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Latin piscis. That one is fairly straightforward, but there are more
surprising ones that can still be shown to be valid. For example, Latin
qu sometimes corresponds to English f, sometimes to v, so that
English ¬ve can be proved to be connected with Latin quinque. If
there has been a meaning change as well, the connection may be
even harder to see. English quick and Latin vivo ˜live™ can be linked
by applying the above rule of correspondence to both consonants in
the word, though the original meaning ˜live™ is only found in English
in such ¬xed expressions as the quick and the dead or quicksilver.
It is striking how in this way comparative linguistic research can
reveal ancient links that go back to before the beginning of recorded

A natural history of Latin

From small town to great power

The small state of Rome with its own small language had several
neighbours. Half a millennium before Christ there were many small
states in the Italian peninsula.North of the Romans lived the Etruscans,
whom we have already mentioned, not in one state but in a number of
separate city states. The Etruscans spoke their own language, which
did not belong to the Indo-European family and which is not related to
any other language which has been preserved. They used their own
alphabet,and many inscriptions in Etruscan have survived.For several
hundred years the Romans were very dependent on the Etruscans,
both politically and economically, and they took over a great deal from
them, including their alphabet. The letters in the Roman alphabet
represent a slight modi¬cation of the symbols used by the Etruscans,
who had in their turn borrowed the idea of writing with letters from
the Greeks.As a result of the great in¬‚uence of Latin, all the languages
of western Europe have inherited the Roman alphabet, in some cases
with additions such as the English and German use of w, the French §
(called c cedilla),Swedish and German ¤ and ö,Danish ø and so on.Two
letters that are now widely used in European alphabets, v and j, have a
different history, which we will come to later.
Besides the letters, the Romans acquired quite a lot else from the
Etruscans, including some words which have gone on to be adopted
by other languages such as caerimónia ˜ceremony™ and fenestra
˜window™ (whence French fenêtre and German Fenster). The mean-
ings of these words tell us something about what the Romans learnt
from their neighbours in the north. They imported many religious
practices and ceremonies and the ¬rm belief that the will of the gods
could be read in the ¬‚ight of birds or the entrails of animals that had
been sacri¬ced. The Romans also got the idea of theatre from the
Etruscans; the modern word person comes from the Etruscan loan-
word in Latin persona, which originally meant a theatrical mask”
hence a role in a play and so ¬nally ˜person™. They also learnt how to
build houses instead of windowless huts.

Latin and the Romans

In other respects the Romans could not boast of any cultural
achievements in our sense of the word for several centuries. They
were ¬rst and foremost farmers. But the Romans would not agree
that there was a lack of culture. In Latin farming is called agricultura,
a word which is made up of ager ˜¬eld™ and cultura, which originally
meant the growing of crops but which gradually acquired the sense
of spiritual growth or culture. The Latin word cultura is formed
from the verb cólere ˜grow™ just as the English word growth is
derived from grow.
Their other principal activity was military service, milítia. The
Romans were excellent soldiers, and during the ¬fth and fourth
centuries and the ¬rst half of the third century bc they fought war
after war with their neighbouring states. Things did not always go
well, but bit by bit the Romans conquered the whole of the Italian
peninsula. Slowly but surely they also spread the Latin language
over the territory they had conquered. One of the ways they did this
was by giving out parcels of the land they had won to soldiers who
had completed their military service. The soldiers naturally spoke
Latin, and they and their families brought with them the language
of the victors to the homelands of the vanquished, where they con-
tinued their main activity,farming.In this way islands of Latin emerged
in all the other language areas. At the same time Latin was the lan-
guage of the people who held power, so most people quickly learnt
a bit of Latin, and after a few generations Latin had completely
taken over.
A soldier, miles in Latin, could soon become a colónus or grower.
A group of such coloni formed a colónia, a number of Romans living
together in a conquered country.The English word colony clearly
comes from this word.
Not everyone was a simple farmer even in early Rome; there were
also rich and powerful people such as those who sat in the Senate,
held military command or became consuls. Very early on there was
a political distinction between the leaders, who were patres ˜fathers™,
a common term for senators, and who were therefore called patrícii
˜patricians™, and those who belonged to the ordinary people or

