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Rome – country with two languages

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Henryk Siemiradzki, The patrician's siesta
Henryk Siemiradzki, The patrician's siesta

Ancient Rome was a multicultural state, which owed its relative prosperity to the skilful balancing between the strength of the Roman army in the occupied territories and openness to local culture and non-interference in the everyday life of conquered peoples as much as possible. However, this apparent openness of the Romans to these cultures was not altruistic. Ultimately, significant inhabitants of the conquered areas adopted the Roman way of being and language, which degraded local cultures by merging with Latin culture. In the case of Greek, however, the complete opposite happened. It was the Romans who, after conquering Hellas, propagated this language not only in the east but also in the west of the empire.

Lingua Greek?

The widely known term lingua franca denotes the common language spoken by the large majority of people in a given territory from different tribes or countries. It turns out that for centuries the term lingua franca could be used to describe French, Spanish, Creole and now English. Antiquity also had its lingua franca, it was Greek.

The unusual position that Greece took is not only due to its rich and lush culture. Greek became widespread as a result of the conquests of Alexander the Great. The vast expanses of the Macedonian Empire became the field of contact between Eastern civilization and Greek culture, which marked the beginning of the Hellenistic era in this area. Both the priests in Babylon, the court of the pharaohs and the Jews who cared so much for the purity of the nation spoke Greek. Greek culture began to develop outside the Greek polis in Alexandria, Antioch or Pergamum.

At that time, the Romans were busy with conquests of the Apennine peninsula, where after fierce battles they subjugated the Etruscans and Samnites, and then competed with Carthage for supremacy in the western Mediterranean.

Conquest of Hellas

The Romans subjugated the conquered peoples of the Appeninian peninsula quite quickly by imposing their language and culture. The fate of Carthage indicated that the Roman Republic would not be gentle with the conquered areas. So were the first steps of Rome to the east. The Macedonian king Philip V had already allied himself with the Carthaginians and relations between Rome and Macedonia can be described as mutual enmity. After defeating Carthage, the Romans turned against Philip, accusing him of usurping the Greek polis, and with the help of Pergamon and Rhodes, they conquered Macedonia, retaining control over the city-states. The area of ​​today’s Greece once again witnessed the rivalry of the Hellenistic world with Rome, on the occasion of the battles with the Seleucid state led by Antiochus III the Great, defeated at Thermopylae. Finally, the Hellenistic era collapsed with the conquest of Ptolemaic Egypt by Octavian Augustus.

Greek – the language of the East

The conquest of the Hellenistic world was associated with great problems for the Republic. For the first time, the Romans encountered a culture that could not quickly and reliably succumb to Latin influence. In the case of the Etruscans or other peoples of the Appennine Peninsula, the domination of Rome was complete. The conquered areas previously controlled by Carthage were either sparsely inhabited or culturally vulnerable enough that both the Roman language and customs were naturally adopted by the local elites and then by the plebs.

Therefore, the encounter with the lively and strong Greek culture must have left a clear mark on Rome. The ancient Greeks were aware of the greatness and scope of their culture. Already Plato in his work “Politics” divided the world into two groups, Greeks and Barbarians, i.e. people who do not speak Greek and do not cultivate the Greek way of life. The period of the Hellenistic era did not change the attitude of the Greeks to other cultures much. While there were Greeks speaking in other languages, it was rather expected that in the countries where Greek historians such as Hacataeus of Miletus or Herodotus traveled, there would always be someone who spoke Greek and would translate the works that interested them. In the eastern Mediterranean, as far as Kashmir, diplomacy was conducted in Greek, poetry and scientific texts were written, and administration was conducted.

When Latin meets Greek

The Romans were well aware of the prestige of the Greek language. Moreover, Roman elites spoke Greek long before the Punic warriors. After conquering Greece, the influence of the culture of Hellas became even stronger, the spoils of war brought to Rome included entire collections of books written in Greek, and more and more schools were established in Rome where Greek was taught. Cicero wrote that:

Graeca leguntur in omnibus fere gentibus, Latina suis finibus, exiguis sane, continentur.

