Referring to progressively more distance ancestors, I would list my

  • Pater (father)
  • Avus (grandfather)

After this point, it gets a bit shaky. This, for example, gives past ancestors as

  • Proavus (great-grandfather)
  • Abavus (great-great-grandfather)
  • Atavus (great-great-great-grandfather)
  • Tritavus (great-great-great-great-grandfather)

See also here.

I don't know how far back this system went on — I have yet to find anything further — although it seems somewhat absurd that someone should need to refer to someone this distantly related.

If I were to literally translate "grand" in this usage, I would end up with some form of magnus, which could then be applied as successive prefixes. However, I doubt that this has actually been used; it seems like a misrepresentation. The book I cited also gave pro- as meaning

'add one generation away from ego.'

This might then mean that my atavus could also be called my pro-pro-proavus. However, pro- can also be used to indicate steps in future generations — and may in fact have been used more commonly in this way.

What system was most commonly used in Classical Latin — the specific naming system, applicable to at least six generations back in time, the pro- system, which could apparently be used for an arbitrary number of generations (which I'm slightly more interested in here), or something completely different?

  • 4
    Tangentially, I wonder whether Horatius in Maecenas atavis edite regibus means great-great-great-grandparents or ancestry in general. I'm not even sure how many Romans even knew the difference between atavus and tritavus. – Joonas Ilmavirta Feb 27 '16 at 20:12

An interesting question to which I don't actually know a definitive answer, but I'll try to shed what light I can.

I glanced at the source you link and couldn't find tritavus, but it seems an obvious possibility that the prefix "tri" could refer to the number 3, in which case one could imagine going back further with quartavus, quintavus, septavus, and so on. Since the Romans used sescenta in the way we use "thousand/thousands/umpteen" ("There were like a thousand people there" = Sescenta aderant), one could even imagine sescentavus as "umpteenth-great-grandfather," though of course that's not attested, as far as I know. (However, further investigation proves that the first vowel of tritavus is short, which could imply that my derivation from 3 is incorrect.)

With relatives closer than five generations away, though, Latin actually has a lot more words distinguishing blood relatives than most languages. Maternal blood uncle and aunt are avunculus and mátertera. Paternal blood uncle and aunt are patruus and amita. (There were no specific words relating to in-laws, so your maternal aunt by marriage was just avunculí uxor.)

When cousins come in it starts getting complicated. Your paternal uncle's child is your fráter/soror patruélis. Your paternal aunt's children AND your maternal uncle's children are your frátres/sorórés amitíní/æ. Your maternal aunt's child is your fráter/soror cónsobrínus/a. Your plain old brothers and sisters are frátrés/sorórés germání/æ.

Unfortunately I have these from lecture notes, so I can't source them, but even if I could, I get so exhausted keeping them straight that I might just give up anyway.

  • Regarding tritavus, it's with the others under the section of "Prenominal Pro-" with the others, on page 50. Interesting answer, though; I was aware of similar structures on other languages (Old English, too, I believe), but I didn't know if it was also the case with Latin. – HDE 226868 Feb 28 '16 at 0:04
  • Ah, okay—I was reading too quickly and missed it. Thanks! – Joel Derfner Feb 28 '16 at 0:16

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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