I was searching for animals in Latin, and I ended up finding that the Romans knew zebras, and they used them to pull chariots. They also had the name "hippotigris". However, I couldn’t find any author talking about them. Does anybody know if that name was really used?


1 Answer 1


I could not find any word for 'zebra' that is attested in ancient Latin texts.

"Hippotigris" is the Latinized form of a Ancient Greek compound derived from ἵππος 'horse' and τίγρις 'tiger'. The LSJ dictionary of Ancient Greek has an entry for ἱππό-τιγρις, but defines it as "a large kind of tiger". However, the first page of the article "Zebras in Greek and Roman Antiquity", by Monika Błaśkiewicz, says that this definition is erroneous, and that ἱππότιγρις did indeed refer to zebras. All of the mentioned examples occur in Greek, not in Latin texts. However, Cassius Dio was a Roman citizen. Even if we don't have direct evidence of usage in Latin, I think it's plausible that educated Latin speakers in ancient times could have encountered this term. More recently, it has been used in taxonomy, where zebras are categorized as belonging to the genus equus, subgenus Hippotigris.

The modern word zebra is generally supposed to have developed from Latin equiferus, which literally means 'wild horse' and apparently had that meaning in antiquity. When writing for a contemporary audience, it seems unobjectionable to me to just use the modern word in Latin as zebra, zebrae: that seems to be the choice made by the editors of this Latin Wikipedia article. But hippotigris seems a fine choice also.

Zebra, zebrae would probably be used as an epicene noun of feminine grammatical gender (based on its declension and its gender in modern Romance languages).

Hippotigris would probably follow the base noun tigris in its gender and declension: tigris is usually masculine in prose, but can also be feminine (compare also canis 'dog'). In Greek, the paraphrase of Timothy of Gaza uses ἱππότιγρις with the masculine article ὁ. Tigris declines in Latin as a third-declension noun with a variable stem and endings (the genitive can be tigris or tigridis, the accusative singular can be tigrin or tigrim, and other variable forms are discussed in the linked dictionary entry).

Citations of ἱππότιγρις in Ancient Greek

Cassius Dio: Book 77 (or 78 per Perseus's numbering scheme, English translation on Bill Thayer's web site):

ἐλέφαντα μὲν γὰρ καὶ ῥινοκέρωτα καὶ τίγριν καὶ ἱππότιγριν ἐν οὐδενὶ λόγῳ θείη ἄν τις φονευομένους ἐν τῷ θεάτρῳ

Timothy of Gaza (Byzantine-era summary of his 5th-century work):

περὶ ἱπποτίγρεως. ὅτι ὁ ἱππότιγρις ἔοικε τοῖς ἀγρίοις ὄνοις. ἔστι δὲ ταχύτατον ζῷον.

  • 2
    You beat me to the punch, but for those looking, the published Supplement to the LSJ corrects the error and rightly has "zebra" as the definition. Likewise, Montanari's recent Greek English dictionary (Brill, 2015) has "zebra", too.
    – cmw
    Commented Apr 26, 2023 at 2:48
  • 5
    My vote is with hippotigris as the better Latin term, since it's attested, and therefore no new, modern words need to be coined over it.
    – cmw
    Commented Apr 26, 2023 at 2:49

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