Non-Elite Latin for the Classroom

The following is a thoroughly masterful and fascinating introduction to using non-elite Latin in teaching by Brandon Conley.


This is a brief introduction to non-elite Latin texts, intended for use in the classroom as a supplement to the more traditional Latin readings. For the majority of the following texts, knowledge of Latin equivalent to the first two to three semesters at the college level is advised, though several are suitable for first-year courses.

Firstly, what is non-elite Latin? Generally speaking, non-elite Latin comprises the texts produced outside of Rome’s powerful, exclusive literary circles, the arbiters of linguistic prestige—the ‘literati,’ so to speak. Other terms are often used to describe these texts, such as non-literary or non-standard. These definitions often, but not always, apply, and regularly more than one can be used to describe the same text. For example, we wouldn’t use ‘non-standard’ to describe an epitaph written for a freedwoman in Dacia that adheres to the linguistic standards of classical Latin (its adherence makes it, in fact, standard), but we could describe it as both non-elite and non-literary. The texts here can be standard or not (though most contain non-standard forms), as well as literary or not (though most aren’t). But they are all non-elite by virtue of the statuses, locations, and linguistic conventions of their authors.


Reading non-elite texts, with few exceptions, presents a set of challenges different from those of classical Latin. Linguistic features are more prone to diachronic and geographic change than the comparatively change-resistant classical standards. Spellings can be phonetic, colloquial, learned conventions, or intentionally archaic for effect. Morphology and syntax often differ widely as well, as in the increased usage of the indicative or the expanded role of the accusative (at the expense of the ablative, regularly). Vocabulary can be geographically specific, and differences in semantic value between non-elite and classical Latin are not uncommon.

Some of these features are discussed below to aid in reading. Efforts were made to add punctuation, etc., for ease of reading and approachability to students. Spellings are often left in their non-standard forms, though to aid in reading, many words are edited using brackets or parentheses; for particularly problematic spellings, a classical form of the word is added in parentheses. Texts (and translations, where available) are taken from the sources linked, with modifications (unless otherwise noted).

Exercises in non-elite Latin are often exercises in editing, critical reading, and emendation, as many of the texts are damaged or difficult to interpret. Reading these texts presents a practical opportunity to discuss textual editing as a scholarly process.

Lastly, accessibility is paramount. Students, instructors, and independent scholars often lack access to the databases and publications in which many non-elite texts are presented. All of the texts presented below are freely available online. At the end of this document, however, the recommended reading list contains mostly sources that are not open access.

Feel free to add, remove, edit, scream at, or pour coffee on the text—though should you choose to pour the coffee, print it first.


Motives for the spellings can be any number of things, from a widespread phonetic change to a local scribe’s misspelling. Often, unsurprisingly and necessarily, there is considerable debate on the causes of the spellings. Likewise, we must resist, often with great difficulty, tendencies to generalize non-standard spellings as broader linguistic features without the presence of more evidence.

These are some of the most common differences in spelling between non-elite and classical Latin.

Word-initial and Intervocalic Aspirate, h-, /h/ (habeo, hic, mihi, ): The initial and intervocalic aspirate /h/ had disappeared from most speech varieties by the imperial period, and from all eventually (with the exception of a select few prescriptive grammarians, perhaps). Hence, it is often omitted in non-elite texts, with resulting forms such as abes, mi, and ic.

Word-final -m, /m/ (dicam, amicum, etc.): -m was not pronounced (as /m/, at least) at the end of a word in spoken Latin, even before the time of Cicero; consider, for example, the impact this had in classical poetry in the process of elision. It is omitted from spelling with great frequency in non-elite texts, and can often cause confusion for first-time readers.

The v/b Shift, /w/ à /β/ (cf. the v in Spanish): this is a simplification of the process, but essentially the glide /w/ of classical pronunciation became increasingly pronounced as a bilabial fricative. This change is represented in non-standard spellings by the replacement of Latin v for b (e.g. dibi, classical divi, “gods”), as writers considered b to more closely represent the sound.

xs for x (dixsit,): there are potentially a few, if separate, factors that motivated this spelling. In short, an s was added after x due to the differing phonetic qualities of x as it was written (by itself, not representing /ks/). This is a common spelling feature, but generally not a problematic one for reading.

Assimilation and Weakening: a widespread trend in non-elite spellings is the simplification of consonant clusters, often through assimilation (i.e. one sound in the cluster ‘absorbs’ another sound) or weakening leading to loss. These can result in either a different letter being used to represent the altered sound (imveni, inveni) or the complete loss of a consonant (nuc, cf. nunc; meses, cf. menses). A notable loss, in cosul, is even reflected in standardized inscriptions in the abbr. cos. Loss is also quite common with consonants preceding the semivowel /j/, i (aiuto, cf. adiuto, “I help”).

