Did the Romans Speak Classical Latin?
We take it for granted that the Romans spoke Latin, by which we mean the sort of Latin many of us learnt in school or through courses like those offered by universities, staffed by classicists.
It won’t have escaped your attention that the language is not called Roman, but Latin. It was the language spoken by people who identified as Latini in Latium, modern Lazio, a single area within Italy. In other words, it was spoken before there was a Rome by other people. Rome is on the north western boundary of the Latin-speaking area; when Camillus conquered the city of Veii, a dozen miles away, the Romans took over a city which spoke Etruscan. The Latini seem to take their name from the broad plain they lived on (Latin latus, broad).
Rome always recognised an affinity with the other Latini, establishing early on ‘Latin Rights’ at Rome – commercium (trade), connubium (marriage to a Roman so that offspring became Roman) and ius migrationis (the right to settle at Rome) – with those people, seen no doubt as a source of additional citizens. The same rights were later offered to people who didn’t speak Latin, termed ‘Junian Latins’, so the rights had become detached from the language spoken.
What can we say about Latin in Italy? Like all Indo-European languages, it seems to have entered Europe during the Bronze Age and to have established itself between the Tiber, the sea, the Apennine Mountains and the Pontine Marshes. This is quite a small part of Italy, and Latin is only one of numerous languages spoken.
Some, like Etruscan, arrived about the same time, while others, such as Oscan-Umbrian, much used in ritual literature, seem to be related languages which arose elsewhere and arrived in Italy later. Oscan-Umbrian was spoken over a wider area than Latin, although much of it was mountain and sparsely populated. Etruscan, long thought of as an isolate, a language related to no known other, is now considered by many experts to be a very extreme form of Indo-European, originating in Anatolia and related to Lemnian, a language formerly spoken on the island of Lemnos.
Latin has a different word for iron from all other languages, which suggests the term arose in Italy and hence Latin was already in Italy. (Most use variants on iron or isen (Persian and Hindi aahan, Hindi iohaa)). Ferrum may be connected to the word ferro (I carry). The significance of this is that if Latin’s word for iron is unique to Latin, it must have arisen in situ, because there would be no word for iron in a society which did not know about it. So by that token, Latin was in Italy during the early Bronze Age.
There was in imperial times an antiquarian interest in the origins and development of Latin, as can be seen in Varro’s book De Lingua Latina, ‘On the Latin Language’, published in Latin and English by Loeb. It was believed that Latin was derived from Greek, because the official story stated that the Romans were descended from Trojans. They weren’t and in any case the Trojans didn’t speak Greek. Varro explains the differences by saying that time, distance and lack of contact impacted on Aeneas’s Trojans. This is indeed how languages change, but Latin is not descended from Greek. Both are in fact members of the Aryan on Indo-European language family, but Latin is closer to Germanic and Celtic languages. However,
Although it is claimed by Livy, also in the reign of Augustus, that the earliest Romans were literate in 753BC, there is no written evidence from that time, which was in any case the same decade as the earliest Greek works by Homer, so this is probably untrue. The earliest inscriptions to be found date to around 500BC.
There is a marked change visible in Latin at about 75BC. The forms of Latin before that are referred to as ‘Old Latin’. Like all abstractions, it needs to be viewed with caution. We certainly find authors writing in classical Latin who were born and educated before then: Julius Caesar and Cicero immediately spring to mind. So there was no sudden change, but possibly a cementing of older changes which first become visible to us. This may arise from the very much larger number and type of sources.
There are Roman texts in Old Latin which are claimed to date back to c.500BC, but anything not on stone would probably have been destroyed when the Gauls burnt Rome in c.380BC. The Conflict of the Orders in c.360BC would have put paid to anything which survived it. But Plautus, Terence and Cato the Elder wrote in this variety.
Latin probably developed fast. Polybius, writing in c.140BC (in Greek) tell of the discovery of a column carrying the text of a trade treaty with Carthage and the names of the first consuls, dated to 509BC. Even Rome’s top antiquarians could not read the text, which was only 370 years old. Sadly, this no longer exists. Nor can we know if the column said what it was purported to say. This may have happened, but for political reasons, since Rome had just burnt Carthage to the ground, the experts purported not to understand it in the way that tour guides in extremist countries usher tourists away from controversy. Shakespeare’s first folio plays are from as far back as that, so if not even experts could understand it, Latin must have changed at a considerable pace.
But it should be noted that when the Romans banned the cult of Bacchus in 186BC, the senates consultum of which survives, Latin still looked very different to that of the later classical period. There may have been a lag between speech and writing, so that many words continued to be spelt in older ways, so that there could be no legal dispute. For example the ablative case still has a D at the end, which does not exist in classical Latin, but this may have been a silent letter by then. English and French are fully of textual anachronisms of this sort.
The biggest differences seem to be in the vowels used in words, suggesting that Latin underwent a Great Vowel Shift, not unlike the one English went through around AD1450. One thing that had happened around that time in the Roman world is the very large increase in the number and type of people speaking Latin, with all sorts of backgrounds. The social war ended with citizenship extended to cities all over Italy, many of whom spoke related languages such as Oscan, whose pronunciation may have influenced Latin.
