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A Guide to Latin Place Names and Their Meanings

This article has been reviewed in accordance with our editorial policy.

Some­times you come across Latin place names like Roma, Athenae, or Cartha­go; some­times you come across place names like LulaFal­copia, or Boërosia. It is then that the devi­ous dic­tio­nar­ies fail you, star­ing blankly back at you.

Luck­i­ly, all is not lost:

This arti­cle will help you do two things:

  1. under­stand Latin geo­graph­i­cal names that you encounter in  medieval or ear­ly mod­ern texts or manuscripts
  2. find the Latin name of a place, be it a city or coun­try, e.g. New York (it’s Novum Eboracum)

In this arti­cle I will dis­cuss works prin­ci­pal­ly treat­ing place names in the medieval and ear­ly mod­ern world.

(If you’re deal­ing with place names in the ancient world, vis­it the Ancient World Map­ping Cen­ter.)

The dic­tio­nar­ies that I treat in this arti­cle were most­ly writ­ten for bib­li­og­ra­phers and schol­ars but any­one inter­est­ed in Latin place names can use them aswell.

You can down­load the guide here Here is a step-by-step-guide on how to use it to find Latin place names. 

1. How to Find the Meaning of a Latin Place Name

You’ve encoun­tered a Latin place name and can’t find the meaning?

When the reg­u­lar dic­tio­nar­ies fail to give the mod­ern equi­v­i­va­lent of a Latin place name, there are luck­i­ly sev­er­al ref­er­ence works ded­i­cat­ed to the subject.

We will now turn to the first and largest work, Orbis Lat­i­nus.

Orbis Latinus

  • J.G.T. Graesse, F. Bene­dict, and H. Plechl, Orbis Lat­i­nus : Lexikon lateinis­ch­er geo­graphis­ch­er Namen des Mit­te­lal­ters und der Neuzeit (1972).

This work, com­prised of three 600-page vol­umes, is the most com­pre­hen­si­ble work on Latin pla­ce­names in the post-clas­si­cal world. 

THREE VOLUMES OF ORBIS LATINUS BY GRAESSE, BENEDICT AND PLECHL.

Even though there is a pre­pon­der­ence of Euro­pean loca­tions, you can also find Latin place names in Africa and the Mid­dle East. Asia and the Amer­i­c­as, how­ev­er, seem large­ly absent.

The place names are defined by their equiv­a­lent in the lan­guage of the coun­try in which the place is locat­ed (e.g. Lon­dini­um, is giv­en in Eng­lish as “Lon­don”), togeth­er with a pre­ci­sion of the region and country.

The three vol­umes of Orbis Lat­i­nus togeth­er con­tain over 90.000 entries. But this state­ment needs to be qual­i­fied a bit:

The num­ber of unique places referred to is much low­er than the num­ber of entries.  Many times one Latin name may refer to mul­ti­ple places.

HERE ONE LATIN PLACE NAME REFERS TO MULTIPLE LOCATIONS.

Oth­er times mul­ti­ple Latin names may share the bur­den of mean­ing, so to speak, and refer to one sin­gle place, e.g. Sto­cholmia and Holmia, both refer­ring to Stock­holm, the cap­i­tal of Sweden.

MULTIPLE NAMES REFER TO ONE GEOGRAPHICAL LOCATION.

Orbis Lat­i­nus is avail­able in sev­er­al places online:

For schol­ars and peo­ple inter­est­ed in Latin place names, com­mon or obscure, this is with­out a doubt the best resource. But in case this mon­u­men­tal work is too exten­sive or won’t fit into your back­pock­et, there is a great alternative.

Orbis Latinus Handbook

  • J.G.T. Graesse, F. Bene­dict, and H. Plechl, Orbis Lat­i­nus: Lexikon lateinis­ch­er geo­graphis­cer Namen, Han­daus­gabe, (1971).

Don’t get fooled by the title.

This is a pow­er­ful abridge­ment which has two prin­ci­ple parts:

1) The first part con­tains ca 19.500 entries of medieval and ear­ly mod­ern Latin placenames.

2) The sec­ond part is a Ger­man-Latin dic­tio­nary of place names (see below for more info on part 2).

As not­ed above, some place names refer to one loca­tion, while oth­er place names refer to mul­ti­ple locations.

