Friday, 30 September 2016

Did the Romans speak Latin?

Short answer: yes, of course they spoke Latin.

Longer answer: ‘Lindybeige’, an online personality fairly well known for his videos debunking bad history, had this to say about the elite of ancient Roman society last year --
Romans spoke Latin, right? Well -- not the educated rich ones, not the patricians, not most of the time. You see, Greek was the language of the educated elite, and when one very very posh patrician was having a word with another very posh patrician in the privacy of their own home, they would probably have been speaking Greek.
That must be why Cicero wrote his letters to Atticus and his other posh friends in Greek, right? Not to mention the letters written by Seneca, Pliny, and Fronto to their very, very posh friends. (The imperial family, in Fronto’s case!) Right?

... clearly not.
Greek was the language of learning, of poetry, of medicine, of science, all those sort of things. It was the language for the elite ... [T]he servants very often would not have understood a word that their masters were saying...
Hey, did you know that poets like Vergil, Horace, and Ovid wrote in Greek? No? Well, that’s probably because they didn’t. Ever heard of Varro, one of the very greatest scholars of his time? Guess what language he wrote in.
The target of Lindybeige’s ire, HBO’s Rome: Calpurnia (Haydn Gwynne) and Julius Caesar (Ciarán Hinds) in private. No evidence exists to suggest that Caesar spoke Greek with Calpurnia. Nor with Servilia. Nor any other Roman for that matter. (With Cleopatra, though, possibly yes ... because she was Greek.)
All right then, let’s try technical writing. The most important surviving treatise on architecture from antiquity, by the 1st-century architect Vitruvius? Latin. How about Cato the Elder’s manual on farming? Yeah, not very surprising. Well, there may have been general manuals in Latin, but what about the really technical stuff? Take Roman agrimensores: treatises on the theory of land-surveying, the basis for city planning and Roman roads -- people like Frontinus, Urbicus, Balbus, and Hyginus. I wonder if they wrote in-- oh whoops it’s all Latin. All right, then: science! Another Hyginus, appointed by Augustus as curator of the Palatine library, wrote a treatise on astronomy which-- bother. Pliny the Elder-- nope. Well, medical writers-- aw, crap. Never mind, there’s always philologists-- dammit!

Lindybeige’s discussion isn’t completely divorced from historical reality. Bilingualism in the Roman world is an area of active research. (Take this 2002 book, for example, especially chapters 4 and 6.) Latin- and Greek-speaking communities blended and merged in places like central and southern Italy, Epirus (north-western Greece), and parts of what is now Serbia.

In Rome itself? Well, there were certainly Greek-speaking elements of the community in the city, but we’re definitely not talking universal diglossia -- Rome was not an ancient version of Luxembourg or Miami -- and where there was diglossia, it was definitely not in the aristocratic sphere. The epigraphic record shows that there were Greek-speaking immigrant communities, but there isn’t anything to suggest standard use of Greek among the elite.

A lot of elite Romans, including the Latin writers I mentioned above, were able to speak Greek, at least to some extent. Vergil and Ovid read lots of Greek poetry. Horace, Varro, and others studied at the Academy in Athens. And so on. Greek was, on the whole, the most widely spoken language of the Mediterranean, and there were loads of educators from the Greek-speaking world floating around Rome. ‘[S]peaking [Latin] was the mark of a Roman,’ but ‘Greek was also a vital component of elite Roman identity,’ as Siobhán McElduff has put it recently.

But to conclude that the Romans didn’t speak Latin, or even just elite Romans -- no, that’s pure fantasy. People who had Greek as their first language certainly preferred to speak and write in Greek: people like Polybius, Crates, and other hellenophones who moved to Rome for one reason or another.* But hey, most Norwegians can speak English. That doesn’t mean they speak it at home. Getting your higher education from people who speak Greek isn’t the same thing as preferring to speak Greek.
Note: There are exceptions: Livius Andronicus took to Latin like an archaeologist to drink, and in a previous post I’ve expressed a suspicion that the calendar-reformer Sosigenes wrote in Latin.
Anyway, if the Romans only used Latin because it was required for communication between cultures, where on earth do you imagine the requirement for Latin came from? Who do you imagine imposed Latin on the Romans?