Doubling of letters and reduction of doubled letters (faccio, facio; anis, cf. annis): multiple operations are at work, including the strengthening, weakening, and shortening of consonants, gemination and degemination, as well as the general tendency to eliminate letters that are not reflected in speech. Though not all spellings of these types can be ascribed to changes in pronunciation. For reading purposes, the doubling of letters (e.g. faccio) is usually not problematic. The absence of doubled letters can be problematic, though, as the non-standard forms frequently resemble other words with standard spellings (e.g. annis, dat/abl pl. ‘years,’ but anis, dat/abl pl. ‘rings’; or suum ‘own’, but sum ‘I am’).

Deletion: Vowels and consonants are regularly deleted in medial positions. Unstressed vowels are most commonly deleted (aspros, cf. asperos; copla, cf. copula), reducing the number of syllables in a word. This trend is not entirely unusual even in literary Latin.

Often duplicate vowels are reduced to one letter (serus, seruus; tus, cf. tuus).

Voiced and Devoiced Consonant Switching: switching in both directions is common, and the motives vary. The use of t for d and vice versa are perhaps the most common in the texts below (ed, set, at, ). Sometimes they are even used interchangeably in the same document. There is considerable doubt that these spellings reflected wider speech patterns.

Other Orthographic Consonant Substitutions: k is regularly used for c (karissimo), as is, to a lesser extent, q before u (mequm, quravit). These generally do not pose problems for readers.

e/i Representation: the writing of e for i and vice versa is one of the most commonly found spelling deviations from classical standards. Spellings of this type sometimes, though not always, reflect a widespread phonetic change in Latin speech well into the imperial period, whereby the vowels long e /e:/ and short i /i/ merged into a single vowel, /ẹ/. Both letters were used with little consistency to represent this phoneme. Another motive was the tendency for /e/ and /i/ to become a semivowel /j/ after a consonant (vinia as two syllables, rather than vinea). Occasionally, e was even used to represent ī /i:/. Some examples: sene, nese, dicet, ube, ibe, and signabet.

u/o Representation: another very common set of vowel substitutions, o is frequently used in place of u. The majority of instances occur in final syllables of the nominative and accusative singular; -us and -um become -os and -om, respectively. While another widespread vowel merger (similar to e/i) occurred very late in the imperial period, whereby ō /o:/ and u /u/ merged to a closed o /ọ/, the great majority of non-elite texts from the Roman Empire likely do not reflect this process. The use of o for u is far more likely to be an orthographic remnant (a ‘relic’, perhaps) of the old Latin spelling, which reflects the original o-stem. As mentioned above, there is also a strong stylistic tendency against writing the consecutive vowels uu, and o often replaces the second one. Examples: servos, mortuos, novom, salvom.

ei for i (tibei, ubei, etc.): the use of the vowels ei for classical i occurs regularly, and is an archaism of spelling, either for style or by learned inheritance, rather than an indication of pronunciation. It is a remnant of a popular spelling in old Latin which did reflect speech; the original diphthong /ei/ underwent a change to /i:/.

Monophthongization: ae /ae/ à e /ɛ/: other diphthongs disappear as well, but ae to e is present most frequently in the texts. Examples: que, quae; Cecilius, cf. Caecilius; and equum, cf. aequum. These can be problematic, as evidenced by the final example equum (potentially confused for the classical ‘horse’).

Morphology and Syntax

While there are numerous morphological and syntactic differences from classical Latin, they rarely impede reading to the extent of spelling differences. For example, a Latin student might recognize that the ‘incorrect’ verb tense is used in a conditional, but meaning can still be deduced. As such, only a few points will be mentioned here; see the recommended readings for further discussion.

Accusatives with Prepositions: there is plenty of evidence to support the convincing notion that the accusative became the default case for prepositional phrases. Most notably, cum, de, pro and in regularly take accusatives (even in instances in which the classical ‘ablative of place where’ would be expected). The situation is further complicated by the status of word-final -m, which made the ablative and accusative cases sound identical in speech in some instances, and the omission of which in writing can make a word appear ablative, though a writer originally had in mind an accusative. Advice for readers is to expect accusatives with prepositions which would otherwise be unexpected in classical Latin.

Analogy and Paradigm Leveling: analogy was a productive process in Latin, and in non-elite texts it occurs often in verbal and nominal morphology. Forth declension nouns in classical Latin sometimes use the more regular endings of the second declension in non-elite texts (an ongoing process that eventually saw the near-complete elimination of the fourth declension). Verbal constructions are leveled as well, for example in posso (“I can”) being given a common -o 1st singular ending in place of the standard possum.

Indicative or Infinitive: in instances where classical Latin would employ a subjunctive, such as in an indirect question, it is not uncommon in non-elite texts to see an indicative or an infinitival construction.

The conjunctions et and sed: a number of texts rely heavily on these conjunctions, including them where syntactically unnecessary or where other conjunctions would be more appropriate for clarity. One must not always take these literally or strictly when reading.


Reading any different author or genre of Latin usually requires familiarization with new vocabulary, and non-elite texts are no exception. Cicero’s surviving works, for example, do not contain inventories of materials or equipment, and in the texts that do contain these, some words will be new to readers. In some instances, however, things are more complicated. Loanwords or local words with limited attestation are common, and their meanings are uncertain; the ostraka found at Bu Njem, for example, contain several Punic words. The texts below were chosen with these considerations in mind, though it will perhaps be necessary to look up some military terms, for example.

