A guide to Latin place names and their meanings

 Latin place names, Graesse, orbis Latinus, Peddie.
 

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.

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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Place names 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.

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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 of country (e.g. the Latin for Madrid or Dublin)? 

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

Here is a step-by-step-guide on how to use it to find Latin place names:

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

The 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. 

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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]

Place names 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).

Do you know of any other works that I should add?

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