And concerning the ‘servants’ -- what a horrible whitewashing word that is -- why on earth would they not have understood their masters? The slaves are precisely the ones who often came from Greek-speaking backgrounds.

OK, enough carping. What’s the origin of this fake factoid, that posh Romans didn’t speak Latin unless they had to? It’s on this Listverse page too (‘Greek was the dominant language in Rome’).

Is this just a case of looking at studies on bilingualism and suddenly deciding everything you ever knew was wrong? -- a drastic pendulum swing of opinion?

Well, there are Roman sources that could, in principle, be taken to support a decision like that. But only if they’re misread. Here’s one from Juvenal’s sixth Satire. In the midst of a truly loathsome misogynistic rant (yes, yes, even for its time), Juvenal comes up with this charming comment -- and I’ll adopt the old custom of translating Greek as French --
quaedam parva quidem, sed non toleranda maritis,
nam quid rancidius, quam quod se non putat ulla
formosam nisi quae de Tusca Graecula facta est,
de Sulmonensi mera Cecropis? omnia Graece,
{cum sit turpe magis nostris nescire Latine;}
hoc sermone pavent, hoc iram gaudia curas,
hoc cuncta effundunt animi secreta: quid ultra?
concumbunt Graece, dones tamen ista puellis
tune etiam, quam sextus et octogensimus annus
pulsat, adhuc Graece? non est hic sermo pudicus
in vetula: quotiens lascivum intervenit illud

ζωὴ καὶ ψυχή, modo sub lodice loquendis
uteris in turba.
And there are some things -- small, sure, but husbands can’t stand them --
for what’s more revolting than a woman thinking she isn’t
beautiful unless she turns from Tuscan into Greek?
From pure Sulmonian into Cecropian? Everything in Greek!
Their shrieks are in that language, their anger, joys, worries,
all the secrets of their soul that they pour out. But wait, there’s more:
they go to bed in Greek. Now, for girls, you might allow that.
But are you really still going to be Greeking when your 86th year
is knocking on the door? That language is obscene
in a little old lady. Every time you interrupt yourself with a lewd
vie et âme!’, you’re taking things that should only be spoken
under the covers and using them in public.
(Modern editions bracket line 188 as an obvious scribal gloss; 195 loquendis is Nisbet’s suggestion for the nonsensical MS reading relictis.)

Do the last six lines show what Lindybeige claims, that Greek was the language of private discourse? No: for one thing, the people Juvenal’s complaining about aren’t elites, he’s looking down on them scornfully. For another, mocking Greek as the language of love doesn’t make it the standard language of private discourse. In the old Looney Tunes cartoons Pepé Lepew satirises French as the language of love as perceived by contemporary Americans, but that doesn’t mean that 1940s-1960s Americans actually spoke French in the bedroom.

Quintilian recommends starting a child’s education in Greek as early as possible:
I prefer that a boy start his education in the Greek language, because he’ll absorb Latin whether we want him to or not, since it’s used for most things ...
This certainly attests to the prestige of Greek. But: (a) he tells us outright that Latin is the language that people actually use, and (b) notice what language Quintilian himself is writing in! This is not a straightforward passage with a straightforward meaning.

Suetonius’ testimony is also mixed. He records how the emperor Claudius sometimes used Greek in diplomatic, judicial, and scholarly contexts:
(Claudius) was just as diligent in his study of Greek, and all the time he declared his love for the language and its superiority. When a certain barbarian spoke in Greek and Latin, he said to him, ‘Since you are accomplished in both our languages.’ When he commended Achaia (in Greece) to the senate, he said that the province was dear to him because of their fellowship in common interests. And often in the senate he replied to ambassadors with a set speech. Before the tribunal he regularly recited lines from Homer. Indeed, whenever he sentenced an enemy or a conspirator, and the guard asked for a password, he would habitually and casually give him none other than this:
pour repousser quiconque attaque le premier.
[= Iliad 24.369, Odyssey 16.72, 21.133; ≈ Il. 19.183]
Finally, he also wrote histories in Greek: twenty books on the Etruscans, and eight on the Carthaginians.
But (1) note what he says: Claudius used a set speech and a repeated catchphrase in Greek; he’s not talking about any actual diplomacy in Greek. These stories don’t even necessarily support conversational fluency. And (2) I hope it’s not just me, but it is obvious, isn’t it, that Suetonius is reporting this anecdote as something noteworthy? That is, something that isn’t automatically obvious?

