Dickinson Summer Latin Workshop 2023: Navigatio Brendani

Dickinson Summer Latin Workshop 2023: Navigatio Brendani

July 7-12, 2023

The Dickinson Workshops are mainly intended for teachers of Latin, to refresh the mind through study of an extended text, and to share experiences and ideas. Sometimes those who are not currently engaged in teaching have participated as well, including students, retirees, and those working towards teacher certification.

old book page with ship on top of large fish

St. Brendan and crew celebrate Easter on a whale.
Anonymous after Hendrick Goltzius, Stranded Whale at Zandvoort, 1594. Harvard Art Museum, Light Outerbridge Collection, Richard Norton Memorial Fund; British Library Manuscripts Harley 3244 & 4751.

The workshop will be conducted both in person and online. Participants may choose either option.

The text for 2023 is the legendary Christian tale of sea adventure, Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (“Voyage of St. Brendan the Abbot”). This Irish epic, a narrative masterpiece, was recorded in Latin prose sometime between the mid-8th and early 10th century. According to the Navigatio, Brendan makes an astonishing Atlantic journey with other monks to the “Promised Land of the Saints” (later identified possibly as the Canary Islands), which he reaches after a prolonged search. The Navigatio was enormously popular in the Middle Ages, surviving in about 125 manuscripts, and the story was retold in Anglo-Norman, Dutch, German, Venetian, Provençal, Catalan, Norse and English.

We will read the Latin text with the help of the new commentary and vocabulary by Prof. William Turpin (Swarthmore College), which is forthcoming in Dickinson College Commentaries.


William Turpin, The Scheuer Family Chair of Humanities, Swarthmore College

Christopher Francese, Asbury J. Clarke Professor of Classical Studies, Dickinson College

Dr. Meghan Reedy (D. Phil., Oxford)

Drs. Turpin and Francese will moderate the in-person sections, Dr. Reedy the online group.

The participation fee for each participant will $400 for those attending in person, $200 for those attending online. The $400 fee for in person attendees covers lodging, breakfast and lunch in the Dickinson cafeteria, the facilities fee, which allows access to the gym, fitness center, and the library, as well as wireless and wired internet access while on campus. The fee does not cover the costs of books or travel, or of dinners, which are typically eaten in the various restaurants in Carlisle. Please keep in mind that the participation fee, once it has been received by the seminar’s organizers, is not refundable. This is an administrative necessity.

Lodging: accommodations will be in a student residence hall near the site of the sessions. The building features suite-style configurations of two double rooms sharing a private bathroom, or one double and one single room sharing a private bathroom.

The first event will be an introductory dinner at 6:00 p.m., July 7. The final session ends at noon on July 12. Sessions will meet from 8:30 a.m. to noon each day, with the afternoons left free for preparation.

Registration and fees: to register, please email Mrs. Stephanie Dyson, Classical Studies Academic Department Coordinator (dysonst@dickinson.edu). Include your email and the name of the workshop you plan to attend. A non-refundable fee of $400 is due by June 1, 2023 in the form of a check made out to Dickinson College, mailed to Stephanie Dyson, Department of Classical Studies, Dickinson College, Carlisle PA 17013. 

For more information please contact Prof. Chris Francese (francese@dickinson.edu)

Sino-Indo-Hellenica 2022 Program

Passing on from Dr. Sven Günter (via WeChat) the full schedule for this virtual conference, May 24-25, 2022,  on comparative history of China, India, and Greece. I don’t see any easily accessible website. Looks like an amazing lineup!

Please see below the program for our conference Sino-Indo-Hellenica 2022 (Sino-Indo-Hellenica 2022 – Södertörns högskola):

Sino-Indo-Hellenica 2022: Program  

NB! The schedule is in UK time (London & UK time).      

24th of May    

9.30-9.45: Otto Linderborg & Charlotta Weigelt: Opening words    

10.00-10.45 Andrea Balbo & Chiara Tommasi: SERICA: Searching for a “New Silk Road”  

11.00-11.45 Jordan Christopher: Establishing the Arteries of Empire: A Comparison of the Development of Roadbuilding Traditions in Ancient Rome and Early China  

13.00-13.45 Sven Günther: Patterns or Topoi? Modes of Socio-Economic Behavior of the Seres as Perceived by Greek and Latin Sources in Augustan Times  

