I am not familiar with Latin, but I found an engraving on a bench at the graveyard, that made me curious. It says,

vivos voco pedibus ioco.

Google Translate is not really helpful, as it translates this to "I call living feet joke". Does it mean that the bench "calls living feet a joke / finds living feet funny"?

For anyone interested, here's an image enter image description here

  • 2
    Where is the bench located, country and region? This may reveal a clue. Jul 31, 2018 at 2:12
  • It's in northern Germany near the baltic sea and if I remember correctly the donating person is a supporter of the local graveyard association (I could have another look and google the name first).
    – walker18
    Jul 31, 2018 at 11:11
  • If you are, by chance, a speaker of the local dialect, do any of the suggestions in my answer (sorry for the inept pun) ring the bell? I suspect a literally translated idiomatic expression from a local language, which makes no sense in Latin, but would, if literally translated back, to a native speaker. Jul 31, 2018 at 16:23
  • 1
    Unfortunately, I don't have a fitting idiomatic expression in mind, although I am a native speaker from the region. There is no really significant dialect (like Bavarian for example), just some subtle pronunciation nuances, so it is very similar to standard German.
    – walker18
    Jul 31, 2018 at 19:47
  • This seems to be a recent installation. Why don't you find the relatives of the defunct, and ask them for some more info? Maybe the company who did this can help too. If it's a little village, there might not be many of them.
    – luchonacho
    Aug 1, 2018 at 10:09

7 Answers 7


The motto is extremely succinct. It also contains alternative meanings (such as the translation by cnread in comments ) which may form subtexts, riffs or puns. I have taken the primary meaning as the 'voice' of the person to whom the bench is dedicated.

"Vivos voco" means 'I call out to the living;' 'I say "Hi," to the living.' Or perhaps it's the bench, which is calling an invitation, 'I call people.' And it probably reflects the personality of the friendly person who is remembered by the gift of the bench.

"Pedibus ioco" means "on foot, with a joke." The words form part of a description of an important person who knows everyone by name, is ready to stop and share a joke, doesn't stand on ceremony. This person doesn't need transport to the senate; "on foot" is better.

Paragraph 53, Libro 2 (Divus Augustus), De Vita Caesarum Suetonius.

In consulatu pedibus fere ...tanta comitate adeuntium desideria
excipiens, ut quendam ioco corripuerit, quod sibi libellum porrigere dubitaret.

" In his consulship he commonly went on foot. ...meeting the requests of those who approached him with so great friendliness that he reproved one man with a joke because he was hesitant in presenting a petition to him."

That seems to be the dominant meaning.
But for surrealists, the joke could be a pun on 'vivos pedibus' 'the living on foot, pedestrians,' and 'vivos pedibus' (abl. pl. of pedes ) 'the living with their lice,' who may also be invited to share the cemetery bench, and a joke.
Or even, since ioco (active) can replace the ususal iocor (deponent) it could translate as "I invite the living; I joke with the lice;" though I've never heard anyone suggest lice had a sense of humour.

And if a bench, or a cemetery, can issue an invitation (naturalistic fallacy), the sense could be, "For a joke (ioco) I invite (voco) those who are alive (vivos), while they are still on their feet (pedibus). " (gratias cnread )

  • 2
    Good answer! But since OP says they aren't familiar with Latin, an English translation of that Suetonius quote might be helpful.
    – Draconis
    Jul 30, 2018 at 18:02
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    So what exactly do you think the inscription is expressing? Sorry, but I don't get it. The Suetonius passage seems like a stretch to me, a coincidental use of 2 of the same words – in different sentences and different constructions. Even one who's intimately familiar with the Latin text of Suetonious would, I think, be hard-pressed, upon seeing this inscription, to recall the Suetonius passage and use it to make sense of what he/she is looking at. It also doesn't end up having much to do with the setting (a graveyard), as the word vivos would lead me to expect. Perhaps I'm just being dense.
    – cnread
    Jul 30, 2018 at 21:00
  • I also hoped for a dense meaning, like a proverb or so. Although the answer is detailed, I am not clearly getting why the too phrases were combined directly. Of course it could also be some kind of riddle for Latin enthusiasts ...
    – walker18
    Jul 30, 2018 at 22:26
  • 2
    Pedibus can also refer to the legs of a piece of furniture (OLD def. 12). In that case, vivos voco pedibus could be 'spoken' by the bench itself (not uncommon in objects w/ inscriptions) and mean 'I invite the living by my legs,' which could be a (very oblique) way of saying 'I'm an inviting place for the living to sit down.' But I still have no idea how ioco fits in – unless it refers to the inscription itself: the living are drawn to the bench also to see what's carved there. It could be a iocum because of the self-referentiality or because most people won't understand even when they see it.
    – cnread
    Jul 31, 2018 at 0:06
  • 1
    (For the record, I highly doubt that the reading that I offered in the previous comment – 'I invite by my legs [and] joke' – is correct. I suspect that, however professionally the inscription may have been carved, the job of translating or composing the text for it wasn't quite as professionally done.)
    – cnread
    Jul 31, 2018 at 0:15

vivos voco. mortuos plango. fulgura frango

I summon the living, I cry for the dead, I break lightnings [pl.].