A natural history of Latin

plebs, and who were therefore called pleb©ii ˜plebeians™. In Rome
these terms became outdated after a couple of hundred years, but
they have survived to this day as ways of referring to people™s social
By about 270 bce their many wars and colonizations had made the
Romans masters of the whole of the Italian peninsula, and they
began to look with interest at the countries across the sea. On the
north coast of Africa, in present-day Tunisia, there was a very
successful city called Carthage. The Carthaginians were merchants
and seafarers, and they controlled much of the trade and the coast in
the western Mediterranean, including for example most of Sicily, an
island which the Romans also had their eyes on.
The Romans fought three great wars against the Carthaginians,
whom they called poeni ˜Punic (people)™. You can read in the history
books about these three Punic wars, which lasted altogether for more
than a hundred years. In the end the Romans were victorious and
destroyed the city of Carthage, but for a long time the outcome was
uncertain. The most spectacular moment during these campaigns
was when the Carthaginian general Hannibal entered Italy from
what is now France by crossing the Alps with an army which
included elephants, the tanks of the ancient world.
For ever after the Romans were inordinately proud of having
defeated Hannibal and the Carthaginians, and it was this victory
which made them a superpower in the Mediterranean. Yet when it
came to writing, education and ideas, science, art, and music the early
Romans did not produce much compared to many other peoples. In
particular they lagged far behind their neighbours to the east, the

How bad were the Romans?

The earliest Romans, those who conquered Italy and defeated
Carthage, became some centuries later the models and ideals for

Latin and the Romans

their descendants. Classical Roman writers talk at length about the
moral excellence of their forefathers, and since their time the theme
has recurred again and again. Even today one still hears mention of
˜Roman virtues™, ˜pithy Roman sayings™, and so on.
The picture which posterity has created of the ancient Romans
obviously contains elements of truth and myth, and is roughly as
follows. In the ¬rst place they were simple men who cultivated their
own land, but went to Rome to take part in government when
required and who went to ¬ght whenever it was necessary to put the
neighbouring tribes in their place.The prime example was Cincinnatus,
who was ploughing his small plot of land when he was informed that
he had been appointed dictator, which meant that he could rule
unchallenged but for no more than six months. The reason was a
war: he had to rescue a Roman army which had been penned in
by the enemy. Reluctantly, he left home, won the war, renounced
his dictatorship after two weeks, and went back to farm his land
Part of this idea of the simple life was that the ancient Romans
despised money and luxury, and did not take bribes. On the other
hand they liked power. The story goes that the consul Dentatus
received a delegation from the Samnites while he was sitting in his
tent stirring his porridge, puls, in a clay pot. He refused their gold
plate and other presents and said that he preferred to use a bowl
made of clay himself while ruling over people who owned gold
dinner services.
They were also extremely courageous and oblivious to physical
pain.A Roman called Mucius tried to kill the Etruscan king Porsenna,
but he failed and was captured by the Etruscans. He explained with
pride: Romanus sum ˜I am a Roman™, and demonstrated to the king
what kind of people the Romans were by putting his right hand into
the ¬re and keeping it there until it had turned to charcoal. The king
was duly impressed and relinquished the battle against such
doughty warriors.
Finally, they were always just and law-abiding. It is true that they
were waging war almost all the time, but their wars were always

