Ancient History & Civilisation



A series of school textbooks used in the late Roman Empire bears an uncanny resemblance to modern children’s ‘easy readers’. In simple scenes and dialogues, they carefully describe a Roman child’s daily activities: he gets up, washes and dresses, goes to school, meets his friends, has his lunch, enjoys a party and goes to bed. Through a nicely judged repertoire of domestic vocabulary, the reader explores an instantly recognisable world of parents and siblings, playmates and relatives, family routine and schoolroom discipline. But the similarity is, of course, deceptive. Almost every sentence captures the characteristic hierarchies, cruelties and social inequalities of ancient Rome. Slavery bulks large even in this juvenile world: it is the imperative rather than the present indicative that is the child’s favourite verbal form (‘Get up slave, see if it’s light. Open the door, open the window … Give me my stuff, pass my shoes, fold up my clean clothes … Give me my cloak and mantle’). And in a gesture that would have been dramatically out of place in the world of Janet and John, the boy rounds off a long list of those he must greet on his return from school with a reference to the family eunuch.

Yet no less striking is the simple fact that these texts were bilingual, written in matching Latin and Greek versions. The function of this dualism has been much debated. Some modern critics have seen the books as elementary guides to Greek for ancient learners already fluent in Latin; others have suggested that, even if Greek teaching came to be their eventual purpose, the first editions were produced for Greek speakers wanting to master Latin. In fact both these explanations fly in the face of what is clearly stated in the texts themselves. For they claim to be aimed at the simultaneous learning of both languages. If that sounds to us like a pedagogical nightmare, for the teacher as well as for the pupil, it is roughly what was advocated by the most famous educational theorist of the Roman world. Quintilian, in his treatise on the Education of the Orator (written at the end of the first century AD), urged that a child’s formal instruction in Latin and Greek should go more or less hand in hand (for equal attention to both languages will ensure that neither ‘gets in the way of the other’). The Roman Empire was a polyglot world. Its linguistic varieties comprised not just the Latin and Greek of these textbooks, but a host of different languages, alphabets, syllabaries and scripts – from Celtic to Egyptian, Aramaic to Etruscan; and there were yet more pidgins, regional dialects and local accents. The traditional view that the vast territory of the empire was divided into two neat linguistic halves (a Greek-speaking East and a Latin-speaking West) bridged by an elite minority of Roman bilinguals, such as Quintilian’s ideal pupil, hardly matches the realities of language use on the ground. At the very least, it is a misleading oversimplification, even if it is derived in part from one powerful strand of Roman imperial ideology that was happy to turn a blind eye, and a deaf ear, to any languages other than ‘the two’; utraque lingua (‘both languages’) was a standard Roman shorthand, as if nothing other than Latin and Greek counted, or even existed.

In fact, there are plenty of hints, even in elite Roman writers, of a much richer linguistic landscape than that. The poet Ovid is probably the most famous and most reluctant ancient polyglot of all. Fallen foul of the Emperor Augustus and living in exile at Tomi on the Black Sea, he was forced, or so he writes (in Latin), to learn the local Getic; he even claims to have written a poem in that outlandish, barbarous tongue – albeit in the safely familiar framework of Latin metre (nostris modis). Other occasions and contexts brought different languages to the attention of Roman writers. Tacitus, for example, tells of a peasant in first-century AD Spain, who was accused of murdering a Roman official, refusing to respond to cross-questioning in any language other than his native Hispanic. Two centuries earlier, Plautus had brought a Punic-speaking character onto the Roman stage in his play Little Carthaginian; while the Roman Senate is supposed to have commissioned (or dragooned) a ‘committee of experts in Punic’ to translate into Latin a classic, twenty-eight-volume Carthaginian treatise on agriculture.

It hardly needs arguing that below the level of the literate elite, the range of languages in use must have been yet wider. Although we cannot be sure exactly what combination of language, signing, desperate improvisation and sheer greed allowed trade to take place across the frontiers of the Roman Empire, we can be absolutely confident that such exchange was not regularly conducted in Ciceronian Latin. In the Museum of London, the taped background noise that introduces visitors to the Roman galleries is a blurred cacophony of dog Latin, mixed with a now incomprehensible variety of ‘barbarian’ accents and tongues. It is about as accurate an approximation to the street voices of a Roman provincial port as you could get.

J. N. Adams’s Bilingualism and the Latin Language is a marvellously informative study of the contacts between Latin and other languages in the Roman world, exploring the linguistic diversity of the empire on a scale, and at a depth, that no one has done before. By ‘bilingualism’ Adams does not mean that rare phenomenon of equal fluency in two languages (the common modern understanding of the word ‘bilingual’), but more or less any kind of active competence or ability to perform in a second language – from (in our terms) ‘holiday French’ through to the ‘native-like control’ of a child brought up to speak two languages from birth. Into his net he draws not only that relatively familiar group of elite Romans well-versed in Greek, but Greeks who picked up Latin, Romans who could get by in Carthaginian (‘holiday Punic’?), soldiers in the army managing both in Latin and their own vernacular, Gaulish potters working partly in Latin for Roman bosses, Italian traders on the Greek island of Delos operating in different contexts in different languages, and a whole variety more. The study goes far beyond the details of language to raise some of the most important questions in our understanding of the Roman empire and of the culture of Roman imperialism. How far, or how fast, did Latin eradicate the other native languages of the Roman empire? How does a polyglot army function effectively? To what extent is multilingualism built into the judicial and administrative processes of imperial government?