14.00-14.45 Zhaoyu Wang: Sri Lanka and the Maritime Silk Road from the Second Century BC to the Ninth Century AD Rongzhen Xue: The Concept of Error in Ancient Greek and Chinese Literature: A Comparative Study on Involuntary and Voluntary Error  

16.00-16.45: Sergio Basso: Chinese Whispers on Byzantium  

25th of May  

10.00-10.45 Otto Linderborg: The Origins of Kingship in Ancient Greek and Indian Literary Traditions  

11.00-11.45 Lorenzo Lanti: Between Roman and Ancient Indian Legal Thinking: Elements of Comparative Law on Substantive and Procedural Situations  

13.00-13.45 Patrick Huang: Musica Universalis Across Eurasia: A Comparison between Ancient Graeco-Roman and Early Chinese Tradition  

14.00-14.45 Antonios Pontoropoulos & Eleftherios Ntotsikas: Discourses of Peace: The Case of Classical Greek Political Rhetoric and Chinese Political Thought During the Warring States Period  

15.00-15.45 Marco Andreacchio: Platonism Across Borders: From the Global Point of View to the Inner Life of Things  

16.00-16.45 Priscilla Gontijo Leite: Comparing Rhetoric in Antiquity: What the Greek and Indian Case in Perspective Can Teach Us  

We would like to express our gratitude to the foundation Olle Engkvist Byggmästare for the financial support that has enabled the organization of this conference.

Contact: otto.linderborg@miun.se  


Dickinson Summer Greek Workshop: July 18-22, 2022 

Dickinson Summer Greek Workshop: July 18-22, 2022 

Moderators: Prof. Scott Farrington and Dr. Taylor Coughlan 

Want to improve your reading fluency in Ancient Greek and learn more about ancient Greek culture? Please join us for the Dickinson Ancient Greek Workshop which will once again be held online this year. Though we’d prefer to welcome you all to campus, we hope that the greater flexibility of an online seminar will facilitate participation from people far and wide. 

marble head of an older man

Marble head of an old fisherman (1st–2rd century A.D.
Roman, copy of a Greek statue of the late 2nd century B.C. Metropolitan Museum, New York)

This year’s text will be Lysias 24, On the Refusal of a Disability Benefit. Sometime in the early fourth century BCE, an Athenian citizen appeared before the Council to defend his qualifications to receive an annual state disability benefit. Revealing much about the treatment and status of non-elite citizens under democracy in Athens, the disabled pensioner delivers an innovative speech unique for its rhetorical use of humor. The defendant batters his opponent with sarcastic barbs and makes mockery of the entire legal affair. The Greek is accessible and lively. The text we will use is from a forthcoming Dickinson College Commentaries edition edited by Dr. Taylor Coughlan, Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Participants will have pre-publication access to Taylor’s notes as well as to interpretive essays and complete running vocabulary lists. A dictionary should not be necessary, particularly if you have mastered the DCC core Ancient Greek vocabulary. 


Online meetings will take place daily from 1:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., Eastern time US, with break in the middle. We will determine whether we meet in one section or two based upon enrollment. 

Reading Schedule (projected) 

Monday, July 18: Lysias 24.1-5 

Tuesday, July 19: Lysias 24.6-10 

Wednesday, July 20: Lysias 24.11-15 

Thursday, July 21: Lysias 24.16-21 

Friday, July 22: Lysias 24.22-27 

 If we read at a faster pace, we will also read selections from other speeches of Lysias. 

Registration Fee 

$200, due by check on or before July 1, 2022. Make checks payable to Dickinson College and mail them to 

Department of Classical Studies, Dickinson College 

c/o Stephanie Dyson 

Carlisle, PA 17013 

New at DCC: Homer, Odyssey 9-12

Thomas Van Nortwick and Rob Hardy’s commentary on Homer’s Odyssey Books 9-12 is now live. Like TVN’s other DCC commentary on Iliad 6 and 22 it has an extensive Introduction and fresh close reading essays on the whole. These essays are the fruit of a career’s-worth of research, reflection, and teaching and are not to be missed. Hang in there, Homerists, because another Van Nortwick-Hardy collaboration is in the works, Odyssey 5-8.

stone male head in water

Photo credit: C. Francese,, Chanticleer Garden, Wayne, PA

These books of the Odyssey are already fairly well-served in school editions available in print, and in some cases online, aimed at students of Greek. Our edition is distinctive in the extent of the hyperlinking to reference resources in the notes, its full and accurate vocabulary lists, and the close reading essays for the entirety.