The "vivos voco" engraving on the the Schiller bell
The vivos voco engraving on the the Schiller Bell. Source: Wikimedia Foundation

Wait, the first two feats a church bell does indeed, but breaking ligtnings???

Yes, and the source of the first part of the inscription cited in the question is quite unambiguous. It harks back to the practice of Wetterläuten, or weather ringing, a belief that ringing a consecrated church bell would repeal an approaching storm, associated with the demonic, evil forces. Perhaps the most known and one of the earliest is the 4.5 ton bell of Schaffhausen commissioned in 1486, also called the Schiller Bell since Friedrich Schiller used the full text of the spell as the epigraph to his Das Lied von der Glocke, to which Goethe added an epilogue to be read at the Schiller's funeral. In fact, this inscription is quite common on church bells across Europe, from Germany to Spain.

It is worth noting that the belief not merely existed among the common superstitious folk, but was also condoned, if not espoused, by the clergy. The Schiller Bell was indeed commissioned by the abbey! Whether he did that out of his own belief in Wetterläuten, or to placate the flock, I do not know, but I would not be much surprised if the former was in fact true.

Also semantically and pragmatically notable is the Medieval use of fulgur as the culmination of bad weather, brought up by evil forces. For a Roman, such a disrespect toward the lightning would be perceived as a hubris, a sacrilege; fulgur to them was an act of Zeus personally present, an awe-inspiring and deadly appearance of the Olympian in the mortal's world. For the Roman, a place struck by lighting was a sacred one, fulgur conditum (lit. “here lies the lightning,” as if buried), chosen by lightning, implying Zeus himself. For the Christian, in contrast, it was an act of the forces of Evil.

pedibus ioco

I jest with (=by using) feet

This paraphrase of the vivos voco spell does not make much sense out of context. The Latin reads clearly: the speaker makes jests by using feet. Since Latin, unlike English, does not express definiteness grammatically, it is not possible to tell whether the jests are performed using one's own feet (“the feet”) or some indefinite feet.

Another meaning of pes is a poetic meter, also expressed in English and many other languages, which is unsurprising since the word for “foot” also served as the unit of length in multiple cultures and therefore languages (Latin not being an exception).

The final syllable rhyme is entirely alien to classical poetry, but common in Medieval European verse.

So any possible reading does not make any sense outside of the cultural context. My best guess is that this is a clumsy translation of some local idiom, close in the meaning to “jesting with [one's?] feet (<extremities)” or “joking with a [poetic] meter.” Note that the latter reading would impart a self-referential meaning to the whole verse; this is not, however, an argument for preferring it, let me repeat myself, not knowing the proximate cultural context.

  • 1
    iocor is deponent: unfortunately I think that invalidates this answer.
    – brianpck
    Jul 31, 2018 at 13:31
  • Well, upon looking further, it seems like vulgar Latin (and perhaps Plautus, though I couldn't find it) have used iocare, so maybe that is a possibility
    – brianpck
    Jul 31, 2018 at 13:57
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    @brianpck, yes, and not only that. We are looking at a modern epigraph, by a non-native speaker, naturally, and quite an obscure one. If we assume they wanted to make a clear statement, well... they failed at that. Any spelling, word usage or grammar error, or a deviant idiom is possible. (And assuming the opposite, e. g. a cipher or jargon, then we cannot even start with a single four-word inscription having no obvious relations to other evidence.) Jul 31, 2018 at 14:52
  • @brianpck, as for Pl., if you mean the note in L&S, look in the print--many online copies of Casina are quite corrupt. The loc. cit. reads lúca bos in both online PHI and Perseus. My conjecture would be a scan error, <iocabor>. (To the previous note, and here we are looking at the text supposedly edited by a professional classicist--and still we get that!) Jul 31, 2018 at 15:00

I'm not an expert of latin, but considering the person doing the engraving may not have been either, I'll propose my alternative translation here.

As it was already said, Vivus voco can mean I call people. Differently from the other answer, though, I think here ioco could mean game (if intended as a noun) or play (if intended as a verb) instead of joke. Pedibus is the plural ablative of pes (foot), so the full sentence could be roughly translated as

I call people to the game with feet


I call people, I play with feet

Where the game with feet could be for example a reference to soccer.

  • 1
    Please have a look at my answer.
    – fdb
    Feb 11, 2019 at 12:01

The previous answers have provided a lot of creative ways to understand the phrase, but I'll provide another angle: The meaning is, at best, arcane or, more likely, nonsense.