Keep reading for some phenomenal texts….

Non-elite Texts


  1. A Prayer to Venus (Pompeii, 1st cent. CE):

Fo̲rtunatus amat Ampl̲i̲a̲nda(m).
Ianuarius amat Veneria(m).
Rogamus damna (domina) Venus
ut nos in mente a̲bias (habeas)
quod te modo introrgamus. (interrogamus)

“Fortunatus loves Amplianda.
Ianuarius loves Veneria.
We ask lady Venus to keep
us in mind, and also
what we now ask of you.”

  1. Lucky to Live Here (Pompeii, 1st cent. CE):

(h)ic (h)abitamus
dii (dei)

“We are living here fortunately. May the gods make it so.”


  1. Sorry, Aeneas (Pompeii, 1st cent. CE):

Fullones ululamque cano non arma virumq(ue)

“I sing of laundry workers and the owl, not of arms and the man.”


  1. Put that back (Rome, 3rd cent. CE)

tu qui lebas (levas) tabulam, repone loco ne furti f[aenus] reddat maiestas

“You, lifting this marker—put it back in place, so your treachery doesn’t pay you a thief’s dividends.”


  1. The poverty of teaching (Pompeii, 1st cent. CE)

qui mihi docendi
dederit mercedem
(h)abeat quod
petit a superis

“Whoever gives me payment for teaching, let them have what they seek from the gods.”


  1. Don’t ignore problems (Pompeii)

Qui se tutari nescit nescit vivere.
Minimum malu(m) fit contemnendo maximum

“One who doesn’t know how to protect oneself does not know how to live. By ignoring it, the smallest evil becomes massive.”


Curse Tablets

  1. Rhodine Curse, Excerpt (Rome Area, 1st cent. BCE/CE)

A jealous lover seeks to end the relationship between Rhodine and Marcus Licinius Faustus.

Quomodo mortuos qui istic / sepultus est nec loqui / nec sermonare potest seic / Rhodine apud M(arcum) Licinium / Faustum mortua sit nec / loqui nec sermonare possit / ita uti mortuos nec ad deos / nec ad homines acceptus est / seic Rhodine aput M(arcum) Licinium / accepta sit et tantum valeat / quantum ille mortuos quei / istic sepultus est Dite Pater Rhodine(m) / tibei commendo

“In the same way that the dead man buried here is able to neither speak nor converse, let Rhodine, in the company of Marcus Licinius Faustus, also be dead, able to neither speak nor converse. And just as the dead man was received neither by gods nor humans, let Rhodine, in the company of Marcus Licinius, be received in the same way. Let her be just as well as the dead man buried here. Lord Dis, I commend her to you.”


  1. Carmona Curse Tablet (Seville, Spain, 1st cent. BCE)

One of the most well-known tablets, in which the author curses Luxia. Also one of the oldest texts in this document.

Dis Imferìs vos rogo uteì recipiates nomen / Luxsia A(uli) Antestì filia caput cor co(n)s(i)lio(m) valetudine(m) / vita(m) membra omnia accedat morbo cotidea et / seì faciatis votum quod faccio solva(m) vostris meritìs

“Gods of the Underworld, I ask that you receive the name Luxia, daughter of Aulus Antestus; her head, heart, well being, life, and all her limbs. Let her fall ill every day. If you do this, I will pay the vow I now make, according to your merits.”


  1. Curse of the stolen tunic (Castillo, Spain, 2nd cent. CE)

Quis res tunica(m) tolid (tolit) e Livia odi eam / vel ium (eum). Ite(m) is quis qu(a)esto(m) hhabeat / tra(c)ta

“Whoever stole the tunic from Livia, I hate her or him. Same for whoever might get a profit (from the theft). Take them.”

  1. Curse the thief, excerpt (Setubal, Portugal, 2nd cent. CE)

Domine Megare / invicte, tu qui Attidis / corpus accepisti accipias cor/pus eius qui meas sarcinas / supstulit qui me compilavit / de domo Hispani. Illius corpus / tibi et anima(m) do. Dono ut meas / res inveniat. (T)unc tibi (h)ostia(m) // Quadripede(m) do(mi)ne Attis voveo…”

“Lord unconquered (unsure), you who received the body of Attis, may you receive the body of the person who stole my bags, who robbed me, from Hispanus’ home. The thief’s body and soul I give to you. I make the offering in order to find my belongings. Then I will offer a four-legged sacrifice to you…”


  1. Beautiful Proserpina, excerpt (Rome, 1st cent. BCE/CE)

Bona pulchra Proserpina, [P]lut[o]nis uxsor,
seive me Salviam deicere oportet,
eripias salutem, c[orpus, co]lorem, vires, virtutes
Ploti. Tradas [Plutoni] viro tuo ni possit cogitationibus
sueis hoc vita[re…

“Good, beautiful Proserpina, wife of Pluto, if it’s better to call you Salvia. May you snatch away the health, body, appearance, strength, and virility of Plotius. May you take him to Pluto, your husband, so he can’t escape this with his cleverness.” (Trans. modified from Gager)

  1. Latin in Greek script, excerpt (Hadrumetum, Tunisia, date unknown)

Many examples exist of the use of Greek script to write Latin. Common features in these texts are the use of ου to represent Latin short u, and the use of the Greek aspirated consonants χ and θ to represent Latin c and t. Not also the weakening of the diphthong ae to e (αε to ε). Here, Septima is writing a love curse on Sextillius, that he go mad with love for her.