The notes are primarily grammatical, rather than interpretive. They focus on peculiarities of the Homeric dialect and the elucidation of expressions that do not easily yield sense when translated literally. They endeavor to be economical to encourage fluent reading but include hyperlinks to grammars and other reference resources for those seeking further details. Comparative passages are cited sparingly, but hyperlinked so they can be examined directly. Typical Homeric features such as definite articles used as pronouns, tmesis, and the omission of temporal augments, are pointed out. Unusual case usages and constructions are noticed and equipped with links to Smyth’s Greek Grammar for Colleges (1920) at Perseus, or to Monro’s Grammar of the Homeric Dialect (1891) on DCC, and occasionally to Goodell’s School Grammar of Attic Greek (1902) on DCC. Verb forms that seem likely to cause puzzlement are parsed and the dictionary lemma given. Common words used in unusual senses are translated, often with a hyperlink to LogeionLogeion now includes both Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon (1940) and Cunliffe’s Lexicon of the Homeric Dialect (1924), as well as Autenrieth’s Homeric Dictionary for Schools and Colleges (1891). Linking to Logeion is intended to allow interested readers to get a fuller picture of the range of meanings that ancient Greek words can have, while also giving the opinion of the editor as to which specific sense is active in a particular passage. Another set of hyperlinks leads to the Homeric Paradigms which Seth Levin and Meagan Ayer developed for the DCC edition of Iliad Books 6 and 22, based on the charts in Pharr’s Homeric Greek: A Book for Beginners (1920). Links to these charts will allow interested readers to quickly look at all the common Homeric forms of paradigm nouns and verbs, as well as participles, pronouns, and irregular verbs. Because of the extensive occurrence of elision in Homer the notes often spell out a form where the elided letter may not be obvious. Rob Hardy’s Homeric Language Notes provides a summary of the points that recur in the notes and are especially pertinent for those coming to Homer from Attic Greek.

The lineage of our vocabulary lists is somewhat complex. The initial parsing of the text derives from the Perseids Project, which carried out human inspection of the entire text and the designated a specific dictionary lemma or headword for each word form. Bret Mulligan of the Haverford Bridge project equipped that parsed text with full dictionary forms and English definitions, though these full dictionary forms and definitions were often not the Homeric full dictionary forms and definitions. Extensive revision was necessary to fine tune the parsings, edit the dictionary forms to reflect the basics of Homeric usage, and to include English definitions that covered the Homeric meanings and were in contemporary English. This editing was performed over a long period by various people (see credits) using various resources, including the Homeric dictionaries available on Logeion and, more recently, the new Brill Dictionary of Ancient Greek (2015), which has been very helpful in modernizing the English for some definitions. As part of the editing process, the students who tested the commentary edited many of the definitions to make sure they were understandable to a modern audience. Many judgment calls had to be made about how many definitions and how much morphological information to include. The result is, I believe, the best Homeric reading vocabulary available. That is not to say that no infelicities remain, and I would be glad to receive notice of any issues you find or improvements you can suggest.

The notes and vocabulary lists were improved by testing and feedback from many students over several years, some of them from Louisiana State University, working with Willie Major, others from Dickinson, working with me, and others from Carleton College, working with Rob Hardy (see credits). The goal was to make sure that most of the kinds of questions that students have are answered economically in the notes, without adding too much in the way of ancillary information that would impede first time readers.

The Greek text conforms that of Allen’s Oxford Classical Text, with two exceptions. 

  • 9.239: M.L. West, in a paper left unfinished at his death but published later, makes a very good case for emending ἔκτοθεν of the manuscripts to ἔνδοθεν, so we have adopted that change.
  • 12.171: Allen prints βάλον, where West’s 2016 Teubner edition prints θέσαν. Both have manuscript support, and we adopted West’s preferred reading. 

Thomas Van Nortwick’s Introduction and essays, rather than attempting to survey all that has been written about these Books, point out significant parallels within and beyond the Homeric poems to show key themes and variations and bring out significant nuances that enrich our understanding of the text. He points to interesting ambiguities, helps us hear the tone, and see the many sides of Homer’s complicated hero. Each close reading essay includes suggestions for further reading.

