Reference to other people's gender has become a delicate issue in today's world. I expect that the Romans had no controversy over it, but they must have encountered situations where they have to write or speak about someone whose gender is unknown.

Are there example of a Roman writer — or a character in a play or story or similar — referring to a specific person of unknown gender? If yes, how do they go about it? I can think of several approaches, like

  1. using masculine,
  2. giving two options (ille aut illa or similar),
  3. using a noun like persona, or
  4. using neuter.

I assume the answer is the first one, but I could not think of cases that actually demonstrate that this is what they would have done. My understanding is that a person of unspecified gender is grammatically masculine, but I would like to see actual use examples that corroborate this view — or show something else.

Bear in mind that I am speaking of references to a specific person of unknown gender, not a general person. That is, I am looking for something like "I'm glad that you met someone. Are they nice?" but not "If anyone enters this house, they will be barked at". Please ask for clarification if this is unclear.

  • I don't have an example for you, but keep In mind that there is no third person personal pronoun. One is using a demonstrative, just like one would use for things. It's hard to imagine one worries overmuch about the biological gender of "that, there" if it's unclear. Just use neuter for inanimate and masculine for animates that are not clearly female. A more interesting question would be whether to use masculine or neuter if it's unclear whether it's animate/human. (I actually don't remember whether to use masculine or neuter for non-human animates, but I seem to recall masculine.)
    – C Monsour
    Commented Oct 13, 2019 at 19:47
  • 1
    This is no Romans, but the Vulgate uses anima: "anima quae peccaverit...", "si peccaverit anima...". Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 15:27
  • 1
    @VladimirF That has a restricted semantic range, just like "soul(s)" in English. You wouldn't be able to say "brachium animae" for "a person's arm" and be understood, for example. People would instead think you were trying to make some really obscure philosophical point.
    – C Monsour
    Commented Oct 19, 2019 at 15:57

1 Answer 1


Though it is not about a specific person, there is a famous passage in Augustine's City of God XVI.8 about intersex people:

As for the Androgyni, or Hermaphrodites, as they are called, though they are rare, yet from time to time there appears persons of sex so doubtful, that it remains uncertain from which sex they take their name; though it is customary to give them a masculine name, as the more worthy. For no one ever called them Hermaphroditesses.

Here is the Latin:

Androgyni, quos etiam Hermaphroditos nuncupant, quamuis ad modum rari sint, difficile est tamen ut temporibus desint, in quibus sic uterque sexus apparet, ut, ex quo potius debeant accipere nomen, incertum sit; a meliore tamen, hoc est a masculino, ut appellarentur, loquendi consuetudo praeualuit. Nam nemo umquam Androgynaecas aut Hermaphroditas nuncupauit.

So by his account option 1 was customary. Augustine gives us no indication how old or how widespread this custom was, though.

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