What they talked about when they talked about people

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Effects of Good Government on Town (fresco), Siena, Palazzo Pubblico. (Public Domain; https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/ba/Lorenzetti%2C_Ambrogio._Effeti_del_buon_governo_in_citt%C3%A0.jpg)

Cinzia Grifoni

January 15, 2019 | Cinzia Grifoni | HI Research Blog |

The actual meaning and every-day implications of words like "people", "nation" and "democracy" have increasingly become the subject of general reflection. Indeed, it is a common experience to participate in or come across debates about the nature, purpose and cohesiveness of present-day political communities, be they local, national or international. Questions concerning the preconditions for becoming a member thereof, as well as the benefits and obligations resulting from such status, often trigger discussion. Furthermore, many of the political and social challenges of our time, be they Brexit, the upsurge of populisms, the inclusion or exclusion of newcomers, urge every single voter to think about the essence and the future of the societies they belong to. What are the minimal requirements in order to be acknowledged as a legitimate part of a given community, both by the other members and by the outgroup? Should one display those requirements in their entirety or only to some extent? Is there room for inclusion and flexibility? What does an individual need in order to feel as part of the group they officially belong to?

The kernel of my work at the Institute for Medieval Research consists of the investigation of late antique and early medieval answers to these, or very similar, questions. In particular, I am interested in how ancient and medieval scholars of the Latin West conceived and described the political, religious and social communities of their own time; which ones they depicted as inclusive and permeable and which, on the contrary, were presented as exclusive and having fixed components. Furthermore, I explore on which grounds social cohesion was built. The starting point for my research is the online Database GENS, an open access tool gathering relevant Latin sources for ethnic nomenclature, which has been developed at the Institute for Medieval Research in the context of both the ERC-Project SCIRE and of the still running SFB-Project VISCOM. My analysis focuses on the vocabulary, i.e. on the range of terms and concepts, ancient and medieval authors employed to define the groups of people featuring in their works. When taking words as the basis for my research I assume that the writers of the sources I investigate chose the terminology they employed with care and not randomly, at least in most of the cases. With regard to medieval sources, I imply for instance that most of the authors I deal with, although no longer native speakers of Classical Latin, knew the original meaning of the Latin terms they used, so that I can rely upon their words in order to retrace the underlying notions of social and political belonging.

Words like gens, natio, and populus feature undoubtedly among the most used terms for describing groups of people in both Classical and Medieval Latin. Translating these terms into modern languages is a thorny task, since they expressed different concepts of peoplehood which their modern equivalents (as, for instance, the Italian gente, nazione, popolo; or the French gens, nation, peuple) have lost completely. Those ancient and medieval scholars who were concerned with the proper use of Latin language clearly distinguished between the respective meanings of the three terms and adopted them to represent differently conceived groups of people. Several definitions contained in works of grammatical or legal nature survive from the second century CE onwards, which help us understand the visions originally hiding behind these words.

The term gens indicated primarily a group of persons unified by common descent and consanguinity. Scholars such as Sextus Pompeius Festus (2nd c. CE), Flavius Charisius (4th c. CE) or the fifth-century bishop of Sens Agroetius, to name but some examples, all defined gens in a biological sense, as a kinfolk. As such, gens expressed an exclusive concept of peoplehood, which granted membership, at least in theory, only by reason of shared blood. A further group of sources, however, and in particular some treatises explaining the differences between words (Differentiae verborum) and the ancient Latin grammar par excellence, that written by Aelius Donatus in fourth-century Rome, transmit a concept of gens which relates to a large collectivity, without declaring explicitly whether its members were regarded as belonging to the same kinship. Donatus (Ars Maior 2, 3) included, for instance, "Greek" (Graecus) and "Spanish" (Hispanus) as examples of adjectives referring to a gens. Thus, he considered the people living in regions subjected to Roman rule as each being a gens, without specifying further the characteristics they shared. Accordingly, the plural form gentes could be used to indicate either the families of Roman society, or the population of Roman provinces, or again the "barbarian" peoples living both beyond and inside the Roman borders.