A natural history of Latin

righteous, and had been prompted by some insult or injustice that
the Romans felt they had suffered. For the sake of justice all human
considerations had to be put to one side. The consul Torquatus had
his own son under his command, and the son acted very bravely in
killing one of the enemy. Unfortunately, in so doing he contravened
his father™s order not to engage in acts of war, and so Torquatus
promptly had his son executed for disobedience.
Nowadays this picture of the Romans may seem less than appeal-
ing to many people. But it did remain attractive for many centuries
and you do not have to go very far back in time to ¬nd societies which
exploited it to their advantage. In the 1920s and 1930s the Fascists in
Italy developed an ideology that was partly based on this imaginary
picture, and their ideological brothers, the Nazis, also adopted some
of these ideas.
But these are no more than fantasies, maybe with some founda-
tion in reality. All the above examples and hundreds more of the
same kind were written down by Roman or Greek writers who lived
about the time of the birth of Christ, several hundred years after the
heroic period that lasted up until the defeat of Carthage. It was in
their interest to emphasize certain characteristics of the ancient
Romans because they wanted to sway their contemporaries.
Arguably, the conservative rulers of a later period used the ancient
Romans for their own purposes.
Whatever the truth of the matter, this image is connected with a
number of signi¬cant concepts in the Latin language. The most
important of all is probably virtus, a word which has been borrowed
into many languages including English virtue. It is built on the word
vir which means ˜man™ and which is also to be seen in words like
virile and virility. In origin therefore virtus meant ˜manliness™. But
it has nothing at all to do with sexuality, and means rather some-
thing like ˜good qualities™, namely those that a man was supposed to
have. These include above all else courage, but also all-round ability,
care for the family, a sense of business, reverence for the gods,
respect for the law and the authorities, and more in the same vein.
Virtus was seen as the best quality that a Roman could have.

Latin and the Romans

Another keyword is fortis ˜strong™ and fortitúdo ˜strength™, a
quality which was regarded as essential in a Roman. But he also had
to cling to ius ˜right, justice™, so as to be just, iustus. The ideal was vir
fortis et iustus ˜a strong and just man™, and also a pater famíliae, a
family father.Those people who were not male heads of families, and
hence considered strong and just, were marginalized. Early Roman
society was exceptionally patriarchal.The housewife, mater familiae,
did indeed play a role that was important in itself but only within the
four walls of the home. If on the other hand you were a boy (puer) or
a girl (puella) or a slave (servus ˜male slave™ or serva ˜female slave™)
you were completely dependent on the pater familiae and his authority
(auctóritas). A child was childlike (puerilis) and a slave was expected
to be servile (servilis).
The fact that Rome was a society where people had slaves may be
offensive to us, but the same was the case in all societies in antiquity,
both in Europe and in the Middle East. Slavery lived on in Europe
well into the Middle Ages, but was abolished quite a long time ago.
Elsewhere Europeans used slaves on an industrial scale until the
latter part of the nineteenth century.

A voice from early Rome

Our knowledge of ancient history mainly comes from written
sources. Obviously the best and most reliable information comes
from the writings of people who lived at the time. In the case of
Rome, there is not a lot of this kind of material from the earliest
times. The Romans certainly had an alphabet and made some use of
it from at least 500 bce, but very little has been preserved that is
older than about 200 bce, principally a number of inscriptions on
gravestones and the like.What we know about the earliest period has
been passed on by writers who lived much later, around the birth of
Christ. The reason why so little has survived is probably because
there was not very much to begin with anyway. In the earliest years

A natural history of Latin

of their history the Romans do not seem to have been a people much
given to writing, and the ¬rst individuals who could be called writers
do not appear until the third century bce.The fragments that remain
of their writing reveal that they were fairly clumsy. There was no
written norm, and no instruction in the Latin language in schools.
So we do not really know much about how the oldest Romans
thought and felt. There is, however, a book written by an individual
who is always cited as an example of what the ancient Romans were
like, Marcus Porcius Cato, often called Cato the Elder. He played
an important part in the war against Carthage, and one of the things he
is famous for is that he is said to have ended many of his speeches in the
Senate with the words: Praet©rea c©nseo Cartháginem esse delendam
˜Moreover it is my opinion that Carthage should be destroyed™. Cato
died in 149 bce, and the book which he has left behind, called De
Agricultura ˜On Agriculture™, is one of the very oldest which exists in
Latin. Most of it is devoted to very detailed instructions, sometimes
highly technical, about how to build an olive press or how to bake a
honey cake. Quite a few passages also tell us a lot about Cato himself


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