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Latin Proverbs Everyone Should Know

By Yann, published on 14/07/2018 We Love Prof > Academia > Latin > 20 Latin Quotes

A priori, et cetera, a posteriori, alter ego, ad hoc, nota bene, mea culpa, etc.

Do you know how many Latin expressions from the Roman language have made their way into our vocabulary?

We do not know the exact number, but there are bound to be more than a hundred Latin phrases commonly used in English today.

We have picked 20 Latin proverbs, some used often, others much more rarely. See how many you know already.

“Alea jacta est”: The die is cast

Latin love quotes are used all over the world. Come what may once the die is cast! Source: Pixabay

Certainly one of the best known Latin quotes. These are the words uttered by Caesar when crossing the Rubicon with his army in spite of the fact that a Roman law stipulated that he had to discharge his soldiers before crossing the river.

By disrespecting this order, Caesar was brought into conflict with the Roman Senate. The government considered his actions an insurrection, treason and declaration of war. The idiom “crossing the Rubicon” is also used in English to suggest passing a point of no return. Another way of phrasing this is with the popular expression “come what may”.

“Ad vitam aeternam”: To eternal life

We can swear a love or friendship “ad vitam aeternam”, one that is forever and ever.

According to beliefs and traditions, this proverb is rather pessimistic as it implies that we are dead. Indeed, eternal life is linked to Paradise for worthy Christians or eternal hell for sinners. Another way of translating this phrase is “to life everlasting”.

“Amicus Plato sed major amicus veritas”: Plato is my friend, but the truth is a better friend

This is a quote from Aristotle found in his book Nicomachean Ethics. As a disciple of Plato, he was a great admirer of the philosopher. However, despite his admiration, he did not blindly follow the words of his master but dared to question his teaching in order to come closer to the truth.

Today these words can be used by any person questioning or taking a stand against their teacher.

“Audaces fortuna juvat”: Fortune favours the bold

Adapted from Virgil’s Aeneid, this proverb, also expressed as “Fortune favours the brave” and “Fortune favours the strong”, encourages us to force a change and brave the difficulties. It is unsurprising that historically this phrase has been often used in a military context. “Fortuna” in English refers to luck or its personification, a Roman goddess.

Audacity, however, is not always synonymous with success, but like all proverbs, you must know how to use it wisely.

“Aurea mediocritas”: The golden mean

Taken from the Odes of Horace, Latin poet, these verses are not pejorative as one might think. The “golden mean” or “golden middle way” implies that one should be content to lead a peaceful life without the hassle and worry that opulence would bring.

Excess of any variety is seen as dangerous, life is therefore about finding the right balance. This proverb is similar to the more commonly used phrase in English “a happy medium”.

“Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant”: Hail, Emperor, those who are about to die salute you

These words were chanted by the gladiators in front of the Imperial Box before the start of the Games according to Suetonius. The Romans loved the Circus Games, especially the very bloody fighting of death row prisoners, slaves or even voluntary barbarians.

If the gladiator lost, it was the public who decided whether he lived or died by lowering or raising their thumb. The motto recalls the pride of the gladiators who had only one thing to save: their lives.

“Beati pauperes spiritu”: Blessed in spirit (are) the poor

The seventh verse from the Sermon on the Mount (Gospel according to Matthew, V, 3) and the seventh Beatitude, today these words commend those that succeed without intelligence. The phrase teaches us to be poor in a spiritual sense rather than an economic sense by learning to detach oneself from worldly goods.

“Carpe diem”: Seize the day

Learn latin with an online teacher from Superprof. The phrase is taught by Robin Williams in the hit film Dead Poets Society. Source: Touchstone Pictures

From a poem by Horace, the complete phrase is “carpe diem quam minimum credula postero”, literally meaning “be the least credulous possible for the next day”. It is generally translated into English as “live in the present without worrying about tomorrow” to keep the poetic genre.

Horace was known to be an epicurean, and therefore enjoyed the pleasures life had to offer him. This same idea comes up in Ronsard’s poems, and in particular Sonnets for Helen: “Gather today the roses of life”. It can be interpreted as an incentive to enjoy every moment of such a short human existence.

“Cogito, ergo sum”: I think, therefore I am

This quote is a latin philosophical proposition coined by René Descartes in his Discourse of Method (1637) and appeared originally in French in the original French “je pense, donc je suis”. This idea is also referred to as “the cogito”.

The idea is that existence is the only certainty that resists any doubt. Only the existence of the thinking human being is certain at the beginning. Descartes taught to completely reform knowledge.

“Deus ex machina”: God from the machine

Originally a translation of a Greek expression, it makes reference to the theater and the intervention of gods or goddesses, brought over the stage using special equipment. The divine intervention solved all the problems at the end of a play.

