This month we give you a piece by Peter Jones, the founder of Friends of Classics and the onlie begetter – and editor for fifty issues – of Ad familiares. It is an excerpt from his latest book Quid Pro Quo (Atlantic 2016, at all good Oxfam bookshops). In this he discusses the roots of Latin words now common in English, in the context of their use in the ancient world. The words are grouped under subjects headings, each with its own general historical introduction: Politics, Society, Justice, Business (from which this extract is taken), Education and Philosophy, Writing and Literature, Religion, Architecture and Technology, Arts, Drama and Music, Warfare, Medicine and Botany. The book is topped and tailed with a historical survey of Latin and an Epilogue. The Greek alphabet is also introduced and used when words of Greek origin are shown to have been taken into Latin.

Doing Business at Rome

Lending and economics

Romans had no sense that lending was a good, productive thing in itself. Indeed, Latin did not have a verb meaning precisely ‘to lend’. Instead, Romans talked of giving money mutuus – ‘reciprocally, belonging to each other’, source of our ‘mutual’.

That word derived from muto, ‘I give and receive’. So it was made quite clear in the words used that this was a quid pro quo (lit. ‘what for what’, or ‘tit for tat’), with firm obligations on both sides. Credit crunches were not uncommon (especially if people started hoarding coins rather than circulating them), when interest rates could shoot up; if you lent to people whose credit rating was poor, the same would happen.

In fact, ‘economic activity’ and ‘growth’ in our sense did not figure actively in Roman thinking. Latin oeconomicus derived directly from the Greek oikonomikos (οἰκονομικος) and meant ‘relating to household (oikos) management (nomos)’. That was about as far as economic thinking went.


Our old-fashioned term for (usually an exorbitant rate of) interest, ‘usury’, derives from usura, ‘a sum paid for the use of money provided by someone else’ (Latin utor [us-], ‘I use’).

But dodgy deals were rife. In 193 BC, interest rates between Romans were restricted. So Romans who had lent money to other Romans would contact a friendly non-Roman socius and make him the lender. This was just a technical matter of transferring the loan from his loan-book to the socius’ loan book, so that it was now under the socius’ name. Being non-Roman, the socius could charge any interest rate he liked. Result – he and his Roman chum both made a handsome profit. ‘Profit’ and ‘proficient’ both derive from Latin proficio (profect-), ‘I make headway, gain results, increase in size or extent’.

As a result, debt was increasing at an intolerable rate. Eventually, the Roman authorities got wise to this fraus, a Latin term which combined the ideas both of hurt and deception (our ‘fraud’). So they fixed a day when all socii had to declare loans made to Roman citizens. When it was discovered just how gigantic the sum was, the Romans passed a law that socii could lend to Romans only on the same terms as Romans could. So that little ‘offshore’ scam was halted.

banking and exchange

Brutal Brutus

In 88 BC, anyone lending in Italy could not charge more than 12% per annum. So lenders looked to lend abroad, where they could charge whatever they liked. Many lenders, as well as lending their own money, borrowed yet more money in Rome at 12% and then lent it out at 17%. This is known as ‘gearing up’ and is common practice still. Cicero talked of the rich ‘sending out their ex-slaves (freedmen) to lend to and pillage the provinces’.

Brutus (one of Caesar’s assassins) was one such. In 50 BC, he was lending money to the poverty-struck people of Salamis, a town in Cyprus, and charging an interest rate of 48% a year! Cicero, the provincial governor of that year, refused to collect it because he had imposed a fixed rate of 12%. But Brutus persuaded the Senate to force Cicero to do so. That, incidentally, was how Cicero found out that it was Brutus who was lending the money: very often the great and good liked to hide their money-lending operations behind a third-party, e.g. one of their slaves or ex-slaves (‘freedmen’).

Such credit crunches raised serious question of solvency. The Latin solvo (solut-) meant ‘I loosen, release, untie’ and by extension ‘destroy the binding force of’, e.g. a marriage or any other contract. So in Rome, if you managed to release yourself from debt, you would have been untied from the contract – solutus, and so found the ‘solution’ to your problem. Today, being ‘solvent’ means ‘able to pay what one owes’.

Note: our term ‘interest’ derives from Latin interest, ‘it is advantageous, beneficial’, which in the Middle Ages (via French) came to refer to a legal claim, or right.


