Previously we have harped about Rome’s infrastructure and Rome’s army. But beyond impressive architecture and grand military traditions, some eminent Romans also boasted fascinating philosophical notions. So without further ado, let us take a gander at 25 incredible Ancient Roman quotes you should know – uttered by the crème de la crème of ‘friends, Romans, and countrymen’.
*Note – While these quotes were selected from a large pool, in NO WAY do we claim that they are the ‘best’ of all the quotes Romans had to offer. So please view this list as a subjective topic.
1) If you have overcome your inclination and not been overcome by it, you have reason to rejoice.
Plautus or Titus Maccius Plautus (254 BC – 184 BC), was a Roman playwright known as the originator of the Palliata comoedia genre. In fact, his comedic works are among the rarer (and earliest) surviving literary specimens from the so-called Old Latin period.
2) I’m never less at leisure than when at leisure, or less alone than when alone.
Scipio Africanus (236 BC – 183 BC), also known as Scipio Africanus the Elder, was arguably the greatest Roman general of his generation. He was responsible for ultimately defeating Hannibal Barca at the momentous Battle of Zama, in 202 BC.
3) If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.
Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BC – 43 BC) is often considered as one of the greatest Roman orators and prose stylists of his time. Hailing from a wealthy Roman equestrian family, Cicero was also a philosopher, politician, lawyer, political theorist and a constitutionalist, who introduced neologisms such as evidentia, humanitas, qualitas, quantitas, and essentia.
4) Advice in old age is foolish; for what can be more absurd than to increase our provisions for the road the nearer we approach to our journey’s end.
Another jewel from Marcus Tullius Cicero. And since the quote talks about death, it should be noted that Cicero himself was killed at the orders of Mark Antony (Marcus Antonius). Apparently, Cicero’s last words to his captors were – “There is nothing proper about what you are doing, soldier, but do try to kill me properly.”.
5) It is easier to find men who will volunteer to die, than to find those who are willing to endure pain with patience.
Julius Caesar (100 BC – 44 BC), was a Roman statesman and notable author of Latin prose. But he is mostly known for being the greatest Roman general of his time, who completed the conquest of Gaul and launched the first Roman invasion of Britain.
6) If you must break the law, do it to seize power: in all other cases observe it.
Another interesting quote of Julius Caesar, this time dealing with a political scope. In fact, from the historical perspective, it was his political maneuvers (rather than generalship) that had long-lasting effects on Rome and Europe; as his critical role in going against the senate led to the eclipse of the Roman Republic and the emergence of the Roman Empire.
7) Those most moved to tears by every word of a preacher are generally weak and a rascal when the feelings evaporate.
Sallust or Gaius Sallustius Crispus (86 BC – 34 BC), was a Roman historian, politician and the very first man from his provincial plebeian family to serve in the Roman senate. He was also a known partisan of Julius Caesar himself (and might have even commanded a legion), who always maintained his strict opposition to the old Roman aristocracy. Later on in his life, Sallust was instrumental in developing the landscaped pleasure gardens in the northwestern sector of Rome, better known as the Horti Sallustian (Gardens of Sallust).
8) An angry man is again angry with himself when he returns to reason.
Publilius Syrus (85 BC – 43 BC) was a Latin mime writer contemporary to Cicero, who was known for his collection of moral aphorisms in iambic and trochaic verse. Interestingly enough, Publilius probably started out as a slave from Syria and climbed up the ladders of the literary world by defeating his rival Decimus Laberius. Historians over time have determined that his authentic verses run to a total of around 700 maxims, including the famous one – “iudex damnatur ubi nocens absolvitur” (The judge is condemned when the guilty is acquitted).
9) Fear is proof of a degenerate mind.
Virgil or Publius Vergilius Maro (70 BC – 19 BC), was one of ancient Rome’s greatest poet corresponding to the Augustan period. His massive contribution to Latin literature is espoused by three significant works – the Eclogues (or Bucolics), the Georgics, and the epic Aeneid. The latter literary specimen is often considered as ancient Rome’s national epic, with the work following the traditions of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.