αδιυρο ετ…περ μαγνουμ δεουμ ετ περ ανθεροτας…ετ περ εουμ χουι αβετ (habet) αρχεπτορεμ (accipitrem) σουπρα χαπουθ ετ περ σεπτεμ σθελλας, ουυτ εξ χουα ορα οχ σομποσυερο νον δορμιατ Σεξτιλλιος, Διονισιε φιλιους, ουραθουρ φουρενς νον δορμιαθ νεχουε (neque) σεδεατ νεχουε λοχουατουρ σεδ ιν μεντεμ αβιατ με Σεπθιμαμ Αμενε φιλια ουραθουρ φουρενς αμορε ετ δεσιδεριο μεο…

“I swear…by the great god, and by Anteros…and by him who holds the eagle over his head, and by the seven stars, so that from the moment I compose this, Sextilius, son of Dionysia, does not sleep; let him burn, raging, and not sleep, or sit, or speak. But let him have me, Septima, daughter of Amoenae, in his mind; let him burn, raging, with love and desire for me.”


Business, Legal, and Military Texts

  1. Troop inventory (Bu Njem, Libya, 3rd cent. CE)

xii Kal(endas) Aug(ustas) n(umerus) xliiii
ex (h)is: librarius i
optio i
proculcato(r) i
ad aqua(m) balnei vii
stationari v
molendarius i
fornarius i
ad carcare(m) i
eger Paccius Maxi(mus) i
cum kamellos iii
reliqui repungent xxii
balneus accipit xvi i et kamel(larius)
furnus accipit v

“July 21, Number (of troops): 44
From these:
1 clerk
1 adjutant
1 scout
7 to work the baths
5 guards
1 mill worker
1 furnace worker
1 to the jail
1 sick: Paccius Maximus
3 camel duty
22 picked for redeployment
16 at the baths (and 1 camel keeper)?
5 at the furnace?”


  1. The Britons (Vindolanda, Britain, 1st cent. CE):

A fragment from Roman Britain, describing the fighting style of the Britons. Note the pejorative ‘Brittunculi’. The beginning is uncertain, with one possible interpretation as “The Britons are unprotected by armor.”

_nenu…[.]n. Brittones
nimium multi · equites
gladis · non utuntur equi-
tes · nec residunt
Brittunculi · ut · iaculos

“The Britons (uncertain). They have very many cavalry. The cavalry do not use swords, nor do those little Brits mount in order to throw javelins.”


  1. Iasucthan’s military poem, excerpt (Bu Njem, Libya, 3rd cent. CE):

An idiomatic hexameter poem prone to scansion errors, written to honor a new gate built at the outpost. Iasucthan was likely not a native Latin speaker, but even at the periphery of the empire, he was clearly engaged with Roman literary culture.

Flavius Sossianus v(ir) e(gregius) vice praesidis Numidiae per vexillationem
leg(ionis) III Aug(ustae) p(iae) v(indicis) Antoninianae devotissimi numini eorum
Portam vetustate conlabsam lapidi quadrato arco curvato restituit
omnes praeteriti cuius labore(m) vitabant
rigido vigore iuvenum tertia Augustani fecerunt
creto consilio hortante Parato magistro

“Flavius Sossianus, a distinguished man, vice guardian of Numidia, through the special detachment of the Legio III Augusta of the Antonines, dutiful and protective, most devoted to their divinity, restored the gate collapsed by age, with a curved arch on square stone; the labor of which all our predecessors kept avoiding, and that with the firm vigor of the men, the Third Augusta did with a specific plan, urged on by our foreman, Paratus.” (Translation modified from Adams).


  1. Avidius Quintianus’ poem, excerpt (Bu Njem, Libya, 205 CE):

This poem is a dedication to the goddess Salus for the recently completed baths and the safe return of the detachments. Near the end of the excerpt, Quintianus depicts the baths as a sanctuary in the heat of the desert.