Whether bonuses are a good thing or not, ‘bonus’ itself derives from the Latin for ‘good’ – bonus, with its adverbial form bene, ‘well’. Bonus in Latin had a wide range of meanings, none specifically financial, but still reflecting what makes a ‘bonus’ desirable, e.g. ‘satisfying to the appetites, senses’, ‘good of its kind, effective’, and ‘morally good’, so justifying it. ‘Bonus’ was probably Stock Exchange slang (1773), though grammatically inept: bonus meant ‘good person’. Bonum, the neuter form, ‘good thing’ would be preferable.


This is a relatively rare example of a Greek word, turned into Latin, which does exactly what it says on the tin in the Greek, Roman and modern worlds. Greek monopôlion (μονοπωλιον), Latinised to monopolium, derived from Greek monos ‘sole, only’ + pôleô ‘I offer for sale’, and meant ‘[right of] monopoly’. A Greek historian described how the Sicilian island of Lipari became fabulously wealthy, and one reason was because it had a monopôlion in alum, a form of iron sulphate widely used in dyeing and medicine.

The Roman emperor Tiberius took a great interest in regulating business, ‘laying before the Senate matters for consultation on taxes and monopolies’. Apparently, there was also a monopoly on the use of hedgehog skins in the carding of woollen stuffs, which people tried to exploit or get round. Pliny the Elder said that

there is no subject on which the Senate has more frequently passed decrees, and there is not one of the emperors who has not received from the provinces complaints respecting it.

Bizarre to us, but not in the light of a world where every one of the c. 50 million inhabitants wore clothing made from wool. People stood to gain from maintaining a grip on one of the processes.


For us ‘capital’ can be anything from an exclamation meaning ‘Excellent!’, to a capital letter or city or punishment. In business terms, ‘capital’ means ‘store of money’. ‘Capitalism’ is all about private people (not the state) setting up businesses or providing services in order to make money (capital), either to keep it, or to make even more of it by putting it back into expanding and developing the business. Indeed, it is also the source of our ‘cattle’, once the main indicator of man’s wealth.

All these meanings derive from Latin caput (capit-), ‘head (of a man, animals etc.), summit or top, leader, matter of importance’. Apparently the financial connection was made around AD 1200: it referred to the sum of money loaned out (the main, or ‘capital’, part), as opposed to the interest one had to pay to borrow it.

A Roman iron monger

Fomenting revolution

Capitalism was not a feature of the Roman economy, nor was private business per se (‘in itself’) of political concern. No one was out to overthrow it, let alone to ‘ferment revolution’, as a left-wing politician recently wanted to do. What he meant was ‘foment revolution’, Latin fomentum. This meant ‘soothing application, poultice, dressing’, or ‘remedy’. It derived from foveo, ‘I warm, nurture, support’, and that is what the politician was so keen to do: nurture capitalism’s overthrow. Fermento in Latin meant what it does for us: ‘I cause x to ferment’, by e.g. turning sugar to alcohol, for example.

Revolutio was not in fact a classical Latin word at all, but it does derive from one, revolvo (revolut-) ‘I roll something back to where it came from’ (of the volumen), ‘I bring round again’ (of the seasons, etc). So a revolutio would change nothing: it would merely take you back to the beginning. That, presumably, would mean the Bolshevik revolution (1917).

Bills and bulls

‘We are worth no more than bullae’, said Petronius – ‘bubbles’. Little did he know … for bulla is the origin of our ‘bill’. It meant not just a bubble but also a ‘boss, knob, stud’ for ornamental purposes. In later Latin it was used of an official document carrying a raised, knob-like wax seal (cf. papal ‘bulls’, a letter with a lead seal attached to it). Over time it became applied to official papers demanding money; and (via French) ‘bulls’ became bills.

Bulla is also the source of ‘bullet’ (via French boule, a small ball), and ‘bulletin’, a small official document.

Accounts and contracts

An ‘account’ in Latin was that catch-all word tabula, but in the plural tabulae. Accounts could be fiddled then, as now. Cicero told of an estate bought for the woman Caesennia by her dodgy agent Aebutius. He said that no evidence of the transaction was available no, said Cicero, because Aebutius had stolen her account-books, and kept in his own possession the money-lender’s account-book, in which the price on the debit side had been duly carried over to the credit side!

Meanwhile, a contract was a locatio. That came from loco ‘I put in a given position’ (cf. our ‘location’), but also ‘I give out a contract for work’. Cicero again reports that Verres, the corrupt governor of Sicily, fiddled things so that

large sums of money were paid over personally to him, that had been  falsely entered into the books as paid in connection with contracts that never existed.

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