This issue came up in an answer and comments to this earlier question about comparing liberi and filii, and I think it's important enough to be treated in a separate question. Also, the answer to this one is not really crucial for the other question.

Does liberi only refer to free children? It would make sense since this word for children looks a lot like the adjective "free". But this could be coincidental, or the connection could have been lost. What are the most important reasons to believe one way or another, or to believe that it is not or cannot be known?

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    Doing some rudimentary research (like looking up the definition in Lewis and Short) would go a long way in making this a more solid question (and would save answers an extra step).
    – cmw
    Commented Feb 12, 2017 at 20:26
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    I looked it up in a couple of books and it looks like liberi implies legal descent (Treggiari 2005; cf. liberi naturales) and their place in the wider community (Wiedemann 1989), as opposed to pueri, where the focus is on the household/family. Will write more later - there's a lot of research on this.
    – Alex B.
    Commented Feb 13, 2017 at 5:56
  • So far, feel free to look it up in Gray-Fow 1985 The Nomenclature and Stages of Roman Childhood
    – Alex B.
    Commented Feb 13, 2017 at 6:09
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    @C.M.Weimer Agreed. I could have done my homework better. It's just that I prefer to use my Latin–Finnish dictionaries (I prefer printed and Finnish sources), and they don't give nearly as much background as some English ones.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Feb 13, 2017 at 7:54

3 Answers 3


It is generally accepted that liberi “children” is the same word as liber “free, not slave”. So, etymologically liberi are “free-born offspring of either sex”. But it is an error to assume that the semantic scope of any given word is fully determined by its etymology. Roman authors use liberi to mean “children” without necessarily commenting on their legal status. Lewis and Short adduce, among other passages, the very early writer Plautus as referring to liberi oves “young sheep” (“liberis orbas oves,” Plaut. Capt. 4, 2, 3). It is thus reasonable to assume that liberi as a general term for “offspring” is inherited from Italic.


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    I don't understand the assumption in the last sentence -- why would the word's use in Plautus imply that it's inherited from Italic?
    – TKR
    Commented Feb 12, 2017 at 20:31
  • @TKR. It suggests that it is old, and raises the query of whether the legal sense (“legitimate freeborn children”) is not the result of a re-etymologisation in the classical period.
    – fdb
    Commented Feb 12, 2017 at 21:23
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    Old relative to what? Plautus and Proto-Italic (if PI really existed) were probably a couple of millennia apart in time -- it's hardly significant from that perspective whether a word appears in Plautus or, say, in Cicero. That said, there does seem to be some comparative evidence as de Vaan cites a Venetic form louderai "?for a daughter" (but the position of Venetic is disputed).
    – TKR
    Commented Feb 12, 2017 at 22:37
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    +1, especially for mentioning the etymological fallacy.
    – brianpck
    Commented Feb 13, 2017 at 16:11

The OLD says: liberi "sons and daughters, children (in connection with their parents)."

First of all, it is important to remember that, as Osgood 2011 puts it,

"... it was of great concern to determine the legal status of any children born: Romans guarded citizenship rights jealously" (p. 76; emphasis mine - Alex B.).

I'm no expert in Roman law but it seems to me liberi quite often implied legal descent and hence inheritance rights, cf.

"At parentes, si pergunt liberi errare, bonis exheredant" (Gellius)

or the very phrase liberi naturales (legitimized children in concubinatus, who could become legitimi in the absence of other legitimate children and their mother must have been free-born),

or the famous law, Ius trium liberorum.

In Senatus consultum de Asclepiade Clazomenio sociisque (78 BC) we read the following:

enter image description here

“... whatever inheritances have come to them or their children by chance, / these are to fully hold, possess and enjoy; whatever lawsuits they, their children, their descendants or their wives may bring against another person, or / if other persons bring lawsuits against them, their children, their descendants or their wives, these men, their children, or their wives are to have the right of choice …” [English translation by Andrea Raggi; Raggi 2001]

In pre-classical Latin inscriptions traces of the original diphthong can be seen, e.g. LEIBEREIS (oi > ei, cf. Weiss 2009/2011, pp. 102-103).

Wiedemann 1989/2014 summarizes it nicely:

"The most common word, liberi, is associated with the concept of libertas, 'freedom', not in our western liberal sense of being independent of others, but in the sense of being a member of the (free) community; it is philologically cognate with the Greek word for freedom, eleutheria, but also with the German word for 'people', Leute. The liberi were on the one hand those junior members of a household who were free, as opposed to the slaves, servi; and on the other hand a collective group of free-born Roman boys and girls, contrasted with adults of citizen status. They were the future citizen community.

The other common word for child puer, refers to the junior members of the family or household; in the classical period, the same word is used for the free-born children of the paterfamilias, and for his slaves, whatever their age."

TLL (Thesaurus linguae Latinae) confirms this:

enter image description here


Yes, liberi means free children. Pueri is the generic word.

Gaffiot quotes namely Cicero: liber, qui de matre libera, liber est. The same Gaffiot, under liberi gives an even more restrictive definition of free boys (not girls).

  • Interesting that Cicero's definition seems to differ from Plautus's usage.
    – Figulus
    Commented May 6, 2023 at 3:12

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