Over the course of its long and varied history, the Roman Empire was a richly complex society composed of many different people of varying nationalities. Because of this, it can be difficult to determine exactly which language the people of the ancient Roman Empire spoke (and wrote). However, the most prominent and overriding language of the empire was undoubtedly Latin, which spread across much of the western Roman Empire as it grew and expanded exponentially. Meanwhile, Greek remained spoken by many, and was the more prevalent language as the Eastern faction of the Roman Empire grew. We take a closer look at the complex nature of language in ancient Rome.
Latin Was the Most Common Language
Latin was the overriding language, or the ‘Lingua franca’ of Western Mediterranean Rome at the peak of the Roman Empire, particularly for imperial administration, legislation and military language. It is worth noting that this was not a fixed version of Latin – the language evolved over time, and changed according to the dialects of different regions, which each had their own external influences from other countries, communities and empires.
Generally speaking, Latin in the western Roman Empire is divided roughly into the following three categories: Old Latin, which emerged in around 75 BC, Classical Latin, prevalent from 75 BC to 200 CE, and Vulgar Latin, from 200 CE and 900 CE. One of the earliest surviving examples of Latin in ancient Rome is the Black Stone, which was inscribed with a language that looks similar to Greek. The stone was etched with an archaic form of Latin, which dates from roughly the 6th century BC, but this appears very different to the forms of Latin in the later centuries of the Roman Empire.
Alongside Latin, Greek was also a prevalent language in ancient Rome, with historical roots in ancient Greece. The Greek language was particularly widespread in the Eastern Byzantine area of the Roman Empire. It was predominantly used by ancient Romans for spoken and written diplomatic communication, and became a common language amongst Bishops and Christian leaders. Many Romans of the higher classes in both Eastern and Western factions were fluent in both Latin and Greek, particularly Roman Emperors. Following the collapse of the western Roman Empire, Greek took over as the dominant language in the Byzantine regions. Meanwhile, much like Latin, the medieval versions of Greek evolved and changed over time, eventually leading to the modern Greek of today.
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Different Regions Had their Own Languages
While Latin and Greek were the predominant languages across the Roman Empire, particularly for political and military purposes, it is worth noting that there were also numerous other languages that remained active amongst ordinary working people, most notably for use in everyday communications. During the earliest days of the Roman Empire, the ancient native languages of Etruscan, Punic and Gallic still existed. These were gradually taken over by Latin as the empire grew.
Meanwhile the cities and provinces throughout the empire each had their own languages and dialects according to various internal and external influences. For example, Syria and Mesopotamia used Aramaic language, Antioch citizens used Syrian, Carthaginians used Punic, and the Ancient Egyptians used Coptic. Celtic was spoken by many citizens of Gaul including France, Belgium, Switzerland, Northwest Italy.
Vulgar Latin is a widespread umbrella term used to describe the many dialects of Latin that evolved throughout the Roman Empire’s complex network of cities and provinces. The term ‘vulgar’ is not used here as we know it today – instead it means simply ‘of the masses’, given that the varying dialects of Latin throughout the Roman Empire were largely spoken by people day to day, rather than constituting a formal written or officially designated language. Areas developed their own ways of interspersing Latin with other languages spoken by individuals within that area. Regional languages came about through traders, travelers and slaves who moved into the Roman Empire’s growing areas throughout various points in history, while aspects of historical languages also remained active.
Over time, the various versions of Latin became more and more distinct from one another, each evolving into their own separate languages. These languages are now known today as the Romance languages, because they all have roots in Latin, the official lingua franca of ancient Rome. Included among the 44 different Romance languages of today are: French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian and Italian.