Vocabulary of the Roman Surveyors

They don’t get much in the way of posthumous glory, but Roman surveyors have left us a wealth of technical treatises, collectively known as the Corpus Agrimensorum Romanorum, which is of unique historical importance for its detailed descriptions of the nature of land settlement, and the role of emperors, especially Augustus, in regulating urban centers in a rural environment.[1] Archaeologist David Gilman Romano, longtime director of the Corinth Computer Project, has been using the Agrimensores to understand the rural geography of Corinth and the nature of Roman re-settlement of the city.[2] One of the highlights of his recent Dickinson Latin Workshop was the handy glossary of Roman surveying terms, given below.

First, though, where can you read these texts online? Several are available on PHI:

Balbus,Exposito et Ratio Omnium Formarum 

Sextus Iulius Frontinus, De Arte MensoriaDe limitibus, De controversiis, and De agrorum qualitate,

Hyginus Gromaticus, De limitibus

Siculus Flaccus, De condicioninus agrorum

F. Blume, K. Lachmann and A. Rudorff, Die Schriften der romischen Feldmesser (Berlin: Reimer, vol. 1, 1848, vol. 2, 1852) includes a larger index auctorum. There is also the more recent Teubner edition of C. Thulin, Corpus Agrimensorum Romanorum, vol. 1, fasc. 1 Opuscula Agrimensorum Veterum (Leipzig: Teubner, 1913) which includes Frontinus, Hyginus, and Flaccus, and is the source of the PHI texts. The two earliest manuscripts, dating to the 6th-7th and 9th centuries, have a wealth of color illustrations. Here is a b/w reproduction of a few, from Thulin:

drawings of geometrical constructions with landscape figures made toi illustrate surveying manuals.

Illustrations from the earliest manuscripts of the Agrimensores, the sixth century codex Arcerianus (A) and the ninth century codex Palatinus Vaticanus latinus 1564 (P), from Thulin’s edition (Leipzig: Teubner, 1913), plates 24 and 25.

A good translation is available in print: J. B. Campbell, Corpus Agrimensorum Romanorum, The Writings of the Roman Surveyors, Journal of Roman Studies, Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, Monograph Vol. 9, London, 2000; and Prof. Romano also recommends M.J.T. Lewis, Surveying Instruments of Greece and Rome (Cambridge, 2001).

Ok, here is Prof. Romano’s lexicon. May it help to foster the study of these texts! If you are looking for examples of the actual uses of these words, Volume 2 of the Blume-Lachmann-Rudorff edition has a full index verborum.

Abluvio – the erosion of soil by a river

Actus (plural actūs) – linear measure 120 feet

Actus quadratus – an area 120 feet square or ½ iugerum

Ager – field

Ager publicus – land owned by the Roman state

Agrimensor – a land surveyor

Alluvio – the deposit of soil by a river

Ambitus – a space of 2 ½ feet between neighboring buildings for a right of way

Arca – a square or rectilinear boundary marker often hollowed out

Arcifinius – land on the periphery of Roman territory

Cardo – a limes dividing individual centuriae often running north-south and forming a set of parallel limites.  Cardo means ‘hinge’

Cardo maximus – the main and widest limes usually north-south

Centuria – a unit of land division created by the intersection of four limites often measuring 20 actus square and containing 200 iugera, each traditionally contianed 100 allotments of 2 iugera

Chorobates – an instrument used for levelling

Cippus – a boundary stone

Colonia – a self-administering community of settlers; Citizen colonies, Latin colonies, veteran colonies

Colonus – a farmer, tenant farmer, farmer in a colony (from colere)

Decempeda – a surveyor’s 10 foot measuring rod

Decumanus – the name given to limes dividing individual centuriae often running east-west and forming a part of a set of parallel limites

Decumanus maximus – the main and widest limes often east-west that intersected the cardo at right angles

Decus – derived from decem (X) in surveying the intersection of two lines in the form of an X

Dioptra – an instrument for surveying or for making astronomical observations

Ferramentum – the iron base of a surveying instrument

Finis – a boundary between territories or landholders

Forma –  map

Forum – a commercial or market center

Fundus – one square actus also’ acnua’ also actus quadratus

Geometres – a land measurer

Groma – an instrument for surveying straight lines and right angles.  Derived from Greek gnomon

Heredium – a heritable plot of land traditionally two iugera

Indiviso – land not allocated to individuals but left for common pasture land

Iter – pathway, road, journey, right of way

Iter populo non debetur – The roadways in the urban center could be planned and built so as to fully respect the entire calculated area of the insula according to a legal formula iter populo non debetur meaning that the widths of the roads were added outside of the regular iugera measure of the insulae.