Quaesii multum quot / memoriae tradere
agens prae cunctos (praecinctos?) in / hac castra milites
votum communem pro/que reditu exercitus
inter priores et fu/turos reddere.
dum quaero mecum dig/na divom (divorum) nomina
inveni tandem nomen / et numen deae
votis perennem quem / dicare in hoc loco.
Salutis igitur quan/dium cultores sient (sint)
qua potui sanxi nomen / et cunctis dedi
veras salutis lymphas / tantis ignibus
in istis semper ha/renacis collibus

“I have sought much what to pass down to posterity, leading the soldiers bunked in this camp, and a common offering for the return of the army, among the prior and future ones. While I searched privately the worthy names of gods, I finally discovered the name and power of a goddess which to consecrate everlastingly with offerings in this place. Therefore, so long as there are worshippers of Salus, I have sanctified her name the way I was able, and given the true waters of safety to all, amid such fires in these always sandy hills.” (Translation modified from Adams)


  1. A loan contract, excerpt (Pompeii, 39 CE)

Part of the well-preserved Sulpicii archive, the contracts of Gaius Novius Eunus record a set of loans and their terms. This excerpt describes what happens if Eunus does not make his loan repayments.

quot si ea die non solvero me nont solum peiurio teneri set etiam peone nomine
in de (dies) si(n)gulos sestertios vigienos nummo(s) obligatum iri et eos ((sestertios)) I̅CCL q(ui) s(upra) s(cripti) s(unt)…

“But if I have not paid on that day, (I wrote that) I will not only be held in delinquency, but also in the term of a penalty; I will be liable for 20 sestertii each successive day and the 1250 sestertii which are written above.”


Tags and Miscellaneous Objects

  1. Slave’s Collar (Rome, 4th/5th cent. CE)

These items are powerful reminders of the dehumanizing effects of slavery; the British Museum, for example, sometimes lists these tags as “dog or slave tag.” The Latin is generally suitable for introductory courses, and these can be useful aids in efforts to counteract ‘happy slave’ narratives.

P(e)tronia, tene me quia fugibi et revoca me ad domu(m) Theodotenis ad domnum meum Vitalione(m)

“I am Petronia. Detain me, because I have fled, and return me to the home of Theodotenis to my master, Vitalio.”


  1. Slave’s Tag (Rome, 4th/5th cent. CE)

Tene me ne
fugia(m) et revo=
ca me ad dom(i)nu(m) m=
eu(m) Viventium in
ar(e)a Callisti.

“Detain me so I don’t flee, and return me to my master, Viventius, at the property of Callistus.”


  1. Slave’s Tag (Rome, 5th cent. CE)

Tene me qui
a fugi et reboc=
a me in bia Lata
ad Gemellin=
u(m) medicu(m)

“Detain me because I fled, and return me to Gemellinus the doctor on the Via Lata.”

  1. Slave’s tag (Rome, 4th cent. CE)

Tene me
et revoca me in
foro Martis ad
Maximianum antiquari=

“Detain me, and return me to Maximianus, the antique keeper, in the Forum of Mars.”


  1. Sling Pellet (Perugia, 41-40 BCE)

〈side a〉

〈side b〉

〈side c〉

“Hey, Octavian, you suck!”

  1. Campaign ad (Pompeii, 77-79 CE)

M(arcum) Samellium Modestum / aed(ilem) d(ignum) r(ei) p(ublicae) o(ro) v(os) f(aciatis) / iuvenem probum

 “I ask you to elect Marcus Samellius Modestus as Aedile, an honest young man worthy of office.”


  1. Campaign ad (Pompeii, 76-79 CE)

Holconium Priscum I̅I̅vir(um)
fullones universi rog(ant).

“The laundry workers unanimously support Holconius Priscus for Duovir.”

  1. Gate inscription, Christian verses (Nola, Italy, 5th cent. CE)

〈Side a〉
Frange esurienti panem tuum

〈Side b〉
Mors et vita in manu linguae

“Break (share) your bread for someone hungry.”

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”


  1. Letter, from Suneros to Chios (Oxyrhynchus, 297-308 CE):

A 1st century BCE/CE letter, offering advice to be careful in personal and business dealings. The author seems to be concerned that Chios is being taken advantage of by others. 

Suneros Chio suo plur(imam) sal(utem). s(i) v(ales) b(ene est). Theo adduxsit ad me Ohapim rẹgiuṃ mensularium oxsyrychitem qui quidem mecum est locutus de inprobitate Epaphraes. Itaque nihil ultra loquor quam ⟦no⟧ ne patiarus te propter illos perire. Crede mihi nimia bonitas pernicies homiṇ[i]ḅus est vel maxsuma. Deinde ipse tibei de mostrabit qu[i]t rei sit qum illum ad te vocareis. Set perservera, qui de tam pusilla summa tam magnum lucrum facit dominum occidere volt. Deinde ego clamare debeo siquod video devom atque hominum ⟦…⟧ tuum erit vindicare ne alio libeat facere.

“Suneros sends many greetings to his dear Chios. If you are well, good. Theo brought Opahim to me, the official banker at Oxyrhynchus, who told me about the wickedness of Epaphraes. So, I won’t say anything but this: don’t let yourself be destroyed because of them. Believe me, too much kindness is a danger for people—the greatest (danger), even. He will show you later what his business is, when you call him to you. But persist. A man who makes such a massive profit from such a tiny amount is willing to kill his master. If I am seeing this, I ought to shout ‘of gods and men.’ It will be yours to defend. No one else can do it.”

