Help with reading scholarship: untranslated Greek and Latin

Whenever he saw me, one of my grandmother’s friends used to tell me how he learned about Ovid in school: the young Ovid got in trouble for not paying attention in law classes in order to write poetry. So he promised never to do it again — iamiam non faciam versus carissima mater. But this, my grandmother’s friend explained, was poetry too, so Ovid had the last laugh. Never mind that the story probably isn’t true; it was memorable enough that both he and I remembered it years later.

This illustrates a huge difference in education between the first half of the 20th century and today. My grandmother’s friend went to a regular public school (albeit in Europe); it’s almost impossible to find Latin in many states and provinces now. This can cause problems for students, who may be asked to read articles written by scholars raised with a very different set of reader expectations. Granted, in ancient history, at least, the amount of untranslated Latin and Greek in articles has dropped dramatically in the past few decades. But even when large passages are offered in English translation, a number of terms are left untranslated. Here is a first attempt to provide a list of definitions of words that I commonly see left in Latin (and/or Greek). It’s not a list of rhetorical figures — those already exist. I also won’t claim it’s comprehensive — probably it never can be. This particular version reflects my somewhat eclectic back-to-school reading. Still, students — it beats google translate (I hope!), and it will be updated as necessary.

  • agora (ἀγορά): civic center, marketplace. In Athens, where the Assembly met and major public decisions were made. Also a place for trade and the location of many temples.
  • aitia (αἰτία): origin, causes. In reference to poetry, often capitalized (and referring to the poem by Callimachus, now fragmentary). In reference to history, often relates to the clash between aitia and prophasis (drawn from Thucydides; see further below): the ‘true causes’ (aitia) and the ‘claims’ made about historical actions by the actors.
  • anakyklosis: the ‘cycle of constitutions’ from kingship to tyranny to aristocracy to oligarchy to democracy to mob rule. Laid out explicitly in Polybius and what the term refers to; similar models in Aristotle and Cicero.
  • comitium: both the place and constituents of a Roman popular assembly. There were several types of comitia, each with its own makeup and functions. The location was a large open ground in the Forum where the people could gather to hear orations and vote.
  • concordia ordinum: the unity of all ‘good’ men in Cicero, in particular senate and equestrians (see equites below).
  • ethos: behavior or persona. The latter often in rhetoric.
  • enargeia: visual clarity and liveliness, especially in description. A rhetorical term from antiquity describing the act of making words ‘come alive’ before the eyes/ears of the audience.
  • equites: knights (in Latin); singular eques. A high-tier social status in Rome, but not the highest possible.
  • exta: entrails from sacrificial victims. These could be used to gain insight into the will of the gods (extispicy).
  • fas (nefas): religiously correct (incorrect). Rome only. In some ways similar to Greek hubris, but with a much more narrowly moral-religious sense and encompassing many more acts.
  • fasti: Roman calendar or list of awards (such as fasti triumphales, a list of triumphators). When capitalized and alone, it refers to Ovid’s poem the Fasti.
  • figura etymologica: using a root word in multiple forms — bonus points if it’s in a definition. Most common in poetry. This generally doesn’t sound very good in English; an example might be “she followed, a follower among followers” or “you can walk the walk”.
  • forum: civic center, marketplace. It was possible to have more than one (Rome itself has several, as does Pompeii). This is where the major temples and civic buildings were located.
  • gens, genos (γἐνος): family, clan. The major unit of blood/adoptive relationship in both Greek and Roman society, although they should not necessarily be equated. You are more likely to see this in scholarship on Rome, where it refers to the broader group of nuclear families that fall under the same nomen (e.g., gens Cornelia — all people named ‘Cornelius’ / ‘Cornelia’).
  • hubris (ὕβρις): extreme arrogance. Most common in Greek tragedy, where it leads to the downfall of the protagonist and/or his family. Often involves comparing oneself with the gods or challenging the gods. Can also be used in criminal trials — for example, when one citizen physically harms or humiliates another, he acts with hubris (see Demosthenes’ Against Conon).
  • hypotaxis / hypotactic: Greek, although you will rarely see them in Greek letters. Hypotaxis is a grammatical term referring to subordination. When a sentence has one main verb with many dependent and/or indepedent clauses (such as absolutes), it is hypotactic. Opposite of paratactic (see below).
  • lex: law. Plural leges. In Latin, laws are named by those who propose them, using their nomen (family name) in the feminine, thus ending -a. So a law proposed by G. Julius Caesar = lex Julia. A law proposed by Gn. Pompeius Magnus = lex Pompeia. This system means that a lot of laws overlap in name — beware.
  • liber: several different uses and two words, depending on whether the original Latin had a long -i-. Most commonly you will see it refer to a book (e.g. the liber linteus, a fragmentary Etruscan book relating to divination). Can also, when capitalized, refer to Bacchus/Dionysius (as Pater Liber), one of the so-called ‘plebeian triad’ of gods (Liber, Libera, and Ceres).
  • logos (λόγος): account, story, tale. One of the more wide-ranging words in Greek, you will often find it referring to a shorter, standalone segment of a longer work (Herodotus’ Scythian logos) or philosophy.
  • parataxis / paratactic: Opposite of hypotaxis (above). Parataxis is a grammatical term referring to connecting independent sentences. You can do this by using a conjunction, a semicolon, or a period. It often sounds staccato (example: “I love dogs. They are fun.” vs. the hypotactic version: “I love dogs because they are fun”).
  • praeteritio: saying something by saying you won’t say it. A rhetorical figure that often appears in poetry and historical works. We do this in English, too — not to mention other languages (but I just did).
  • prolepsis / proleptic: foreshadowing. When Aeneas goes into the underworld and sees the parade of Romans to come (Heldenschau), it is a proleptic moment.
  • prophasis (προφάσις): claimed cause, and almost the opposite of aitia (see above). According to Thucydides and Polybius, the task of the historian is to separate the prophaseis (false causes that people claim) from the aitiai (true causes).
  • rostra: literally, the beaks of ships (and you may see it used that way). More frequently, the speaker’s platform in the Roman Forum, which was decorated with the beaks of ships captured by Roman generals starting in the fourth century.
  • stasis: civil strife.
  • topos: a rhetorical commonplace or trope. Similar to a cliche, but rarely negative.

What did I miss? Let me know in the comments and I’ll add it to the list!


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