Classical Latin has the word moderator, which refers to someone who manages, rules, governs, directs, or moderates. I assume it does not refer to all kinds of managers, governors and such. I also assume a moderator in Rome did not listen to all discussions in the various forums and make sure they stay on the respective topics. (I know it would make no sense.)

What did the word moderator mean for the Romans? I am not convinced that mere listed translations will capture the spirit of the word, so I would like to see a better description. What kinds of people could be referred to as moderatores? Is there some kind of management or leadership that is outside the area of a moderator?

2 Answers 2


Though it is true that a moderator is a rough equivalent of similar "governing" words like dux, curator, or arbiter, there is an important nuance that should be kept in mind when using it.

An important clue comes from its provenance: it is a verbal noun derived from moderor, -ari, which has a specific literal meaning:

I. Lit.: moderate, mitigate, restrain, allay, temper, qualify

This literal meaning obviously comes from modus, -i:

A measure which is not to be exceeded, a bound, limit, end, restriction

It is only in light of this literal meaning that the "governing" meaning came to be:

II. Transf.: to manage, regulate, rule, guide, govern, direct

My contention is that many uses (though certainly not all) carry the important nuance of limitation or restraint: if I am correct, a moderator militum is more concerned with making sure they do not step out of line, rather than leading them in a charge, as a dux or imperator might be. One good example where moderator is appropriate but other words are not is from Ovid, who is describing a horrible sickness and then remarks:

Non stratum, non ulla pati velamina possunt,
dura sed in terra ponunt praecordia; nec fit
corpus humo gelidum, sed humus de corpore fervet.
Nec moderator adest, inque ipsos saeva medentes
erumpit clades... (Ov Meta 7:558-562)

My translation:

They cannot bear any coverlet or sheets,
but instead place their bodies on the hard earth; nor does their body
cool down in contact with the ground, but the ground heats up from their body.
Nor is there any one to provide relief, since the raging illness
has infected the healers themselves.

To summarize:

  1. There is no specific public or private function referred to by moderator.
  2. A moderator is one who provides a modus to something.

    a. This can be figurative, in which case its meaning isn't much different from other "governing" words, or:

    b. This can be literal, in which case it specifically refers to restraint (moderator libidinis) or limitation.

  • 2
    Interestingly, your answer is a good description what a moderator does on SE. Their main duty is to make sure that behavior stays within certain limits, not so much to lead into any particular direction.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Dec 9, 2016 at 18:15
  • @JoonasIlmavirta I thought they were more of a caretaker than a true, [internet-]forum-style moderator.
    – cmw
    Dec 9, 2016 at 18:24
  • 1
    @cmw It's true that all users can participate in the traditional internet-forum-moderator duties and the moderators just make sure things work as they should. Taking care and setting boundaries is essentially the same thing here, since the SE team is responsible for all things technical. Aspects and viewpoints change, but it seems most online moderators do what a Roman moderator would.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Dec 9, 2016 at 18:30

I think that moderator had no very specific meaning beyond the one for the context in which a particular example might be found. Would the word controller make a more comprehensive translation? Contrary to what you seem to be suggesting, it can replace any one or other of your five given examples, to which you might also add restrainer: in other words, moderator could provide a decent alternative to gubernator, curator, dux, administrator and so on, more or less at the writer's whim.

Ovid uses it, for example, for a handler of tools or instruments (Meta. VIII.856), or animals (Meta. IV, 245), where in each instance he may have rejected, say, actor to satisfy either metre or style.

I have no idea that a moderator did as you choose not to assume, by regulating discussions in the Forum, etc. — and there you have another possibility in regulator —though I can scarcely believe that such a busybody would have been given much shrift!

  • You can add procurator and, getting a little metaphorical, arbiter, too.
    – cmw
    Dec 7, 2016 at 17:06
  • Quite! and others, I should think.
    – Tom Cotton
    Dec 7, 2016 at 17:07

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