L&S gives descriptions of niger and ater, but the difference is is not clear to me at all. Both mean black, but there appears to be a difference in nuance — as practically always when two different words mean (almost) the same thing.

I get the impression that ater is more in the direction of "mournful" and niger is more "malicious" or "glowless". But I might be wrong and there might be more to it. For example, I'm not sure if I could use ater for glowing black and niger for matte black if I need to make the distinction.

Could someone compare these two adjectives for me?

  • I remember reading that ater is shiny and niger matte, but I will need to find the source. – Draconis Jun 16 '17 at 19:55
  • @Draconis A source for that distinction would be very interesting. I don't recall ever reading on the matter. – Joonas Ilmavirta Jun 16 '17 at 20:26
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    @Draconis. The link to L/S says exactly the opposite: ater is "black; and specif., coalblack, lustreless-black, sable, dark (opp. albus, lustreless-white, and diff. from niger, glossy black," – fdb Jun 17 '17 at 14:14
  • the issue of color is dealt on Be Not Afraid of the Dark by Shelley P. Haley pages 31-33. Not sure I can see clear examples, but it reads: "Albus and ater connote a matte-like quality, whereas candidus and niger imply luster and brightness". This seems to be in line with L/S as @fdb writes above. – d_e Apr 16 at 21:25
  • @d_e Would you like to write that up into an answer? Citation of that chapter and L&S would make a strong point. – Joonas Ilmavirta Apr 17 at 12:53

The adjective “ater” goes just in the direction of “dark” in the sense of "mournful" / “gloomy”, since the “dies atri” were considered unlucky days (See Macrobius, Saturnalia, book 1, chapter 16, section 21, and Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, book 22, chapter 10, section 6 ), while “niger” means “black” and sometimes “malicious”/”bad”/” wicked “ (See Cicero, Pro A.Caecina, 27) or “inauspicious” as in “nigra avis” (bird of ill omen) and “funereal” as in “nigra hora” or “niger ille dies” with reference to death (See e.g.Tibullus and Propertius passim) .

Primary sources:

  • Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, book 22. chapter 10. section 6 : “si atro die faxit insciens, probe factum esto”


  • Cicero, Pro A.Caecina, 27 : “Clodius, cui nomen est Phormio nec minus niger nec minus confidens quam ille Terentianus Phormio”


  • Macrobius, Saturnalia, book 1, chapter 16. section 21:” Dies autem postriduanos ad omnia maiores nostri cavendos putarunt, quos etiam atros velut infausta appellatione damnarunt: eosdem tamen nonnulli communes velut ad emendationem nominis vocitaverunt”.


Note that Macrobius says that “dies atri”, aka “dies postriduani”, i.e. the days immediately following the Kalendae, Nonae and Idus of each month, are days of bad omens . We know, in fact, that "Dies atri" were "dark" days in which fire should not be lit and sacrifices should not be offered in altars; temples should not celebrate public worship; all religious ceremonies are private but without sacrifices; starting new projects should be avoided, and certain gods, including Iuppiter and Ianus, may not be named.


There are several sources that equate albus-candidus with ater-niger, which makes niger to be the opposite of candidus - a shiny black, and ater to be the opposite of albus - a dull black. As @fdb comments it is stated explicitly in L&S dictionary (for example under candidus):

opp. niger, a glistening black; while albus is a lustreless white, opp. ater, a lustreless black; cf. Serv. ad Verg. G. 3, 82; lsid. Orig. 12, 1, 51; Doed. Syn. III. p. 193 sq.) (class., and in the poets very freq.; in Cic. rare).

The issue of color is dealt in Be Not Afraid of the Dark by Shelley P. Haley pages 31-33, and we can find there the same idea:

Albus and ater connote a matte-like quality, whereas candidus and niger imply luster and brightness.

Indeed there are scriptural examples that contrast the opposites: albus with ater and candidus with niger. Examples that Haley brings:

candida me docuit nigras odisse puellas . . . (CIL 4.1520) [from graffito]

nec scire utrum sis albus an ater homo (Cattulus 93)

Let us hope however that the above-given distinction is not based on those contrasts, since as my collocations-tool suggests, niger is contrasted both with albus and candidus in about the same rate. In fact L&S itself mentions "exceptions to the general rule" (where albus is contrasted with niger instead of ater) :

The following are examples of the opposition of albus and niger (instead of ater) as exceptions to the gen. rule; so always in Lucr. (who also uses albus and candidus or candens promiscuously), 2, 810; 822 sqq.; 731 sq.; 790; 767-771. Once in Cic.: quae alba sint, quae nigra dicere, Div. 2, 3; so Phaedr. 3, 15, 10; Ov. M. 2, 541; cf. with id. ib. 2, 534 and 535; also id. ib. 12, 403; 15, 46; id. H. 15, 37 al.: “albi et nigri velleris,” Vulg. Gen. 30, 35: “non potes unum capillum album facere aut nigrum,” ib. Matt. 5, 36.—

We also find in Ovid ater-candidus and niger-candidus contrast in the same verse:

candida de nigris et de candentibus atra facere

This "promiscuous" usage of albus and candidus by several authors might indeed suggest, I think, that likewise any distinction between ater-niger should be taken with a grain of salt. Nor we should ignore that across time modification in meaning do happen.


I was taught in university Latin (I took it through graduate school) that ater was 'dull' and niger 'shiny' black.

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    Welcome to the site and thanks for the answer! Do you know of a source where others could verify this, such as a dictionary or a textbook? – Joonas Ilmavirta Apr 16 at 20:56

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