Aulus Gellius on the Confusion about How to Numbering Consulships

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Argument: Whether one ought to say tertium consul or tertio; and how Gnaeus Pompeius, when he would inscribe his honours on the theatre which he was about to dedicate, by Cicero’s advice evaded the difficulty as to the form of that word.

[10.1] I sent a letter from Athens to a friend of mine in Rome. In it I said that I had now written him for the third time (tertium). In his reply he asked me to give my reason for having written tertium and not tertio. He added that he hoped I would at the same time inform him what I thought about the question whether one should say tertium consul, meaning “consul for the third time,” and quartum, or tertio and quarto; since he had heard a learned man at Rome say tertio and quarto consul, not tertium and quartum; also, that Coelius had so written at the beginning of his third book and that Quintus Claudius in his eleventh book said that Marius was chosen consul for the seventh time, using septimo.

In reply to these questions, to decide both matters about which he had written to me, I contented myself with quoting Marcus Varro, a more learned man in my opinion than Coelius and Claudius together. For Varro has made it quite plain what ought to be said, and I did not wish, when at a distance, to enter into a dispute with a man who had the name of being learned. Marcus Varro’s words, in the fifth book of his Disciplinae, are as follows:

It is one thing to be made praetor quarto, and another quartum; for quarto refers to order and indicates that three were elected before him; quartum refers to time and indicates that he had been made praetor three times before. Accordingly Ennius was right when he wrote: "Quintus, his sire, a fourth time (quartum) consul is," and Pompeius was timid when, in order to avoid writing consul tertium or tertio on his theatre, he did not write the final letters.

What Varro briefly and somewhat obscurely hinted at concerning Pompey, Tullius Tiro, Cicero’s freedman, wrote at greater length in one of his letters, substantially as follows:

When Pompey was preparing to consecrate the temple of Victory, the steps of which formed his theatre, and to inscribe upon it his name and honours, the question arose whether consul tertium should be written, or tertio. Pompey took great pains to refer this question to the most learned men of Rome, and when there was difference of opinion, some maintaining that tertio ought to be written, others tertium, Pompey asked Cicero...to decide upon what seemed to him the more correct form. Then Cicero was reluctant to pass judgment upon learned men, lest he might seem to have censured the men themselves in criticizing their opinion. He accordingly advised Pompey to write neither tertium nor tertio, but to inscribe the first four letters only, so that the meaning was shown without writing the whole word, but yet the doubt as to the form of the word was concealed.

But that of which Varro and Tiro spoke is not now written in that way on this same theatre. For when, many years later, the back wall of the stage had fallen and was restored, the number of the third consulship was indicated, not as before, by the first four letters, but merely by three incised lines. However, in the fourth book of Marcus Cato’s Origines we find: “The Carthaginians broke the treaty for the sixth time (sextum).” This word indicates that they had violated the treaty five times before, and that this was the sixth time. The Greeks too in distinguishing numbers of this kind use τρίτον καὶ τέταρτον, which corresponds to the Latin words tertium quartumque.”

— Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 10.1 (translated by J. C. Rolfe)