As for the term natio, grammatical treatises provide us with definitions of the word's meaning. Natio referred to the territory of origin of a person. Moreover, it designated a group of people who were born on the same soil. When defining natio, the Carolingian scholar Paulus Diaconus re-used the description produced by Sextus Pompeius Festus in the second century CE and stated that people who keep living on the same territory where they were born form a natio (De verborum significatu, p. 165). Compared to the biological concept of peoplehood expressed by gens, the definition of natio lacks any reference to kin relationships among its members, but is just as exclusive. The strict precondition in order to be considered as a part of the group is, in this case, of geographical nature. It is interesting to remark that both in Late Antiquity and in the early Middle Ages the compilers of the already mentioned Differentiae verborum felt the need to distinguish natio from gens in their respective features. In fact, the two terms risked being used mistakenly as synonyms – as several surviving sources actually do – especially when gens was used more vaguely to indicate a large collectivity, in which common descent could be implied or not. Therefore, those scholars who strove to establish guidelines for the correct use of Latin included the distinction of these two terms in their works.

Conversely, at least to my knowledge, the definition of populus never occurs among the entries of the Differentiae verborum. We can therefore suppose that there was no necessity to distinguish its meaning from that of gens or natio. Evidence defining populus is provided by a different set of sources, which mostly deal with political or legal issues. Cicero (1st c. BCE) produced in his De re publica (I, 39) a very influential depiction of populus, according to which a populus is only that group of people which agrees to observe the same laws (consensus iuris) and is held together by community of interest (communio utilitatis). A further definition revealing the pragmatic and juridical nature of the concept of populus occurs in the law collection produced by Gaius in the second century CE and included by Emperor Justinian (6th c. CE) into his Institutions. Here populus features as the community of the citizens of the Roman polity embracing all social strata. As both Patrick Geary and Emma Dench have stressed, the Roman concept of populus was very inclusive and potentially open to each individual, regardless of their background.

The definitions we have dealt with, and the corresponding notions of peoplehood, were passed to the Middle Ages and enjoyed a widespread reception. Indeed, they were included into very influential works of encyclopaedic purpose, like the Etymologies of the sixth-century bishop Isidore of Seville, or into true "storehouses of knowledge" like the medieval glossaries, in primis the famous Liber Glossarum. It is relevant that Christian authors, both in Late Antiquity and in the Middle Ages, mostly used gens, natio, and populus according to their Classical meaning in order to make accessible to the Western audience the Bible and, in particular, its vision of a world of very different peoples called to become part of a single people of God.

I will have the opportunity to speak on this latter aspect during the forthcoming workshop on ethnic terminology, which VISCOM has organized for the 24th and 25th of January 2019 at the Institute for Medieval Research. The different concepts of peoplehood will be analysed in comparative and global perspective by Austrian and international scholars: I believe these are going to be two exciting days!


Further reading:

Flavius Sosipater Charisius, Artis Grammaticae libri V, ed. Karl Barwick (Leipzig, 19642).

Aelius Donatus, Ars, ed. Louis Holtz: Donat et la tradition de l'enseignement grammatical. Étude sur l'Ars Donati et sa diffusion [IVe ‒IXe siècle] et édition critique (Paris, 1981).

Sextus Pompeius Festus, De verborum significatu quae exstant cum Pauli epitome, ed. Wallace M. Lindsay (Leipzig, 1913).

Meanings of Community across Medieval Eurasia, ed. by Eirik Hovden, Christina Lutter and Walter Pohl (Leiden/Boston, 2016).

Recht und Konsens im frühen Mittelalter, ed. by Verena Epp and Christoph H. F. Meyer (Ostfildern, 2017).

Patrick Geary, The Myth of Nations. The Medieval Origins of Europe (Princeton, 20032).

Emma Dench, Romulus' Asylum. Roman Identities from the Age of Alexander to the Age of Hadrian (Oxford, 2005).

C. J. Smith, The Roman Clan. The gens from ancient ideology to modern anthropology (Cambridge, 2006).

Jeremy Duquesnay Adams, The Populus of Augustine and Jerome. A Study in the Patristic Sense of Community (New Haven/London, 1971).


Database GENS



Ethnic Terminologies in the Early Middle Ages


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