Nowadays, the expression is used when a situation is resolved thanks to an element that was unexpected until that moment. The expression is often used pejoratively for an incredible miracle which is poorly integrated into a story to make a happy ending.

“Errare humanum est”: To err is human

The complete phrase is “errare humanum est, persevare diabolicum”, which means “to err is human, but to persist in error (out of pride) is diabolical”. It is often attributed to Seneca, but it know to have existed before.

It is a philosophical maxim to forgive the mistakes made by humans who are not perfect. However, the maxim also about understanding our errors so we can improve. The second part explains this point well: being stubborn about your errors is inexcusable.

The maxim can be compared to the writing of more recent author, John Powell, who says that “the only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing”.

Ex nihilo nihil: Nothing comes from nothing

These verses are attributed to Lucretius and were taken up by Voltaire in his book Philosophical Dictionary. Speaking of dictionary, have you ever thought of consulting an English Latin dictionary to help you with your revision?

The complete phrase is “ex nihilo nihil, in nihilum posse reverti”, which means “nothing comes from nothing, nothing can revert to nothing”. Nothing can be created or destroyed.

In English, meaning has evolved far from the original translation: “He that wills the end wills the means”. If you are determined to do something, you will find a way.

“Fluctuat nec mergitur”: (She) is tossed by the waves but doesn’t sink

Latin proverbs are still used in many languages. The logo used across the city and on the Parisian coat of arms. Source: Visual Hunt

A motto used by the city of Paris since 1358 by the Guild of Boatsmen along the river Seine. At a time when access to the open sea was crucial for the city, boats were the most effective means of transport.

It became the official motto of Paris in 1853, it accompanies the ship on the coat of arms of Paris. Henri Tausin explains perfectly why this motto was chosen.

The motto recalls “the dangers that Paris has seen, the terrible revolutions that have agitated it, the crises of all kinds it has suffered” and expresses “the idea of vitality, strength, perpetuity that characterises the long and glorious existence of this city.”

Habeas corpus: that you have the body

The full Latin phrase is “that you have the person for the purpose of subjecting him/her to (examination)” (habeas corpus ad subjiciendum). It is an Anglo-Saxon institution that serves to guarantee the individual freedom of citizens by protecting him/her against arbitrary arrests.

Voted in 1679 in England, the Habeas Corpus Act is a reaction to attempts at monarchical absolutism.

“Homo homini lupus”: A man is a wolf to another man

“Man is wolf to man” means that man is his own worst enemy. This Latin quote is often used in Latin class.

We see it used for the first time by Plautus in his comedy Asinaria.

From a philosophical point of view, it is a pessimistic view of man, an unscrupulous, selfish and individualistic being, who does not hesitate to destroy others for his own success.

“Nosce te ipsum”: Know thyself

Translated from ancient Greek, this expression is one of the three precepts engraved at the entrance of the temple of Delphi and the oldest according to Plato.

It is a sacred formula of humanism that requires man to become aware of his own existence and consciousness. “Know Thyself” invites you to get to know one another better and be aware of your strengths and weaknesses.

A rather complex sentence, which stresses the importance of knowing the Latin declensions by heart!

“Panem and circenses”: bread and circuses

Learn Latin online with inspirational quotes. The circus games were a bloody affair. Source: Pixabay

Literally “bread and circus games”, the Latin expression denounces the distribution of bread during games in order to attract the good graces of the people. The expression is taken from Juvenal’s Satire X.

Today, it is used to show the skewed relationship between people who are satisfied with “bread and games” without worrying about larger issues and the political powers that may be tempted to exploit these trends in the short-term.

“Quae sunt Caesaris, Caesari”: That which is God’s, to God; that which is Caesar’s, to Caesar

Today this Latin quotation is used to say that we must recognise the responsibility of a gesture to a person whether positive or negative.

According to the Gospel, it was Jesus who said “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” after the Pharicians asked him if they should pay the tax.

“Veto”: I forbid

Originally, the veto was a way of opposing a magistrate, regardless of rank, or a decision of the Roman Senate.

Today, the term still denotes opposition to a decision. It is used by the United Nations Security Council for countries contesting decisions. If a country exercises their veto power, the proposal is rejected.

You will find similar quotes in the dozens of Latin languages used throughout the world today!

“Vulnerant omnes, ultima necat”: They all wound and the last kills

Learn the ancient language of Latin through popular proverbs. Another way to keep track of time. Source: Pixabay

This Latin expression is often inscribed on old sundials or public clocks. It is a way of remembering the passing of time and that every hour could be someone’s last.

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