In the first chapter of Lingua Latina per se Ilustrata, there are a series of sentences used to teach the usage of two adjectives, magnus and parvus. For example:

Nīlus fluvius magnus est. Tiberis nōn est fluvius magnus, Tiberis fluvius parvus est. (22–23)

Sicilia īnsula magna est. Melita est īnsula parva. (29)

The context for these sentences is a map that clearly shows the relative sizes of islands, and the relative lengths of rivers. Thus it seems that here parvus and magnus are being used to communicate both ideas. But in English, a "big river" to me is one that is primarily wide or deep, not so much long. Similarly a "small river" is usually easy to cross, but not necessarily short.

My question, then, is, do parvus and magnus strongly indicate the length of a river? Are they suitable adjectives when clarity in this sense is needed? Or for the elimination of ambiguity is it necessary to use other adjectives, like longus and brevis?

My dictionaries don't help me much: Traupman begins his entry on parvus with "small, little, puny; short; young," but on the same word Cassell doesn't mention "short" except in relation to time.

  • Aren't short and narrow rivers (and conversely long and wide) usually correlated anyway?
    – cmw
    Feb 17, 2017 at 18:52
  • @cmw There is correlation. But if I'm looking at this river in person, I'd call it a much smaller river than the one near my previous home, even though the pictured one is many times longer and in other places is wider (it's the Mississippi). The picture just happens to be taken near the source of the river. Feb 17, 2017 at 19:00
  • Put another way, here's what I'd call a small river and here's what I'd call a large river. But it's the same river. Feb 17, 2017 at 19:11
  • Ha, funny seeing a picture of my old city. I'm not sure the Romans---or we, even---would make that distinction. The Mississippi is a big river, even if it's narrow in certain places. They'd probably use angustus.
    – cmw
    Feb 17, 2017 at 19:35
  • I think you're right when we we know the full scope of the Mississippi's size/length. But if you just look at those last two pictures, or if you stand on the bank at those two locations, without knowing anything more about the river, you'd be justified (I think) in saying "river B is bigger than river A." On the other hand you wouldn't say "river B is longer than river A" because you wouldn't know – you could guess, but it'd be more speculative than a statement about size. Feb 17, 2017 at 19:49

1 Answer 1


The same adjectives can be used for a river as for a road or path. The usual words for 'broad' and 'narrow' are latus and angustus, and for 'long' and 'short' are longus and brevis. Flumen magnum and flumen parvum mean pretty much what they do in English, a 'big/great river' and a 'small/minor river'.

Various editions of the Gradus ad Parnassum (by Pyper, or Angel & Wintle, etc.) that were once used in teaching the composition of Latin verse (not to be confused with those for counterpoint in music ! ) are still available in print, giving lists of epithets for the several words for 'river', but as far as I can see they do not give any that are specifically for dimensions.

  • 1
    What is the difference between flumen and fluvius?
    – Pablo Ivan
    Feb 18, 2017 at 16:42
  • 2
    I think it's a matter of personal preference in use. Caesar never uses either fluvius or amnis, but other authors including Cicero seem to choose whatever fits their current style. Maybe you should ask a separate question?
    – Tom Cotton
    Feb 18, 2017 at 17:09
  • You could also do rivulus for a small river.
    – cmw
    Feb 18, 2017 at 17:27
  • A little rivus, I presume?
    – Tom Cotton
    Feb 18, 2017 at 17:49
  • And for a very little river: "O fons Bandusiae, splendidior vitro..."
    – Hugh
    Feb 19, 2017 at 17:25

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