THE LATIN LANGUAGE




Latin is known from as early as 500 B.C., in and inscription on a gold fibula or safety-pin, which reads:

MANIOS MED FHEFHAKED NUMASIO

"Manius (the maker) me made for Numerius (the recipient)"

This hardly looks like Latin except to this linguist, but by 300 B.C. Latin appears in a form which we can recognize, and its history can be divided into various stages:

a) ARCHAIC, as used in ancient inscriptions on stone, in the comedies of Plautus, in fragments of other early writers from the 3 rd century B.C., and in the comedies of Terence in the following century. The inscriptions are the better index of what Latin of this period was like, since Roman Comedy was somewhat edited over the course of time as it became part of the required reading in Roman school-system.

b) LITERARY, whether earlier (for example, Lucretius, Catullus, Cicero, and Caesar), Early Empire (Vergil, Horace, Propertius, Ovid) or Middle Empire (Juvenal, Persius, Pliny the Younger, Suetonius and Tacitus. Petronius's novel The Satyricon, written partly in vernacular or "vulgar" Latin, represents something of a surprise in this august company..

c) CHRISTIAN, starting from Roman-sounding Minucius Felix down through the clearly Christian writers Lactantius and St. Augustine. There is a vast amount of writing in this area, Migne's collection of the Church Fathers' writings has not only huge size, but a great deal of cultural and sociological interest, beside the obvious value to theologians.

d) LATER EMPIRE. There are many books surviving from this period, but most are depressingly pedestrian and imitative. One thinks of the overgrown epics of Statius and Silius Italicus, of the late poetasters Claudian and Ausonius, with a certain curiosity unfortunately tempered by regret.

e) The language of the INSCRIPTIONS on stone, which date from before 400 B.C. and go on to the multitudinous Christian inscriptions of the 6th century A.D., are collected in a mighty printed series, the CIL (Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum), with millions of entries from all periods and all places within the reaches of the far-flung Roman Empire. Knowledge of little known tongues, such as Illyrian, Iberian, continental Celtic and others, stems from the CIL, as well as historical documents, laws and a variety of personal poems on tombstones, many of which are humanly touching and valuable as literature in their own way. Unfortunately most of the materials in this area is accessible only to advanced students in Ph.D. programs and to scholars, who generally gravitate toward the rosier paths of well-trodden literature. Much is yet to be mined in these fields!

But what we have of Latin literature is a small fraction of what the Romans of the Empire had to read. One thinks of a poet like Gallus, judged in his time to be the equal of any Augustan writer, whose work is represent for us by a single line. For the discouraging account of the losses, take a look at the French scholar Bardou's two volume work which lists with detailed documentation the vast amount of writing which simply has not come down to us.

Some might say that time is the best sifter of talent, and we probably have what is best. But recall the our knowledge of the grand poem of Lucretius rests on the authority of a single MS which somehow survived into the 11th c., long enough to be copied before it finally disappeared, and the same is true of the priceless Catullus. Books which were too obscure to understand, or were obscene in the eyes of the monastic copiers, disappeared. By the sheer whim of fate, the recondite and almost unreadable Satires of Persius survived in literally hundreds of MS copies, for no other reason than because (although a pagan throughout), he uses in the third satire the word "god" in the singular, a tirades against corruption. They thought he was a Christian or a proto-Christian, and copied him again and again. Such are the chances of survival in a depressed and ignorant world.

The finest example of the tricks which fate or chance can play, is the case of the Satyricon of Petronius, of which only disconnected quoted fragments were available until the middle of the 16th c. Petronius is extremely important for us since he represent the only example we have of conversational Latin, which differs tremendously from the formal and standardized Literary Latin in which the rest of Latin Literature is written.. Then, in a Serbian cache, a continuous account of the dinner part of the nouveau-riche millionaire Trimalchio was discovered, some ninety pages out of what we think was a sixteen volume freewheeling novel with a central theme about which we are not still certain. Petronius is unique, invaluable, and a fine piece of novelistic writing, a type we would not even be aware of, except by the wheel of fortune. One wonders what other novels, with the kind of social information we lack about Rome, existed and perished. Even more, one wonders how this often scatological item escaped the fireplace of the religious orders.

Compared with Greek literature, Latin literature is small, compare with English literature, it is minute. Put on a shelf in plain-text editions, the writings which survive as literature would fill half of one three foot shelf, with room left over. Not that there isn't other writing, other documents, other information. Perhaps the sad message which come from this, is: Read your Latin Classics carefully and slowly, because there aren't any more. And more to the point, don't read Latin in a vacuum, read it as part of Greco-Roman thought, and part of Medieval and Modern Literature, and be conscious of Latin as a critical ingredient in the development of the Western Mind.

Return to Latin Background index

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris