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and his attitude to life.
In the preface he says that farming is the most honourable occu-
pation, and that the ancient Romans considered it a mark of the
highest praise when they called someone Bonum agrícolam
bonúmque colonum ˜a good farmer and a good husbandman™ (the
addition of -que at the end of a word means the same as ˜and™ before
the word). But when Cato starts to describe his own farm, it turns
out that he is de¬nitely not the person who does the sowing and
ploughing or even the person who superintends these activities. He
describes a farm which is managed by an overseer who is in charge of
a considerable number of slaves. The role of the Roman, ˜the good
farmer™, is to turn up every now and then, give instructions, call the
overseer to account, and pocket the pro¬ts. This last is the most
important for Cato. He is mean, not to say miserly, and farming is to
him just a way of making money. The people who do the work, that
is to say the slaves, are simply part of the production line. They get
food and clothes so that they can work. If they can™t do that they are

Latin and the Romans

surplus to requirements. At one point he reels off a list of things that
should be sold: . . . plostrum vetus,ferramenta v©tera,servum senem,
servum morbosum,et si quid áliud sup©rsit˜...an old wagon,old tools,
an old slave, a sickly slave, and anything else that is not needed.™
So on closer inspection it turns out that all his talk about the
honest farmer is deceptive. Cato was a rich man who invested in
farming for whom the wellbeing of his employees was a matter of
no concern. It would be wrong to say that all the ancient Romans
were like Cato; we know very little about the rest. It is also the case
that Cato lived at a time when the old ideals were being under-
mined by new circumstances. But it has to be said that the picture
of powerful Romans which emerges from reading his book is far
from attractive.
However, the culture of Rome fortunately does not consist solely
of the myth of the severe but just patriarch. The door was soon to
open on another era.

The meeting with Greece
For many hundreds of years the Romans lived on the fringe of the
dominant culture of the age. The Greeks had made unique progress
while Rome was still just a small town. They had created an unri-
valled literature, had laid the foundations of western philosophy and
science, and had made great strides in art and architecture. In addi-
tion, they were skilful engineers and successful warriors. In all this
they did not start from scratch but were often able to build on what
had been achieved much earlier in Egypt and in the great civilizations
of Mesopotamia. But the Greeks went further than their predecessors
in almost every ¬eld, and in turn passed on their advances to others.
During the great cultural ¬‚owering in the ¬fth and fourth
centuries bce, the region that roughly corresponds to modern Greece
was divided into many small states. Towards the end of the fourth
century the state of Macedonia subjugated all the small states and its

A natural history of Latin

king, Alexander, embarked on an extraordinary series of conquests,
with the result that he became the ruler of all the countries that
surrounded the eastern Mediterranean from Greece to Libya and of
the territory that constitutes modern-day Iraq and Iran and right
over to Pakistan and India. That empire soon fell apart, but it was the
Greeks who ruled over the different states, which therefore kept
Greek as the of¬cial language.
So to the east of the growing Roman empire there was a huge area
which was in every respect more developed. The Greek-speaking
world also extended to southern Italy and Sicily, where the Greeks had
already had colonies since the eighth century bce. When the Romans
took over those areas they immediately came into contact with
Greeks, Greek culture, and the Greek language. This was to lead to
great changes for the Romans and their language. Before then, there
had been a considerable distance between them and this people with
their well-developed educational system and their great literature.
The Romans may have had the alphabet for a long time, but they had
almost entirely used it only to write down contracts and laws and for
inscriptions on gravestones. Now, along with a lot else, they had the
chance to learn that written language can also be used to create works
of art and simply for the pure pleasure of reading.
The Greek in¬‚uence developed gradually over a period of several
hundred years. During that time the Romans also came to wield
greater and greater political power in the eastern Mediterranean. By
the birth of Christ they had subjugated both Greece itself and all the
other areas which had had Greek as their of¬cial language ever since
the time of Alexander. In consequence the Romans were deeply
in¬‚uenced by the Greek way of life, Greek science, Greek art, and not
least Greek literature. In time, all Romans with any claim to educa-
tion could read and speak Greek. The Greek and Roman civilizations
can almost be said to have merged into one common culture. But it
was a long process, and one that was never totally completed.
Literature was probably the ¬eld where Greek ideals meant most.
The Romans in fact took over the whole idea of writing literature from
the Greeks, and the ¬rst works were straightforward translations of

