When traveling in Europe, I occasionally come across Latin inscriptions. Their ages vary greatly, and I would like to get some tools for quickly estimating their age. How can I tell if an inscription is classical or later? What should I look for in an inscription to decide whether it is classical or not?

It would be great if you could show a couple of photos and tell about their "dating signs". I am not looking for a full scientific method to date an inscription, but a quick way to reasonably guess what is ancient and what is not.

If you think there is no simple rule of thumb, please explain why so.

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    I look at the material, to what extent the stone is worn down...other things to look for are any Christian references, such as IHS, XPO, AMEN, AD, DOM (perhaps this was used by the Romans too, but I've only seen it in Christian inscriptions). And years... But anyway, when you read the transcription, even if there are many abbreviations you don't know, the content will usually give you an idea of what period it is from?
    – Cerberus
    Commented Oct 12, 2016 at 3:14
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    @Cerberus, are Christian sign common enough that one should suspect that the inscription is pre-Christian if no such sign is found? Years are certainly a good thing to look for. Maybe I can make guesses based on the content, but I'm rarely confident with my conclusions. How did materials change with eras? It could be a useful sign, but I don't know how to interpret it. By wear alone, I can't tell 200 AD and 800 AD apart.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Oct 12, 2016 at 7:58

1 Answer 1


There are several noticeable differences between Latins, but I think that the most important would be the vocabulary and punctuation. Rather than using sum and eram, in Medieval Latin, one might use fui and fueram. New Latin and even Renaissance Latin adopted many words from Old French, Greek, and similar languages, like systema and nostalgia. Sentence spacing also came about in the fifteenth century, as well as an even earlier example of paragraphs in the Lyon Table. (EDIT) Also pay attention to spellings. If caelum is spelled "coelum", the text comes from Medieval times, but I have seen alternate spellings like this as far as 1658, when Orbis Sensualium Pictus was published. Furthermore, note that inscriptions from at least 150 AD confuse or simply incorrectly spell words by interchanging "f" and "ph."

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    Can you explain your comment about fui and fueram? I've never come across esse as a defective verb in the medieval Latin I have read.
    – brianpck
    Commented Feb 6, 2017 at 15:04
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    I suppose that the usage of fui and fueram may have simply been a common occurrence in Medieval texts, along with the addition of several new words and spellings which lead to the confusing and sometimes nonexistent spelling rules of languages like Middle English and extinct Germanic tongues of various sorts. Some Medieval dictionaries may insist that fui and fueram were defective. Commented Feb 7, 2017 at 0:34

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