How should one teach using this edition? Any way you like, but the inclusion of the running vocabulary lists makes it relatively easy to read this edition at sight. Many of the student test runs were carried on in this way. Students are assumed to know the DCC Core Ancient Greek vocabulary of 500 words before beginning, or else asked to learn sections of the core for homework. In class, the text is viewed side by side with the vocabulary list, either on Zoom for a virtual session or projected onto a screen in a classroom. If the instructor is sufficiently familiar with the notes, before too long students can work through the text fairly quickly without extensive dictionary time in preparation.

After a first pass at sight in class, homework can consist of re-reading the section and recording it aloud. The instructor can listen to the recording and determine if it shows comprehension, based on pausing, emphasis, and grouping of words. Other possible homework assignments might include morphology study, memorizing of short passages, or dictionary work (Find the five most important or emphatic words in the passage in your view; write the location in LSJ where the contextually appropriate meaning of each if these five words is listed; give the contextually appropriate translation of these five words; explain briefly why you believe each word is important in the context).

Extensive exposure leads to vocabulary acquisition, and the development of sight-reading skills engenders confidence. More subtly, the sight-reading approach re-orients attention in class toward syntax and endings, since these become key aids to making sense, rather than burdensome “extras” to be quizzed on after the work of translation is finished.

Though it bears a Dickinson imprimatur, this edition should really be considered an Oberlin product. Both Rob and I studied Homer for the first time with Tom Van Nortwick, Nate Greenberg, and Jim Helm at Oberlin in the mid 1980s. That rich and formative experience led us, multa per aequora, to this very pleasant collaboration. I am profoundly grateful to everyone who has been involved in this project, even if they have never met Tom Van Nortwick, whose gracious and humane teaching inspired its creation.

2022 Dickinson Summer Latin Workshop: Seneca’s Natural Questions

Dickinson Summer Latin Workshop: July 11-15, 2022

Moderators: Prof. Chris Francese and Dr. Meghan Reedy

The Dickinson Summer Latin Workshop will be held online this year. While this situation is far from ideal, we hope it will allow those who could not normally travel to Carlisle to participate.

First page of the manuscript De questionibus Naturalibus, made for the Catalan-Aragonese crown.

First page of the manuscript De questionibus Naturalibus, made for the Catalan-Aragonese crown. Image: Wikipedia (Public Domain)

This year’s text is one seldom read these days, the Naturales Quaestiones of Seneca the Younger. This prose work concerns natural phenomena (rivers, earthquakes, wind, snow, meteors, and comets). It gives fascinating insights into ancient philosophical and scientific approaches to the physical world, and also vivid evocations of the grandeur, beauty, and terror of nature. Seneca also comments on aspects of Roman culture, such as the commercial trade in snow and the decadent (in his view) use of mirrors. The selections we will read are from a forthcoming Dickinson College Commentaries edition of selections from NQ edited by Prof. Chris Trinacty of Oberlin College. Participants will have pre-publication access to Chris’s detailed notes and vocabulary lists.

We are delighted to welcome back Dr. Meghan Reedy as guest instructor. She is a former Dickinson faculty member and is currently Program Coordinator with the Maine Humanities Council. 


  • Online meetings will take place daily 1:00 p.m. to 4:30, Eastern time US, with a break in the middle. Group translation will be carried on in two sections, one for the more confident (affectionately known as “the sharks”), one for the less confident (even more affectionately known as “the dolphins”) led on alternating days by Reedy and Francese.

Reading Schedule (projected)

Monday, July 11: NQ 3 pref. 1-4, 3.15.1-8, 3.30-1-8

Tuesday, July 12: NQ 4a.2.12-15, 4b.13.1-11, 5.13.1-15.4

Wednesday, July 13: NQ 6.3.1-6.5.3, 6.8.1-6.10.2, 7.28.1-7.30.6

Thursday, July 14: NQ 1.pref. 5-13, 1.13.1-14.6, 1.17.1-10

Friday, July 15: NQ 2.36.1-38.4, 2.59.1-13.

Registration Fee

$200, due by check on or before July 1, 2022. Make checks payable to Dickinson College and mail them to

Department of Classical Studies, Dickinson College

c/o Stephanie Dyson

Carlisle, PA 17013

A Rubric for Teaching Public Speaking as a Classicist

My learning goals when I teach public speaking are three, corresponding to the three main elements of the classical system, inventio, elocutio, and actio, that is, framing (coming up with arguments to suit a particular situation and audience), style (using memorable language), and delivery. These learning goals are expressed in the following rubric, which I ask students to fill out for each other as they listen to each others’ speeches. I then collect the feedback and synthesize it for each student. I don’t use the whole rubric right away, but use pieces of it as we discuss the three main elements in turn. I wrote a blog post for the SCS that explains my approach, and have also posted a syllabus for the 2020 version of the course, along with some talk prompts.  

