Top literary references and Latin phrases law students need to know

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From Virgil’s Aeneid to the Da Vinci Code

The Trojan hero Aeneas tells Dido of the Trojan War (Guérin, 1815). In the Aeneid Dido falls in love with Aeneas and is heartbroken when he leaves. Image via Wikimedia Commons

English law is replete with Latin doctrines whilst judgments are often embellished and explicated with literary references. But you don’t need to have a degree in classics or have the general knowledge of a top University Challenge contestant to get your head around what you need to know.

Legal Cheek has compiled a non-exhaustive list of some Latin phrases and literary references that should help incoming law students to impress their professors and tackle tricky judgments.

Nemo dat quod non habet

This translates to “no-one can give what he or she does not have”. This phrase makes clear that having physical possession of something does not necessarily mean that it belongs to you in the eyes of the law. What matters is who holds the legal title — otherwise it would simply be a case of ‘finders keepers, losers weepers’!

Caveat emptor

Meaning “let the buyer beware”, this doctrine refers to situations where the onus is on a buyer to reasonably inspect the thing they are buying. This is not to be confused with ‘cave canem’ (translated to “beware the dog”). Such a warning sign certainly does not have the same power to place liability on someone entering a property with a guard dog or an aggressive canine as the doctrine of caveat emptor does to place liability on buyers!

Actus reus and mens rea

These Latin terms will be essential to your study of criminal law. They refer to a “guilty act” (actus reus) and a “guilty mind” (mens rea), more commonly referred to as act and intention. Expect to face some curious scenarios in which you will debate the mens rea of certain individuals who have committed criminal acts.

Non haec in foedera veni

We owe this gem of a literary reference to Lord Radcliffe’s 1956 judgment in Davis Contractors Ltd v Fareham, that seeks to get to the essence of the doctrine of frustration. The line meaning “it was not this that I promised to do” is the excuse the protagonist Aeneas gives to his lover Dido, Queen of Carthage, when he decides to desert her in Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid and continue his conquest to found a city that will eventually become Rome. Today, the line of Latin poetry is an important citation for understanding when a contract has been frustrated and can no longer be performed due to unforeseen circumstances and so on.

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Uberrimae fidei

Meaning “utmost good faith”, this Latin phrase is a contrasting doctrine to caveat emptor. It refers to situations where parties to a contract must fully disclose all the material facts to ensuring that they are contracting in good faith. Developed by Lord Mansfield in the 1766 case Carter v Boehm, the doctrine remains the standard required in insurance contracts today.

Crossing the Rubicon

This classical reference is known to crop up in various contexts, most notably in Lord Diplock’s assertion in the 1978 case DPP v Stonehouse that “the offender must have crossed the Rubicon and burnt his boats” to meet the threshold to be guilty of attempting to commit theft. The idiom refers to when Caesar along with a Roman legion crossed the river Rubicon that marked the border between Cisalpine Gaul and Italy. The act marked the beginning of a civil war as it was clear that, by crossing the Rubicon, Caesar intended to illegally march on Rome.

The tyrant of Temures

One of the more obscure references you may come across is the story of the tyrant of Temures. It was memorably referred to by Lord Steyn in the 2004 case of Sirius International Insurance Co v FAI General Insurance in order to highlight the importance of not interpreting contracts too literally. He wrote: “The tyrant of Temures promised the garrison of Sebastia that no blood would be shed if they surrendered to him. They surrendered. He shed no blood. He buried them alive. This is literalism.”

The Da Vinci Code

Judges have long been known to explain themselves through idioms, references and anecdotes, perhaps to the detriment of clarity. Some are more creative than others though. Despite bearing no legal significance to the case concerning the popular book the Da Vinci Code, Mr Justice Peter Smith decided to show his appreciation for the themes of encryption by sneaking a secret message into his judgment.

This one won’t get you any extra marks at uni but goes some way to illustrate the broad way in which a judgment should be approached. They are not always just a set of instructions but rather works of literature in their own right! Be prepared to be lured in by arguments that “in summertime village cricket is the delight of everyone” and shocked by the events of 19th April 1964 when “it was bluebell time in Kent.”

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I’m not sure Peter ‘Lost Luggage’ Smith J is really someone you should be holding up as an example.

You also left out ‘quicuid plantatur solo, solo cedit’ and ‘cuius est solum, eius est usque ad coelum et ad inferos’.



Oh, and ‘ex turpi causa’ while you’re at it.



Also, there was no Tyrant of Temures. This is a reference to Timur, aka Tamerlane, and is decidedly post-Classical:

“Taking his troops the next year, [Timur] came against the city of Sebastia, which belonged to Yildirim (Iltrum) xonghear [Ottoman sultan Bayezid I, 1389-1403], the tyrant of the Rum area. [The people] did not surrender the city immediately to the implacable tyrant [Timur]. Tricking them, [Timur] said: “Fear not, for whoever slays you by the sword will have your swords in their hearts.” Opening up the city, [the people] came before him with joy and gladness, as if freed from prison. He immediately sent a foul command to his troops to take captive the poor, to torture the rich and to seize their hidden treasures, to tie the women to the tails of horses and let the horses run, and to assemble the countless, numberless sons and daughters in the middle of the plain and to mercilessly trample them like sheaves of grain.