Adams is rightly aware of the difficulty of using the evidence of ancient literary sources in tracking down the day-to-day practice of second-language acquisition and use. Roman writers almost always had another axe to grind when they were discussing the vernaculars of the empire. However evocative Ovid’s accounts of his struggles with Getic may be, they are not reliable guides to his linguistic experiences in Tomi. For Ovid, the opposition between Latin and Getic is a way of talking about the plight of an exile, and the loss of linguistic – and so of social, political and cultural – identity that comes with banishment from Rome. (Even Adams seems rather too trusting when he concludes that Ovid may, if nothing else, throw light on Roman attitudes to ‘the possibility of second-language learning’.) Likewise Tacitus rarely mentions a native language without it being a vehicle for some cynical observation on the nature of Roman power and its corruption. The classic case of this is the famous passage in the Agricola (the biography of Tacitus’ father-in-law and governor of Britain) when he concludes that the keen adoption of Latin by erstwhile Celtic-speakers in the province was another facet of their enslavement.

So Adams relies heavily on the evidence of inscriptions and papyri. Not exclusively. One substantial chapter focuses on the use of Greek phrases or sentences in Cicero’s, predominantly Latin, letters; it asks in what circumstances and for what reasons Cicero adopts this form of ‘code-switching’, as the linguistic jargon terms it. (The answer is a complex mixture of – among other factors – self-display, accommodation to the different degrees of ‘Greekness’ of his correspondents, and the psychological state of Cicero himself; strikingly, he rarely uses Greek ‘at a time of crisis’.) But non-literary documents produced by much more ordinary people – though not so ‘ordinary’ that they were illiterate, as the majority of the population of the empire must have been – have a larger place in Adams’s work. These include potters’ lists of kiln production, graffiti scratched on the tourist monuments of Roman Egypt, soldiers’ tombstones, papyri documenting the procedure of courts or the activities of entrepreneurs.

He squeezes these difficult data very hard, looking for grammatical traces that might indicate a writer operating in a second language or, in bilingual texts, for hints of which language was the dominant one and the linguistic competence of the intended audience. It is a fascinating search, if extremely technical. This is not a book for the Latinless reader; and a basic command of ancient Greek (plus Etruscan, Punic and Aramaic) would help too.

A particularly appealing example, and one that captures some of the complexities Adams is handling, is the ‘Roman’ tombstone put up in modern South Shields by a man from Palmyra, Barates, to commemorate his British wife (and ex-slave), Regina. It carries a sculpture of the dead woman in a strongly Palmyrene style. (Adams, with his rigorously linguistic focus, has nothing to say of this visual idiom.) The text itself is in both Latin and Palmyrene Aramaic – though, as there could never have been a substantial Palmyrene population in South Shields (no Palmyrene army unit was stationed on Hadrian’s Wall), the function of the Aramaic text must have been more a proclamation of ethnic identity than any practical attempt to communicate with an Aramaic readership.


12. The tomb of Regina, an ex-slave, erected in Britain by her partner Barates. The inscription is in Latin and Aramaic.

The Latin text is longer than the Palmyrene and includes extra information on the dead woman’s age (30) and her tribe (the Catuvellauni). But it is also written – in the eyes of Adams and other editors (I was not so sure) – in much more erratic lettering than the Palmyrene version, suggesting a stone-cutter more at home in Aramaic than Latin, or at least happier carving from right to left rather than left to right. At the same time, to add to the puzzle, the unorthodox case endings of some of the Latin words are reminiscent of Greek usage.

Adams speculates that Barates was a Palmyrene trader – if he was not identical with ‘… rathes’ (the first part of his name is lost), a Palmyrene standard-bearer, whose tombstone is at Corbridge. And he plausibly suggests that he was a first-language speaker of Aramaic, bilingual in Greek, whose Latin was influenced by familiar Greek grammatical forms. Even so, not all the questions raised by the text are answered. What was the relationship between the carver of the memorial and Barates, its commissioner? Were they one and the same? Or were they both Palmyrenes living in Roman South Shields? And why does the Aramaic text omit the vital piece of information that Regina was the wife of Barates, referring to her only as his ex-slave?