1 = very poor; 2 = inadequate; 3 = barely adequate; 4 = ok; 5 = good; 6 = strong; 7 = outstanding


common ground articulated (not just “I think…”)

1              2              3              4              5              6              7             

evidence provided (but not too much)

1              2              3              4              5              6              7             

emotional connection with audience (but not too extreme)

1              2              3              4              5              6              7             


correctness (words in common use, properly designate the things you want to say)

1              2              3              4              5              6              7             

clarity (meaning is immediately understandable, avoids excessive abstraction and euphemism)

1              2              3              4              5              6              7             

ornamentation (use of tropes and figures adds vitality and polish)

1              2              3              4              5              6              7             

propriety (parts make a whole and whole fits the occasion)

1              2              3              4              5              6              7             


appropriate eye contact

1              2              3              4              5              6              7             

good posture and gesture

1              2              3              4              5              6              7             

effective voice modulation, emphasis, pausing

1              2              3              4              5              6              7             

timing (not rushed, over or under time)

1              2              3              4              5              6              7             




Hack Your Latin Supplemental: Get a Grip on quidem

Fontaine scripsit

Get a grip on quidem. It’s a particle, one of the only ones in Latin. Either translate it “yes” or “(it’s) true” or don’t translate it at all. It implies or points forward to a contrast, usually marked by the word sed (but). For example, the sentence homo stultus quidem est, sed bonus means “The guy is an idiot, it’s true, but he’s good.” You could also translate that “The guy is an idiot, yes, but he’s good” or “The guy is an idiot, but he’s good.” Never translate it “indeed” since it doesn’t mean that in the English of 2016.

aliqua exempla collegi

meus vir hic quidem est. “This is my husband” (Plaut. Amph. 660)

me quidem praesente numquam factum est, quod sciam. “This never happened in my presence, as far as I know.” (Plaut. Amph. 749)

facile id quidem edepol possum, si tu vis. “I can easily do that, if you want.” (Plaut. Cist. 234)

ne id quidem tam breve spatium potest opitulari. “Not even that brief amount of time can help.” (Cornelia, mater Gracchorum, epistula, fragmenta 2.8)

nimis stulte faciunt, mea quidem sententia. “They behave very stupidly, in my opinion.” (Plaut. Men. 81)

adeo veritatis diligens, ut ne ioco quidem mentiretur. “So careful about the truth that he did not lie even for a joke.” (Nepos Epam. 3)

utinam quidem istuc evenisset! Sed non accidit. “If only it had turned out that way! But it did not happen.” (Nepos Eum. 11)

simulacrum Cereris unum, quod a viro non modo tangi sed ne aspici quidem fas fuit. “A statue of Ceres that it was forbidden for men to touch, or even to look at.” (Cic. In Verr. 2.5.187)

Hack Your Latin Supplemental: Learn the Word modo

Fontaine scripsit

Learn the word modo. It means “only” or “just,” so eam modo vidi means “I just saw her” and Tu modo ausculta means “You just listen” or “Just you listen” or “Just listen.” It’s common with imperatives.

aliqua exempla collegi

cum imperativo

accede huc modo. “Just come here” (Plaut. Cas. 965)

redi modo: non eris deceptus. “Just come back. You won’t be deceived.” (Plaut. Pseud. 1236)

tace modo ac sequere hac. “Just shut up and follow this way.” (Ter. Adelph. 281)

iam ipsa res dicet tibi. abi modo intro. “The facts will speak for themselves in a moment. Just go inside.” (Plaut. Epid. 714)

non modo…sed/verum etiam/quoque

non modo vinosus, sed virosus quoque. “not only wine-loving, but man-loving, too.” (P. Cornel. Scipio Aem. Afr., orationes 17.5)

non modo ipsa lepidast, commode quoque hercle fabulatur. “Not only is she herself pretty, she also speaks in a pleasant way.” (Plaut. Cist. 315)

non modo luctum mors patris attulit, verum etiam egestatem. “His father’s death brought not only sorrow, but also poverty.” (Cic. Pro Rosc. 13)

non modo his temporibus, sed etiam apud maiores nostros. “Not only in our time, but in the days of our ancestors.” (Cic. In Verr. II.1.106)

modo … modo

modo his, modo illis ex partibus. “now on one side, now on the other.” (Cic. DND 2.49)

tum in vicem modo his cibis, modo illis utendum est.  “Use is to be made of these foods in turn.” (Cels. De Med. 3.22.11)

modo hoc modo illud probabilius videtur. “At one moment one seems the more probable, and at another moment the other.” (Cic. Acad. 2.121)

modō > modus -i m.

