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Ancient antagonists: how our ancestors cursed at each other. Part two — the Romans

By Joana Atanasova


There is such a vast amount of ancient profanities that are worth the read, that I just simply couldn’t leave it be a one part thing.

In my previous article we explored the vast and extremely rich vocabulary of curse words used in ancient Greece, with the special thanks of mr. Spencer McDaniel who was nice enough to research and organize them in a very understandable and precise way.

If you are interesting in the matter of all Ancient Greek things, like history, philosophy, their daily life etc. you would understand very well why their vocabulary was so rich. Romans, on the other hand, well, they considered themselves more high class and such profanities were left for the lower class citizens, hence it didn’t find its way into art, plays etc. as much as it did in Ancient Greece. However, that didn’t stop it from developing, oh no.

Cursing and profanity in ancient Rome occurred more in speech than in writing, perhaps why we believe them to be classier than they actually were, however, we do have some written examples of Roman profanities in literary works! Which was mostly rare, by the way, like I said, Romans wanted to look more sophisticated than they were, so only the top tier no-toilet-humor stuff usually saw the light of day. Which didn’t stop the everyday folk to use profanities, heavily, daily. 

Our literary sources of profanities are writers, some speakers and lawyers, medical texts, and graffiti. When it comes to writers and using profanities — satirical poets usually used them for comedic purposes, especially Catullus and Martialis. In addition, Horace in their early poems. Another work of art was the “Priapeia” which was a collection of poems in different meters about the Roman God Priapus. Priapus was a phallic God. 

If you don’t know the word “phallic”, please Google it, and you will understand why this God had a whole book of poems only for him and people celebrated him, and why his book was riddled with profanities. You might ask yourself “which speaker or lawyer would dare?!”, the answer is Cicero in Epistulae ad Familiares. Yes folks, the man himself, you can go and check. Next, medical — why medical works? Medical, especially veterinary, texts used anatomical expressions that were offensive over time, and they have reached us.

I left graffiti out for last, you’ll know why in a minute. While the previous sources have encountered peer reviews at their respective times, and perhaps were the subject of editing and scandals, graffiti has not. Graffiti is the purest source we can get our information from (especially about profanities), because they were written by the average person for one reason or another. In 79 CE in the wee hours of the night, Vesuvius suddenly explodes, completely covering Pompeii and Herculaneum with lava.

For centuries people thought the cities underneath were completely destroyed, but in 1748 when a group of explorers were digging around for artefacts, the city was rediscovered. Everything that the magma covered was preserved, even the bread in the bakeries. Pompeii to this day is the most well preserved archaeological Roman site, and how we know about the detailed everyday life of both the elite and simple folk. Along the homes, mosaics, roads, the graffiti were also perfectly preserved. Safe to say that they prove that Romans weren’t just the luminous and cultural elite that they claimed to be. One graffiti, written by an angry pupil, exposes his math teacher of sleeping with said pupil’s mother in quite the colourful language, another accuses a man named Philiros of being an eunuch. But more of that in just a bit.

Now, without further ado, here are the most popular Roman curse words and phrases out there! Warning, they ARE NOT safe for work!

Mentula, verpus – penis

Cunnus – pussy

Landica – clitoris

Culus – anus

Merda – feces

Futuere – sexual intercourse

Futuo – fuck

Cevere or crisare – the first probably refers to riding a penis or anal sex for a passive person, and second to fuck.

Pedo, pedere, pepedi (or pepidi) – fart

pelusia magna! – “young lady!”; offensive to men

Mingere or meiere – pee

cinaede, pathice, sceleste , perfide, barbare, inepte – words emphasizing slowness, lack of skills, cowardice, weakness

Philiros spado — “Phileros is a eunuch”

Apollinaris, medicus Titi Imperatoris hic cacavit bene — “Apollinaris, doctor to the emperor Titus, had a good crap here”

description: an inscription on the wall of the Casa della Gemma in Herculaneum

Oppi, emboliari, fur, furuncle — “Oppius, you’re a clown, a thief, and a cheap crook”

Miximus in lecto. Faetor, peccavimus, hospes. Si dices: quare? Nulla matella fuit — “We have wet the bed. I admit, we were wrong, my host. If you ask ‘why?’ There was no chamber pot.” Found inside an inn”

description: found in an inn.

Virgula Tertio su: Indecens es — “Virgula to Teritus: You are a nasty boy”

Epaphra, glaber es — “Epaphra, you are bald”

Vatuan aediles furunculi rog — “The petty thieves request the election of Vatia as adele”

description: in Pompeii, an “adele” was an elected official who supervised markets and local police, among other things.

Suspirium puellam Celadus thraex — “Celadus makes the girls moan”

Admiror, O paries, te non cecidisse, qui tot scriptorium taedia sustineas — “I wonder, O wall, that you have not yet collapsed, so many writers’ clichés do you bear”

description: popular record; often appears on the walls in different places.

In the spirit of showing you how poetic profanities sounded, especially when used in an actual poem, I give you the full translation (by Tony Kline) and text of the 97th Carmen:

Non (ita me di ament) quicquam referre putavi,
utrum os an culum olfacerem Aemilio.
Nilo mundius hoc, nihiloque immundius illud,
verum etiam culus mundior et melior:
nam sine dentibus est: os dentis sesquipedalis,
gingivas vero ploxeni habet veteris,
praeterea rictum qualem diffissus in aestu
meientis mulae cunnus habere solet.
Hic futuit multas et se facit esse venustum,
et non pistrino traditur atque asino?
Quem si qua attingit, non illam posse putemus
aegroti culum lingere carnificis?

I did not (may the gods love me) think it mattered,
whether I might be smelling Aemilius’s mouth or arse.
The one’s no cleaner, the other’s no dirtier,
in fact his arse is both cleaner and nicer:
since it’s no teeth. Indeed, the other has
foot long teeth, gums like an old box-cart,
and jaws that usually gape like the open
cunt of a pissing mule on heat.
He fucks lots of women, and makes himself out
to be charming, and isn’t set to the mill with the ass?
Shouldn’t we think, of any girl touching him,
she’s capable of licking a foul hangman’s arse?

So really, nothing has changed in our respective modern languages. If we compare the Greeks and Romans to today’s regular folk, would they not understand each other perfectly when one tries to curse? Assuming they understand each other, of course. Everything revolves around the same curse words and profanities we use today, naturally, of course, since this is the root of our language, you would think. 

Yes and no — keep in mind, the graffiti, for example, were never into a book or poem or play. Yes, because some profanities do exist in books, we can read them, but graffiti — not so much. Graffiti were preserved on accident, so, really, we see that even now, in modern times, we do share the same taste in curse words and profanities as our ancestors, and really, doesn’t that make you feel closer to your great-great-great-great-great-grandmother? Definitely closer than you thought of before. 

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