Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean

A critical guide to electronic resources


edited by: Filippo Battistoni, revised by Mirko Donninelli (translation revised by Melanie Rockenhaus)

  • Introduction
  • Ancient Writing Systems

Latin is an Indo-European language spoken by the people that originally inhabited the Latium vetus (the territory between the rivers Tiber and Liri rivers). In the Indo-European linguistic area, Latin seems to be particularly akin to other western languages, especially to the Celtic ones (the hypothesis of an Italo-Celtic unity has, however, been rejected). Latin also has a strong relation to other ancient Indo-European languages of central and southern Italy, such as Umbrian, Sabellian, and Oscan. Whether these similarities between Latin and Italic languages are due to a shared prehistoric ancestor (common Italic) or to the strong interactions between their territories of origin, is still an open question: the socio-linguistic situation of archaic Latium does not allow any clear distinctions to be made. Among the other languages of ancient Italy, Greek and Etruscan played an important role in the development of Latin as well.

The earliest evidence of the Latin language consists of epigraphic inscriptions from the 7th-6th century BC. Among the most famous there are the Duenos inscription and the Lapis Niger. The language used in these short inscriptions, as the one in more ancient religious formulas preserved by the indirect - or secondary - tradition (carmen Saliare), is significantly different from archaic and classical Latin and shows a high fluidity between Latin and non-Latin elements. The turning point can be placed around the 5th century BC: some morphological and phonetic evolutions took place in the context of a wider socio-political change, in the first place “Latin apophony” and rhotacism. These evolutions made Latin similar to how it is known today. The earliest literary works produced in Latin date back to the mid-third century BC, when a process for constituting a standard literary language, both for poetry and prose, started.

In the meantime the Latin language spread in the Mediterranean area thanks to Roman conquests. Rome never imposed a linguistic policy to dominated populations: they could keep using their native languages. However, in Italy and in the western provinces, native languages were gradually replaced by Latin, which was a lingua franca and had a much higher social prestige. In the East, Greek remained preeminent and Latin usage was limited to bureaucracy and law. In general, though, Latin never became a polycentric language such as Greek and its regional diversification is difficult to study, because it can be detected only through the scarce sub-standard evidence coming from the provinces.

Classical Latin, which is taught in schools nowadays, originated during the 1st century BC, at the end of a standardization process in morphology and lexical purism lead by prominent figures such as Caesar and Cicero. Latin was aligned to the standard of the educated urban aristocracy and thus rustic, dialectal, vulgar, and foreign elements were ruled out. This standardization for the official and literary language remained unaltered up to the present day. On the other hand, it did not affect the spoken Latin of lower social classes, both in Rome and in the provinces, in direct contact with many different languages (mainly Greek). This kind of Latin, known as “Vulgar Latin”, has its own phonetic, morphological, syntactic, and lexical features, different from those of classical Latin.

The most radical change came with Christianity in a situation of diglossia: the Latin language of the new religious community, born in a low social context, was heavily contaminated with Greek and Semitic elements. This new idiom gradually spread among the Empire and was soon integrated into the literary and official language. From the 4th century AD on, Christian Latin was a core element of late-antique Latin language.

The continuity of Latin was not broken up by the collapse of the Empire. During the Middle Ages and in the Modern Era, standard Latin remained the language of religion, Church, liturgy, literature, science, bureaucracy and law. Medieval and modern Latin is a mixture of linguistic innovation and preservation of school standards (especially during the Carolingian period and the Renaissance). Vulgar Latin languages, with their geographic differences, evolved into the neo-Latin languages of romance Europe.

Ancient Writing Systems

  1. Latin