Something I have always pointed out is that, after Julius Caesar, there is no major Roman writer actually from Rome until Boethius in the early sixth century. From Cicero onwards, nearly all Latin authors were provincials.
Several well-known authors of the Golden and Silver ages were actually from what had hitherto been Cisalpine Gaul. The trend may have started with Virgil. Certainly Tacitus and Pliny the Younger were both Gauls; Tacitus tells of a story of himself pronouncing on matters to followers in the arena between events and someone coming up to him and asking ‘Are you Tacitus or Pliny?’ suggesting that both had a marked Gaulish accent.
There was nothing vulgar about Vulgar Latin; it was the normal speech of ordinary people. The term comes from Latin vulgus ‘crowd’ (cf French ‘foule’). The highly rhetorical Latin of classical authors was never likely to be the common speech in the streets. In consequence, we don’t get much of it in the classical texts.
A number of works existed to correct unacceptable Latin. One of these is the Appendix Probi, the Appendix of Probus. This lists over 200 words and short phrases often given wrongly, together with the correct Latin of the day. Many of them correct the mistaken omission of terminal M in words like numqua(m) and passi(m), indicating they were no longer spoken as they had once been said nasally (as in French words like ‘bon’) and with denial changes the terminal M had been lost. We can see the terminal M in the accusative case being lost too.
Vulgar Latin was sometimes used in classical texts to represent the speech of low, often slave, characters in works of Plautus, Terence and Petronius. It can also be found in graffiti, curses (defixiones) and other informal writings.
Many soldiers were not of Italian ancestry and in some cases made significant mistakes, such as those noted at Bu Njem in north Africa. By contrast, the Latin of the Vindolanda Tablets found near Hadrian’s Wall contains very few non-classical ‘mistakes’, and it seem probable that the authors were not Latin speakers. When people speak a languages they often make mistakes, but if the soldiers’ Latin was minimal and limited to military matters, they would be less prone to make mistakes.
St Patrick’s Latin is odd, but he was only semi-educated, having been abducted to Ireland at sixteen, before he had completed his quadrivium. One of his authentic documents in an open letter to the soldiers of the king of Strathclyde, whose Latin would have been even worse. Gregory of Tours (fl. C. AD580 )comments at the opening of his Histories that no one understands a rhetorician, but everyone understands a plain speaker. In AD722, St Boniface could hardly understand the Latin of Pope Gregory II. In AD813, the Council of Tours ordered priests to preach in the rustica lingua Romana, because nobody in the laity could understand formal Latin.
Could Slaves Speak Latin?
It would depend on the origin and function of the slave. All slaves were of non-citizen origin, mainly foreigners. Those who were body servants or teachers, those who ran a senator’s business for him in a city, or had close or frequent contact with urban Romans, would have spoken Latin and some would have needed to be able to write. However, those who were kept as field hands on latifundia farms needed to know no Latin and it would have been in the interest of a master that they shouldn’t; if they ever escaped, they would have no idea where they were and would not have been able to enlist help if they spoke no Latin or Greek. As long as there was an overseer who spoke their language and some Latin, no more would have been needed.
Other Languages of the Empire
The eastern half of the Empire spoke Greek widely in Greece, Asia Minor and Egypt. Coptic was spoken in Egypt, Syriac in Syria, where it became a major language for Christian literature. The language spoken across the southern Asiatic provinces was Aramaic (still spoken in rural Jordan) and this would have been the language that Jesus spoke. Hebrew was by them a ‘temple language’ only. Latin was not much spoken outside the courts and the army. When Justinian (a Latin speaker from the Danubian provinces) compiled his great Roman Law collection, the Codex (the laws) and the Institutes (jurisprudence) were in Latin, but his new laws (the novels) were in Greek. Since areas such as Armenia and Crimea were within the Empire, there were plenty of other languages spoken, while Arabic was within the ambit of the east.
In the west, the spread of Latin was patchy. There are relatively few Latin texts on Sardinia, which continued to speak Punic. Septimius Severus was a Punic speaker, and the Historia Augusta tells how his sisters spoke Latin so little that they returned home to Africa. Basque clearly survived; Gaulish seems to be patchy.
Despite the special pleading for Britain, Brythonic gives little evidence of survival to the end of its imperial phase. There are lots of Latin words in Old Welsh, lots of non-religious Latin words in Old English, but very few Welsh words in English. This suggests that Welsh is a revival of rural isolated speech (not only from Wales but from the Scottish Borders, Strathclyde, Yorkshire and the Peaks and of course Cornwall) rather than a universal tongue continuing from antiquity. As there now seem to have been significant numbers of Germanic speakers in Roman Britain, so old English may predate the end of Roman Britain.
Since the east, which was much more populated than the west, spoke little Latin, the African lands spoke little enough, and many other languages survived from pre-Roman times, the impact of Latin outside the towns seems limited. Even in Italy, Latin was a minority language for much of its history, while a lot of the population, slaves, spoke Latin only in certain contexts and most of the population spoke Vulgar Latin, while Classical Latin was spoken only from about 75BC to about 200AD, so the impact of Classical Latin is a matter for debate.