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date: 18 January 2021

archaism in Latinfree

  • Leofranc Holford-Strevens

Updated in this version

Bibliography and cross-references updated.

Archaism is the employment of obsolete or obsolescent diction intended as such (not the conservative retention of the language with which one grew up, nor the colloquial preservation of expressions eliminated from literary use). Its normal tendency, reinforced by Roman respect for antiquity, was to impart solemnity, even when the usage had not been solemn while still current: characteristic of epic diction ever since Livius Andronicus admitted to his Odyssia forms not found in his dramatic fragments (e.g., -ās gen., topper ‘thereupon’), it also expressed the mock-grandeur of the Plautine slave (see plautus), and became a feature of historical prose in Coelius Antipater.

During the late republic, educated speech evolved so fast that the early writers’ language seemed markedly old-fashioned. The purism of Caesar and the mature Cicero excludes obsolescent usages along with the poetic or informal. This did not exclude the judicious use of an occasional archaism to confer solemnity (Cic. De or. 3. 153), and poets were accorded greater licence; but whereas the didactic poet Lucretius freely employs such Ennian uses (see ennius) as first-declension genitives in -āī and passive infinitives in -ier, other poets, especially the “Alexandrian” school, are more restrained.

Although the puristic prohibitions were subsequently relaxed, that on archaism generally retained its force, except in history: Sallust developed a style based on pre-classical writers and in particular the elder Cato (Censorius); even Livy, especially in his early books, admits such archaic uses as the 3 pl. perfect in -ēre and the naïve pronominal parataxis is. . . is . . . ab eo (1. 3. 6–7). Virgil makes judicious use of Ennian language in the Aeneid; thereafter writers in search of choice or solemn diction turned to Virgil (historians also to Sallust) rather than to early Latin literature, for which the great Silver authors had little respect—the younger Seneca even deplores its imitation by Cicero and Virgil. Nevertheless, we hear mostly scornful reports of persons who enjoyed the old tragic poets, or affected honesty by imitating the apparent artlessness of the early orators; and Valerius Probus brought with him the old-fashioned tastes of colonial Berytus.

In the early 2nd century, a revolution in sentiment restored pre-Ciceronian literature to favour; the movement, already so strong that even Suetonius employs such expressions as miscellus (‘mixed, miscellaneous’) and nemo quisquam (‘no-one at all’), was encouraged by Hadrian’s liking for early Latin writers; furthermore, a cult of antique virtue is evident in Aulus Gellius, though not in M. Cornelius Fronto or in Apuleius. Early authors (and with them Sallust) were read both for their own sakes and as sources for words and constructions to revive; the parallel with Atticism is imperfect, for wholesale pastiche was not attempted (see asianism and atticism).

Unlike earlier archaists, the 2nd-century mannerists did not necessarily intend to convey solemnity; often they meant to avoid the obvious (a principle explicitly stated by Fronto), to demonstrate their learning (both Fronto and Gellius warn against the obscurity that might result), or to restore correct Latin usage (i.e., republican, including Ciceronian) against the corruptions of the Silver Age and current speech (though vulgar usages were admissible if found in early authors). This motive is particularly strong with Gellius, far less so with Apuleius, for whom archaism is no more than one means to make a show; another is the coining of new words, also indulged by Gellius but disapproved by Fronto, who—though in later eyes the chief exponent of the archaizing style—was neither its inventor nor its arbiter. Ornamental archaism remained available for later authors (above all the Lucretianizing Arnobius); but when usages reminiscent of early Latin appear in subliterary texts, they are simply vulgarisms that refined language had proscribed. See classicism; retrospective styles.


  • Holford-Strevens, Leofranc. Aulus Gellius (corr. 2005), 354–363. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2003.
  • Holford-Strevens, Leofranc. “Fronto’s and Gellius’ veteres.” In Stefano Rocchi and Cecilia Mussini, eds., Imagines antiquitatis: Representations, Concepts, Receptions of the Past in Roman Antiquity and the Early Italian Renaissance, 199–211. Berlin and Boston: de Gruyter, 2016.
  • Lebek, Wolfgang Dieter. Verba Prisca: Die Anfänge des Archaisierens in der lateinischen Beredsamkeit und Geschichtsschreibung. Göttingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 1970.
  • Marache, René. La critique littéraire de langue latine et le développement du goût archaïsant au IIe siècle de notre ère. Rennes: Plihon, 1952.
  • Marache, René. Mots nouveaux et mots archaïques chez Fronton et Aulu-Gelle. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1957.