ecce id nullō modō Latine exprimere possim. “I could not possibly express this in Latin.” (Sen. Ep. 58.7)

pecuniam magnam bonō modō invenire. “To obtain great wealth in an honorable way.” (Plin. NH 7.140)

eadem sed non eōdem modō facere. “To do the same things, but not in the same way.” (Sen. Ep. 18.4)

numquam ullō modō me potes deterrere. “You can never deter me in any way.” (Plaut. Amph. 559-60)

pecorum modō inulti trucidantur. “They would be butchered with impunity, like cattle.” (Liv. 25.16.19)

servorum modō praeter spem repente manumissorum. “Like slaves suddenly and unexpectedly manumitted.” (Liv. 39.26.8)

Hack Your Latin Supplemental: Future Less Vivid Conditions

Fontaine scripsit:

Remember the Future Less Vivid condition? Probably you were taught to translate it “should/would.” If so, get rid of it. The kids today don’t say that. They say “were to/would.” Example: Si tu mihi cervisiam des, libens accipiam means “If you were to give me a beer, I’d gladly take it.”

Aliqua exempla Plautiniana collegi:

Quadrigas si nunc inscendas Iovis atque hinc fugias, ita vix poteris ecfugere infortunium. “If you were to get onto Jupiter’s four-horse chariot now and flee from here, even so you’ll hardly be able to escape misfortune.” (Plaut. Amph. 450)

hercle ego huic die, si liceat, oculos ecfodiam lubens. “Well, if I were allowed to, I’d happily tear out this day’s eyes” (Plaut. Capt. 464)

si sciat noster senex fidem non esse huic habitam, suscenseat. “If our old man was to know you didn’t trust this one, he’d be angry.” (Plaut. Asin. 458)

Noctem tuam et vini cadum velim, si optata fiant. “I’d wish for a night with you and a jar of wine if my wishes came true.” (Plaut. Asin. 624)

Nauteam bibere malim, si necessum sit. “I’d rather drink bilge-water, if necessary” (Plaut. Asin. 895)

Si sit domi, dicam tibi. “If he were at home, I would tell you” (Plaut. Asin. 393)

si haec habeat aurum quod illi renumeret, faciat lubens. “If she had the money to pay him back, she’d do so happily. (Plaut. Bacch. 46)

si decem habeas linguas mutum esse addecet. “Even if you had ten tongues, you still ought to be silent.” (Plaut. Bacch. 128)

What is humanitas?

The general public’s humanitas performed some sort of funeral rites for the corpse of one unknown to them. (From a practice legal speech, ps.-Quintilian, Major Declamations 6.3)

Humanitas forbids arrogance towards associates, and it forbids greed. In words, deeds and feelings, it shows itself gentle and courteous to all men. (Seneca the Younger, Letters 88.30)

In these premises of Aurelia Faustiniana is the bath, where you can bathe in the manner of the city, and here every civilized refinement (humanitas) is available. (Inscription from Ficulea, ILS 5720)

Those who fashioned the Latin vocabulary and have used it properly intended humanitas to mean not what most people think, which is expressed by the Greeks as philanthropia and signifies . . . a certain benevolence toward people in general; rather, they referred to as humanitas more or less what the Greeks call paideia, and which we call learning, and education in the good arts. (Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 13.17)

No doubt the famous Scipio, a most learned and humane man, did not appreciate (Greek vases); but you, without any education, without humanitas, without talent, without knowledge of literature, no doubt you appreciate and judge them! (Cicero, Against Verres 2.4.98)

So exquisite was the humanitas of Crassus, that when they had bathed and sat down to dinner, all the bitterness of that earlier discussion had vanished. (Cicero, On the Orator 1.27) 

As an ethical virtue, humanitas is a disposition toward compassion and sympathy for others. It was particularly admired in the powerful: generals, judges, provincial governors and emperors. “(Pompey) is a man of such humanitas that it is difficult to say whether the enemy fears his courage when fighting against him as much as they love his mercy after they have been conquered.” “Caesar, those who dare to speak before you are ignorant of your greatness; those who do not dare are ignorant of your humanitas.” The emperor Constantius was addressed not as, say, “your highness,” but “your humanitas.” If you were a conquered enemy, a provincial, or an imperial subject, you hoped for humanitas, but took what you got. In ordinary people, humanitas is the quality that makes one bury a dead stranger, take in a guest or traveler, give money to a beggar, cry in grief, reject a suitor without arrogance, or treat an animal well. We do small favors not for a man but for humanity, says Seneca (non homini sed humanitati), that is, on principle, not expecting any return. Kindness, above all, is what it means to be “human” in Latin.

