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reputed to have uttered another famous remark as he died: Et tu,
Brute ˜Even you, Brutus™. This remark too deserves comment in a
number of respects. The word et, which we have already encoun-
tered, usually means ˜and™ but can also be used in the sense of ˜too™ or
˜even™. Brute is of course his addressee™s name, which has the form
Brutus in the nominative. This form with the ending -e is called the
vocative and is used when you speak to or call someone. In written
texts we do not come across so many vocatives, but the Romans
obviously used them constantly in their everyday lives when they
said hello to each other or called their children.
After the death of Caesar, civil war broke out again and it was a full
¬fteen more years before the long and confused period of revolu-
tions was over, and Rome ¬nally acquired a functioning long-term
leadership again. From the description of politics and war during this
long period it sounds as if Rome was assailed by an endless sequence
of misfortune and misery, but actually this was not the case. One
reason for the trouble was that throughout this period the economy
was in very good shape and many people wanted to have their share
of the prosperity. Trade was very successful and a lot of people
became incredibly rich. The level of education increased substan-
tially across the board, and Roman society adopted many aspects of
Greek culture as well as developing in its own way.

A natural history of Latin

One thing which made particularly notable progress in this period
was the written language. Even by this time only a very limited
number of books in Latin existed. We do know that there were quite
a few writers besides Cato and Plautus, whom we have already
mentioned, and in particular we have many works by another writer
of comedies, Terence. But, as far as we know, the works that have
been lost are not terribly many and they were probably not of any
great value. On the other hand, during the ¬rst century bce there
were a substantial number of extraordinarily good writers, and
many of their works have been preserved. This is the beginning of
the golden age of Roman literature, which continues on into the ¬rst
century ce.The two centuries from about 100 bce to 100 ce are often
called Rome™s classical period.

Writing, reading, listening, and speaking

What do we mean when we say that the Romans had a literature? We
are obviously not thinking of printed books which are sold in book-
shops, distributed by publishers and written by writers who for the
most part have writing as their profession.In Rome things were rather
different. The Romans lived in a society where the written language
played a much smaller role than it does for us. In the towns many
people were able to read and write, but among the population as a
whole the majority were probably illiterate. There was also consid-
erably less to read than we have nowadays.These differences have a lot
to do with differences in technology. The Romans obviously did not
have computers, and neither did they have printing presses or photo-
copiers. Each text had to be written out by hand, and if a text was to be
distributed in several copies, it meant that the original had to be copied
again and again until the required number of copies had been made.
That went for everything from posters to poetry.The only small texts
which it was actually possible to mass produce were coin inscriptions,
which could be stamped in great numbers. The inscriptions (and even

Latin and the Romans

pictures) on coins were therefore much used as propaganda by those
in power.
Apart from coins there was no cheap way of producing texts. One
way, albeit an expensive one, which was quite widely used was to
carve inscriptions on stones or copper tablets. Inscriptions were very
durable, and could be located in conspicuous places so that all the
inhabitants of a town would be able to read them.This technique was
suitable not only for tombstones and mausoleums but also for
promulgating laws, regulations, and the like. We still have tens of
thousands of inscriptions from all over the Roman empire.
If anyone had a more ephemeral message, they might well paint
or scrawl it on a wall. Most of that has disappeared, of course, but the
town of Pompeii, which was buried under ashes from an eruption of
Vesuvius in 79 ce, gives us some idea of what this kind of writing
looked like. Many of the walls have all sorts of messages scribbled all
over them: advertisements for fruit shops, calls to vote for a particu-
lar election candidate, declarations of love, and any number of
insults and obscenities. Here and there, too, there are poems, often
ones composed by well-known poets.
However, inscriptions and walls were not suitable for bookkeeping
or private letters or ¬ction. For that kind of thing there were two
main options. One was wax tablets, strictly speaking pieces of wood
which had been coated with a layer of wax. It was then easy to write
letters in the wax with a pointed stick called a stilus (from which our
word style comes and which literally means ˜a way of writing™).
Once the message was no longer needed, the wax could be smoothed
out and a new text inscribed.This method was eminently suitable for
notes, short letters, and the like which did not have to be saved.
Indeed, people often bundled together several tablets to make a sort
of notebook.
The material for larger texts which people wanted to save was
papyrus. This looks and feels more or less like paper, but it is quite
thick and stiff. It is made from the plant papyrus which, like reeds,
grows along river banks and in marshes, primarily in the Nile delta.
The Egyptians invented the technique of writing on papyrus, and it