Elsewhere, he famously quotes Julius Caesar’s alleged last words in Greek (while doubting that there were actually any last words; Julius 82). But when he mentions that Tiberius spoke perfect Greek (Tiberius 71), he goes on to stress that he preferred Latin. He also tells us that Augustus never got comfortable enough in Greek to speak it conversationally (Augustus 87).

Besides, this is the exact opposite of speaking Greek in private.

Another ancient biographer, Plutarch, tells us that Marius never learned Greek at all (Marius 2.2: λέγεται δὲ μήτε γράμματα μαθεῖν Ἑλληνικὰ). Though that, too, is something out of the ordinary: one of the greatest Roman statesmen of all time not knowing any Greek must have seemed as striking as Claudius’ willingness to use the language.
Unusually fluent in Greek? The young Claudius (Derek Jacobi, right) has a chat with the eminent historians Pollio (Donald Eccles) and Livy (Denis Carey) ... both of whom wrote in Latin. (I, Claudius, BBC, 1976)
There is a handful of Romans who wrote books in Greek: aside from Claudius’ lost histories, there was a history of early Rome by Quintus Fabius Pictor (also sadly lost), and in philosophy there’s the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Among the many books written by Cicero’s friend Atticus, one was in Greek. Tertullian wrote a few things in Greek until he settled down to using Latin consistently.

But there’s a lot more who wrote in Latin. At recitals or concerts in Rome you could certainly expect to hear Greek poetry, just as you can hear Italian in modern opera houses. And yes, Greek was the most widely used language around the Mediterranean for scholarship, just as English is for modern scientists. That’s why modern scientists tend to publish in English, and why people like Claudius chose to publish in Greek. Except that Greek didn’t dominate in Rome to anything like the extent that English does in European academia: very nearly all Roman authors chose Latin. We can literally count the exceptions on one hand.

The first Roman emperors to have Greek as their first language probably weren’t until the 3rd century CE -- and that was only if they came from Greek-speaking places and didn’t come from a Roman background or a military family. After some poking around I suspect the first was Philip the Arab, who reigned 244-249. (Maximinus I, 235-238, was another non-latinophone, but his first language was apparently Thracian: SHA Max. 2.5.)

But when Vergil or Ovid were giving recitals of elite Latin poetry to audiences of elite Romans and Tuscans, you can be damn sure the conversations afterwards were in Latin. (Horace? Well, Horace was very much a hellenophile, so it is at least feasible that he might have liked doing Q&A in Greek. We don’t have any evidence to suggest that, mind: it’s just that it’s not a completely daft idea in his specific case.)

If you read Cicero’s letters you’ll get a pretty good idea of how a posh Roman used Greek domestically. When he’s writing to his close friend Atticus, he slips in occasional words or phrases here and there: it’s an in-joke between friends. Here’s a snippet I’ve had occasion to quote before, in a post on an unrelated subject:
unctus est, accubuit. ἐμετικὴν agebat; itaque et edit et bibit ἀδεῶς et iucunde, opipare sane et apparate ...
He got oiled, he reclined (for dinner). He was on a course of émétiques, so he ate and drank sans crainte and cheerfully, a very sumptuous and well-prepared meal ...
For communication, Latin; for camaraderie, a light sprinkling of Greek words. He uses Greek to build solidarity between friends with a common interest, no more, no less. Atticus spent more time living in Greece than in Italy, for heaven’s sake, but they still wrote to each other in Latin.

