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aegre quod sit, satis semper est. Nam ego ibam ad te.
Myrrhina: Et pol ego istuc ad te. Sed quid est, quod tuo nunc ánimo
aegre™st? Nam quod tibi™st aegre, idem mihi™st dividiae.
Cleostrata: Hello, Myrrhina.
Myrrhina: Hello: but why are you so sad, my dear?
Cleostrata: Everybody feels like that when they have made a bad
marriage:indoors or out,there™s always something to make you miserable.
I was just on my way to see you.
Myrrhina: Well fancy that! I was on my way to visit you. But what is it
that has upset you so? Because whatever upsets you upsets me too.

This is almost ordinary spoken language, with short sentences,
expressions which are typical of everyday speech and quite a lot of
repetition of the same words. Strangely enough, it is more dif¬cult
to translate than many more solemn texts. The reason is that there
are so many idioms. Let us consider a couple of examples. Myrrhina
ends her ¬rst speech with the word amabo. Literally, this means
˜I shall love™. But the implication here is something like ˜I shall like
you (if you answer my question)™ and often it is simply an expression

Latin and the Romans

that is used when someone is asking a friendly question. It can be
translated ˜my dear™ or even simply ˜then™.
Later on she says et pol ego istuc ad te. Et ego ad te is easy: ˜And
I to you™. The word istuc means ˜yours, where you are™ and hardly
needs to be translated. The little word pol is the problem. It is an
abbreviated version of Pollux, which is the name of a god, or more
accurately a demi-god. It is a small imprecation or a very mild swear
word. It occurs a lot in spoken language and is almost impossible
to translate satisfactorily. I have tried here with the expression
˜fancy that™.
Spoken language is not always easy to understand for someone
who has not grown up with it. For example, a newly arrived immig-
rant in Britain may frequently ¬nd it less dif¬cult to understand a
news broadcast than a conversation in a pub. In the same way, it is
often easier for us to understand the arguments in Latin about polit-
ics or philosophy than to follow the language of the street. But the
spoken language is often more fun when you do understand it, and it
can tell us a lot about how people actually lived a couple of thousand
years ago. Apart from the plays, a few other texts contain language
drawn directly from the spoken Latin of ancient Rome.
When the ashes of Vesuvius buried Pompeii in 79 ce, they preserved
many of the things in the town, including the walls. When the ¬rst
archaeologists started to excavate the town a couple of hundred
years ago, as we have said, they discovered that these walls were
covered with writing. They had been used for all sorts of messages,
such as advertisements and election posters. But a lot of it is quite
like what you would ¬nd on the walls of any modern town, not least
in the public lavatories. There are all kinds of messages, and a fair
number of them are about sex.The authors want to do this or that, or
accuse some named individual of doing it or not being able to do it.
Latin has many useful words, including a wide selection of verbs for
different kinds of vaginal, oral, and anal intercourse, and the wall
inscriptions use them to the full! Whether these inscriptions really
contain everyday language is a matter for debate. What is there is in
all likelihood mostly what people did not have the courage to say

A natural history of Latin

rather than what they actually said. Even today they still have the
power to raise eyebrows.
Another source of everyday language is a text which is usually
known as the Cena Trimalchionis ˜Trimalchio™s Dinner Party™. It is
an extract of about thirty pages from a long novel, one of the few in
ancient Latin literature. Only short sections of this work, which was
called Satyrica (often cited in the genitive plural, Satyricon), have
survived. The manuscripts tell us that the author was called
Petronius, and he is generally thought to be the same Petronius who
was both a highly placed of¬cial and a leading partygoer among
Rome™s jetset. The emperor Nero is said to have engaged him as an
elegantiae arbiter ˜arbiter of good taste™. The story of this extract
concerns a spectacular dinner party at the house of Trimalchio, one
of Rome™s nouveaux riches. Most of the guests are former slaves
who have, like the host, found success and fortune, and the dialogues
between them reveal how they spoke. This is what it sounds like
when one of them, Echion, speaks about his son™s education:
Emi ergo nunc puero aliquot libra rubricata, quia volo illum ad domu-
sionem aliquid de iure gustare. Habet haec res panem. Nam litteris satis
inquinatus est.
So I bought the boy some law books because I want him to taste a bit of law
at home. That™s something which can earn him some bread. His head has
been stuffed enough with literature.

