I know that Ancient Romans avoided the word "bini" (pairs) because it sounded similar to the Ancient Greek f-word. But which word did they use instead? How would you say "four pairs" in Latin if not "quater bini"?

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    It's a bit of a stretch to believe Romans as a whole generally avoided bini just because Cicero once mentioned it in one letter.
    – Cairnarvon
    Commented Apr 17 at 20:34
  • βινεῖ means rape, a main theme in ancient relegions. So is has nothing to do with US-english definitions of f-words. Greeks and Romans didn't consider sexuality as being 'obscene' in the sense of the laws dealing with offending publications in the puritanical parts of the world.
    – Roland F
    Commented Apr 19 at 7:38
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    @RolandF βινέω is not βιάζομαι, despite the likely relation; Aristophanes uses the word three times and never with a connotation of sexual violence. The Romans absolutely did have hang-ups about sexuality (that other Cicero quote: "hodie penis est in obscenis"), they just weren't exactly the same ones we have today.
    – Cairnarvon
    Commented Apr 19 at 12:52
  • @Cairnavon Aristophanes as the master of αισχρολογια for a pur male audience is surely not representative, its not so long ago that - at least on the continent - rape was considered a possibility. My Stowasser has rape, force for βινεῖ only. Cicero, as always,knows and has both views, puritan Roman republican or Greek hedonism while for a break at Pompeji.
    – Roland F
    Commented Apr 19 at 20:27

1 Answer 1


Based on Cicero's Ad Fam 9.22, you mean?

Cum loquimur "terni," nihil flagiti dicimus; at cum "bini," obscenum est? "Graecis quidem," inquies. Nihil est ergo in verbo, quoniam et ego Graece scio et tamen tibi dico "bini"…
When we say "triples", we're saying nothing shocking, but when we say "pairs", it's obscene? "It certainly is to the Greeks", you might object. Then there's nothing [obscene] in the [form of the] word, because I know Greek, and I still say "pairs" to you.

He then goes on to argue that it's all nonsense: that words can't be obscene, and meanings can't be obscene, so obscenity can't really be a thing that exists.

But it doesn't seem like other Roman authors agreed with his friend. Cicero himself used the word quite freely in other contexts! It looks like that anecdote about bini and Greek βινεῖ was just an illustrative example; there's no real evidence that Roman authors actually avoided talking about "pairs" as a result.

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    If I'm reading this right, then from context it is pretty clear that Cicero does not think bini is obscene in Latin and intends to continue to use it. Packhum even has a question mark after obscenum est, and Graecis quidem ought to be translated "to the Greeks it certainly is." Commented Apr 18 at 6:40
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    Full context: Cum loquimur 'terni', nihil flagiti dicimus; at cum 'bini', obscenum est? 'Graecis quidem' inquies. nihil est ergo in verbo, quoniam et ego Graece scio et tamen tibi dico 'bini', idque tu facis quasi ego Graece non Latine dixerim. Commented Apr 18 at 6:44
  • @SebastianKoppehel Good point! The text I was looking at on Perseus doesn't have a question mark there, but the Loeb does, and it makes much more sense with that. I'll change my translation.
    – Draconis
    Commented Apr 18 at 15:54
  • My only minor quibble is with the last sentence, in that that the word does appear to be conspicuously absent among most "Golden Age" writers. No Caesar, Catullus, Sallust, Vergil, Horace, Tibullus, Propertius, or Ovid. Besides the two writing about words (Cicero and Varro), really only Nepos and Livy remain, and Livy isn't know for his Greek proficiency. There is indeed an absence, but maybe not something that Romans in general felt. Perhaps only those who were more attuned to its homophonous Greek profanity?
    – cmw
    Commented Apr 18 at 19:47
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    @Sebastian Koppehel: In "idque tu facis quasi ego Graece non Latine dixerim," why did Cicero use the perfect subjunctive, "dixerim"? Is it because he did not actually speak in Greek?
    – tony
    Commented Apr 19 at 11:31

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