Whose SPQR? Sovereignty and Semiotics in Medieval Rome

Carrie E. Beneš

The well-known classical abbreviation SPQR has acquired many spurious expansions over the centuries. One version popular with resentful locals in the early nineteenth century was soli preti qui rregneno, or “only priests reign here” in the local dialect; and even today non-Romans like to claim it means sono pazzi, questi Romani, or “they're crazy, these Romans.” The more canonical explanation is that SPQR stands for senatus populusque Romanus, “the Roman Senate and people,” which was the traditional description of the state in imperial as well as republican ancient Rome. The phrase is attested in classical authors such as Cicero, Sallust, Livy, and Tacitus; it appears in numerous official acts and in Augustus's Res gestae. The popularity of the abbreviation beyond that of the phrase from which it derives is most likely the result of its use in epigraphy and numismatics, since senatus populusque Romanus appeared in initial form, that is, SPQR, in monumental inscriptions throughout the city, as well as on the Roman coinage.

Carrie E. Beneš is Assistant Professor of Medieval and Renaissance History at New College of Florida, Sarasota, FL 34243 (e-mail: benes@ncf.edu).