‘Terrible’ Places


Latin translation presents us with tempting cognates, but often enough these have changed so much in their transition into modern English that it would be unreasonable to employ them in a straightforward way.  Terribilis is just such a false friend.  We now most often use the term Terrible to mean Very bad or repulsive (“What a terrible thing to say!”), or even just Very (“I’m terribly sorry”).  This is a far-cry from its meaning in Latin, is clear from a glance at the translation in the image above.

Quam terribilis est locus iste”

It’s hard to suppress a smile at the thought of translating this transcription (plucked from the Basilica of Saints Ambrose and Charles Borromeo, Rome) as “What a terrible place this is”(!)  Of course that would be completely wrong. The Latin here retains the earlier meaning of “Inspiring fear (terror) or awe”.  So it would be best to translate this as “What an awe-inspiring place this is!”

A brief digression: this inscription is in fact a reference to Jacob’s exclamation after his famous dream of the ladder (Genesis 28.11-17), which the Vulgate renders as follows:

Quam terribilis, inquit, est locus iste!  Non est hic aliud nisi domus Dei et porta caeli.”

(How awe-inspiring this place is!  This is none other than the house of God and the doors of Heaven.)

Readers more accustomed to the pitfalls of Latin translation will perhaps think this post is a bit of a tempest in a teapot.  But if the present case is illustrative, it’s only because it is so obviously wrong to translate Terribilis as “Terrible”.  Frequently, false friends don’t bare their falsity on their sleeves.  Take the following line from Livy (9.23.10):

Stativa nostra munimento satis tuta sunt sed inopia eadem infesta.”

We might be tempted to translate this as follows: “Our camps are safe enough when it comes to walls, but they are infested with poverty.”  But Infestus here (and very often) means not “Infested” but “Exposed to, at risk of” (or, in some other cases, “Hostile”).  The camps are not overwhelmed (‘infested’) with poverty, but merely at exposed to scarcity or want.

Let this be a cautionary tale.


A colleague of mine points out that Terrible still occasionally means “Frightful” or “Awe-inspiring”.  And this is sometimes true.  Just look at how A.T. Murray translates Iliad III.336-7:

κρατι δ᾽ ἐπ᾽ ἰφθίμῳ κυνέην εὔτυκτον ἔθηκεν

ἵππουριν: δεινον δε λόφος καθύπερθεν ἔνευεν”

(And on his mighty head he set a well-made helmet with a horse-hair crest; and terribly did the plume nod from above.) 

Very well.  But Murray’s translation dates back to 1924; and I would be surprised if Murray didn’t have the Latin in mind when he wrote this. Still, if I tell you my helmet is terrible, will you expect me to get a new one, or will you expect drivers to cower as I merge?

Venantius Restores the Colosseum

Aug.2015 997


Decius Marius Venantius Basilius, a famous and high-born man, Prefect of the City [i.e. Rome], a Patrician and Consul Ordinary, has restored at his own expense (sumptu proprio) the arena and podium [of the Colosseum] which the disaster of a deplorable earthquake had laid low.

This inscription (CIL VI.1716 b) is one of a few I photographed while I was at the Colosseum (also sometimes called the Flavian Amphitheatre), and which I will be translating and posting on the Medieval Latin blog.  The inscription itself commemorates the reconstruction of key parts of the Colosseum, destroyed in an earthquake ca. A.D. 443: namely, the Podium, which comprised the front-row seats reserved for distinguished guests; and the Arena, a word we still use in English with much the same sense, but which also denotes in Latin the sand on which the spectacles would be performed (itself called Arena or Harena).

The Latin also contains a few examples of official Roman titles, which merit explanation: as a Vir Clarissimus, Venantius is of senatorial rank (or in the family of someone of such rank); he has been made Prefect of Rome (Praefectus Urbi), an appointment akin to mayor of the city, which would have been granted to him by the Roman emperor; the status of Patrician (Patricius) originally identified a descendant of the early Senators of Rome (see Livy, ab Vrbe Condita 1.8), but had waned in importance in the imperial period; finally, as a Consul Ordinarius, Venantius was one of the two highest magistrates in Rome (Ordinarius designates the position as it is normally held, as opposed to a Consul Suffectus, i.e. one appointed in place of another who has died, fallen ill, etc.—or, from the time of Julius Caesar, one appointed to replace a living Consul Ordinarius, with the aim of increasing the number of consulars).

Further Reading:
An overview of the Roman Cursus honorum, the ranks of the Roman Empire, via VROMA.
A brief history of the Colosseum, in The Catholic Encyclopedia.

Latin Audio Tour at the Colosseum

Aug.2015 990  Aug.2015 985

Welcome to the first post on the Mediaeval Latin Blog!  Most of the posts on this page will feature editions and translations of Latin texts from the Middle Ages.  This modest inaugural post is to alert readers to the Colosseum’s audio tour guides, which are available (linguas inter alias) in Latin!

There are a few details about the audio guide worth reporting.  First, the Latin is very good, and relatively well-adapted to the demands of an audio tour: it tells you where to look, and familiarizes you with the Latin names for the parts of the Colosseum.

Second, it features some inventive neo-Latin.  For example, at the end, the voice instructs you to return your vocis machina, “voice machine” (apparently a genetive of characteristic; cf. e.g. Horace’s magni formica laboris; Sat. 1.1.33), to the kiosk.  And finally, the accent is a clear and beautiful ecclesiastical one, not the reconstructed classical accent found in most primers of the language.

If you will be visiting the Colosseum any time soon, why not give the Latin tour a try?