It’s a bit like reading a Russian novel and seeing aristocrats break into French. It’s something occasional, and -- more so for the Russians than for the Romans -- something ostentatious. Take the very first paragraph of Tolstoy’s War and Peace:
Eh bien, mon prince. Gênes et Lucques ne sont plus que des apanages, des estates, de la famille Buonaparte. Non, je vous préviens que si vous ne me dites pas que nous avons la guerre, si vous vous permettez encore de pallier toutes les infamies, toutes les atrocités de cet Antichrist (ma parole, j’y crois) -- je ne vous connais plus, vous n’êtes plus mon ami, vous n’êtes plus my faithful slave, comme vous dites! But how do you do? Je vois que je vous fais peur -- sit down and tell me all the news.’
It was in July, 1805, and the speaker was the well-known Anna Pavlovna Scherer, maid of honour and favourite of the empress Marya Feodorovna. With these words she greeted Prince Vasili Kuragin, a man of high rank and importance, who was the first to arrive at her reception. Anna Pavlovna had had a cough for some days. She was, as she said, suffering from the grippe; grippe being then a new word in St. Petersburg, used only by the elite. All her invitations without exception, written in French, and delivered by a scarlet-liveried footman that morning, ran as follows:
Si vous n’avez rien de mieux à faire, Monsieur le comte (or mon prince), et si la perspective de passer la soirée chez une pauvre malade ne vous effraye pas trop, je serai charmée de vous voir chez moi entre 7 et 10 heures. Annette Scherer.
-- Tolstoy, War and Peace, book 1 chapter 1 (1865)
(English portions are from the 1922 Maude translation; French portions are from the Russian original.)

To open a major Russian novel with a couple of paragraphs of French -- that’s a bold, bold gesture. It evokes frightful snobbishness. And it colours Anna Pavlovna’s character. Notice how in the first paragraph, the torrent of French bewilders her guest (‘Je vois que je vous fais peur, I see I am frightening you’); later, in chapter 2, she forces all the aristocratic guests at her soirée to undergo the ordeal of a conversation with her aged aunt, that none of them know or want to know. Her salon may be where it’s all happening, but her bubbling energy and her social fastidiousness are comical and irritating. Anna Pavlovna isn’t a model to emulate, she’s cringeworthy.

Lindybeige mentions Russian aristocrats too, as it happens.
The Romanovs, for instance, the Romanovs of Russia, you may think that those people who were overthrown in 1917 in the Revolution and so forth, and slaughtered in the palace, that they all spoke Russian. Well, most of them knew Russian ... but actually, when speaking to each other, the main language that they spoke -- was French.
Annnnnd strike three! Take a look here, here, and here. It’s true that Nicholas and Alexandra both knew French. And it’s true that Alexandra’s Russian wasn’t great, and that Russian wasn’t their preferred language in their domestic life. But that may be less surprising if you bear in mind that Alexandra was German, and spent a lot of her youth in England. When she first met Nicholas she couldn’t speak Russian at all. Based on that, can you guess what their preferred domestic languages really were? Yup: English first, and German second. (The children? Russian.) By 1916, Alexandra wrote to Nicholas -- in English (and even her English wasn’t perfect!) -- ‘I am no longer the slightest bit shy or affraid [sic] of the ministers & speak like a waterfall in Russia[n].’

Having said all that, there are real cases of royal children learning a foreign language first. Victoria learned German from her nanny until she was three: after that, everything was in English. There’s no reason to imagine that kind of thing being the norm in ancient Rome. But when it was -- there must have been cases where aristocratic children had slave nannies who spoke Greek -- you can bet that, like Victoria, they had to switch languages pretty quick once they reached a certain age, and used Latin almost exclusively thereafter.

1 comment:

  1. I think you have overlooked some facts about the Russian aristocrats. I do believe that they spoke primarily French. I am not sure when exactly French became the official language of the Russian court, I am guessing it happened as part of Peter the Great's cultural reforms. However, I know when it stopped, during Napoleon's invasion of Russia. This is actually a major theme of War and Peace. The changing attitudes of the Russian aristocrats towards France is reflected in their use of French. There are references to several Russian aristocrats speaking bad Russian and after Napoleon launches his invasion of Russia, the characters start to speak Russian and some even have to take Russian lessons.

    I don't think that starting the novel with French dialogue was meant to convey snobbishness, but rather Frenchness. The fact that she mentions Bonaparte is also important. I imagine that in Tolstoy's time that Bonaparte was both seen as the criminal that burned Moscow and a "Great Man." This first scene establishes a typical Russian view of the then First Consul.