Iter populo debetur – In the rural landscape there was a different solution, iter populo debetur, which meant that roadways could be added over land that was divided into iugera for farming purposes.  This would mean that portions of the assigned rural land would in fact be utilized as paths or cart roads through the agricultural fields.

Iugerum – two square actus, land able to be plowed by a yoke of oxen in one day.

Latifundium – large estate

Libri aeris – mapping registers associated with a bronze forma containing details of land allocations

Limes (limites) – a man made boundary or balk

Limitatio – the process of establishing intersecting limites to divide land (centuriatio)

Mensor – a measurer

Meta – cone shaped turning post in circus, a surveyors moveable mark

Metator – a surveyor, military surveyor

Norma – a carpenters square

Ager occupatorius – land that the Romans occupied for their own use after defeating an enemy

Pagus – a country district

Passus – a pace or stride  mille passus = one Roman mile 1000 paces

Pertica – a surveyor’s 10 foot long measuring rod. Total area measured

Pes – a foot 0.2957 m.

Plethron – a Greek area of land 100 feet square = 10,000 square feet

Possessio – possession of land or object as opposed to ownership

Praefectura – a community of Roman citizens to which Rome had sent out legal officials

Principia – headquarter buildings in a military camp

Proprietas – ownership of an object or land as opposed to possession

Quadrifinium – a place where the boundaries of four properties or territories met

Quintarius – every fifth limes after the KM and DM.  It was wider than the other secondary limites

Rigor – a manmade straight line forming a boundary with no width

Saltus – according to Siculus Flaccus 25 centuriae; According to Varo 4 centuriae.  An estate

Scamnum – a rectangle of land broader than it was long from the sighting

Servitus – in law an easement or servitude on a property

Striga – a rectangle of land longer than it was broad from the sighting

Subruncivus – limites intervening between KM, DM and quintarii.  Means ‘weeded’

Subsecivum  – land unsuitable for settlers

Tabulae aeris – bronze records associated with the bronze map

Tabularium – public records office

Terminus – a boundary marker.  In Roman religion Terminus was worshipped as the spirit of all boundary markers

Territorium – all land within the boundaries of a community

Tetrans – a quadrant. In surveying the point of intersection of two lines

Usucapio – in law a process by which ownership could be attained by continuous possession

Varatio – the process of diagonal sighting

Vectigalis – land yielding revenue for the Roman state, colony, municipium

Via publica – a publicly maintained road

Vicus – a district, village

Villa – a dwelling associated with at rural estate or farm

1. John Brian Campbell, Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd ed., s.v. gromatici
2. David Gilman Romano, “Roman Surveyors in Corinth,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 150.1 (2006), pp. 62-85. Idem, “City Planning, Centuriation, and Land Division in Roman Corinth: Colonia Laus Iulia
Corinthiensis & Colonia Iulia Flavia Augusta Corinthiensis,” Corinth, Vol. 20, Corinth, The Centenary: 1896-1996 (2003), pp. 279-301.

5 thoughts on “Vocabulary of the Roman Surveyors

  1. Hi Chris:

    Great post! I’m always happy to see the agrimensores getting some more attention. David’s vocabulary list is very helpful too.

    In my dissertation, I did some work on the intersection of Latin and Greek legal and surveying vocabularies in inscriptions related to boundary disputes during the early Roman empire. Chapter 2, pp. 11 and following are the locus for the discussion. A downloadable PDF is available at http://isaw.nyu.edu/members/tom.elliott-40nyu.edu/downloads/epigraphic-evidence-for-boundary-disputes-in-the-roman-empire/view. There’s also an open-access version (a work-in-slow-progress) at https://github.com/paregorios/demarc.


    • Thanks for the comment, and for the links, Tom. This seems like one of those areas where a good deal of basic work still remains to be done, and one where philology and archaeology are working hand in hand. In your spare moments, how about writing some notes on one of the agrimensorial texts for DCC, and we can do some killer illustrations?

  2. Pingback: Seminar CL: laying out the land in Anglo-Saxon England | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  3. Hi Chris,

    I like Tom am working on the Corpus Agrimensorum and I would be happy to expand DCC resources on the topic if there is still interest.



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