Bilingualism and the Latin Language repeatedly touches on major issues of Roman cultural history. At one point, Adams states that ‘this book is overwhelmingly about identity’. And so indeed it is; though any student of Roman cultural identity would be faced with a good deal of work in processing the information Adams presents. The work would, however, be well worth the effort, for there is material here that promises to shed light on a whole range of Roman cultural and political practices, far beyond the specialist concerns of language. Take, for example, Roman engagement with the historical topography of their province of Egypt. How did they understand, and relate to, the physical reminders of previous rulers and civilisations that were an even bigger mark on Egyptian landscape 2,000 years ago than they are today? In one chapter, Adams looks at the language of the graffiti carved onto various Egyptian monuments by Roman soldiers and tourists. He uncovers a striking discrepancy. On the famous Colossus of Memnon (the huge ‘singing statue’ visited by, among others, the Emperor Hadrian) Roman inscriptions are predominantly in Latin. At another major Roman ‘pilgrimage’ site, the underground tombs of the pharaohs at Thebes (the so-called ‘syringes’), Greek appears to be the language of choice – even with those classes of visitor (such as Roman prefects) who aggressively signed the Colossus in Latin. The difference of language strongly hints at a different significance for these Egyptian antiquities in the Roman cultural imagination: the Colossus prompting an assertion of Roman identity from its visitors, the syringes eliciting a response in the more ‘native’ Greek.

Yet wider implications emerge from Adams’s treatment of language use in the Roman army. He effectively demolishes the view that throughout the empire Latin was the ‘official’ language of the army, at least in any simple sense. He shows that Greek could be used for all kinds of ‘official’ purposes, and recognises that the junior ranks in many of the provincially recruited units may have had very limited competence in the Latin of their officers, communicating easily only in their own vernacular. Where does this leave our vision of the structure, organisation and cohesion of the Roman army? Somewhat closer to the linguistic and cultural disarray of a modern premiership football team than to the image of lookalike, monoglot soldiers familiar from film, fiction and school textbooks.

It is, however, the implications of Adams’s work for our understanding of the whole basis of Roman provincial administration that are the most important, unsettling and potentially controversial. Adams makes it clear that Romans could take learning Greek in their stride, but finds little evidence that they had the same attitude to mastering the other vernacular languages in the Western part of the empire. True, at a relatively early date, you can find Romans who apparently know some Etruscan or Punic: besides the committee given the unenviable task of translating twenty-eight volumes of Punic thoughts on agriculture, Livy tells the story of a Roman consul’s brother being sent on a reconnaissance mission into Etruscan territory in the early fourth century BC because he was fluent in the language (he was supposed to have been educated in the Etruscan town of Caere and to have learnt it there). But, in time, the evidence that Adams assembles increasingly suggests that, while speakers of the various vernaculars mastered Latin, Romans did not return the compliment.

Caesar, for example, in Gaul used ‘locals who had learnt some Latin’, and on one occasion a Gallic chieftain, to interpret between his invading forces and the native population. And, although there are interpreters documented as serving with the Roman army, there is no conclusive evidence that any of them were Latin-speakers by birth. In short, as Adams sums it up, ‘the onus was on locals to learn Latin … as their masters treated vernacular languages as if they did not exist’. The picture this presents of Roman administration in the West is a difficult one. At their most extreme, the implications of Adams’s position would cast the Romans as a linguistically emasculated and vulnerable occupying power, dangerously dependent at that crucial interface between ruler and subject on the interpretative skills of the subject. If true, this is a completely different model of the linguistics of imperial rule from that adopted in the British Empire. Leonard Woolf, for example, was not untypical when he went out as an administrator to Ceylon already having mastered Tamil, and prepared to add a few more Eastern languages to his repertoire.

Of course, the distinction in the Roman world between bona fide ‘Romans’ and their subjects became increasingly blurred through the first centuries AD. The fact that Roman citizens (and so imperial administrators) were often themselves from provincial and probably multilingual backgrounds must have served to muddy the apparently sharp linguistic divide between ruler and ruled. Julius Classicianus, for example, the man appointed as procurator of Britain in the wake of the Boudiccan rebellion, was (despite his fine-sounding Latin name) of Gallic origin and may well have had some language to match.

But, at the same time, I suspect (as Adams himself at one point allows) that many more Romans acquired some competence in native vernaculars than the surviving evidence ever indicates. Governors arriving for a short spell of duty may have had little opportunity or inclination to learn more than a few phrases of politesse, if that. Those officials based in the provinces or on frontiers for longer could hardly have avoided some competence in the native languages. After all, many of them, we know (like Barates the Palmyrene), took local wives, girlfriends, or prostitutes; they presumably did not have sex only in Latin. It is hardly surprising that this level of bilingualism makes no mark even in the ephemeral documents, the hurried scrawlings, or the crudely inscribed tombstones, that Adams emphasises. It is not just that we are dealing here with part of the submerged illiterate majority of the ancient world; but many of these native languages would have had no written form at all and could not have made it to the written record.

Such reflections only add to the rich picture of linguistic diversity that Adams paints. Bilingualism and the Latin Language is an extraordinarily impressive book and a masterful collection of material. It presents a Roman Empire that is culturally more complex and frankly stranger than we often imagine; and, perhaps even more important, it demonstrates just how central the study of language is to any proper understanding of the ancient world.

Review of J. N. Adams, Bilingualism and the Latin Language (Cambridge University Press, 2003)

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!