A1_008 A taste of Military Latin with The Gallic Wars #MilLatinTaste

For centuries, no Western education was deemed complete without a comprehensive mastery of Latin. Even more than that, the language of Ancient Rome was one of the pillars of school curricula. Although such days are long gone, Classical Latin retains a powerful attraction, as clear from the presence of myriad expressions in daily speech and the specialized language of many academic and professional disciplines, from medicine to the law. Latin’s populary has been growing, slowly but steadily, over the last few years in some countries, an example being the rise in the number of English pupils choosing to take this A Level.


Many of the common Latin expressions that have survived to this day and are often used by speakers of English and other languages are related to war and the military. Just to mention a couple:

  • Alea Jacta Est. Julius Caesar’s immortal words on crossing the Rubicon, which marked the border between Italy and Galia, and thus the geographical limits of his command. By so doing, he was breaking the law, and thus had no alternative to victory, it was either taking power or losing everything. Usually translated as “the die has been cast”.
  • Si vis pacem, para bellum. Literally “If you want peace, prepare for war”, it is often cited to defend strong defence and deterrence as the best way to reduce the chances of war breaking out.


On the other hand, the study of the Roman military machine, and the figures, battles, and equipment, which enabled a small city state to end up conquering most of Europe and the Mediterranean World, including significant portions of the Middle East, is another reason drawing many to Latin. While, strictly speaking, it may not necessary to master the language in order to learn about Rome and her armies, given the extensive bibliography and other materials available in English, it is nevertheless true that the student of Roman military history will often be drawn into learning at least a few words, in order to better understand the Roman army and wider state and society. Furthermore, merely reading about Roman military history, or visiting a museum or archaeological site, not to mention walking along the magnificent Hadrian’s Wall, will bring to the fore key words without which one cannot truly understand Roman military life and exploits. Once one has become acquainted with some such words, it is only natural to want to learn more. Just to mention a couple of examples of military Latin, we have:

Contubernium (2nd declension, neuter, singular). Meaning a group of eight soldiers who shared a tent; this was the smallest grouping within a Roman army. Soldiers making up a contubernium cooked their meals together and shared a mule, which transported part of their impedimenta (equipment, supplies). A reminder of how important small unit cohesion is for an army’s morale and fighting spirit.


Castra (2nd declension, neuter, plural). This is the “camp” which a Roman unit on the march would build every evening, which would afford protection from night attacks. It can also mean more permanent fortified bases, which would later evolve into legionary bases once territorial expansion led to the deployment of a standing army across Rome’s domains. The singular form of this word, “castrum”, can be translated as castle, citadel”. A look at Northern England shows many Roman forts whose name includes “chester” or “chesters” – a derivative of “castra” which the Saxons employed to refer to a Roman fortification.


Finally, even a smattering of Latin can enable one to get in touch with some of the most interesting works of military history ever written, the most famous of which is, without a doubt, Julius Caesar’s chronicle of the conquest of Gaul. Of course, Caesar’s Gallic Wars are available in translation, but wouldn’t you like to have a go at the original? Even if just a few short passages in a parallel-text bilingual edition? Caesar understood very well the importance of putting forward, and imposing, one’s narrative. In order to make sure he got his message across, and that his victories in the field of battle translated into the political success he desperately needed, he became his own war correspondent, giving his contemporaries a chronicle of his campaigns, and later generations a template of the best classical Latin, the reason why it is often used in schools, together with Cicero’s works.


It is thus clear why we are offering an introduction to Classical Latin with Caesar’s Gallic Wars as its backbone. As its title name makes clear, our A1_008 “A taste of Military Latin with The Gallic Wars” (#MilLatinTaste), will only get you in touch with the language, be it for the first time or as a reminder of your school days. However, over four weeks you will learn some of the most important terms in the Roman military, gain an overview of Latin grammar, and will have the chance to read selected brief passages from the Gallic Wars. Hopefully, this will leave you wanting more, and eager to enrol in later, more advanced courses.

river crossing.jpg

This course is designed for complete beginners, although it is certainly also suitable for those with a basic knowledge of the language or who may have studied it years ago. In addition to providing a foundation for further study, “A taste of Military Latin with The Gallic Wars” will help you better understand Roman military history, and enhance your experience when visiting museums or archaeological remains. Stay tuned for our syllabus, and in the meantime, feel free to send us your questions and suggestions, using the hashtag #MilLatinTaste on Twitter. See you soon!

PS Please remember to have a look at the rest of our website, where you will find information about other courses, plus our blog entries.


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