Why talk about S.P.Q.R.?  Well, as the Western world collapses around us, TicTok reveals that men think about the Roman Empire daily.  I can’t vouch for men.  But I know I think about it frequently!  And one of my favorite things to mull over is S.P.Q.R.  If you don’t know anything about it, 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 in the Roman Forum. But how do we translate it?

S.P.Q.R. on the Temple of Saturn

To better understand the S.P.Q.R. acronym, we have to substitute the Vs with Us. But first, why did Romans chisel Us as if they were Vs?  Well, 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.  For example, 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 S.P.Q.R. Story 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.  “But why bother with word breaks?”  The stone mason asked himself as he pounded out the inscription for the House of the Vestal Virgins found in the Roman Forum (which you see in the picture).

SPQR outside the Home of the Vestal Virgins in the Roman Forum

Now We Can Translate S.P.Q.R.!

Let’s take the S.P.Q.R. one word at a time:

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” and write, “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?

S.P.Q.R. on the Arch of Septimius Severus

The first letter of each Latin word creates the world-renowned acronym SPQR. Both it and SENATVSPOPVLVSQVEROMANVS shone on temples, triumphal arches, and government buildings, acting 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!

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 Roman Forum.  (With some patience, you’ll tease out the S.P.Q.R. from this close-up.)  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 also 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 this snippet from The Roman Forum: From Outpost to Empire in Ten Easy Centuries. You can now find the Kindle and both black and white and color paperbacks on Amazon.

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