Does Latin have words for the various types of diets, e.g., "vegetarian," "vegan," etc.?

St. Thomas Aquinas, seemingly referring to what we today would call a "vegan," says (Summa Theologica II-II q. 147 a. 8 arg. 1):

abstinentia a carnibus et ovis et lacticiniis
[abstinence from meat, eggs, and milk foods]

I'm not interested in modern coinages of the words.

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    I have the impression (which may well be wrong!) that the modern taxonomy of diets is, well, modern, and there are no exactly corresponding words in any language from centuries ago. However, there might be some related and useful diet words in Latin. One could pretty easily coin Latin translations for "vegetarian", "vegan" and the like, and I assume this has already been done recently. So: Are you looking for attested words from some (or any) era, or are modern coinages (perhaps coined by users here) appropriate?
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Jun 27, 2017 at 21:35
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    @JoonasIlmavirta I'm not interested in modern coinages of the words.
    – Geremia
    Commented Jun 27, 2017 at 22:10
  • dentur nobis legumina ad vescendum (Daniel 1:12) Let vegetables be given us to nibble at.
    – Hugh
    Commented Jun 27, 2017 at 22:53
  • According to Wikipedia, the Stoics were anti-vegetarianism except for the Roman Seneca. I'll look into it myself soon enough when I have the time, but if anyone wants to search the writings of Seneca on this issue, this might be a good place to find vocabulary relating to vegetarianism.
    – Cataline
    Commented Jun 29, 2017 at 0:51

2 Answers 2


Does Latin have words for the various types of diets, e.g., "vegetarian," "vegan," etc.?

Not really. There is certainly plenty of discussion of diets in Latin literature, whether for health or religious purposes, or just for anthropological interest. But there was no single name for any particular type of diet. A good example of this is vegetarianism. Vegetarianism was known and even practised. Yet, in discussions of it, it is always described rather than labelled.

Seneca, following Pythagoras' example, was a vegetarian and discusses not only the health benefits of such a diet but also the philosophical reasons behind it. Below are two typical references to vegetarianism:

Sotion dicebat, quare ille animalibus abstinuisset

Sotion used to say why Pythagoras abstained from animals (or living things)

Seneca the Younger, Epistles, 108.17

Alienigena tum sacra movebantur, sed inter argumenta superstitionis ponebatur quorundam animalium abstinentia

Some foreign rites were at that time being inaugurated, and among the proofs of sanctity, the abstinence from certain kinds of animals/living things was ordained …

Seneca, Epistles, 108.22

His vegetarianism is described in terms of what he doesn't eat (which I've translated as living things since Seneca and Pythagoras' concerns about meat are that they may be consuming others' souls residing in animals). Nowhere in this discussion, however, does a noun for 'vegetarian' or 'vegetarianism' occur.

Here, Tacitus speaks of Seneca, but in terms of what he does eat, using victus:

Seneca … dum persimplici victu et agrestibus pomis … vitam tolerat

Seneca … who sustained life on an extremely simple diet of fruits from the fields

Tacitus, Annals, 15.45

This use of victus to describe a particular diet is common.

Fennis mira feritas, foeda paupertas: non arma, non equi, non penates; victui herba, vestitui pelles, cubile humus

The Fenni live in astonishing barbarism and disgusting misery: no arms, no horses, no household; wild plants for their food, skins for their clothing, the ground for their beds

Tacitus, Germania, 46

Agriculturae non student, maiorque pars eorum victus in lacte, caseo, carne consistit

For agriculture they [the Germans] have no zeal, and the greater part of their diet consists of milk, cheese, and meat

Caesar, The Gallic War, 6.22

Much later, and using 'vegetable' ([h]olus) specifically, Jerome wrote:

nihilque ita scias conducere Christianis adulescentibus ut esum holerum

You should know that nothing is so good for young Christians as a diet of vegetables

Jerome, Letters, 54.10

As you can see, the authors are describing vegetarianism (and other types of diet) but clearly they don’t have a convenient one-word label to apply.

The closest I could find to such a label is in Pliny. However, these words don’t seem to occur elsewhere, and they are describing far-flung (sometimes mythical) people. To that end, I wonder if their Greek etymology was specifically chosen to sound different, exotic, fantastical or perhaps to give a scientific gloss to them, like he’s reporting from field notes.

Ichthyophagos omnes Alexander vetuit piscibus vivere

Alexander made an order forbidding a fish diet to all the Fish-eaters

Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 6.95

Agriophagi pantherarum leonumque maxime carnibus viventes, Pamphagi omnia mandentes, Anthropophagi humana carne vescentes

the Wild-beast-eaters, who live chiefly on the flesh of panthers and lions; the Everything-eaters, who devour everything; the Man-eaters, whose diet is human flesh

Pliny, Natural History, 6.195

  • Great answer! It appears that the living conditions in Finland have somewhat improved since that description...
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Dec 25, 2017 at 12:02

carnivore = carnivorus

vegetarian = herbivorus

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    Is herbivorus earlier than Linnaeus?
    – Hugh
    Commented Jun 28, 2017 at 2:52
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    Could you elaborate on this answer a bit? Maybe cite some instances where this was used classically, as you have said several times that you don't want "modern coinages." A link is useful, but the whole point of the answer is to explain, if only in summary, what you wish to reference from the link. I think this answer is in some real need of improvement.
    – Sam K
    Commented Jun 28, 2017 at 3:17
  • The L&S entry says it is said "of animals" and the two citations from Pliny are in the same context that English uses "carnivore." I don't think it's a good substitute.
    – brianpck
    Commented Jun 28, 2017 at 13:35

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