These people were very ambitious for their children, and hoped, just
as many parents do today, that they would have a better life as a
result of their studies. Petronius, who had a secure position in high
society, looked down on that kind of aspiration. This speech con-
tributes to the portrayal of an amusing social upstart, something
which the choice of language reinforces. Compared to ordinary writ-
ten language it is full of blunders, which are hard to represent in the
translation. For example, Echion uses libra instead of libros as the
plural of liber ˜book™, revealing his uncertainty over the in¬‚ection of
very common and ordinary words. It would be as if someone were to
say childs instead of children in English.

Latin and the Romans

Some of these peculiarities are very exciting for linguists studying
changes in the language. For instance, Echion says aliquid de iure
˜a little law™, literally ˜something of law™. In ordinary written Latin this
should have been aliquid iuris, where the form iuris is the genitive of
the noun ius ˜law™. But Echion uses the preposition de and a noun
instead of the genitive of the noun, which is exactly what happens in
the modern Romance languages. In French ˜a little law™ would be
un peu de droit, literally ˜a little of law™. This means it is possible
to observe the beginning of a major change from nouns with case
endings, as found in Latin, to prepositions with nouns, which
are characteristic of the modern Romance languages.There are quite
a few things of this kind, which point ahead to future changes, in the
speeches which Petronius puts in the mouths of his emancipated but
still uneducated slaves.
In other words, it appears as if certain changes were taking place in
the spoken language, although they almost never occur in the more
˜correct™ written texts from the same period.This is very much as we
would expect. All spoken languages vary and change with time,
whereas the written languages which are taught in schools are con-
siderably more conservative. Written language changed very little
during the whole of antiquity, and as a result obviously became more
and more unlike the spoken language.
The kind of Latin which is not quite like the of¬cial written
language, and which we see exempli¬ed in the inscriptions of
Pompeii and the dialogues of Petronius, is often called ˜Vulgar Latin™.
This is an unfortunate term, although it has been in use for a long
time. First, ˜vulgar™ has a derogatory meaning in English, as do the
equivalent words in German and French: vulg¤r, vulgaire. They
all come from the Latin word vulgaris, which means ˜popular™ or
˜common™, and is often also derogatory. This in turn is derived from
the word vulgus ˜common people™. Secondly, it is easy to get the idea
that Vulgar Latin is an independent language, completely different
from ordinary Latin, when it is in fact exactly that: the ordinary
Latin that the people spoke.That it differs somewhat from the written
language is no more strange than the fact that spoken English is

A natural history of Latin

different from written English in a number of ways. But no one calls
spoken English ˜Vulgar English™!

Laws and legal language
The emancipated slave Echion wanted his son to study law as a way
of making a living. He did not have such great ambitions as to imag-
ine his son becoming an orator and defending others, but he had to
know something about the law. In this he was probably right. In the
Roman world, laws were very important. Civil servants spent a lot of
their time forming judgements and making sure that people lived by
the law. Those who broke the law were often treated very harshly,
but the law also protected people from violence and arbitrariness.
People were not equal before the law. On the contrary, the laws
gave distinct and clear rules about who had power over whom, and
about the extent of such power. Slave owners, for example, had
absolute power, even including the right to kill their slaves. But there
were still limits: the owner could be forced to sell a slave who had run
away because of unjusti¬ed cruelty, so in some circumstances even
slaves were protected by the law.
Rome was a very patriarchal society, and a father of a family, a
pater familiae, was able to decide most things within his family, but
there were restrictions. His wife, for example, remained in control of
her own money, and her ¬nances were legally separate from those of
her husband.
These rules are examples of how people™s rights and obligations
were de¬ned. There were obviously also many other rules about
buying and selling, disputes and damages, and not least crime and
punishment. All functioning societies must have rules of this kind,
but the Romans invested more time than any society before them
(and many since!) in formulating clear, consistent rules and in mak-
ing them work. They also thought and wrote a lot about the prin-
ciples underlying their laws and rules, and can be said to have invented

