One state, many tongues

According to the 1st-century CE biographer Plutarch, the last few seconds of Julius Caesar’s life were a snapshot of bilingualism. When Publius Casca, one of the conspirators, raised the first dagger in the Senate, Caesar stopped him, shouting in Latin: ‘What are you doing?’ Terrified, Casca is said to have exclaimed in Greek: ‘Brothers, help!’. Caesar was then stabbed to death.

Plutarch’s story makes another linguistic point. Although a Roman, Plutarch wrote in Greek for a Roman as well as a Greek audience. Plutarch gives the lie to those who answer ‘Latin, of course!’ to the pub quiz question: ‘what language did ancient Romans speak?’

Latin was the language of the Roman republic and of the Roman empire, but it wasn’t the only one. Greek was widely spoken across the Roman state, especially in the eastern provinces. Not to mention all the other local languages. Two reasons explain the persistence of Greek during the lifetime of the Roman civilisation: hellenisation and appreciation. The first was a historical fact, the other a cultural proclivity.

Rome rose to power during the Hellenistic Age, the Mediterranean arrangement forged by Alexander the Great and his successors. In other words, Rome was a drop in the Greek ocean. It’s not that the Latin alphabet derived from the Etruscan which had in turn adapted the Greek. By the time Rome arrived on stage, the play was underway in Greek. The Eastern Mediterranean had been the hotbed of Hellenistic culture, so Greek was perceived to be as native to the land (and sea) as the olive or the vine. It wouldn’t have made sense for St Paul to speak and write Latin during his journeys because Greek was the most common language in use, what was later called the lingua franca. The Roman Empire may have had one capital, to which all roads led, but it held a plurality of languages, of which Greek was, if not the first, then certainly the last resort in communication.

The other reason why Rome spoke Greek as well as Latin had to do with the cultural splendour of ancient Greek civilisation. Rome was one of the most conflicted empires in history, whose contradictions and sense of cultural anxiety no amount of denial, cognitive dissonance or acceptance were ever able to diminish. Since its first contact with the Greek world, Rome became acutely aware of its inferiority – the moment the drop realising it was a drop dropping in the ocean. Since then, Latin literature had developed in a hall of mirrors, agonistically and tragically facing hundreds of years of Greek culture. Out of imitation new forms emerged, but the general feeling was that of a culture being haunted, of never being good enough, let alone outperforming the master. Greek language was compulsory in Roman education. St Augustine could still remembered around 400 CE how much he disliked learning Greek as a schoolboy.

In the Roman world, Greek was both useful and attractive. It represented the past and held up the promise of cultural resplendence. It was the language of business as well as high culture. And along with the other languages around the Mediterranean and beyond within the Roman borders, it created a cosmopolitan world whose linguistic centre was everywhere and nowhere.

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