The wikipedia page on the Sator Square (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sator_Square) says that the sentence "SATOR AREPO TENET OPERA ROTAS" is a grammatical sentence and translates it as "The farmer Arepo uses a plough as a form of work".
However, I don't really get how they obtained the translation. The word "Arepo" is probably the name of the sower (even though it could have a different meaning), but that is not the main issue.
"Tenere" means "to hold" and "opera" is the accusative plural of "opus", that is "work". Also, "rotas" is the accusative plural of "rota", or "wheel". But I don't really know, which word relates to which. "Tenere" takes an accusative object, but there are 2 in the sentence. Could someone explain, or offer a better translation?

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    Could it perhaps hold the same meaning as, what you sow is what you will reap or what goes around comes around just as a wheel keeps turning. Perhaps was used as a curse in a ritual.
    – Jessy
    Commented Mar 10 at 11:58

4 Answers 4


I think the intention is that opera is a singular ablative of the feminine noun opera, not a form of opus. Among other things, opera means "work".

Starting with the other words, Sator Arepo tenet rotas means "the sower Arepo has/holds wheels". Adding an ablative to describe circumstances, we get something like "the sower Arepo has/holds wheels for (the purpose of) work". The translation "as a form of work" makes sense, too. It is not more specific than "there is a work-related reason that the sower Arepo holds wheels", but that feels clumsy as a translation.

Interpreting a sower as a farmer is reasonable, but taking wheels to stand for a plough seems to be a farther fetch. Having specifically a plough seems to come more from sator (what tools could one use in such work?) than rotas.

The translation is a little forced; the restriction of making the words go nicely in a square is too much for fluent language unless one has extraordinary luck. Therefore one might have to be a little flexible or creative with grammar to make it work.

The square looks nice, though:


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    llmavirta: a primitive plough consisted of a blade between two wheels; "wheels" as a slang term for plough is easy to understand; but, not easy to prove. That the square violates grammar in order to "work" is well-known.
    – tony
    Commented Jun 27, 2019 at 18:10
  • @tony Indeed, some flexibility and creativity is needed to parse the sentence. I agree that "wheels" could make a reasonable reference to a plough, but the dictionary entries I consulted for rota made no such mention. Therefore I thought the translation is more honest as "wheels". If the reader interprets the wheels as a plough or a carriage or something else, that is their judgement. I get the impression that the interpretation as a plough comes mainly from the word sator, as that work restricts the possible set of tools.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Jun 27, 2019 at 18:16
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    The 1938 interpretation in S.Paul by J Carcopino was very influential and probably fixed the association with Christianity AND with plough.
    – Hugh
    Commented Jun 29, 2019 at 1:49
  • @Hugh Can you add that as a separate answer? That is crucial insight into how the square is usually translated.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Jun 29, 2019 at 4:38

The farmer Arepo possesses (tenet) the wheels (accusative-plural of "rota" ="rotas" [presumably a plough]) as the works (his job; noun "opus") opera (acc. pl.).

It may be that in order to make the square work a word was missed out e.g. "pro" = "for", as in "for (his) work", giving "pro opere"; which would have compromised the square.


The letters can be rearranged to spell "PaterNostre" from left to right and top to bottom sharing the "N". The "A" and an "O" are left over which are a reference to the Greek letters for Alpha and Omega. The Latin words were simply what could be created from the available letters and don't mean anything other than the words themselves.

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    Isn't it "pater noster", not "pater nostras"? There are four Es in the square and only two As.
    – Draconis
    Commented Apr 23, 2020 at 4:22
  • Welcome to the site! Could you illustrate this with a picture or something? I can't quite follow your description of how to read pater noster and have A and O left over.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Apr 23, 2020 at 7:06
  • The paternoster interpretation is an invention of the 1920s and doesn't show up in the Christian traditions that claim the Sator Square. It's not clear that the Sator Square was originally Christian.
    – Cairnarvon
    Commented Apr 24, 2020 at 20:56

‘A’ - from/away Repo, sneak, creep or crawl,

Earliest version known begins with rotas.

The wheel away I creep holds the works of the farmer or as some like to translate sator as father Thus The wheel away I creep holds the works ‘of’ the father Or as a sator square The father the works holds away I crawl the wheel. But I may also be wrong.

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    Ab- as a verbal prefix only loses its b when it precedes m or v. Neither arepo nor abrepo is attested historically, and it wouldn't really make any grammatical sense either. (The first word can't be rotas without also switching arepo and opera, or you'd have ratos orepa tenet apero sotar vertically.)
    – Cairnarvon
    Commented Aug 9, 2021 at 22:29

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