One could see here the calamitous anguish of believing and unbelieving youths caused by the wicked tyrant. Those troops which emerged from the city (whom he had promised not to kill) he had dig up the earth. Then he had them bound hand and foot—4,000 souls—and buried them alive, covering them with water and ash. Their cries reached to heaven. Who can write down the bitter tortures which this precursor of the antichrist, this merciless tyrant occasioned? However, we have briefly recorded for those who will come after us, [things] which we heard and things we saw, [information] from Christians, captives, and lords (ters) of captives who came to us”.

~ History of Tamerlane and his Successors, Thomas of Metsoph


Will Holmes

That’s fascinating – thanks for posting. I have removed the reference to the story being from classical antiquity.




Sorry Will, I must come across as a tremendous grump.

I’m genuinely pleased to see an article about these terms, which add a bit of colour to the profession.


Gold star for google

From the time between this and your earlier comments, it’s obvious that you googled the reference.

(Just pointing out because your comments are unbearably pretentious.)



Isn’t that what Google’s for?


Fiat Justitia

Describing a display of knowledge as “unbearably pretentious” is very British. Anti-intellectualism runs deep in British culture.

If I was Evil Overlord, I would make people do a degree in some rigorous academic subject (whether science or humanities) before they could study law. Dry, narrow, semi-educated lawyers who have studied only law since leaving school can be a bit of a drag.


Legal Officer With A 2.ii

Pecunia non olet – ‘Money doesn’t smell’

Worth remembering when you’re fed up with horrible clients and even worse colleagues


Fiat Justitia

I suggest that Vespasian was wrong and his sprog Titus was right. Having litigated a lot, I would say pecunia olet.





Future Perfect

There was no ‘w’ or ‘k’ in Latin. And your declensions are hopeless. “-orum” could be a genitive plural ending, but were that the case, your nominatives, vocatives and and accusatives are all over the place. I think you never did your prep. If you are going to be all boorish and chippy could you try to do it in a less basic and ignorant way?



Get a life.



Is that all you can do after being owned? Looks like we can add “witless” to “boorish and chippy”.



Lol owned whatever bro.


Lol do you have anymore generic witless responses favoured by grumpy poorly educated 12 year olds from 3 or 4 years ago?

I’m sorry your original effort to be clever failed. It was the best you could with what you had to work with, I’m sure. But after that, really, it has been very very weak.


Res ipsa is always handy when you can’t be arsed actually pleading the particulars of negligence.

And a judge recently referred to our re-re-re-amended Reply and Defence to Counterclaim as ‘the pleadings of Theseus’.


Parva mentula

I did Latin at A-level and got a first class law degree from RG – only familiar from these with actus and mens rea and caveat emptor, the latter never coming up in courses. Am lawyer of some PQE and the only things which are used are prima facie, de minimis, ex gratia, per se, pro forma and that’s about it. Latin is strongly discouraged at all levels and has been for decades. Misconception I had myself in opting to do the useless thing at A-level.



The funny thing is how the pronunciations that are commonly used in Court differ from those taught in school.

For instance, everyone in the profession pronounces “prima facie” as


whereas we were taught at school




AP Herbert wrote a short story, IIRC called something like ‘The New Pronunciation’, where a young barrister confuses the court by speaking Latin correctly. At one point he quotes “Ee-yoo-lee-yoos Kigh-Czar”.


Fiat Justitia

Latin is never useless. Knowledge of Latin improves written English. Knowledge of classical civilisation is delightful in itself, and offers a key to much of European art. The Bible offers another key, and it matters not that the stories in the Bible and in some of the Classics are stories made up by a bunch of blokes with beards.



To be straight up with you, your written English sucks. I’ve read it a bunch of times, and it still doesn’t make sense. Improving written English and offering a key to art, then follows through to some wibbling about diversity. I suppose you were trying to make a joke of some sort. But it wasn’t the more obvious one which is at your expense in the non sequitur.


Steve Netherwood

Technically, ‘actus reus’ is ‘the act of the thing’ and ‘mens rea’ is ‘the mind of the thing. ‘Reus’ and ‘rea’ are two grammatical parts of the same word. There’s nothing about ‘guilt’ in the Latin phrases.


Biggus Dickus

The Latin for “thing” is res (eg, res ipsa), and neither reus nor rea appear in the declension of res (the genitive is rei). Reus and rea are masculine and feminine forms of the adjective reus, though as far as I can see that’s a poncey Mediaeval Latin word for guilty, as opposed to the more classical noxius.

Write this out 100 times before dawn or I’ll cut yer bollox off.



What is the difference between Supervising Associate and Senior Associate? Which is the more senior job title for law firms?



If it is not “partner”, it does not matter.



What? Partner (salaried) is just an extension of these.


Deed U No

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?


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