10) A shoe that is too large is apt to trip one, and when too small, to pinch the feet. So it is with those whose fortune does not suit them.
Horace or Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65 BC – 8 BC), was the foremost Roman lyric poet contemporary to the Augustan period, who dabbled in both hexameter verses and caustic iambic poetry. He was also an officer in the republican army that was defeated at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC. But later on he was offered amnesty by Octavian, and thus Horace became the became a spokesman for the new regime (though he lost his father’s estate to a colony of veterans).
11) The lofty pine is oftenest shaken by the winds; High towers fall with a heavier crash; And the lightning strikes the highest mountain.
Another interesting quote of Horace, the sentence harks back to the ‘delicate’ balance that the poet himself had to maintain in the post-civil wars period (in late 1st century BC) when it came to his political affiliations. However, it still manages to evoke Horace’s strong penchant for individualistic independence.
12) Young men, hear an old man to whom old men hearkened when he was young.
Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD), born Gaius Octavius, was the founder of the Roman Empire and its first Emperor who ruled till his death in 14 AD (additionally he was also Julius Caesar’s adopted heir). The reign of Augustus kick-started what is known as Pax Romana (the Roman Peace), an extensive period of almost two centuries when the Roman realm was not disturbed by any long-drawn major conflict, in spite of the empire’s ‘regular’ territorial expansions into regions like Egypt, Dalmatia, Pannonia, Germania and complete annexation of Hispania.
13) Rome has grown since its humble beginnings that it is now overwhelmed by its own greatness.
Livy or Titus Livius (59 BC – 17 AD) is arguably the oft-quoted Roman when it comes to their history. That is primarily because of the Roman historian’s monumental work Ab Urbe Condita Libri (Books from the Foundation of the City) that covers the ‘dark ages’ before Rome’s traditional founding in 753 BC to Livy’s contemporary times. Livy’s fame during the latter half of his life is often presented through an anecdote when a man from Cadiz (a port in southwestern Spain) was said to have traveled all the way to Rome to just meet the author, and then after fulfilling his wish returned to his homeland without delay.
14) Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.
Seneca the Elder or Marcus Annaeus Seneca (54 BC – 39 AD), was a Roman rhetorician and writer who hailed from distant Cordoba, Hispania. Born into a wealthy equestrian family, Seneca (later in his life) lived in the momentous period of the early Roman Empire that encompassed the reign of three emperors – Augustus, Tiberius, and Caligula.
15) There is no such thing as pure pleasure; some anxiety always goes with it.
Ovid or Publius Ovidius Naso (43 BC – 17 AD), was a contemporary Roman poet of the older Virgil and Horace, and together these three formed the ‘holy trinity’ of Latin canonical literature during the Augustan period. To that end, Ovid is mainly known his mythological narrative – the Metamorphoses, along with collections of love poetry like the Amores (“Love Affairs”) and Ars Amatoria (“The Art of Love”). In an odd turn of events, the poet was later exiled to a remote Black Sea province by Augustus himself. The historians still speculate on the numerous possible reasons, with Ovid himself simply alluding to the episode by saying carmen et error, “a poem and a mistake”.
16) Say not always what you know, but always know what you say.
Claudius or Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (10 BC – 54 AD), was a Roman Emperor who reigned from 41-54 AD and was Rome’s first ruler born outside of Italy. Interestingly, in spite of being slightly deaf and having a limp, Claudius proved himself to be an able administrator and patron of public building projects. His reign also saw concerted attempts to conquer Britain, while the emperor himself was known to have fought an actual killer whale trapped in the Ostia harbor (as mentioned by Pliny the Elder)!
17) The first and greatest punishment of the sinner is the conscience of sin.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca, also known as Seneca the Younger (5 BC – 65 AD), was a Roman Stoic philosopher and a dramatist who also tried his hand in humor. One of the sons of Seneca the Elder, Lucius also acted as the Imperial adviser and tutor to Roman Emperor Nero. Unfortunately, his very connection to political affairs brought forth his demise – when Lucius was forced to commit suicide for his alleged role in the Pisonian conspiracy to assassinate Nero.