  1. Letters of Claudius Terentianus, excerpts (Alexandria):

Full letters of the 2nd century CE Tiberianus Archive (the Greek and Latin letters of Claudius Tiberianus, Terentianus, and extended network) are available here. Terentianus’ family situation as it appears in the letters is complicated. The general consensus is that his father is Claudius Tiberianus (himself also in the military), and the two other people he calls ‘pater’ and ‘mater’ are perhaps his aunt and uncle in Alexandria, with whom he seems to have a very close relationship; this document holds this view, and will use ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’ when referring to the two. The letters were dictated to scribes of varying style and skill level. They are highly recommended for both content and non-elite Latin linguistics. Below are brief excerpts, selected for content and style.

2a. Letter 467. Terentianus writes to his father, Claudius Tiberianus, about how he enrolled in the military to ease his father’s concerns about his future. He then asks for a list of items to aid him in his military service:

Ivi me ọḅ[ic]ẹ[r]ẹ [n]avi et p̣ẹr eọs me probavi in classe
ṇe tiḅ[i] pareaṃ a spe ạṃạṛ[a] paṛp̣a[tum] ṿagari quasi fugitivom. Oro et rogo
te, pater, nem[i]nem habeo enim karum nisi secundum deos, te ut mit-
ta[s m]i[h]i pe[r V]alerium gladiu[m pu]gnatorium et l[ance]am et d[o]labram et cop(u)la(m) et lonchas duas quam optimas et byrrum castalinum et tunicam bra[c]ilem cum bracis meis ut habeam quoniam extri[v]i tuni[ca]m antequam me pr[o]barem in militiam”

“I went to turn myself over to a navy ship. Through them I enrolled myself in the fleet, so I don’t seem to you to be wandering like some fugitive coaxed by a dire hope. I ask and beg, father—after the gods, I have no one else as dear to me as you—that you send me, through Valerius, a fighting sword, javelin(?), pick axe, grappling hook, two of the best lances, a beaver cloak, and a belted tunic, along with my pants, so that I can have those, since I wore out my (other) tunic before I enrolled in the military.”

2b. Letter 468. This is a letter filled with concern. Terentianus seems to be quite ill (or recently recovered). During his illness, he was incapacitated; he had items stolen from him, and was unable to send items to his father. He also expresses concern for his father’s health. Finally, in another human moment, he describes his financial hardships and the difficulties in advancing in his career:

emeram aute(m) illuc con (cum) culcitam et pulbinọ (pulvino)
et me iacentem in liburna sublata ṃi s[unt]

“I bought those with a mattress and pillow, but while I was lying on the boat they were stolen from me.”

si non ia[c]uisse(m)
speraba(m) me pluriam tibi missituruṃ [et]
itarum spero si vixero

“If I hadn’t been ill, I was hoping to send you more; and I hope I can again, if I live (through it).”

ed praeterea ọṛọ [et]
[rogo] ṭe p[ater u]t contiṇ[uo mih]ị
[resc]rib[as de] ṣaluṭem t[ua]ṃ
ṭẹ ḥạ[b]ere bọ[na] reac̣cept[a(m)] [s]ol
licitus suṃ autem de vịc̣[e] ịṇ do (domo)
nese mihi rescribas et si deus
volueret spero ṃe frugaliter
[v]ic̣ịturum et in cohortem
[tra]ṇsferri hic a[ut]ẹm sene aer[e]
[ni]hil fiet neque epistulae
nihil valunt nesi
si qui sibi aiutaveret rogo pater
ud continuo mihi rescribas

“And I also beg you, father, to write to me often about your health, that you have regained your good health. I’m worried about trouble at home unless you write to me. God willing, I hope to live frugally and be transferred into a cohort. But nothing happens here without money, and letters of recommendation accomplish nothing unless one helps oneself. I ask, father, that you continue to write me.”

2c. Letter 469. Terentianus writes on behalf of his mother, requesting some items for her that he believes his father better suited to purchase. This letter is somewhat shorter and more fragmentary than most others. The lack of the accusative-infinitive construction with ‘dico’ is regular in these letters.

dico illei et ego nolim [pe]ṭere
illas sed posso tibi epistula(m) scribere
ẹṭ mittet tibi si imvenerit ẹṛgo
[m]ẹrca minore pretium rogo ụṭ
satisfacias ille[i]

“I tell her ‘I don’t want to search around for those (items), but I can write a letter for you, and he (father) will send them if he finds them. So, I ask you, buy them at a low price so you will satisfy her.”

2d. Letter 471. An emotional letter, depicting a struggling family. Terentianus’ aunt (‘mater’ in the text) has become pregnant. They not only experience financial difficulties, but in the absence of Ptolemaios (Terentianus’ uncle), the two are left somewhat helpless. The first excerpt begins after an unnamed man fails to give needed money to Terentianus; this man is the subject of the first verbs dedit and inquid (inquit). The second excerpt begins exactly where the first leaves off, but is separated for ease of use in the classroom; here, Terentianus’ aunt must sell belongings so the young man has enough money for traveling, because a man named Saturninus will not help.