The pre­sen­ta­tion is sim­i­lar to that of the full version.

Placenames in Imprints

  • Robert Ped­die, Place names in imprints: An index to the Latin and oth­er forms used on title pages, (1968).

As a sup­ple­ment to Orbis Lat­i­nus I would cite this short vol­ume of some 70 pages, con­tain­ing ca 1050 entries. This book, how­ev­er, dif­fers from Orbis Lat­i­nus in that it not only con­tains Latin place names (both with com­mon and rare spellings), but also ver­nac­u­lar ones. It was writ­ten for bib­li­og­ra­phers deal­ing with names of print towns on title pages.

You can find a dig­i­tal ver­sion of Place names in imprints (com­bined with the full ver­sion of Orbis Lat­i­nus by Graesse) here.

2. How to Express Geographical Names in Latin

But where do you turn if you’re look­ing for the Latin equiv­a­lent of a loca­tion, the Latin name of a city or coun­try (e.g., the Latin for Madrid or Spain)? 

The RBMS dig­i­tal edi­tion of Orbis Lat­i­nus and Latin Pla­ce­names in imprints can be used to find the Latin ver­sion of a pla­ce­name, but it can be quite dif­fi­cult at first.

You can down­load the guide here Here is a step-by-step-guide on how to use it to find Latin place names. 

There are also some resources made explict­ly for this purpose. 

Orbis Lat­i­nus Handbook

This abridge­ment of the Orbis Lat­i­nus, as men­tioned above, dif­fers from the full ver­sion in one very impor­tant aspect: it con­tains two parts, one Latin-Ger­man and one Ger­man-Latin part. 

So if you’re look­ing for the Latin equiv­a­lent of, say “Milan”, this is the go-to resource (it’s Medi­olanum). 

The Ger­man-Latin sec­tion, a very rare and use­ful resource for any­one writ­ing or speak­ing Latin, con­tains ca 9.000 entries of place names.

FURTHER RESOURCES

There are also lists of Latin place names on Wikipedia; I would, how­ev­er, sug­gest dou­ble check­ing in the Orbis Lat­i­nus by Graesse et al.

Anoth­er use­ful resource is the Lex­i­con Lat­inum, cre­at­ed by David Mor­gan, and con­tin­ued by Patrick Owens. Apart from being a good Latin dic­tio­nary, it also pro­vides many Latin place names and is espe­cial­ly use­ful for places not treat­ed in the Orbis Lat­i­nus (e.g. the Amer­i­c­as and Asia).

This is the offi­cial ver­sion. Beware the numer­ous out­dat­ed edi­tions float­ing around online.

Let’s recap:

Overview of Resources

Orbis Latinus

Full ver­sion: J.G.T. Graesse, F. Bene­dict, and H. Plechl, Orbis Lat­i­nus: Lexikon lateinis­ch­er geo­graphis­ch­er Namen des Mit­te­lal­ters und der Neuzeit (1972).

Abridged: J.G.T. Graesse, F. Bene­dict, and H. Plechl, Orbis Lat­i­nus: Lexikon lateinis­ch­er geo­graphis­cer Namen, Han­daus­gabe, (1971). [Latin-Ger­man, German-Latin]

Placenames in Imprints

Robert Ped­die, Place names in imprints: An index to the Latin and oth­er forms used on title pages, (1968).

Further Resources


These resources have been indis­pens­able for me to iden­ti­fy towns men­tioned in Neo-Latin man­u­scripts but also in find­ing the Latin name for places I vis­it. For exam­ple, this sum­mer we went to Lake Gar­da in Italy. Thanks to Graesse’s Orbis Lat­i­nus, we found the Latin name Lacus Bena­cus.

By the way, the Latin place names from the begin­ning of the arti­cle are all in Swe­den: Lula (Luleå), Fal­copia (Falköping)and Boërosia (Borås).

Daniel Pettersson

Daniel Pettersson

Teacher and author Daniel Pettersson, M.A., is co-founder of Latinitium and is currently teaching Latin at Stockholm University, where he is also working on his Ph.D. dissertation on Humanist Colloquia. Daniel believes in the importance of Latin literature in the modern world and that you can teach yourself Latin with the right motivation, method, and material.
Written by Daniel Pettersson

Written by Daniel Pettersson

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