Latin mottos have been popular in Europe for centuries, but I have never seen anything comparable to a motto from the Roman era. When did first Latin mottos appear? (Examples of individual early mottos make nice partial answers, if you have such.)

The answer depends on what one means by a motto. For example, candida pro causa ense candido is a motto but senatus populusque Romanus is not. I like the definition given in Wikipedia: A motto (derived from the Latin muttum, 'mutter', by way of Italian motto, 'word', 'sentence') is a maxim, a phrase meant to formally summarize the general motivation or intention of an individual, family, social group or organization.

An insightful quote is not necessarily a motto. A phrase becomes a motto when some person or institution adopts it as their motto. To describe a motto well, one needs to give the motto itself and tell whose motto it is. My example motto above was from C. G. E. Mannerheim, but I resist the urge to go into Finnish history for details. I could rephrase the question: When did someone first take a Latin motto?

Note: I have accepted an answer. More answers are still welcome, and if someone has an earlier motto or a better explanation to offer, I am (as always) willing to accept a new answer.

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    Delenda est Carthago.
    – Hugh
    Nov 27, 2016 at 12:21
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    Can't improve on Cato! It's got all the qualifications. As to anything else, it's as well to remember the Royal Society's motto, 'Nullius in verba' or 'take nobody's word for it'.
    – Tom Cotton
    Nov 27, 2016 at 17:39
  • This question was posed too close to Christmas. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_cracker Christmas Crackers: Typically the... contents are a ... paper hat; a small ... trinket and a motto, a joke, a riddle on a small strip of paper
    – Hugh
    Nov 28, 2016 at 23:58
  • ...and too soon after a pursuit of mottoes carved onto timber buildings. Many such aphorisms were taken from these collections: emblems.arts.gla.ac.uk/french/index.php
    – Hugh
    Nov 29, 2016 at 0:03

2 Answers 2


The College of British Arms, dating from the 15th century, records mottos in various languages (e.g. Ich Dien, for the Princes of Wales, Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense on the Royal Arms, Semper Eadem on the Arms of Elizabeth I of England), though mainly they were in Latin and specially composed to touch on some such desirable quality in the family as valour, fortitude, wisdom, etc. Mottos claimed to be earlier tend to be a bit doubtful, with many being obviously fake (one claimed for my wife's family, supposed to date from William I, is so awful as barely to qualify as Latin). I can only speculate that, before the conquest, we should need to look at descriptions or paintings of military or religious banners, where we would need to be quite careful about accepting them as genuine evidence.

The option that I prefer for defining a motto is a maxim to live or act by, and I suggest that a motto in Latin is either an adaptation of a classical quotation, or a purpose-formed phrase. The question is to find out when and how this came about or, if you like, came to be formalised. However, to answer your question When did first Latin mottos appear? the earliest genuine mottos that I can trace are the two attributed to Eton College that I have already given in a comment (Floreat Etona / Esto perpetua). The inscriptions on hastae said to have been used by legionaries to identify their weapons after a battle (from memory, in passages by Plutarch and Livy), sometimes called mottos, do not really qualify for, although they may have been the earliest recorded in Latin, they were no more than their commander's name.

Certainly, various well-known phrases from classical sources have been used in Britain from the Norman Conquest up to the present. The edge of the current English £1 coin has DECUS ET TUTAMEN (Aeneid V.202). Mens sana in corpore sano (Juv. Sat.X.356) is often used (especially in novels) as the underlying principle on which English public (viz. private!) schools were founded and run, and may qualify as a motto; Horace's O dulce et decorum est pro patria mori has been used as a motto to urge soldiers to their duty (see the famously bitter WW1 poem of Wilfred Owen, Dulce et Decorum Est).

  • Nice find on Eton. It beats Oxford's Dominus Illuminatio Meus by a century. I'd say Semper Eadem should count, too.
    – cmw
    Dec 1, 2016 at 20:19

Greek influence:
Ars longa: Vita brevis; 'Life so short: the craft so long to learn.' modernised from Chaucer's English, is a Latin translation from Hippocrates: and two other Greek mottos are widely known: 'Know thyself;' and 'Not too much.'

There was only one genuine Aesop's fable: "A dumb slave was accused of eating expensive food,a gift to his owner. He vomited into a bucket; and without words proved his innocence." But there were many 'Aesop's fables' (right up to Lafontaine's French version) and they all traditionally ended with a motto.

Latin originals:
Carpe diem certainly became a motto: 'Grab your opportunity.' Whether Horace (Odes 1,2,8) thought of it as a motto, or, if not, when it became a motto, who knows?
The same applies to the many other quotations from The Odes, and Satires; Petit Larousse has a good collection in the pink pages.

Fugit irreparabile tempus is Virgil, Georgics. 'Time flies and cannot be recovered,'

Delenda est Carthago, 'Carthage must be destroyed' was deliberately used as a motto, une ide'e fixe, added to every sort of debate in the Senate, by the elder Cato according to Florus (Hist Rom 2.13)

  • The Eton College (arms granted in1449) website has 'floreat Etona', but suggests that 'Esto perpetua' may be earlier.
    – Tom Cotton
    Nov 28, 2016 at 19:30
  • An insightful line of poem or prose that becomes famous is not necessarily a motto. It can become a motto if some person or institution adopts it as their motto. Whose mottoes were the ones you propose? A single instance does not qualify something as a motto, unless stated very clearly as a motto. How often were the mottoes repeated? I understand the last one as the elder Cato's motto (+1), but the others do not look like mottoes (unless further context is given). Perhaps I could rephrase the question: When did someone first adopt a motto?
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Nov 28, 2016 at 19:48
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    @JoonasIlmavirta Actually, that likely wasn't Cato's motto after all. See Charles Little's "The Authenticity and Form of Cato's Saying "Carthago Delenda Est" in CJ 29.6 (1934): 429–435.
    – cmw
    Nov 29, 2016 at 23:27
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    "Traditionally ended with a motto." Surely you mean aphorism or proverb, not motto?
    – cmw
    Nov 29, 2016 at 23:28

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