The Most Quotable Latin Phrases

There’s something about Latin that always sounds profound, and even more so about Latin quotes and expressions. Perhaps it’s because of how it makes us feel that it relates to ancient wisdom from centuries past, or conjures up images of the Roman Empire in all its glory. From Caesar and Cicero to more modern poets and statesmen, great men have employed Latin to such an extent that there are now an endless list of quotes and expressions in the language. Here are some of the most quotable.

1. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori

It is sweet and fitting to die for your country.

This phrase first appeared in Odes, a poem by the Roman poet Horace, and is mostly used in the context of war. Ironically the first half of the phrase served as the title to a very different kind of poem by the English poet and soldier Wilfred Owen, condemning the horrors of the First World War and calling out the use of propaganda. Today, you can find this quote at the amphitheater at the Arlington National Cemetery.

2. Carthago delenda est

“Carthage must be destroyed.”

The Punic Wars tested the mettle of the Romans like no one had ever before, and the legendary Hannibal of Carthage became a name to be feared. Cato the Elder believed that Carthage would prove a great threat to the Republic, and gave a series of speeches that famously ended always with “Ceterum autem censeo Carthaginem esse delendam” (“Furthermore, I consider that Carthage must be destroyed”). Cato’s wish came true in 146 BCE when Scipio Aemilianus razed the city to the ground.

3. Oderint dum metuant

Let them hate so long as they fear.

First written by the Roman tragic poet Accius in his play Atreus more than two thousand years ago, it was often quoted by Cicero and later became the motto of the brutal tyrant Caligula. In the myth, Atreus was a brutal tyrant who murdered the sons of his rival Thyestes, cooked them and served them to Thyestes during a feast. Here’s where we get the phrase “Thyestean Feast”, one which features humans on the menu.

4. Et tu, Brute?

Even you, Brutus?

These famous last words of Julius Caesar after being stabbed and murdered by his friend Brutus were never actually said by Roman leader, but were actually from a play by William Shakespeare. Caesar considered Brutus to be more than a friend and actually regarded him as a son, so he would definitely have been shocked to see him with the conspirators. And while Brutus is said to have loved and admired Caesar, he could not tolerate the fact that Caesar undermined the Republic by becoming a dictator.

5. Sic semper tyrannis

“Thus always to tyrants.”

Famously said by Marcus Junius Brutus as he assassinated Julius Caesar, this is actually a contraction of the phrase “Sic semper evello mortem tyrannis” (“Thus always I bring death to tyrants”). Rome was a Republic, and when Caesar was appointed dictator, Brutus felt that this was a step towards tyranny. Much like his ancestor who drove the last king from Rome and established the Republic, Brutus participated in the conspiracy to murder Caesar and restore the Republic. The phrase has also been quoted by John Wilkes Booth as he assassinated Abraham Lincoln, and serves as the motto of the state of Virginia.

6. Aut cum scuto aut in scuto

“Come home either with your shield, or on it.”

Basically “do or die” in so many words, though the expression originally came from Greek. Spartan mothers supposedly said this to their sons as they left for battle, meaning that they should come home victorious, or dead, carried upon their shields. The shields used by Greek warriors were heavy and a fleeing soldier might abandon it on the battlefield, whereas the victorious would return with shields in hand. While there are doubts about whether this was actually said, and even the meaning of it, the expression is certainly inspiring.

7. Vae victis!

“Woe to the conquered!”

When Brennus the Gaul sacked Rome, the defeated Romans offered to pay a ransom for the Gauls to leave, to which Brennus demanded 1000 pounds of gold. The Romans agreed, and brought the gold only to find that the Gauls were using scales and weights rigged in their favour. When they complained about the unfairness, Brennus flung his sword on the weights making them even heavier and exclaimed “Vae victis!”, meaning “woe to the conquered!”. People defeated in battle could not dictate terms and were at the mercy of their conquerors and the Romans were forced to bring even more gold.

8. Aut viam inveniam aut faciam

“I shall either find a way or make one.”