item non mi d[e]dit aes quam
aureum matri mee in vestimenta. hoc est inquid
quod pater tus mi mandavit quo tempus autem veni
omnia praefuerunt et lana et matrem meam
aute(m) praegnatam imveni nil poterat facere dende pos(t)
paucos dies parit et non poterat mihi succurrere. item litem
abuit Ptolemes pater meu(s) sopera (supera) vestimenta mea et fa-
ctum est illi venire alexandrie con (cum) tirones et me
reliquid con (cum) matrem meam soli nihil poteramus facere
absentia illim aḅit[u]ri. mater mea spec[t]emus illum
dum venit et ven[i]o tequm alexandrie et deduco te
usque ad nave(m)

“Also, he did not give me any money, other than an as for my mother for her clothes. ‘This is,’ he said, ‘what your father ordered of me.’ At the time I arrived, though, everything was there, and also some wool. But I found my aunt to be pregnant, not able to do anything. Then, after a few days, she gave birth and was not able to help me. At the same time, my uncle, Ptolemaios, had an argument over my clothes, and happened to go to Alexandria with the recruits. He left me behind with my aunt, and alone we were able to do nothing; in his absence, we were about to leave. My aunt said ‘let’s wait for him until he comes, and then I will go with you to Alexandria, and take you to your ship.”

Saturninus iam paratus erat exire
illa die qu[a]ndo tam magna lites factam est. dico illi
veni interpone te si potes aiutare Ptolemaeo patri
meo non magis quravit me pro xylesphongium
sed s(u)um negotium et circa res suas. attonitus
exiendo dico illi da m[i] pauqum aes ut possim venire
con rebus meis alexandrie im inpendia (impendia) negabit se
(h)abiturum veni dicet alexandrie ed dabo t[i]bi. ego
non abivi. mater m(e)a nos assem vendedi(t) lentiamina
[u]t veniam alexandrie

“Saturninus was already prepared to leave that day, when such a great argument happened. I said to him, ‘come and intervene, if you can help my uncle Ptolemaios.’ He gave no more concern for me than for a toilet sponge, but instead his own business and affairs. Astonished by his leaving, I said to him ‘give me a bit of money for expenses, so I can go with my things to Alexandria.’ He denied that he has any. ‘Come,’ he said, ‘to Alexandria and I will give it to you.’ I didn’t go. My mother sold her linens for an as (?), so that I could go to Alexandria.”

  1. A birthday invitation, excerpt (Vindolanda, Britain, 1st cent. CE)

Claudia Severa invites her friend Sulpicia Lepidina (wife of the prefect at Vindolanda) to a birthday party. Despite the use of soror, the two women are not believed to be sisters. With part of the document written by Severa herself, this (and the accompanying notes) is believed to be the earliest-known Latin written by a woman.

Side I

Cl(audia) · Seuerá Lepidinae [suae
iii Idus Septembr[e]s soror ad diem
sollemnem natalem meum rogó
libenter faciás ut uenias
ad nos iucundiorem mihi

Side II

[diem] interuentú tuo facturá si
Cerial[em t]uum salutá Aelius meus .[
et filiolus salutant …
… sperabo te soror
uale soror anima
mea ita ualeam
karissima et haue

(The italicized text was written by Severa herself)

“Claudia Severa to her Lepidina, greetings. On September 11, sister, for my birthday celebration, I ask you sincerely to make sure you come to (join) us, to make the day more fun for me by your arrival…Say hello to your Cerialis. My Aelius and little boy say hello. I await you, sister. Be well, sister, my dearest soul, so I may be well too. Hail.”

  1. Reminder for a party (Vindonissa, Switzerland, 1st cent. CE)

A 1st century CE reminder/invitation for what seems like it will be a wild party in a military fort town. The author concludes by hoping to win at dice. 

Im mentem habe hospitam tuam in XII // Itaque scias ubi convivium. orno ludos varios quoque ac comisationem mundam cras per genios potissimos ludi crispo orcam sicut gladium frater care vale

“Remember your guest on the 12th (?). Just so you know, there is a party. I am preparing various games and some elegant revelry tomorrow, and by the most powerful spirits of gaming, I’m going to swing the dice cup like a sword. Bye, dear brother.”


  1. A Jewish child at Rome (Rome, c. 400 CE)

A sad text. Also a good one to use in class, it utilizes both Latin and Hebrew, and goes well with a discussion of diversity in the city and empire. It is also one of the latest dated texts in this document.

(H)Ic iacet Gaudi=
osa infantula
qui bissit annoru=
m plus minu(s) tre=
s requiebit in
pacem. שלום

“Here lies the child Gaudiosa, who lived around three years. She will rest in peace. Shalom (in Hebrew)


  1. Parents to their son, excerpt (Valencia, Spain, unknown date)

D(is) M(anibus) / da(?) miserissimi parentes aliam in te ispen (spem) (h)avevamus aliut fata dederunt qu(a)e te nobis abistulerunt reliquisti nobis (a)et(e)rnas lacrima(s) luctosq(ue) per annos pietatem tuam requ(i)rimus et nusquam te fili dulcissime inveniemus Fortunata et (H)eliodorus parentes carissimi Pomponio filio carissimo…

“To the spirits of the dead. (uncertain) Your most distraught parents had a different future for you than the one the fates, who stole you away from us, gave. You have left us everlasting tears, and through years of sorrows we seek your love. Yet nowhere will we find you, our sweetest son. Fortunata and Heliodorus, most loving parents to our most loving son, Pomponius”

  1. A skilled musician, excerpt (Budapest, 3rd cent. CE)

Aelia Sabina was a gifted musician; upon her death, her husband, Titus Aelius Iustus, made it an important point in the epitaph on her sarcophagus.

