Vocabula Mira: “Laterculus”

Gregory DiPippo

The word “laterculus”, the diminutive form of the third declension masculine noun “later – a brick”, is one of Latin’s most curious examples of semantic evolution. Already in the early 2nd century BC., it had come to mean a small cake or biscuit shaped like a brick or tile, as attested in Plautus’ Poenulus (“the Little Carthaginian”), 1, 2, 115. Among surveyors, on the other hand, it meant a tile-shaped piece of land. (Lewis and Short ad vocem.)

In the Christian era, the word evolved in a completely different direction. Small bricks or tiles of stone or terracotta were very often used to inscribe lists of various kinds, such as a calendar of events or a list of provinces. The word therefore changed to mean “a list or register”, regardless of the material on which the list was written or inscribed. Thus at the end of the second century A.D., Tertullian writes, “Vos certe estis, qui etiam in laterculum septem dierum solem recepistis – you certainly are the ones who also took the sun onto the list of seven days.” (Ad Nationes, 1, 13, 3) From this derives “laterculensis – a keeper of lists or registrar”, which appears in the Code of Justinian. At the same time, it also came to mean an abacus; in his commentary on the Prophet Ezekiel (4.1), St Jerome says that the Greek word πλίνθιον (itself a diminutive of a Greek word for “brick”), can be translated as either “laterculus” or “abacus.” (A. Souter, A Glossary of Later Latin, ad voces.)

For Christians, one of the most important lists of all was the “computus”, the cyclical list of the dates of Easter; thus for St Isidore in his Etymologies (6.17.4), the neuter form “laterculum” becomes a synonym for the computes: “Hinc et laterculum dictum, quod ordinem habeat stratum annorum. – Hence it is called a list (or ‘table’) because it has the order of the years laid out in rows.”

(A marble Easter calendar for the years 532-632, now at the cathedral museum of Ravenna, Italy. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Apatak, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Several lists called “laterculi” in ancient or medieval manuscripts provide important historical information about the classical world. The Laterculus Veronensis, preserved in a single manuscript of the 7th century, now at the library of Verona Cathedral, gives the names of the roughly 100 provinces into which the Roman Empire was divided by the reforms of Diocletian in the later 3rd or early 4th century, grouped into twelve “dioceses”, six eastern and six western. (This division would form the basis of the division of the Empire into two parts, which would become permanent under Theodosius at the end of the fourth century.)

Another laterculus, qualified as “Malalianus”, is a work of the later 7th century attributed to St Theodore of Tarsus, the Greek archbishop of Canterbury whom we noted yesterday on the anniversary of his death. Its name comes from a Byzantine author of the 6th century, John Malalas, from whose Chronographia most of the material in the first half is taken, a history of the world from Adam to the Emperor Justinian. The second half is an original exegetical work about the life of Christ, which concludes with a chronology of the Roman Emperors based on Malalas. In The ‘Laterculus Malalianus’ and the School of Archbishop Theodore, (Cambridge, 1995) Prof. Jane Stevenson presents a case that this work shows a marked influence of Syrian theology. This is best explained, she contends, by attributing it to Theodore, who was from the region of Antioch and Edessa in Syria. While she recognizes in the book that her case is circumstantial, it has won broad scholarly acceptance. The author explains his purpose thus in the first chapter:

“Nunc igitur – si placet, ut certum sit – ipsa mundi consilia perquiramus: quo tempore, qua aetate mundi adfuerit Christus saluator in carne, cuius etiam consulatu adque imperio mundo in hoc agebatur in terris, dum e caelo Dei filius in utero uirginis uelut rex insederit thalamo.

Now, therefore – if it pleases you that it should be made certain – let us seek out the very counsels of the world: at what time, in which age of the world Christ the Savior came in the flesh; and also in whose consulship and reign he dwelled in this world and upon the earth, when the Son of God came from heaven to earth into the womb of a virgin like a king entering a bridal chamber.”

Lastly, we may note a similarly disparate evolution in the Greek word πλίνθιον cited above, which came to mean almost anything square or divisible into squares. Liddel and Scott’s Greek lexicon lists the following varied definitions: “a square of troops; a sundial; a bandage; a rectangular box; a checker-board; a table of numbers divided into squares; fields (specifically in a religious context); squares or checks of tartan; the front frame of a torsion-engine; the case or chamber in which mechanism is fitted; (any) rectangle.”

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