res is the thing with letters

I have been meaning to post a little note about the new dictionary entry (or “article”) in the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae for res—the word for “thing.” It’s been a multi-year (decade-plus?) project for editor Marijke Ottink, pictured hard at work a few years ago in the Times. It’s such a massive project to tackle this capacious, protean word. I oscillate between jealousy and fear thinking of the work involved here. Anyhow, we’re given a little “cheat sheet” or table of contents to sketch its many meanings:

Like every word in the TLL, the word res gets described in Latin first and foremost as a notion de eo, quod per se, sui iuris exstare vid[etur]. It’s verging into philosophical territory right out of the gate: what, really, is a “thing”? According to the first definition, it’s something “which by itself seems to exist in its own right.” Even thinking of suum ius or “its own right” is pretty fascinating here: I love the application of this legal, even ethical language to matters of grammar and syntax. The definition gets a fuller treatment in the real Capvt Privs section:

It’s not just something that “exists,” but first and foremost a res is something that “is able to be counted, as though an external thing and in a particular way separate from people, a foreign thing.” We learn under IA that “in the original use,” res had the stronger sense of “possession,” and that it was that which “someone possesses or is able to possess, has as his own, or that which he enjoys or is able to enjoy.” A list of examples follows: “riches, money, wealth, ktēmata or various useful things, but also (legal) rights.” These matters of property and rights and privileges draw out that rich legal undercurrent in Roman culture, even in its most fundamental nouns.

As a secondary entry, the article for res includes a separate account of res publica (“republic”), authored by Adam Gitner, one of America’s own Latinists at the Thesaurus. I have been eagerly waiting to see this entry—the definitive account of “republic” in ancient Latin literature and (by extension) thought. Like res, the entry for “republic” has its own mini table of contents that sketches the various subspecies of the word:

As Gitner catalogs the word’s history here, it refers originally and most generally to a particular universitas or perhaps “collection” or “community,” and more particularly to a “civic community” (civitas) that is “united in its laws, customs, and institutions” (legibus moribus institutis consociata). There are examples of res publica to “foreign” states and to the Roman state, and perhaps earliest of all extant applications is to the Greeks in the writings of Naevius:

Gitner’s entry includes some interesting collections of metaphors. Likely the best known of such metaphors is the res publica as a “ship beset by storms” (navis tempestatibus obnoxia)—but it also gets compared to a “building” (aedificium):

Perhaps under the influence of some version of Stoic cosmopolitanism, too, the article for res publica recounts some examples of “republic” of the entire universe. The Somnium Scipionis at the end of Cicero’s De Re Publica comes to mind:

These word histories are endlessly fascinating, and a word like res really is almost infinite in its varied applications. Latinists of all stripes should explore the many articles of the Thesaurus, currently up to the letters N and R. Previous fascicles of the TLL are available at the Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften website—but not this fascicle with res quite yet … ! Hopefully in the next couple years.