He reads the whole world in Greek, a small territory in Latin.

This, however, did not mean that Latin was doomed to marginalization. The Romans knew well that Latin, through the conquests of Rome, was a language to be reckoned with. In addition, the Romans, wanting to maintain the status of their language, conducted administration and diplomacy only in Latin. Cato the Elder when giving a speech in Athens, he spoke Latin, although he could speak Greek fluently; moreover, Greek was never spoken in the Senate.

However, such restrictions were not imposed by decree, and the use of Latin and Greek was purely practical. The development of the city was associated with the influx of slaves from conquered countries. Slaves from the east of the empire most often spoke fluent Greek or Greek pidgin. This influx of new inhabitants caused Latin to begin to change. This change did not take place among the elites, but among the Roman commoners, who began to evolve by contacting Greek-speaking slaves. However, this is not the first case of changes in colloquial Latin. Even before that, everyday Latin was influenced by the languages ​​of the conquered peoples, such as Falski and Umbrian.

The ability to speak both languages ​​was becoming commonplace, and it was common to see a person speaking Latin suddenly change language. Such a change of languages ​​had a deeper basis. It was widely believed that Greek was the language of slaves, hence slaves were spoken in Greek, rarely in Latin. In a private conversation, changing the language to another was a sign of friendship between the interlocutors. Greek was called the language of emotions and was identified with women. This type of perception of Greek resulted from the fact that Latin was always the official language used in magistrates, the Senate or to discuss state affairs, i.e. places where men were on a daily basis. Greek, as the language used primarily privately at home in conversations with family and slaves, therefore became the domain of women.

Utecque sermo noster – in either of the two languages

The above term by Emperor Claudius shows how freely the two languages ​​coexisted in the Roman Empire from the 1st century BCE to the middle of the 3rd century CE. The entire Empire spoke both languages. From the shores of the Atlantic Ocean to the shores of the Red Sea, the Roman citizen spoke both Latin and Greek. Greek was the home language, and Latin was the official language – they intertwined every day. The coexistence of these languages ​​peaked during the reign of Mark Aurelius (161-180 CE).

In the declining phase of the Empire’s existence, a division between the Greek-speaking East and the Latin West was beginning to take shape. At the end of the 4th century AD finding a Greek teacher in the western part of the Empire was a challenging task.

In conclusion, it can be said that the conquest of Greece by Rome did not change much in the status of both languages. Latin did not replace Greek, and the ability to speak Greek became an instrument of social and economic advancement. Initially, official documents for Greek-speaking city-states were written in Greek and Latin, except during the republic period when only Latin was written. However, with the passage of time, also in this case, you can see a change in favour of Latin, which replaced Greek. Diocletian began an aggressive policy of replacing Greek with Latin. This policy accelerated with Constantine and the founding of Constantinople in 324, a Roman city in the middle of the Greek-speaking world. The Greeks began to have a reason to learn Latin. A career in the army or administration required knowledge of Roman law, and thus Latin.

The last years of the existence of the Western Roman Empire saw the disappearance of Greek in the west and an increase in the number of Latin speakers in the east. Ultimately, the symbolic event of the separation of Greek and Latin can be considered the Great Schism in 1054, when Latin became the official language of the Catholic faith, and Greek the language of Orthodoxy.

Today, there is a growing interest in Greek and Latin. In Europe, ministries of education are considering introducing these languages ​​into schools. It is said that Latin develops the ability to think logically, and Greek allows you to express yourself skillfully. In addition, children who can speak Latin and Greek have a greater ability to acquire other languages ​​and their vocabulary is much richer. Who knows how much it would benefit us to be able to speak both classical languages?

Author: Andrzej Głuchowski (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Bakker, E. J. (Ed.). (2010). A companion to the Ancient Greek language. John Wiley & Sons
  • Kampmeier, A., Roman Tolerance Toward the Greek Language. The Open Court, 1921(4), 5

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