In the Second Punic War, Hannibal of Carthage needed to find a way to take his war elephants to Rome, but the Roman naval power was too strong, So instead he decided to march his army across the Alps and attack Rome from the north. When his generals protested, telling him it was an impossible task, a determined Hannibal responded with the aforementioned phrase. While unfortunately only one of his forty war elephants is believed to have survived the crossing, he lead his forces to an incredible victory over the Romans at the Battle of Cannae.

9. Cogito, ergo sum

“I think, therefore I am.”

Though not from ancient times, this phrase originally appeared in French in the 1637 philosophical treatise by René Descartes. The original Latin translation was “dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum” (“I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am”). When the French philosopher questioned his own existence as possibly an illusion created by a demon manipulating his thoughts, he realized his ability to doubt thereby meant that he existed. For the ability to doubt meant that he could think, and every thought no matter how unreliable proved that he existed as a “thinking thing”. So basically, if you can question your own existence, that itself is proof that you exist. And while this concept was explored much before Descartes by Plato, Aristotle and Adi Shankara, this is by far the most popular version.

10. Post hoc ergo propter hoc

“After this, therefore because of this.”

Aristotle first explained this logical fallacy in his Sophistical Refutations, and is also known as the false cause or questionable cause. This idea is simple: just because one event follows another, the first event is not necessarily the cause of the second. An easy way to understand this fallacy is through this example “When I go to bed, the sun sets. Therefore, my going to bed causes the sun to set.” As you can see, the first event obviously has no effect on the second, and so this type of reasoning is inherently wrong.

11. Memento mori

“Remember that you will die.”

The Roman triumph was an event held to celebrate the exceptional success of a military commander, during which the victorious general was treated like a king for a day, or even a god. Legend has it that a slave would stand behind the general, whispering these words into his ear to remind him that though he was being treated as a deity, he was only mortal. Whether this actually occurred is doubtful as only one ancient historical source confirms it, but it quickly gained popularity with the growth of Christianity and was featured on countless works of Christian art over the centuries.

12. Veni vidi vici

“I came, I saw, I conquered.”

One of the most popular quotes attributed to Julius Caesar, he is believed to have written the phrase in a letter to the Roman Senate appraising them of his swift victory over Pharnaces of Pontus. While Caesar was occupied in the Roman Civil War, and later in Egypt, Pharnaces took advantage and invaded Anatolia, even defeating a general sent by Caesar. Shortly after defeating  Ptolemy XIII of Egypt, Caesar rushed to Asia Minor to face the Pontic invaders. It is said that within five days on his arrival and four hours of sighting his enemy, Caesar annihilated the opposing army at the Battle of Zela with relative ease.

13. Docendo discimus

“By teaching, we learn.”

A Latin proverb believed to have originated from the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca, the original text read “Homines dum docent discunt” meaning “Men learn while they teach.” Taken from his Letters to Lucillius which Seneca wrote in the last years of his life, it is part of a series of lessons that the old philosopher imparted that would help the reader become a more devoted Stoic. The phrase implies that the process of teaching is in itself instructive and enables you to learn more about the subject matter than if someone taught it to you. In trying to make someone else understand, you develop an even greater understanding of the subject.

14. Fortis Fortuna adiuvat

“Fortune favours the bold.”

Perhaps one of the most popular of Latin proverbs in the military context, it has been used in various forms as mottos of regiments and battalions of armies across the world. Fortuna was the goddess of fortune and luck in the ancient Roman religion, and they believed that bravery would illicit her attention. In the modern sense the meaning is obvious: you won’t have any luck if you aren’t brave enough to take any chances. Similarly, F.B. Hawley’s risk theory of profit offered a financial perspective on this phrase when he wrote “profit is the reward for taking risk”.

15. Alea iacta est

“The die has been cast.”

In ancient Rome, the Rubicon river marked the boundary of the republic and to cross it with men at arms was a declaration of war. So when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon river, he knew there was no turning back, and that’s when he explained these famous words. It marked the start of the Roman Civil War, and set a series of events into motion that would lead to the rise of Roman Empire. What phrase implies is that by rolling the dice, you may never know the outcome, but you certainly want to play the game.

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