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Widespread bilingualism at some level was characteristic of the ancient world, whether we look for

  1. (a) bilingual communities, in which two languages are in use (e.g. official and popular languages, written and non-written, formal and informal), or

  2. (b) bilingual individuals who know two languages at some level. Perfect capacity in two languages, a modern ideal, was probably both rare and unnecessary, and, despite Herodotus 8. 144 on Greek (see greek language), the close modern identity of language and nation seems to have been relatively unimportant. But bilingualism implies language choice: according to context, the associations of each language, or social ambition. Latin and especially Greek were the languages of culture and education (in the Roman empire, Latin was the language of law and army), as well as power, so that while many other languages coexisted alongside Latin and Greek, neither Greeks nor Romans ever had to impose their language on others. Greek and Roman writers tended to be uninterested in other languages, or they were never written down, so our evidence (written) is slight and misleading (e.g. we learn about Getic in Tomis from Ovid's complaints (e.g. Pont. 4. 13, 17 ff.), not from inscriptions).

Greek unwillingness to learn other languages, linked to their assurance of cultural superiority, is well known (Momigliano). Herodotus learned no other languages (and suffered at interpreters' hands: e.g. 2. 125), Greek thinkers say little about foreign languages or revealingly categorize languages simply as Greek or barbarian (e.g. Plato (1), Cra.). Yet this monolingualism may be more characteristic of the literary élite and of high culture. Other Greeks must have acquired other languages: e.g. the Ionian and Carian mercenaries in Egypt in the Archaic period, the Greeks in Persian service, e.g. Democedes (see D. M. Lewis, Sparta and Persia (1977), 12–15), traders and colonizers—Massalia was still trilingual in the 1st cent. bce—and often married non-Greek women (cf. for the reverse, the unfortunate Scylas, Herodotus 4. 78 ff., with Scythian father and Greek mother). The orientalizing period of Greek culture is hard to envisage with merely monolingual Greeks. Late 5th-cent. Athens has a mixture of customs and languages ‘from all the Greeks and barbarians’ (Old Oligarch 2. 8). However, by the Classical period, the bilinguals in a Greek city would be mainly foreigners, traders, and slaves, i.e. outsiders (e.g. Scythian archers, Ar. Eccl.1001–225).

The picture becomes more complex with Alexander (3) the Great's conquests of large non-Greek speaking areas. The idea that Greek was always imposed as the language of administration in the Hellenistic kingdoms is increasingly doubtful. In the Seleucid empire, there is a mixture of Greek and Aramaic in the administration and, at least east of Asia Minor, evidence for bilingual Greeks. In Ptolemaic Egypt, Greek did become the language of administration; the extent to which Egyptians learnt Greek and became bilingual, however, or Greeks integrated at all into Egyptian society, is extremely difficult to gauge, and some recent work stresses bilingualism and at least limited interaction. There is evidence for individuals with double names, one Egyptian, one Greek, and for scribes fluent in both demotic and Greek. So the weight of administrative documents in Greek may hide greater Egyptian participation. Individual bilingualism, especially among prominent and ambitious Egyptian officials, must have been widespread.

The Roman empire was bilingual at the official, and multilingual at the individual and non-official, level. With the increasing Hellenization of Rome itself (see hellenism), educated Romans were expected to be bilingual in Latin and Greek, especially from the 1st cent. bce, at least for cultural purposes (there were tensions: Juvenal complains about women who irritate their husbands by speaking Greek, Sat. 6. 184 ff.). Quintilian advised that children start learning Greek before Latin (Inst. Or. 1. 1. 12–14). Greek was widely used in diplomatic activity from the republic: P. Licinius Crassus, proconsul of Asia in 131 bce who spoke five Greek dialects (Val. Max. 8. 7. 6) was exceptional, but by Cicero's time, interpreters were not always needed for Greek in the senate (Cic. Fin. 5. 89, with De divinatione 2. 131). Tiberius tried, too late, to discourage Greek in the senate, a rare case of Latin chauvinism (Suet. Tib.71: this failed). Most Roman emperors were fluent in Greek: Marcus Aurelius, despairing of Latin, wrote his private Meditations in Greek; while Septimius Severus may have been trilingual (Lat., Gk., Punic), Severus Alexander perhaps better at Greek than Latin (SHAAlex. Sev. 3. 4).

The Romans made remarkably little attempt to impose Latin on the empire. The language of administration in the west was certainly Latin, and ambitious provincials simply had to acquire it themselves (Brunt). In the Greek-speaking east, administration was mostly conducted in Greek, mainly from pragmatism, and edicts, imperial constitutions, and letters sent by Rome to Greek cities were usually translated into Greek first (and inscribed in Greek). Greek speakers were markedly unenthusiastic about learning Latin, and Roman colonies in the east were linguistically quickly absorbed. However the extent of bilingual inscriptions implies there was no strict single language policy (see Kaimio). Decisions of the Roman courts were probably always given in Latin, and Latin was necessary in law for certain documents for Roman citizens. With the widening of Roman citizenship ( ce 212), Severus Alexander (222–35) allowed Greek in the wills of Roman citizens. From the 4th cent., Latin was increasingly used in government and court when the government transferred to the east; this was deplored by educated Greeks. Greek became less widely known even in educated circles in the west from the 4th cent. (cf. Symmachus, Ep. 4. 20).

The many other languages in the Roman empire tend to be submerged in our evidence because they were unwritten, or non-literary, and many gain prominence with Christian preoccupations, but must always have been there: e.g. Gallic, Getic, neo-Phrygian, Aramaic, Coptic, and Syriac which develop as literary languages after ce 200, Iberian, Thracian, Punic (noted by St Augustine), not to mention Hebrew. Romanized provincials presumably knew the ‘vernacular’ as well as Latin, and the languages each had their own milieu. The Roman army in particular brought together a multilingual force where the lingua franca was Latin (cf. Tac. Hist. 2. 37, 3. 33, for problems of polyglot armies). This substratum is indicated by the later adaptation of Roman law to the extension of Roman citizenship: Ulpian allowed ‘even Punic, Gallic, Syriac, and other languages’ for certain transactions (trusts) under Roman law (Dig. 32. 11 pref.).

See also translation.


J. N. Adams ,Bilingualism and the Latin Language (2003).Find this resource:

    J. N. Adams and others (eds.), Bilingualism in Ancient Society: Language Contact and the Written Word (2002).Find this resource:

      A. Momigliano, Alien Wisdom: The Limits of Hellenization (1975).Find this resource:

        J. Kaimio, The Romans and the Greek Language (1979).Find this resource:

          C. W. Müller and others, Zum Umgang mit fremden Sprachen in der griechish-römischen Antike (1992).Find this resource:

            For other languages in the Roman empire: R. MacMullen, American Journal of Philology 1966, 1 ff..Find this resource:

              F. Millar, Journal of Roman Studies 1968, 126 ff.Find this resource:

                F. Millar, The Roman Near East 31 bcad337 (1993).Find this resource:

                  W. Harris, Ancient Literacy (1989), 175 ff..Find this resource:

                    P. Brunt, Imperial Themes (1990), 267 ff. (full bibliography).Find this resource:

                      A. Kuhrt and S. Sherwin-White, From Samarkhand to Sardis (1993)Find this resource:

                        For Egypt: W. Clarysse, Aegyptus 1985, 57ff.Find this resource:

                          A. Blanc and A. Christol, Langues en contact dans l’antiquité: aspects lexicaux (1999).Find this resource:

                            W. Peremans, Ancient Society 1973, 59 ff.Find this resource:

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