Latin and the Romans

the science of law or jurisprudence (from iuris prudentia ˜wisdom
of the law™).
The fundamental principle itself is ius ˜right™ or ˜law™. It is de¬ned
in the following way: Ius est ars boni et aequi ˜Law is the art of the
good and the right™. People who are not lawyers probably often have
their doubts about that, yet Roman legislators did not just make rules
for things that needed regulation; they also had thoughts and ideas
about the foundations of justice and its administration. They estab-
lished principles regarding the interpretation and application of laws,
and they de¬ned many fundamental concepts. Roman law, which was
gradually developed by many famous jurists, completely surpassed
all pre-existing systems. It is documented in what is called the Corpus
iuris, a collection of laws and many other texts which were put
together as late as the sixth century CE under the Emperor Justinian
in Byzantium.
After the fall of the Roman empire in western Europe both legal
science and the administration of justice waned, but from the
eleventh century properly founded legal education resumed in
Bologna, in what is usually considered Europe™s ¬rst university. This
education was totally based on Roman law, and for many centuries
thereafter Roman law was the foundation of the legal system in most
European countries. Even as late as the nineteenth century, Roman
law survived almost intact in the legal systems of many countries in
south and west Europe, from Portugal to Germany. It is still impor-
tant for students of law in the western world to know the basics of
Roman law, which is an independent subject in most Faculties of Law.
One reason for this is that the Romans created a complete system
of terms and concepts which were well thought out and readily
applicable. They have formed the basis for jurisprudence for some
two thousand years, and they still turn up in modern debates. An
example is ius naturale ˜natural law™. In one of the texts in the
Corpus iuris, it is de¬ned as follows: Ius naturale est quod natura
omnia animalia docuit ˜Natural law is what nature has taught all
living creatures™. Whether or not there is a concept of natural law is
still a fundamental question in sociology. Under all circumstances

A natural history of Latin

ius civile exists and in English this is usually called ˜civil law™. It is the
law which applied to all citizens, cives, in a given country.
These concepts are not always easy to translate. The Latin culpa is
roughly equivalent to English ˜guilt™ or ˜fault™ but in contrast the
Latin term stipulátio is much more restricted in meaning than the
English loanword stipulation. A stipulatio is an oral contract which
is established through a formal exchange of question and answer.
The stipulator says, for instance,˜Do you agree that you will give me
50 pounds?™ and the promissor or respondent states,˜I agree.™ In legal
English reference to this Roman form of contract may be made by
means of the term stipulation, but in our everyday language most of
our uses of the word stipulation would not count as instances of
Roman legal decisions were often short and in need of detailed
interpretation. Here is one small example. The highest judge, the
praetor, promulgated the following decision:
Nautae, caupones, stabularii quod cuiusque salvum fore receperint nisi
restituent, in eos iudicium dabo.
As far as sailors, hotelkeepers and innkeepers are concerned, if they do not
give back intact whatever has been given into their keeping, I will allow
them to be tried.

This two-line decision is to be found in what is called the Digesta, a
part of the Corpus iuris. Its purpose is to protect travellers, who often
had their possessions with them on board ship or in an inn. It is fol-
lowed by approximately three pages of comment, in which a great
deal is explained. It is pointed out that by ˜sailors and innkeepers™ is
meant in fact the captain of a ship and the owner of an inn. The point
is that it is the boss who has the responsibility, not his subordinates.
Moreover, the things left in keeping do not have to be owned by
the people who left them there, providing for things that were in
the process of changing ownership, and so on and so forth. It is
clear that this decision was applied in many different cases, and
that the lawyers carefully made a note of all the complications
that ensued, and wrote a new comment every time. In this way

Latin and the Romans

they gradually created a mode of writing and thinking which has
survived to this day and which is still made full use of. Most of us are
probably no more fond of consulting a lawyer than of going to the
dentist, but a society must have laws and the state must have
the power to ensure that the laws work and are respected. For this
purpose the Romans had an army and a good number of very
competent lawyers. It turns out that the lawyers created something
rather more stable and long-lasting than the generals and the
soldiers managed to do.


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( 44 .)