I've been looking through some etymologies and it seems to me that cardinals past trēs aren't inflected. Is this correct, and if so, what's the logic in forming words with indeclinable numbers? Take, for example, the words "duumviratus," "triumviratus," and "quīnquevirātus"; meaning, respectively, a group of two, three, or five men. What confuses me is that "duum" is an inflection of "duo," and "trium" is an inflection of "trēs," but "quinque" is just... There? Sorry if I'm out of my gourd, I'm legitimately not very experienced with Latin.

  • Welcome to the site! This is an interesting question, +1. It's not always clear how to answer a "why", but maybe some etymological background would explain how the cardinals became what they are.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Feb 15, 2019 at 9:49
  • "Quattuor" was originally declinable, but that declinability was lost very early on.
    – rjpond
    Aug 22, 2020 at 9:49

1 Answer 1


Cardinal numbers in Latin have some very peculiar rules. As you say, unus, duo and tres are inflected, but beyond those, from quattuor, four, to centum, hundred, they are indeclinable.

The cardinals from 200 (ducenti) to 900 (nongenti) are declined like the plural of adjectives such as bonus, agreeing in number and gender with the noun — sescenti, sescentae, sescenta and so on.

Then we have 1,000, mille, an adjective, but indeclinable; but in the plural it becomes milia, a (plural) neuter substantive, declined like cubilia. Thus, a mile is mille passus, a thousand (Roman) paces, while for two miles the paces are put into genitive plural, duo milia passuum.

The whole business of Roman numerals takes some effort to understand fully and use. In compound numbers, the above rules are mostly applied to the several parts. As far as xxix, the order is the same as in English. For the rest, unus almost always stands first, but otherwise we find either the smaller followed by et and the larger next (sex et sexaginta), or in reverse without the conjunction (sexaginta sex). The complications change and continue after one hundred, but I think that's probably enough for this answer.

Your examples should have -viri instead of -viratus : duumviri, a [board] of two men, each man being a duumvir — only the -vir being declined; similarly with triumvir. Thereafter the numeral part is indeclinable, so we see, for instance, a decemvir as a member of the board of ten, decemviri.

  • 2
    On a friendly note, you have mostly described the rules but not answered why. It would be an interesting answer! What about Greek? Are declensions similar?
    – luchonacho
    Feb 15, 2019 at 18:23
  • @luchonacho Well, yes and no! The major point is that it's wrong to say that numbers greater than 3 are indeclinable, and I tried to indicate the complexity of the system (if it's worthy of such a name). As to why it's so: I should think it's literally accidental, though in truth anybody's guess.
    – Tom Cotton
    Feb 15, 2019 at 20:51
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    @luchonacho There are some differences in detail but the system is very similar in Greek and Sanskrit -- it seems to be inherited from PIE.
    – TKR
    Feb 16, 2019 at 0:52
  • @TKR That may well be so; but isn't that just "kicking the can down the road"? Why such barely systematic, if not random numbering happens surely can't be deduced and so a proper explanation must remain no more than a guess. Unless there is some appropriate philological technique of which I know nothing (as may very well be the case)?
    – Tom Cotton
    Feb 16, 2019 at 12:09
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    Certainly; "why" questions in historical linguistics are often hard or unanswerable. In this case maybe it has something to do with lower numerals (and round higher numerals) being used more frequently, but that's no more than a guess, as you say.
    – TKR
    Feb 16, 2019 at 18:53

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