Did Romans or other ancient users of Latin have lists of difficult words with explanations in Latin? I mean dictionaries composed entirely in Latin, not dictionaries between Latin and another language. I can think of many kinds of people who could have benefited from such dictionaries: native speakers during their studies, foreigners trying to learn Latin, public speakers trying to improve their speeches, citizens trying to understand difficult texts they encounter… If dictionaries were used, what evidence is there and have such word lists survived?

I have never heard of such dictionaries, but they would make a great source for understanding vocabulary.

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    Hanks 2013 writes that "works of classical Latin lexicography have been partly or wholly lost. It is known, too, that the Romans created bilingual Greek-Latin word lists, but these have likewise not survived" (p. 507).
    – Alex B.
    Mar 16, 2016 at 2:43
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    @AlexB., can you make that into an answer? That would be a good answer with a clear reference. It would of course be nice to know how Hanks deduces this, but a published (and hopefully justified) educated guess is worth an answer anyway.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Mar 16, 2016 at 2:46

3 Answers 3


Not really.

This encyclopedia entry explains that

The Greeks and Romans did not attempt a work containing all the words of their own or any foreign language; their early dictionaries were merely lists of unusual words or phrases. [. . .] One of the earliest works in Latin lexicography, by Verrius Flaccus, is De Verborum Significatu (The Meaning of Words), compiled during the 1st century AD. This work, in which the words are arranged alphabetically, has furnished a great deal of information on antiquities and Latin grammar.

De Verborum Significatu is, unfortunately, mostly missing in its original form - edited and published not by Flaccus but by Sextus Pompeius Festus, who made edits and inserted some new comments and thoughts. He also changed the organization of the work, alphabetizing some of it. Various incomplete versions and updates have been compiled over the past few millennia since Festus published the first (see, for example, the 1839 edition), and they are, in general, in better condition. Information about a project dedicated to improving our understanding of De Verborum Significatu can be found here.

However, the work was not widely used. It was supposed to be a scholarly resource, and given its size (in full, it would have encompassed 40 volumes), it would have been impractical for an ordinary Roman to acquire a copy - or to make a significant number of copies, for that matter.


The following is a summary of Ferri 2011. His Academia.edu account can be found here. Rolando Ferri is Professore Ordinario presso at Dipartimento di Filologia, Letteratura e Linguistica, at the University of Pisa.

Roman lexicography includes “anonymous or pseudo-epigrapha glossaries and word-lists, both monolingual (Latin-Latin) and bilingual (Greek-Latin or the reverse)” (p. 9).

He writes that such lexica are “extant mostly in medieval redactions” but papyrus finds make us hypothesize they were common early on.

Ferri also argues that those lexica were bilingual and included obsolete words or words exhibiting grammatical irregularity.


The Latin of Roman lexicography, ed. Rolando Ferri. 2011. Pisa, Italy: Fabrizio Serra.


It is reasonable to assume that Romans learning Greek and Greeks learning Latin would have some bilingual dictionaries or at least word lists where the equivalents would be written, since among the educated part of both Greek and Roman society there were commonly bilingual speakers who would learn the other language by formal study. And there some sort of dictionary is pretty much prerequisite (although one can learn even without it with a teacher).

But nothing of that sort was retained. It is simply a reasonable assumption given the state of things.

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    Welcome! I agree that this seems like a reasonable assumption. Do you know of any sources that make this argument, for further reading? Including them here would improve this answer. Mar 15, 2016 at 23:13
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    Welcome and thanks for the answer! It is indeed reasonable to assume that there were dictionaries of some kind, and that assumption lead to my asking the question. Your answer does not provide any citations or other evidence, so it does not quite give what I was looking for.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Mar 16, 2016 at 2:52
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    Hello, Joonas. It doesn't provide any citations or other evidence because it is only an assumption. There are none citations and evidence, since nothing of the sort was retained. But I personally don't find any flaws in the kind of reasoning I conducted here and hence I would say that this scenario is rather probable than improbable.That's a kind of judgement we can make. It's a viable hypothesis, that's all.
    – Godmy
    Mar 16, 2016 at 14:55
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    @Godmy I think what Joonas is trying to explain is the fact that we tend to receive well researched answers better here on StackExchange.
    – ws04
    Mar 17, 2016 at 6:16
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    @Godmy Stack Exchange sites do take a bit of getting used to, especially when comparing them to forums. Here we emphasize sources because we want to have definitive, easy-to-find answers for every question. Forums are great for sharing thoughts and experiences, but later readers often have to expend a lot of effort to find the best answer given to a question. So while there's certainly a place for forums, we feel that the stricter guidelines here allow us to deliver high-quality content to readers more easily than can be done in a forum. Mar 22, 2016 at 15:35

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