A natural history of Latin

had spread throughout the Mediterranean area by about 2000 bce.
On papyrus you write with pen and ink so the writing is permanent.
Unfortunately the material itself does not last forever. After a few
hundred years papyrus rots away in a normal climate, which means
that we do not have the original texts that were written in antiquity.
What we have are copies, and how they came into existence I will
explain later. However, under special circumstances papyrus can be
preserved for a very long time, especially if it happens to end up in a
completely dry place. The papyri which have survived from anti-
quity have usually been found in deserts, and in caves around the
Dead Sea. The texts are mainly in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, but
there are some in Latin too.
Papyrus could be used as loose leaves for letters and that sort of
thing. Long texts were written on strips of papyrus eight inches to a
foot wide and up to ten yards long ¬xed to a wooden stick at each end.
Usually the papyrus strip was rolled around one of the sticks.As you
read, you unrolled the text, which was written across the roll, from
one stick and rolled it up onto the other one. The text was written on
one side of the roll only, which ordinarily had space for the equival-
ent of thirty or forty modern book pages. The Romans used to call
such a roll liber, which is usually translated as ˜book™. These books
were much more dif¬cult to handle than the kind we are used to and
also much shorter. There might be enough space for a collection of
poems or a play on a liber, but anyone who wrote something longer
than that would have to break it down into short parts, each of which
could ¬t on a roll. Ancient works were therefore not divided into
chapters but into ˜books™, commonly of about twenty to forty pages
in length.
The ancient book rolls were a good deal less practical than a
modern book: you could not just turn to any individual page when
you wanted to, and the process of unrolling and rolling them up
again meant that they wore out quite fast. They were also expensive
to produce, so probably only very few people had access to any books
at all. Nonetheless, anyone with the money and the interest could
build up a big collection, and in Rome public libraries were gradually

Latin and the Romans

established. Still, reading did not play anything like the same role for
the Romans as it does for us today. For practical reasons, most people,
even if they had learnt how to, probably read very little. And yet the
Romans were intensely interested in their language and in the art of
using it well. It was simply that their access to their language was in
the traditional way, through their ears. Using your eyes to take in
what someone had to say must have seemed to them a much more
circuitous route to language than it does to us.
A written text was always seen as a way of recording the spoken
word, and so whenever someone read something they always read it
aloud. Of course people could always read to themselves, but rich
people had educated slaves who read aloud to their master and often
to his family and friends. What is more, writers often read aloud
from their own works. This was an entirely normal way of introduc-
ing new works to the public, especially poetry, and such occasions
gradually became important social events in Rome.
Writing good poetry and reciting it was actually a way of achieving
success and fame in Rome. But there was another kind of verbal art
which was much more important in Roman society, and that was
oratory. This was not something people did for fun or to show off; it
was rather an absolutely necessary skill for those who sought glory
in public life, and the fact that this was so re¬‚ects important differ-
ences between their society and ours.

