The photo is a teaser.  It’s a detail of the cover of my guidebook on the Roman Forum. When will it be out?  Good question!  It is currently being formatted for sale on Amazon.  And I’d love to make it available for your summer vacation. That way, while you’re relaxing at the beach, you can read The Roman Forum: From Outpost to Empire in Ten Easy Centuries!  Here instead is a SNEAK PREVIEW from the Appendix S·P·Q·R:

S·P·Q·R· is the ubiquitous acronym of SENATVSPOPVLVSQVEROMANVS (which is only a tad shorter than supercalifragilisticexpialidocious). An example of it can be seen in the picture showing the inscription on the Temple of Saturn. But how do we translate it?

The Roman Forum Guidebook From Outpost to Empire Explains…

Roman Forum guidebook discusses SPQR on the Temple of Saturn

First we have to substitute the Vs with Us. But why did Romans chisel Us that way? Imagine running an index finger through wet cement. Curves meet resistance; straight lines are easier to negotiate. Granted, straight lines did not always substitute curves—ancient Os were not diamond-shaped. Yet Vs and Us had something in common, which made them interchangeable: they sounded nearly the same to ancient Roman ears. Their Vs were softer than ours, virtually a W. Therefore (when it is not a Roman numeral), a V is a consonant or a vowel—whether sculptors were chiseling in stone, graffiti artist were scribbling on walls, or amanuenses were applying reed pens to papyrus. Replacing the Vs with Us in accordance with our modern conventions, we would write: SENATUSPOPULUSQUEROMANUS.

The Roman Forum Guidebook Continues…

What looks like a Guinness Book of World Records entry for the longest word ever is three and a half words crammed together. Jokesters observe, “If Romans were smart enough to write, why didn’t they invent word breaks?” Yet it is exactly because they knew how to write (and read) that Romans eliminated them. Indeedifreadersareliteratespacesaswellaspunctuationareoptional. If we spoke Latin as confidently as we speak English, concatenations of Latin words would not confound us. Furthermore, spaces between words wasted expensive writing surfaces, whether costly marble or papyrus. (From ancient writing surfaces to modern hotel rooms, space has always been a luxury in Rome!) Occasionally, tick-marks separated words. If this were the case, the inscription would read SENATUS ∙ POPULUSQUE ∙ ROMANUS (which is not the case with the inscription from the House of the Vestal Virgins seen in the picture!).

Roman Forum guidebook translates SPQR at the Home of the Vestal Virgins in the Roman Forum, as seen in this detail

Now we can translate!

SENATUS (with the accent on the A) means “senate.” POPULUS (with an accent on the O) means “people.” QUE is an “enclitic particle” and attaches to the word it follows. (Enclitic comes from the ancient Greek verb “to lean.” Since QUE “leans” on the word preceding it, it does not count grammatically as a word of its own.) It translates “and.” But wait, there is catch! “And” is not the same in Latin and English. Ancient Romans talked about “cats dogs and” or FELICES ∙ CANESQUE. Their twenty-four hours were composed of “night day and,” NOCTEM ∙ DIEMQUE. Feeling generous, they gave things “to me you and,” MIHI ∙ TIBIQUE. This is clearly not the rule in English, where “and” is placed between the two words it joins. Therefore, SENATUS ∙ POPULUSQUE (“Senate People and”) reflects Latin grammar. To translate it into English, we have to move the “and,” i.e. “Senate and People.” The final word, ROMANUS (with the accent on the A), is an adjective, telling us that both the Senate and the People were Roman. In other words: “the Roman Senate and the Roman People.” The pithier, more common, and less literal translation is “the Senate and People of Rome.”

What Does It All Mean?

Roman Forum guidebook explains SPQR on the Arch of Septimius Severus seen here in the picture

The first letter of each Latin word creates a world-renowned acronym, S.P.Q.R. Whether it or SENATVSPOPVLVSQVEROMANVS shone on temples, triumphal arches, or government buildings, it acted as a monumental seal of approval, like “Made in the U.S.A.” It told ancient travelers and diplomats that they beheld Roman-certified, Roman-engineered, and Roman-approved marvels. It also expressed national pride, a “We the People” meets E Pluribus Unum–a guarantee that was written in stone!  (What Roman Forum guidebook is going to explain all that!)

S.P.Q.R. was a die-hard logo. It was used for hundreds of years on monuments all over Rome, and it ends the inscription on the Arch of Septimius Severus (in the picture). When the city of Rome tried to free itself of its papal overlord in the 1100s, the new civic government sported a self-legitimizing S.P.Q.R. Later, erudite Renaissance artists painted crucifixions in which the Roman cavalry’s red banners sported gold S.P.Q.R.s. Still a symbol of Rome’s local government, the abbreviation is now stamped on manhole covers, office buildings, ads, and public works. Attentive movie-goers saw it in Gladiator, as Russell Crowe cut an S.P.Q.R. tattoo out of his upper arm. The logo, first coined in circa 500 B.C., has been in use off and on for 2500 years. Great marketing distinguishes a great empire!

I hope you enjoyed the read! In a couple more weeks, you will be able to “dig” into another 200-some pages of my guidebook, The Roman Forum: From Outpost to Empire in Ten Easy Centuries.

Text and pictures © 2021 Daniella Hunt

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