Some notes on the lexicon of Festus

There is a manuscript in the Farnese collection, in the Biblioteca Nazionale in Naples (shelfmark Bibl. Naz. IV.A.3), known as the Farnesianus or F, because it once formed part of the library of Cardinal Ranuccio Farnese.  This contains a text consisting of words and definitions, entitled De significatione verborum, On the meaning of words.  The manuscript tells us that the author is an otherwise unknown Sextus Pompeius Festus.[1]  The manuscript itself is 11th or 12th century.

The manuscript consists of 41 folios of parchment, written on both sides in two columns, giving us 164 columns of text.

The manuscript has suffered damage.  More than a few of the columns show signs of burning on their exterior margin, and most of the folios show evident traces of fire.  However, for some folios, the burned portion has been cut away, and on folio 19, this means that the outer column is completely gone.  The first eight folios are often nearly illegible.  The parchment itself is often pierced here and there by small holes or cuts.

From the ninth folio, the writing is very neat and clear, but heavily abbreviated.  Each entry is begun with majuscule letters, used only for this purpose.

The manuscript seems to have been discovered in Illyria at the start of the 16th century, and brought to Italy.[2]

A good bibliography may be found in the Festus Lexicon Project, which points out that the French translation is at Remacle.org here.  I was unable to locate a copy of the W. M. Lindsay edition of 1913 online, unfortunately.

Fay Glinister writes at the Festus Lexicon Project:

The text, even in its present mutilated state, is an important source for scholars of Roman history. It is a treasury of historical, grammatical, legal and antiquarian learning, providing sometimes unique evidence for the culture, language, political, social and religious institutions, deities, laws, lost monuments, and topographical traditions of ancient Italy.

Festus is important, too, in terms of his numerous explicit citations of early Roman authors, from Fabius Pictor on. He quoted or used many ancient sources, including authors – poets, grammarians, jurists and antiquarians – whose works do not survive elsewhere.

In the case of Plautus, the quotations that survive in Festus are particularly important, as they antedate the edition from which the archetype derives, and sometimes preserve a true reading not otherwise attested.

We could sometimes wish that Festus included more: in quoting, his practice is typically to complete the line, whether or not the sense of the passage can be understood.

The text of Festus sometimes preserves very early traditions, or readings of other authors. For example, the quotation from the Augustan jurist Antistius Labeo’s work on pontifical law in Festus 474, 476L, apparently from priestly records, may be earlier than Varro’s discussion of the Septimontium in LL 5.41.

Other frequently cited authors include Lucilius, Caecilius, Accius, Afranius, Titinius, the grammarian Cornificius, and of course Varro (directly cited about twenty times; in addition a number of other entries have been attributed to him). Festus also includes many glosses of legal character, and cites jurists such as Mucius Scaevola, Sulpicius Rufus, Ateius Capito and so on.

Festus’ many sources represent a wide range of Republican scholarly antiquity, but it is also worthwhile looking at him in the context of his own time. The choice he made to work on such material is quite an interesting one. Clearly, he was interested in the Roman past, but as the first part of his work is lost, we lack any explicit personal statement of his aims.

Nevertheless, his literary activity can be understood in the general context of the cultural attitudes of the second century. He is concerned with the recovery of Roman antiquities of all kinds, and with early literary works (such as those by Ennius and Cato), which fits in with the arcaising and antiquarian interests of a number of near-contemporary Latin authors such as Probus, Apuleius, and most notably Aulus Gellius, author of the Attic Nights.

Hmm.  Now that sounds interesting, although an English translation would definitely need footnotes.  She also believes he is a writer of the 2nd century, not the 4th.

I’ve had a quick look at a couple of sections of the remacle transcription, and came across one entry that seemed interesting:

SOL.  The sun is so named because it is alone.  It is named sometimes sun, sometimes Apollo: You are Apollo, you are alone (Sol) in the sky / heaven.

In this light, the cult of Sol Invictus in the late empire takes on a new meaning.

Likewise the expression “sub corona”, under the crown, is of interest.  There are versions of this in the extracts by Paul the Deacon, as well as the direct text.

SUB CORONA: Captives are said to be sold “under the crown”, because they are sold with their head decorated with a crown.  Cato says: “Let the people give thanks to the gods for giving them success, rather than see themselves sold, wearing a crown, following a defeat.”

SUB CORONA: We say “sold under the crown” because usually a crown is placed on the head of captives when they are sold, as Cato says in his book On the military art: ”Let the people go and give thanks to the gods for a success, wearing a crown, rather than be sold, wearing a crown, following a defeat.” However this sign indicates that nothing is owed by the people, as Plautus also indicates in his Little Garden: “Let the crier be crowned, so that he may be sold for any price.”

I wonder whether the custom may explain the passage in Tertullian’s De corona militis where soldiers who worshipped Mithras refused to wear a crown during the distribution of the donatives from the emperor, on the grounds that “Mithras is my crown”?  The crowns were worn for celebration; but clearly it could have another meaning, of ownership.

Another anecdote:

RIDEO, INQUIT GALBA CANTERIO ["I laugh," said Galba to his horse], is a proverb which Sinnius Capito interprets thus: “If a man falls at the first moment when he begins something.”  Suplicius Galba, setting out for the province that had been assigned to him, saw his horse fall right at the gate of the City.  “I laugh,” he said, “O horse, to see you already tired, with so long a journey to do and so short a distance from the start.”

PRAETORIA COHORS.  The praetorian cohort, so named because it always accompanied the praetor.  Scipio Africanus was the first to select the bravest men from the army, and form a body who would always accompany him during the war, being exempt from all other service and receiving a sixfold wage.

PRAETORIA PORTA.  This name is given to the gate of the camp from which the army goes out to go to fight, because in the beginning the praetors fulfilled the functions assigned today to the consuls, and directed the operations of the war: their tent was likewise called the “praetorium”.

PUNICUM.  A type of cake, the use of which came from the Carthaginians.  Also called probum, because much more delicate than the others.

PECULIUM.  Money belonging to slaves is so called from pecus, just as money belonging to the head of the family is called pecunia.

Other entries of interest that I saw were those on the October Horse and the Ordo Sacerdotum (order of precedence of the priests), but there is much else of interest to the casual reader in this work.  If Aulus Gellius can be read in English, it seems like a pity that Festus cannot be.

  1. [1] C. O. Muller, p.ii, footnote 2, quoting Politian to this effect.
  2. [2] A. Savagner, Sextus Pompeius Festus, De la Signification des mots, vol. 1, 1846, preface.

4 Responses to “Some notes on the lexicon of Festus”


  1. arcadium

    Very interesting! I’m looking forward to the translation promised by the Project :)

    P.S. I sent you an email via the contact form on the website, I hope you received it ;)

  2. Roger Pearse

    I hadn’t noticed that, but yes, it ought to exist. I ought to write to Dr Glenister.

  3. arcadium

    The translation is mentioned in their section “The Database” – this aspect sounds very exciting and I’m looking forward to it, especially to the commentary, and to see in what manner they envisaged the user experience.

    email sent :)

  4. From my diary at Roger Pearse

    [...] A little while ago I mentioned the lexicon of Sextus Pompeius Festus, a rather battered survival of Latin literature, probably from the 2nd century AD.  I also referred to the Festus Lexicon Project, which had set out to try to produce a reliable text and a translation.  The status of this was uncertain, so I wrote to Fay Glinister and asked.  Today an email arrived back, in which she said: [...]