A Brief History
On January 10, 49 B.C., Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River as he marched toward the city of Rome with his legions. Since it was forbidden to cross the Rubicon with an army, it was seen as a threat to the Republic, and by doing so, Caesar made a bold statement about his intentions to seize power.
Ever since, when we say someone has “crossed the Rubicon,” we are talking about someone who has taken a fateful and irreversible step, such as when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. A point of no return if you will, what aviators call the “Bingo” point or “Bingo fuel,” meaning the exact amount of minimum fuel needed to return to base. Past that point, and the flier has “Crossed the Rubicon” and cannot make it back to base.
The Romans also gave us the Latin jacta alia est which translates into “the die is cast,” a meaning similar to crossing the Rubicon in that it describes events that have already been set in motion and cannot be stopped or undone. Unlike many other Latin phrases, usually we say this one in English. Another phrase used in English rather than Latin and attributed to Caesar is, “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.”
Have you ever heard about a man being “worth his salt?” This is another one of those Latin sayings that is more commonly repeated in English. Some Roman soldiers were paid in salt which was a valuable commodity those days, and a worthy person who rightly earned his pay was said to be “worth his salt.” Nowadays, this description sounds so much better than “worth his minimum wage.”
Many legal, scientific, and academic terms are largely derived from Latin and are still said in Latin. Examples include: habeas corpus; pro bono, corpus delicti; quid pro quo; pro rata; in situ; in utero; rara avis; pro tem; ad hoc; id est (ie.); exempli gratia (e.g.): and et cetera (etc.) Even the scientific classifications of plants and animals are in Latin.
The Romans also left a legacy of entire languages, with Italian, French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Romanian (well, duh!) being descended from Latin and known as “Romance Languages” because of their Roman origin. (I have not checked to see if “New Jerseyian” as an Italian dialect is considered to be a “Romance Language.”)
We also inherited the names of some of our months from the Romans as well as architectural terms such as aqueduct (aqueductus) and colosseum (Coliseum) as well as medical and biological terms such as Caesarian section and gluteus maximus. Latin influences are everywhere! What would the Catholic Church do without Latin? Speak Esperanto?
Of course, there are so many more examples of Latin used in English and other modern languages and societies. If you missed seeing any of your favorites in this article, mea culpa!
Question for students (and subscribers): Let us know what you think the greatest Roman linguistic contributions are in the comments section below this article. In the meantime, Pax.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Ehrlich, Eugene. Veni, Vidi, Vici (Second Edition): Conquer Your Enemies and Impress Your Friends with Everyday Latin. Harper Perennial, 2009.
The featured image in this article, an illustration of Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon, was originally posted to Flickr by Internet Archive Book Images at https://flickr.com/photos/126377022@N07/14596755100. It was reviewed on by FlickreviewR and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the No known copyright restrictions. The uploading organization may have various reasons for determining that no known copyright restrictions exist, such as:
- The copyright is in the public domain because it has expired;
- The copyright was injected into the public domain for other reasons, such as failure to adhere to required formalities or conditions;
- The institution owns the copyright but is not interested in exercising control; or
- The institution has legal rights sufficient to authorize others to use the work without restrictions.
More information can be found at https://flickr.com/commons/usage/.
You can also watch a video version of this article on YouTube.