The English phrase "once upon a time" at the beginning of a story immediately sets the genre and style to a great extent. Is there a similar device, possibly a phrase, in Latin? It does not have to mean the same as "once upon a time" nor give the promise of a fairy tale. The exact genre is irrelevant; what I am interested in is promising the audience very quickly what kind of a story is to be expected.

I want to rule out metre as a promise of poetry. Metric poetry can often be recognized from the first few words and is common in Latin literature.

The opening could be a phrase, a structure, a metric bit in prose, a choice of person or tense, or some such feature. It recently occurred to me that I am not aware of anything like that in Latin, and it is of course quite possible that there is none.

  • 1
    There is a translation of several fairy tales by the Grimm brothers (made by one Franz Schlosser, a highschool Latin teacher), published under the title: Erat olim (and also, with a different publisher, as: Et nisi mortui sunt …). But these are just translations of the Grimms' signature phrases. Commented Jul 26, 2020 at 20:43
  • @SebastianKoppehel Our local, late Saxon, foundation legend starts Erat Merwaldus Rex...
    – Hugh
    Commented Jul 27, 2020 at 0:38
  • @Joonas llmavirta: Seb has given "olim", which I have seen translated as "once upon a time" (can't remember where). Oxford offers: "olim" = "formerly"; "in past times" (and changing tense); at a future time; some day; sometimes. A one-word answer, "olim", may not be exactly what you seek but it's not far off.
    – tony
    Commented Jul 27, 2020 at 10:22
  • @tony I'm not looking for a translation of "once upon a time" at all, but a Latin device that sets expectations in a similar fashion. It could be something like alliteration promising satire.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Jul 27, 2020 at 11:00

1 Answer 1


The embedded story in Apuleius, Metamorphoses IV.28–VI.24 (the so-called 'Tale of Cupid and Psyche') has elements of a fairy tale. It's referred to as belonging to the category of narrationes lepidae anilesque fabulae and begins like this:

erant in quadam civitate rex et regina.

There were in a certain city a king and a queen.

The indefinite quadam civitate has, I think, the same sort of distancing effect as 'once upon a time' does in English, though in space rather than in time.

Another story that opens with such an indefinite – though of identity instead of either time or place – is the story of the widow of Ephesus in Petronius, Satyricon 111–112. This story has elements of a folk tale at any rate, if not of a fairy tale, and begins like this:

matrona quaedam Ephesi tam notae erat pudicitiae ut vicinarum quoque gentium feminas ad spectaculum sui evocaret.

At Ephesus, there was a certain matrona...

Another significant feature that is shared by the opening of both these stories is that the main characters are described as somehow more than human. One often finds this feature in, e.g., the tales of the Brothers Grimm. In Petronius, the widow has 'such marked chastity that she drew even the women of the neighboring popuations to the spectacle that she presented.' In Apuleius, the second sentence of the tale describes Psyche (and her sisters) thus:

hi tres numero filias forma conspicuas habuere, sed maiores quidem natu, quamvis gratissima specie, idonee tamen celebrari posse laudibus humanis credebantur, at vero puellae iunioris tam praecipua tam praeclara pulchritudo nec exprimi ac ne sufficienter quidem laudari sermonis humani penuria poterat.

These had three daughters, conspicuous in their beauty; however, although the elder daughters were of pleasing appearance, still, they were believed capable of being suitably celebrated by human praise. But the prettiness of the youngest girl was so outstanding, so exceptional, that it couldn't be expressed or even sufficiently praised due to the shortcomings of human speech.

  • Good finding! I think that it could be relevant to add the immediately previous context in Latin (cf. incipit). For example, Pinkster (2015: 1112), when discussing the meaning of quadam, also gives the entire example including the very relevant previous text: 'Sed ego te narrationibus lepidis anilibusque fabulis protinus avocabo', et incipit: 'Erant in quadam civitate rex et regina...'.
    – Mitomino
    Commented Jul 27, 2020 at 20:49
  • It can be useful to take a look at the following book by Laura Gibbs bestlatin.net/1001latin/download/MilleFabulae101.pdf and make a search of relevant words like quidam, quondam, olim, etc. The number of hits is quite significant. Cf. also the prominent position of these words in many fables.
    – Mitomino
    Commented Jul 28, 2020 at 3:14
  • While I (3 years ago) upvoted this answer and very much like it, I am still left wanting a phrase that indicates the spatial distance from the present, like olim. That is, of course, the first thing I thought of, but I thought I would make a comment here in case you came across anything more similar to a more literal analogue of the phrase in Joonas' question.
    – cmw
    Commented Sep 10, 2023 at 4:50

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