The following quote by Tacitus (extract from Agricola) is very famous, particularly for its catchy second part, but here I'm interested in the first part:

auferre trucidare rapere falsis nominibus imperium atque ubi solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant

It has been translated either by:

To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.
Oxford Revised Translation

Or by:

They plunder, they slaughter, and they steal: this they falsely name Empire, and where they make a wasteland, they call it peace.
Loeb Classical Library edition

In the latter translation, what is the justification for attributing falsis nominibus to imperium rather than to rapere? Shouldn't the pluralization and the case used preclude it from being an attribute of imperium?

1 Answer 1


Grammatically, it is possible that Tacitus' condensed style can be punctuated and expanded to this:

Auferre [et] trucidare [et] rapere—falsis nominibus imperium [haec facta sunt] atque ubi solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant.

To destroy, to slaughter, to pillage—under false names [=pretenses] they call [these things] empire.

Furthermore, the tricolon is imbalanced if falsis nominibus is added to rapere, which, although is done frequently enough by Classical writers, is also not done, and so the translator may be thinking in that direction. There is in fact power to a concise tricolon, even if history fully endorses both ways.

Finally, rapere doesn't really mean usurp—that's a metaphorical definition from its primary meaning of "to snatch"—so I'd wager the translator thought that "to snatch under false names" just doesn't make sense.

Besides, even in English we have the phrase, "to rape, pillage, and plunder/burn" (although nowadays I often just see "to rape and pillage" instead).

  • Ah, so in both case falsis nominibus stands for under false pretenses. That would indeed make sense. It's a bit outside the scope of the question but then in that interpretation what's common to both propositions is not just appellant but in fact falsis nominibus appellant, in which case: isn't it a bit unusual to split this and put one part in the second proposition and one in the first?
    – plannapus
    Mar 1, 2016 at 13:36
  • @plannapus Unusual? Perhaps, but it's not unheard of for the same verb to be used for two different subjects; in English we place the verb in the first, but in Latin at the end of the second.
    – cmw
    Mar 1, 2016 at 13:46
  • Yes I know it's not unusual to put the verb at the end of the second proposition, what I was wondering about is the falsis nominibus being separated from it and put in the first proposition despite it being common to both propositions as well.
    – plannapus
    Mar 1, 2016 at 13:54
  • Oh, I see. I don't think it's that unusual, but I'm not so sure that falsis nominibus goes with pacem grammatically. Neither the Oxford nor Loeb translator indicated it should.
    – cmw
    Mar 1, 2016 at 15:47

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.