Clausa iacet lapidi coniunx pia cara Sabina / artibus edocta superabat sola maritu/m vox ei grata fuit pulsabat pollice c(h)ordas…

“My beautiful, faithful wife, Sabina, lies enclosed in stone. Skilled in the arts, she alone surpassed her husband. Her voice was pleasing (as) she plucked the strings with her thumb.”

  1. A Parthian slave’s path to Roman citizenship (Ravenna, 1st cent. CE)

Gaius Julius Mygdonius was likely captured as a result of Rome’s wars with Parthia under Augustus. He was eventually freed and given citizenship, and seems to have planned well for his later years.

C(aius) Iul(ius) Mygdonius / generi Parthus / natus ingenuus capt(us) / pubis aetate dat(us) in terra(m) / Romana(m) qui dum factus / cives R(omanus) iuvente (iubente) fato co/locavi arkam dum esse(m) / annor(um) L peti(i) usq(ue) a pub/ertate senectae meae perveni/re nunc recipe me saxe libens / tecum cura solutus ero

“Gaius Julius Mygdonius, Parthian by nationality, born free, captured in his youth, and handed over to a Roman land. When I was made a Roman (citizen) by fate’s command, I set up a savings for when I became 50 years old. I have been heading to my old age since my childhood. Now, receive me eagerly, stone. With you, I will be freed from care.”

Recommended Reading

Books and Articles

Adams, J.N. (1977). The Vulgar Latin of the Letters of Claudius Terentianus. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

–(1994). “Latin and Punic in Contact? The Case of the Bu Njem Ostraca”. Journal of Roman Studies vol. 84., p. 87-112.

–(2008). Bilingualism and the Latin Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

–(2013) Social Variation and the Latin Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

–(2014). The Regional Diversification of Latin 200 BC – AD 600. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Audollent, Auguste (1904) (OPEN ACCESS). Defixionum tabellae quotquot innotuerunt tam in Graecis Orientis quam in totius Occidentis partibus praeter Atticas in Corpore Inscriptionum Atticarum editas. Paris.

Bowman, Alan K. (1994). Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier. London: British Museum Press.

Clackson, James and Geoffrey Horrocks (2007). The Blackwell History of the Latin Language. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.

Cooley, Alison E. (2012). The Cambridge Manual of Latin Epigraphy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gager, John G. (1999). Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Harvey, Brian K (2004). Roman Lives: Ancient Roman Life as Illustrated by Latin Inscriptions. Newburyport, MA: Focus.

Herman, Jozsef (2000). Vulgar Latin. Trans. Roger Wright. University Park: Penn State University Press.

Keegan, Peter (2014). Graffiti in Antiquity. New York: Routledge.

Kropp, Amina (2008). Defixiones: Ein Aktuelles Corpus Lateinischer Fluchtafeln. Speyer: Kartoffeldruck-Verlag.

Strassi, Silvia (2008). L’archivio di Claudius Tiberianus da Karanis. London: Walter de Gruyter, 2008.

Väänänen, Veikko (1966). Le Latin Vulgaire des Inscriptions Pompeiennes. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag.

Web Resources
Linguistic Changes from Latin to Spanish and French

Vindolanda Tablets Online

Vulgar Latin Wiki (McGill)

Papyrology Resources (Michigan)

Brandon Conley is in an “it’s complicated” relationship with Classics. He has taught in Ohio, Missouri, and Tennessee, and is currently a Classics instructor at Michigan State University. He loves Twitter more than he should, and you can find him at @bc4503.

11 thoughts on “Non-Elite Latin for the Classroom

    1. If you’re looking at ‘abes’ in the examples, this is the 2nd-person singular ending (i.e. ‘you have’), whereas the ‘habeo’ form is the 1st sing. (‘I have’). The 1st sing. form is often used as sort of a default ‘example’ of the word.

      Otherwise, I hope I didn’t make a mistake somewhere!

      1. Word-initial and Intervocalic Aspirate, h-, /h/ (habeo, hic, mihi, ): The initial and intervocalic aspirate /h/ had disappeared from most speech varieties by the imperial period, and from all eventually (with the exception of a select few prescriptive grammarians, perhaps). Hence, it is often omitted in non-elite texts, with resulting forms such as abes, mi, and ic.

  1. It’s fascinating what Latin has in common with Greek in terms of words, spelling and perhaps even pronunciation. The evolution of language is a marvellous topic to study.

    1. Their shared IE heritage certainly shows at times. And just as much so, the effects on the languages as they coexisted (borrowed words and constructions, orthography, sociolinguistics, etc.). Some of my favorite examples are Latin written in Greek characters.

  2. (h)ic (h)abitamus
    dii (dei)
    “We are living here. May the gods make us happy.”

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