18) Hope is the pillar that holds up the world. Hope is the dream of a waking man.
Pliny the Elder or Gaius Plinius Secundus (23 AD – 79 AD), was an ancient Roman author, naturalist, and natural philosopher – known for his encyclopedic work, Naturalis Historia. Like some eminent Romans of his time, Pliny also had a career in the military with his high-status post as a naval and army commander in the early Roman empire. Pliny later died in the catastrophic eruption of Mouth Vesuvius (AD 79) on the beach at Stabiae, and thus was one of the famous (yet unfortunate) eye-witnesses to the destruction of Pompeii (reconstructed in this animated video).
19) The gods conceal from men the happiness of death, that they may endure life.
Lucan or Marcus Annaeus Lucanus (39 AD – 65 AD), was another Roman literary icon from Cordoba (in fact he was the nephew of Seneca the Younger), who was known for his speed of composition in poems. Unfortunately, he too met his untimely demise at a young age of 25, when he was forced to commit suicide (like his uncle) during the Pisonian conspiracy to assassinate Nero.
20) I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinions of himself than on the opinions of others.
Marcus Aurelius or Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus (121 AD – 180 AD), was the Roman Emperor from 161-180 AD, who is considered as the last of the Five Good Emperors. Incredibly enough, he was also among the foremost Stoic philosophers of his time – as is evident from his tome Meditations, written entirely in Greek while the emperor was conducting his military campaign.
21) The universe is transformation: life is opinion.
Another insightful quote of Marcus Aurelius – the emperor who was also known to have taken his lessons in oratory from two Greek tutors and one Latin tutor. Regarding the choice of these tutors, it becomes evident on how the Roman aristocracy of the time still valued Greek as a language.
22) Another one of the old poets, whose name has escaped my memory at present, called Truth the daughter of Time.
Aulus Gellius (125 AD – after 180 AD) was an eminent Latin author and grammarian of his time, who was originally educated in Athens. He is renowned for Attic Nights, a book compiling comparable notes on different subjects including grammar, philosophy, history, antiquarianism and even geometry.
23) We find that the Romans owed the conquest of the world to no other cause than continual military training, exact observance of discipline in their camps, and unwearied cultivation of the other arts of war.
Vegetius or Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus (circa 4th century AD), was the most famous Roman military historian of the late fourth century, though not much is known about his life. However, in the opening passage of his brilliant work Epitoma rei militaris (also known as De Re Militari), Vegetius confirms his religion as Christianity. Incredibly enough, the author is also known (to some extent) for his other work Digesta Artis Mulomedicinae, which is a comprehensive treatise on veterinary medicine.
24) The Son of God became man so that we might become God.
Saint Athanasius of Alexandria (296 AD – 373 AD) was the twentieth bishop of Alexandria and a famed Christian theologian who defended Trinitarianism against Arianism. The famous Egyptian was also known for his run-ins with the Roman emperors, as was evident from his five exiles (from four different emperors) that equated to 17 years, over a period of 45 years of his episcopate.
25) If there is a God, whence proceed so many evils? If there is no God, whence cometh any good?
Boethius or Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius (480 AD – 525 AD), was a Roman senator, consul, magister officious, and philosopher of the early 6th century. He is unique in our list because the philosopher was born four years after the Western Roman Empire ‘technically’ ceased to exist when Odoacer took the title of the King of Italy (in 476 AD). Boethius himself served the Ostrogothic King Theodoric the Great and was ultimately imprisoned and executed by his patron.
Honorable mention for those who liked the previous Roman quotes –
Witticisms please as long as we keep them within boundaries, but pushed to excess they cause offense.
Phaedrus (15 BC – 50 AD) was a Roman fabulist and a Latin author, who was possibly born in Macedonia (at least according to the author’s own claims). On the other hand, a few self-references also hint at how he might have been a Thracian slave who was ‘personally’ freed by the Emperor.