Any beginning Latin learner discovers that English "man" has two translations: homo, when referring to a man as opposed to another species, and vir, when referring to a man as opposed to a woman.

I am curious about how well this distinction works, though. For instance, consider the following line from Plautus:

Homo hic ebrius est, ut opinor. (Amphitruo, 574)

This man is drunk, I think.

In my mind--perhaps because of the hic--this could only refer to a male. The following two contrived sentences, though, strike me as incorrect:

Helena homo est.

Hae mulieres homines sunt.

My question: Are there are any cases where homo alone refers to a single woman or where homines refers to a group of just women?


To add some clarity about my question, I am primarily curious about the word homo itself: whether it can refer to an individual woman. Here's a Corpus search for "homo es[t]": I wonder if any of the 94 results refer to a woman, e.g.:

Iulia, homo es!

Assuming this is possible, a second interesting question (addressed by many of the below answers) is whether this homo is epicene (always masculine, regardless of who it refers to) or if it is common (masculine or feminine, depending on who it refers to). In other words, should I write:

Iulia, homo es bonus!


Iulia, homo es bona!

  • 2
    Nice question. I'd be interested to know whether homo really is common gender. L&S and Cassell's both seem to imply so by not stating a gender, but I wonder if there are any examples of a feminine adjective or participle agreeing with homo.
    – TKR
    Commented Feb 10, 2017 at 0:59
  • 1
    There's an extremely interesting book on this (and much more) by Francesca Santoro L'Hoir (1992) brill.com/rhetoric-gender-terms
    – Alex B.
    Commented Feb 10, 2017 at 19:51
  • For some reason, Adams 1972 didn't discuss this use of homo in Latin Words for 'Woman' and 'Wife' jstor.org/stable/40266240 But OLD clearly states 1. a human being (of either sex). We'll have to look it up in TLL and study the examples there. degruyter.com/view/TLL/6-3-16/6_3_16_homo_v2007.xml?
    – Alex B.
    Commented Feb 10, 2017 at 20:07

4 Answers 4


In the Plautus passage, it has to be a man because of not only hic, but also ebrius.

L&S's entry for homo lists several examples:

Of females: mater, cujus ea stultitia est, ut eam nemo hominem appellare possit,” Cic. Clu. 70, 199: “quae (Io) bos ex homine est,” Ov. F. 5, 620; Juv. 6, 284: “dulcissimum ab hominis camelinum lac,” Plin. 28, 9, 33, § 123: homines feminae (opp. mares homines), Aug. Civ. Dei, 3, 3.—

  • 1
    This is great--homines feminae is so odd to my ears!
    – brianpck
    Commented Feb 9, 2017 at 21:22
  • @brianpck I'll second that. It's not a huge selection of examples, and I've rarely seen them, so your intuition isn't unfounded.
    – cmw
    Commented Feb 9, 2017 at 21:39
  • 1
    Would it not be possible for "ebrius" to be used in reference to a female simply because of the grammatical gender of "homo"?
    – Asteroides
    Commented Feb 9, 2017 at 23:16
  • @Asteroides I assume it's possible that when applied to a woman it could take on the feminine gender, like miles does (cf. Ovid Heroides 11.48). Unfortunately, the Augustine reference is in the dative.
    – cmw
    Commented Feb 9, 2017 at 23:25

Gender assignment in Latin is an issue too complex to cover in one post.

I follow Greville Corbett (e.g. Corbett 1991) in maintaining the difference between common nouns (grammatical gender varies between feminine or masculine, depending on the biological sex of the referent) and epicene nouns (grammatical gender is fixed and cannot be overwritten by the biological sex of the referent).

Tronskii 1960 (2001 ed.) writes that auctor and heres were originally used as epicene nouns but later started being used as common nouns. Homo was used as an epicene noun (p. 317).

As for the idiomatic, actual use of homo in Latin as a form of address, here's an illustrative entry from Dickey 2002 ("Latin forms of address: From Plautus to Apuleius"):

enter image description here

  • 1
    Thanks! This whole question seems to have been side-tracked by the question of whether homo is epicene or common, but that's really only tangential to my actual question, which is whether homo can be used of a single woman, regardless of its grammatical gender.
    – brianpck
    Commented Feb 10, 2017 at 18:21
  • Epicene nouns can be used for masc. and fem. referents and the biological sex of the referent cannot overwrite the grammatical gender of the noun.
    – Alex B.
    Commented Feb 10, 2017 at 18:26
  • 2
    Exactly: so my question is not whether I need to write "Aemilia est homo bonus" or "...bona" but rather whether homo is an appropriate choice at all. (Assuming the answer to the second question is "yes," the first question immediately becomes interesting.)
    – brianpck
    Commented Feb 10, 2017 at 18:28
  • 1
    @brianpck Perhaps you could add that remark to your question. It would help to further clarify that you are not interested in the gender of the word homo, but in whether it is appropriate for a woman.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Feb 10, 2017 at 19:02