Speeches, politics, and trials

When modern politicians want to canvass public opinion, they write
articles in the newspapers or get themselves interviewed on TV or
radio. If there is a lot to be said, a report or a White Paper is published.
They could also make a long speech in Parliament, but then there is
a great danger that nobody will listen to it. In Rome, on the other
hand, there were no newspapers in our sense of the word and no TV
or radio or electronic media, and there was no system for circulating

A natural history of Latin

reports.The only way to reach a lot of people at once was to use one™s
own voice in front of an assembly of the people. Ambitious Romans
had frequent opportunities to do just that, and the higher up the
scale they were, the more important it was to be able to perform well
in that context. Their careers depended on their ability to speak
convincingly in public.
The most important speeches were obviously those made by
politicians and those in power when big issues were decided, espe-
cially in the Senate.There were no ¬xed divisions between parties, so
a single individual could sometimes bring about a shift in opinion.
But it was not easy, as the senators were experienced men who had
heard many ¬ne words on other occasions. To succeed you had to be
very good.
It was also important to be able to speak in court. In the modern
world that is something lawyers do, but in Rome things worked very
differently. Rome was truly a city ruled by law, not least in the sense
that the citizens of Rome brought lawsuits against each other about
everything under the sun. Landowners and the wealthy sued each
other over business deals, loans, the boundaries of their land, or the
collapse of a roof, while public of¬ceholders could be prosecuted for
abuse of power and corruption. Then, of course, there was always
murder, robbery, and riot.
A person who was summoned to court normally engaged someone
he trusted to defend him, and it was seen as a civic duty to defend
one™s friends in court. A training in the law was not compulsory for
someone who took on the role of defender, although it might well be
a very useful asset. But you did have to be able to speak well in public
if you were going to help a friend out of a dif¬cult situation. Trials
were always open to the public; there were often several judges, who
themselves did not always have any legal training, so it was more
important to present a generally persuasive argument than to have
mastered the legal subtleties of the case.
A Roman, then, had to be a good public speaker, and if he was, the
road to success lay open to him. The best example, and the most able
of all the Roman orators, was Marcus Tullius Cicero.

Latin and the Romans

Cicero and rhetoric

Cicero was born in 106 and died in 43 bce, and he lived during the
turbulent era of the revolutions. He was born into what we would
call the upper middle class, those who in Rome were called ©quites
˜knights™. He received an exceptionally thorough education, the
purpose of which was to train him to appear in court, to speak well in
all situations, and, if need be, to take part in war. He studied ¬rst in
Rome and later in Athens, where he had the chance to plumb the
considerable depths of a Greek education.
When he was about twenty-¬ve he began to appear for the defence
in controversial trials and soon made a name for himself. He was
elected to high of¬ce and thereby entered the Senate. He became a
homo novus ˜a new man™, that is to say someone who became
a senator even though no one in his family had ever been before. In
the year 63 bce he also became consul and hence head of state. It was
truly exceptional for a homo novus to get that far.
In the remaining twenty years of his life Cicero played the power
game at the highest level, with varying degrees of success. After the
assassination of Caesar he was brie¬‚y the leading political ¬gure in
Rome, but he lost a battle for power with the general Antonius”
known to cinema and theatregoers as the Antony of Antony and
Cleopatra”and was in turn himself assassinated.
Cicero made many important speeches during his career, to the
Senate and to the people as a whole. He published most of them in his
own lifetime and some ¬fty still survive. These speeches were much
admired. Cicero was an extremely skilful orator: he had a good voice,
expressed himself very well, argued convincingly, and was above all
a master at making his audience think and feel what he wanted them to.
He was also amazingly successful. As counsel for the defence, he
managed to get some of the dodgiest characters acquitted, and in the
Senate he several times succeeded in winning the argument when
there was no real political basis for his position, relying only on his
ability to persuade.

A natural history of Latin

Here is a small example. It is the beginning of his speech against
Catiline, a senator who was secretly planning a coup d™©tat in the
year in which Cicero was consul. Cicero found out what was brewing
and called a meeting of the Senate, where he made a frontal attack on
his fellow senator. The speech begins as follows:

Quo usque tandem abut©re, Catilina, pati©ntia nostra? Quam diu etiam
furor iste tuus nos elúdet? Quam ad ¬nem sese effrenata iactabit audácia?


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