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 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.

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