Genus hominum is the race of (all) mankind. Homo is a common noun, but its meaning is restricted in the same kind of way as 'woman' in English : that is to say, in the way that all ladies are women, but not all women are ladies (!), all mulieres are homines, but not all homines are mulieres. Everything else follows, and I'm sure that your instinct is correct; though I think the point is too narrow to be worth the effort of chasing down examples to show that homo/homines is ever used to refer to a woman/women.

The whole, splendid denunciation from Cicero pro Clu. 70, 199 may interest and even amuse you. My interpretation is that the lady (or woman!) being attacked isn't worthy of the name of human :

At quae mater? Quam caecam crudelitate et scelere ferri videtis; cuius cupiditatem nulla umquam turpitudo retardavit; quae vitiis animi in deterrimas partes iura hominum convertit omnia; cuius ea stultitia est ut eam nemo hominem, ea vis ut nemo feminam, ea crudelitas ut nemo matrem appellare possit. Atque etiam nomina necessitudinum, non solum naturae nomen et iura mutavit, uxor generi, noverca filii, filiae pelex; eo iam denique adducta est ut sibi praeter formam nihil ad similitudinem hominis reservarit.


Are there are any cases where homo alone refers to a single woman or where homines refers to a group of just women?

I'm no Latin specialist, though i remember something, and I know several other languages. Traditionally and historically, the word for man is applied to mankind (even in English). Thus group of men are derived from the stam of man/mankind.

So to answer your question, I think to avoid misunderstandings it's a clear NO, they didn't mix concepts when possible.


Iulia bonus homo est << this is correct, Iulia is a good person
"Iulia" (Iulia - substantive) "bonus homo" (a good person - adjective) "est" (is - verb)
see "bonus homo" as an expression as a whole, a composed adjective with it's own gender, and who's gender does not adapt to the subjective in the phrase. 

Iulia bona homo est  << this is wrong, homo needs to be handled as grammatical male, 
though you can use it for a female

EDIT: Whereas, however, ἄνθρωπος (anthropos in greek) really is a common noun, being used freely to refer specifically to both men and women, homo is rarely, if ever, feminine other than in grammar books.

EDIT: even though homo is handled as a grammatical male, a female can be part of it. In this sense it is to be seen as an epicene. It is declined and adjectivized as male, but can be used as an adjective for female subjects. Now: turning your question around: It would be gramatically correct to use homo when refering to one woman or a group of women, BUT ONLY if the feminine gender would be clearly understandable within the context... otherwise i would recommend the use of femina or mulier as much more appropriate choice to avoid misunderstanding and to be clear what gender your are referring to...

femina - feminae , mulier - muliebris

are common concepts for a woman, and a group of women. It thus may be in a philosophical discussion you could find references using homo.

The same applies for example in Spanish:

El hombre = mankind & the man, la mujer = the woman, hombres = a group of men, mujeres = a group of women

Now, to spice it up, there are exceptions: For example when a group of people is integrated by men and one or more women, there it could be possible that the term homines could be used. At least in Spanish, for simplicity's sake, most people would refer to such a group as "un grupo de hombres", and thus implicitly including 0 to several female in this group, nowadays it probably would be specified "un grupo de hombres y dos mujeres"...

A male-centered world view, I think, gave us this legacy.

  • 2
    Thanks for your comments! You seem to be confirming my starting premise, that homines wouldn't usually refer to a group of women as such, but my question is about whether it can be done, not whether there are more common ways to do this.
    – brianpck
    Commented Feb 9, 2017 at 23:10
  • made some edits pointing out that: a) It's gramatically correct to treat a female as homo and b) but only if the gender of a female homo is clearly readable within the context. otherwise, it is recommended to use a gender specific femina or mulier. That is mainly because declination and adjectivization of homo is always masculine, so when referring to homo as "one female" it needs to be fully clear within the rest of the phrase, for example by a name or a woman-specific attribute, what gender we're referring to. If unclear within the context, it's assumed to be male. Commented Feb 12, 2017 at 17:43

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.