Vivos voco has an unambiguous meaning that has already been expounded, so the question is how we can construe pedibus ioco with it. I see two branches:

  • Pedibus and ioco are both ablative of means describing "how" the living are greeted. The most convincing interpretation interpretation of this, made by Hugh, only makes slight sense. As cnread noted, the two words in Suetonius all are embedded in a specific context (e.g. Augustus reproved his petitioner with a joke). The fact that they have no conjunction between them makes it all extremely awkward.
  • Ioco is a verb. In this case, pedibus describes how the bench is joking. This has two problems:
    1. Iocor is a deponent verb. Though later Latin (and possibily Plautus) use it non-deponently, it would be a strange choice, except perhaps to preserve rhyme.
    2. More important: "jesting/playing with feet" doesn't make any sense, both on its own and even more so in the context of a graveyard.

It's fun to come up with possible readings of the phrase, but these considerations lead me to conclude that this is either bad Latin or an inside joke.

  • I agree. I think the only way to read the sentence is as two separate phrases. Either as two separate verses or joined by an elided element: vivos voco [dum] pedibus ioco
    – Rafael
    Jul 31, 2018 at 14:19
  • 1
    @Rafael Yes, I think you can get to a grammatical sentence that way, but my larger point is that, even if grammatical, it's nonsensical.
    – brianpck
    Jul 31, 2018 at 15:43
  • 1
    My point is more restricted. In any epigraphic study a variant of the Grice's maxim is implicit: we start by assuming that they aimed to say something in an understandable way (at the least, sensible to the intended recipients of the message). Whether it's really a word jumble, or we do not understand it due to our wanting of context, is impossible to know from the evidence. It's also important that a presence of the meaning is significantly harder to falsify than its absence. So I am careful not to call it nonsense in the absolute. I point it does not make sense to us. Jul 31, 2018 at 21:36
  • @kkm It's a bit generous to be describing this as an "epigraphic study." Sure, the principle of charity remains, but in cases like these (where native Latin speakers are in scarce supply), that principle applies more to what the words are trying to say (often through misguided translations or calques) than what they actually say. I mentioned the possibility that there is an "arcane" meaning that context could supply, but that's still pretty generous. Language could always "make sense" to someone else, but if I know a language well and still can't make it out, "nonsense" is a fair guess.
    – brianpck
    Aug 1, 2018 at 2:55
  • The collective attempt to answer this question has turned into a study de facto, albeit an amateur one. But you may be giving too much benefit of doubt to the object of "real" epigr. studies: most of the Roman world did not speak Latin natively. A sizable chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Roman Epigraphy titled Inscriptions and Literacy exists for a reason. Ours is quite a mild example of nonsense. This short paper may serve as a fascinating example of the subject matter; the CIL IX 4549 that it mentions in passing is even funnier (“legite"). Aug 1, 2018 at 4:26

I woke up this morning and it even seemed quite funny, in a graveyard humour sort of way:

Vivos, 'living;' and pedibus, 'standing on their own two feet,' mean the same thing. Those who are alive, those who are not candidates for the graveyard in the other sense.

Voco, 'I invite,' 'I welcome.'

Joco, 'I joke,' 'I jest,' 'I make witty conversation with.' Usually Jocor (deponent) but here active.

"Alive, I welcome you; still standing, I share a joke."

  • Although this gets something like a satisfying English meaning out of the text, I have very serious doubts that the ablative pedibus by itself (absent, e.g., an adjective) can be used the way you're trying to use it. It's not at all an obvious way of expressing 'still standing,' in the way you mean, as a descriptor (something like superstes would be the more obvious choice). Can you provide any grammatical reference or attestation/parallel for this?
    – cnread
    Jul 31, 2018 at 17:11
  • Frankly, I think you are reading too much into the inscription. I am not aware of voco meaning “welcome;” its central meaning is “summon,” “welcome” is too far off. Then, “vivos pedibus” means ”those-ACC alive by way of feet.” Either way it's nonsense, and then it's just all guesses from what it could have meant is the speaker jumbled his Latin beyond repair. But an equally admissible assumption is that he mixed their cases, or simply used words not in their normal sense. It's just undecodable to the point of meaning anything. Or nothing whatsoever. Jul 31, 2018 at 21:16

I think the meaning of the second part "pedibus ioco" could be "I will refresh those on their feet " which would make sense in German and would imply that the speaker tried to express the German word "erquicken" and could not find another latin word rhyming on "voco" and sure the speaker was not a native latin speaker, lol... "erquicken" has nothing to with the word "to jest"or "to make a joke" however jokes will ease you and can be a form of recreating, can be very refreshing... so the speaker used the latin word "ioco" maybe as a sort of synecdoche (pars pro toto!) for "to refresh"* in German "erquicken" is a very common term for "recreation" (refreshing) and used in many sayings and proverbs, in particular in poems & songs and other lyrics. It would fit perfectly for a bench... however in latin... "ioco!" really sounds a bit too unusual...


From the previous (non-)answers it is clear that this is not an easy one. I think, however, that Leo is on the right track, and that it is about football, perhaps commemorating a deceased local player. “To summon someone to something” is normally voco with accusative for the person, and ad + accusative for the thing, but to use the dative instead of ad + accusative is not perhaps excessively bad Latin. In that case, the inscription might mean: “I summon the living to a game with the feet” that is: “a game of football”.

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