Endless bits of wisdom from canonical writers have come down to us as Latin dicta: a sort of Ancient proverbs, if you will, with the notable exception that these were, unlike modern, post-Antiquity proverbs, written by an identifiable writer, not said by an anonymous and heterogeneous source.

So my question is simple: were there in Latin proverbs like the modern ones, the creations, over centuries, of anonymous people, always in autonomous contexts, and not part of larger writings, from which they were taken out as dicta standing, somewhat anachronistically, on their own?

  • 2
    Good question! Some quick thoughts without sources to back them up: If something first appears in Cicero's text, it is likely to be attributed to Cicero today even if he drew it from a long and foggy oral tradition. Also, ancient tradition was mostly transferred to us in written form, not oral.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Jun 21, 2017 at 13:07
  • @Joonas Ilmavirta♦ Good point, as always. Do you like philosophy, too? I would be very interesting what a contemporary professional mathematician such as yourself thinks of the science that has given us all the other sciences through and by virtue of Aristotle and his science-minded philosophical followers? Jun 21, 2017 at 13:14
  • I'm not sure if my ping reached you, but since your question was tangential to the question itself, I decided to answer in our chat room instead.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Jun 22, 2017 at 8:18

2 Answers 2


Of course. The ancient Romans were humans, too, so nothing human should seem strange to them. Your impression of their proverb style stems from the fact that the canon passed along great works with nice little bon mots within. Were you actually present in Rome, no doubt you'd hear plenty of proverbs that never made it into literature. Think how few proverbs actually exist in a random selection of fifty works in English?

One only need to look at the many ways fortune favors the brave is represented in Latin literature (given by Terence, Vergil, Pliny, and others). Meanwhile, several authors give a vetus proverbium, one devoid of a written source. Varro offers Romanus sedendo vincit (Res Rusticae 1.2.2), while Seneca has gladiator in harena capit consilium (Epistulae 22.1).


You may be interested to learn of 'Latin Proverbs and Quotations' by Alfred Henderson, of which I'm the fortunate owner of a first edition.. It was originally published in London by Sampson, Low, Son and Martin in April, 1869, running to nearly 500 pages.

According to Google Books, 'This work has been selected by scholars as being culturally important, and is part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it. This work was reproduced from the original artifact, and remains as true to the original work as possible'.

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