Latin and the Romans

Greek originals. But gradually the Romans evolved their own topics
and themes, and soon they were competing with their models and
indeed trying to surpass them. Latin literature slowly freed itself
from Greek in¬‚uence, and in due course it was Latin literature
that served as the model for the whole of Europe for the next two
thousand years.

Theatre for the people

The oldest literature in Latin which has been preserved are a number
of plays by a man called Plautus, written about 200 bce and staged in
Rome. The models for these pieces were contemporary Greek plays
that Plautus translated, at the same time adapting them to the Roman
context. They were about the life of what we would call the af¬‚uent
middle classes. The characters were merchants and landowners and
their wives, children, and slaves, and the plots revolved around
themes like young lovers who are ¬nally united or lost sons or
daughters who turn up unexpectedly. The setting was always a port,
with ships arriving from many different places. Rome was develop-
ing into just such a cosmopolitan community, and the plays quickly
caught on there.
This kind of play has subsequently turned out to be very long-
lived. Shakespeare took several themes and plots from Plautus”for
example The Comedy of Errors is an adaptation of the plot of
Menaechmi”and in our own times the same basic idea lies at
the heart of long-running soap operas like Dallas. But Plautus was
funnier. He does not worry a lot about plot, concentrating instead on
quick-witted slaves and comical misunderstandings, and making fun
of boastful generals and bossy fathers.
Slaves often play important roles in these plays and sometimes
behaved in ways that they would have been forbidden to do in Rome.
In one play, Plautus explains in the prologue that in the course of the
play two slaves will marry, and he appreciates that the audience will

A natural history of Latin

be scandalized. Yet this, he says, is what they are allowed to do in
other places, in Graecia et Carthagini, et hic in nostra terra, in
Apulia ˜in Greece and Carthage, and here in our own land, in Apulia™.
In Apulia (modern Puglia), in the far south of Italy, which had only
recently become part of the Roman empire, the customs were clearly
those of Greece, whereas the Romans did not let slaves do anything
which was legally binding, such as buying land, borrowing money,
or getting married. Such acts might infringe the rights of the slave
In this way Plautus™ plays taught the Romans something about
what went on in the wider world. He did not like the old Roman
virtues although”or perhaps exactly because”he was a near con-
temporary of Cato. He calls the old Romans pultíphagi ˜porridge-
eaters™ because they had not yet learnt to bake bread. The baker™s
oven was one of the many advances in civilization the Romans took
over from the neighbours to the east and the south.
The plays are about family intrigues.A key word is of course amor
˜love™, and amare ˜to love™, but just as important is something else,
the family™s fortune or money. The general word for ˜money™ is
pecúnia (derived from pecus ˜livestock™, since the bartering of
animals preceded the use of money), but the Romans also had coins
of silver (argentum) and gold (aurum). Hence in French the word for
money is argent, from the Latin word for silver while the word gold
is the source of öre, the name of the smallest unit of currency in
Sweden, Denmark, and Norway (worth approximately a tenth of
a penny). The value of money has, as we all know too well, changed
with time.
The fortune itself often went by the name res, a word we have
already met in the combination res pública.The basic meaning of res
is ˜thing™; one™s fortune is all the things one owns. In one of Plautus™
plays, a character is talking about how you have lots of friends when
you are rich but none when you are poor, and he sums the situation
up in the maxim res amicos facit ˜the fortune makes the friends™.The
Romans were very fond of such short, pithy sayings. Sometimes
they sounded rather moralizing, but just as often they were, like this

Latin and the Romans

one, resigned or even cynical. Plautus is a master at delivering this
kind of moral punch in the middle of all the comic confusion and
practical jokes.

