roman culture, Francese takes pains to explain and trace this change, emphasizing ‘how we and the Romans look at the world differently in many instances’ (p. 12).[[3]]

Rather than following the convention of putting a bibliography at the end of the book, Francese lists the references, pertinent to that particular discussion page, at the end of the page which, he says ‘will send the curious in the right direction’ (p.8). The book concludes with three short sections which are all useful addenda for the reader: Suggestions for Further Reading (Latin, Roman History and Roman Daily Life), Index of Authors Quoted (giving their dates and also the page references where they are quoted), and an Index of Latin Words (with the page references).

Ancient Rome In So Many Words is, for Classicists and logophiles alike, not to be missed.


[[1]] There are many excellent books on etymology which focus on current usage of words derived from Latin and Greek. For example: D. Ayers, English Words from Latin and Greek Elements (Tucson 1986); C. Dunmore, Studies in Etymology (Massachusetts 1993); J. Karasik and C. O'Malley, The Vocab Vitamins Booster (New York 2006); N. Lewis, Instant Word Power (New York 1982); C. Luschnig and L. Luschnig, Etyma: An Introduction to Vocabulary Building from Latin and Greek (London 1982).

[[2]] Francese follows a format similar to that in William J. Dominik (ed.), Words and Ideas )Wauconda 2002) where words are discussed in the context of a wide variety of topics, such as commerce, philosophy, medicine, law. This book is all-encompassing, incorporating historical and social commentary as well as word-building exercises.

[[3]] For example, luxuria, p. 152 and ingenuus, p. 167.