As an aspect of luxury, humanitas was urban refinement and comfort, such as that advertised for the country baths of Aurelia Faustiniana, and which allowed one to rise above the beasts and enjoy life a bit. It was what Nero had in mind when, after the completion of his vast new palace complex which demolished whole neighborhoods in the center of Rome, he said that at last he could begin to live like a human being (quasi hominem).

The notions of human sympathy and cultured refinement are joined in a peculiar development of the language in the first century BC associated with Cicero and his contemporaries. Here humanitas connotes not, or not only, the Greek term philanthropia—a benevolent attitude toward people in general—but also the Greek paideia, liberal education. Education in the arts, Cicero believed, leads to both aesthetic refinement and to personal charm and ethical sensitivity. As a cultural attainment, humanitas involves a broad knowledge of history, law, philosophy, literature and the arts. It is the virtue that allows one to diffuse even the most awkward situations with interesting conversation, to adorn a persuasive speech with effective illustrations, to act courteously in the face of insult, to win over a difficult audience with personal ease and charm, to settle a question with an amusing and apposite remark, to write a beguiling letter, to quarrel in a manner considerate of others’ feelings.

The idea that broad education in literature, philosophy and the arts is the keystone to humanitas, to “living like a human being,” is closely associated with Cicero (especially his treatise on the ideal orator). For some reason this educational definition of humanitas is not picked up by later generations of Roman authors, and in subsequent centuries the word usually means simply “kindness.” Perhaps the notion that  literary culture makes one humane seemed naïve given the sins of the highly literate Roman aristocracy. The emperor Tiberius, for example, had extremely refined literary tastes, but was also known for having people thrown off the cliffs near his seaside villa on Capri. As Seneca points out just after the passage quoted on humanitas, virtue has no necessary relationship to educational level.

At the center of the word is the hopeful idea that ethics and education and leadership might not be separate. When the emperor Valentinian fell ill in AD 367, the Gauls in attendance on him held a clandestine meeting and nominated as his successor the master of records Rusticus Julianus, a man, according to the contemporary historian Ammianus, whose bestial thirst for human blood verged on madness.  Luckily the emperor revived, and the plan to install Rusticus (whose name aptly enough means “boor”) was thwarted. Ammianus then writes a speech which gives the virtue of humanitas a civic turn. Valentinian is commending his chosen successor, his young son Gratian, to the troops. “Because he has been educated from the beginning of his youth in humanitas and the studies of ingenious disciplines, he will weigh with impartial judgment the merits of deeds done rightly, or the opposite. He will act in such a way that good men will know that they are appreciated. . . . He will risk his life for the companions of his labors and, what is the first and highest form of loyalty, he will know how to love the Republic as he loves the house of his father and grandfather.”  This Ciceronian dream of humanitas, in which literary and philosophical education makes us both better people and better citizens, was a powerful inspiration to Petrarch, Erasmus, and the other scholars whose devotion to classical learning shaped the European Renaissance.  They have been given the name “humanists” in homage to it.


TLL 6.3.3075-3083 collects the evidence. See RE Suppl. vol. 5.282-310. Greg Woolf, Becoming Roman: The Origins of Provincial Civilization in Gaul (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) 54-60. Pompey’s humanitas: Cicero, On the Manlian Law 42. Those who dare to speak: remark by Q. Varius Geminus, the orator and friend of Augustus, quoted by Seneca the Elder, Controversiae 6.8. Constantius: TLL 6.3081, lines 66-67. Small favors: Seneca the Younger, On Benefits 4.29.3. Live like a human being: Suetonius, Nero 31.2. Valentinian and Gratian: Ammianus Marcellinus, The Later Roman Empire 27.6.]

Adapted from the book Ancient Rome in So Many Words (New York: Hippocrene, 2007) by Christopher Francese.