The age of revolutions

For several hundred years Rome was in principle ruled in the same
way”by the of¬cials and senators who had been chosen by the
assembly of the people”but gradually the empire had become very
large. And yet the people™s assembly still consisted only of the free
men from the city of Rome itself, and the senators came in fact
mainly from a small number of very rich Roman families. All power
and almost all the money was concentrated in a few people in a single
city. This naturally led to widespread dissatisfaction amongst the
poor in Rome and amongst everyone in the rest of the empire. In
the long run such a state of affairs became untenable.
And yet it did not prove easy to change things. For a little over a
century a serious power struggle went on in Rome. It started with a
proposed land reform, which would have meant that the rich could
no longer own huge tracts of land and work them with slaves.
Instead they would have to give up land, which would then be
divided into small lots and given to the poor and in particular to
soldiers who had served their time. The man who advocated this
reform was called Tiberius Gracchus. He was murdered in 133 bce,
and so was his brother Gaius Gracchus, who took up a similar idea
ten years later. Their ideas, however, lived on and gave rise to a loose
grouping of people, who called themselves populares, a word which
derives from populus ˜people™ and means ˜the people™s party™. Their
opponents were the rich senators and their followers, who styled
themselves optimates ˜the best™. In a way there was now a radical
party and a conservative party.
The struggle between these groups went back and forth for many
decades while the Romans were simultaneously making war on

A natural history of Latin

other states and extending their empire further and further. The
army was obviously an important player in this power game, and the
crucial balance of power was increasingly in the hands of successful
generals, who allied themselves with one party or the other. Some of
these names have become very well known, such as Marius, who was
close to the populares, and Sulla, who belonged to the optimates.The
political strife was intense, and on several occasions developed into
a real civil war. It is easy to believe that the whole empire was on the
point of falling apart. One Roman historian says of Rome just at the
end of this period: magnitúdine sua labórat ˜it is sinking under its
own greatness™.
The best-known of the generals during the period of revolution is
Gaius Julius Caesar. He belonged to an old Senate family himself and
was very able both as a politician and a soldier. He was also a man
imbued with an incredible amount of energy. In 58 bce he became
governor of the province of Gallia Cisalpina, which literally means
˜Gaul on this side of the Alps™, in other words northern Italy. From
there, more or less on his own, he started a war against the Gauls
who lived to the west and north; after eight years he had conquered
all of what we now know as France, and in 55“54 bce invaded Britain.
Moreover, he had created a large army whose soldiers were loyal to
him personally rather than to Rome. What is usually emphasized is
how clever Caesar was. He was also completely ruthless. According
to his own estimates, his armies killed 1.2 million Gauls and took
1 million prisoners, whom he sold as slaves and thereby enriched
both himself and his soldiers. Today this kind of rampage would
quite simply be labelled genocide.
After the Gallic war, Caesar found himself in con¬‚ict with the
Senate. It was illegal for him to be in command of troops outside his
own province, but he nonetheless marched south with his army so
that when he came to the Rubicon, the river which constituted the
border between Cisalpine Gaul and Italy, he was faced with a crucial
decision. It is on this occasion that he uttered the famous words ˜The
die is cast™. What he actually said, according to the source we have,
was iacta álea est! It is worth noting the order of words here.

Latin and the Romans

Alea means ˜die™ (or ˜dice™ as we more usually say in modern
English), and if we imitated the Latin word order in English it would
be ˜Cast die is!™, which sounds very strange. It is not the most usual
way to put it in Latin either, but it is much less uncommon than in
English to rearrange the words like this within the sentence.
With this act Caesar started a major civil war, which in the end he
won. As a result, for some years he was virtually the sole and auto-
cratic ruler of Rome under the title dictator. In a short period, he
managed to carry through a considerable number of reforms, of
which several became a permanent part of the statute book.
However, many people were opposed to his dictatorship, and on 15
March in the year 44 bce he was assassinated, stabbed to death by a
number of senatorial conspirators led by his friend Brutus. He is


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