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Probably, though, an even more important factor was the fact that
in times of peace the local economies of most provinces improved.
Commerce and trade increased, existing towns expanded, and new
ones emerged. Business people found a ready use for their knowl-
edge of spoken Latin and often too needed to be able to read and write
it. In the towns it probably did not take long for the main language
to be Latin. In many places schools were started, and the language of
schools was Latin and sometimes Greek, but never any of the other
local languages.
We cannot trace this development in detail, but it was not long
before there were people from Spain, France, and North Africa who
were writing in Latin and for whom Latin seemed to be their native
language. One of the earliest was an expert in oratory called Seneca,
who was active already at the time of Augustus. After a few hundred
years the people in the towns throughout the southern part of
western Europe and in north Africa probably spoke Latin. How it
was in the villages, where most people lived, is not so easy to say, as
our sources are generally written by town-dwellers. However, there
is some evidence that languages other than Latin were still surviving
in several country districts at the time of the break-up of the Roman
empire in the ¬fth century ce, so the shift to Latin must have taken
a very long time.
That this shift was nonetheless deep and permanent in its effect in
large parts of this territory is con¬rmed by the fact that the languages
spoken today in Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal descend directly
from Latin. The same is true in parts of other countries such as
Belgium and Switzerland. In addition, Latin gained a strong hold in a
country a long way to the east, namely modern Romania. This
roughly corresponds to the Roman province of Dacia, which was con-
quered very late, not until just after 100 ce. Moreover the Romans
gave it up again after about 150 years, so that it is very strange that
the language there, Romanian, should derive from Latin. There are
several theories about how this happened, one being that people from
the provinces to the south, which might once have been Latin speak-
ing, moved north into this region, but no one knows for sure.

Latin and the Romans

Anyway, Latin was preserved as the spoken language in large
tracts of western Europe and in an area near the Black Sea. How
Latin later gave birth to other languages is a question we will return
to later, but in some important provinces Latin disappeared.
Nowhere is this more true than in north Africa. For many hundreds
of years the population there had spoken Latin, at least in the towns.
In the ¬fth century a Germanic tribe, the Vandals, conquered the
greater part of the area, and after them it was for a while under the
rule of the eastern emperor in Constantinople. But Latin survived, at
least to some extent. What caused it to disappear entirely was the
Arab conquest in the seventh century.
In another western province Latin was clearly never suf¬ciently
established. England and Wales (but not Scotland) were conquered
by the Romans after the time of Augustus during the ¬rst century ce.
It remained as the Roman province of Britannia for about three
hundred years, but it seems that the Roman way of life was never
completely accepted, and the inhabitants kept their Celtic languages
until the Germanic invasion in the ¬fth century.
Despite these exceptions, a consequence of long Roman rule was
that people in large parts of Europe went from speaking many
different languages to a single language, Latin. It clearly meant a great
deal for the unity of the Empire that almost everyone in the western
part spoke the same language, and this has also been crucial for the
development of language in Europe right up to the modern day.

Poetry and poets

The great blossoming of Latin literature came in the period between
100 bce and 100 ce, in what is normally called the classical era, and
just at the time when the Roman empire was expanding most
rapidly and was experiencing its greatest success.
But what, one may ask, was it that the Romans wrote? The answer
is that they studied the masterpieces of Greek literature very carefully

A natural history of Latin

and then produced similar works themselves. At ¬rst, they made
several translations or adaptations of Greek works, but little by little
they grew more ambitious and started to write their own original
compositions, though in many respects still keeping within the guide-
lines established by the Greeks.Put like this it sounds quite boring,but
in fact Latin literature achieved considerable success. The Romans did
indeed follow the example of the Greeks; these provided exceptionally
good models, and then they tried to create similar things in Latin but
preferably even better. They called this process aemulátio, which
means the attempt to emulate or outstrip someone or something,
and quite often the Latin works did indeed match or even excel their
The literature which the Greeks and Romans wrote is quite unlike
what is found in the bookshops today. Most of the books written
these days are novels, that is to say long narratives in prose. There
are some Roman novels, but they never became very popular either
in antiquity or later. The heyday of the novel did not come until the
eighteenth century, and then it appeared in modern languages such
as French or English. In ancient times, by contrast, most creative lit-
erature was in verse. Plain prose was reserved for speeches, history,
and various kinds of non-¬ction, which I will deal with later. Almost
everything that could be called narrative or storytelling or enter-
tainment came in the form of poetry, where the texts are required to
follow strict rhythmical patterns; a number of examples are given
below. The authors are also very attentive to how they choose their
words and other forms of expression; Latin poems are often very
carefully crafted and linguistically re¬ned. One reason why the
authors took so much trouble in this respect is probably that litera-
ture was essentially an aural medium. A modern reader sits in
silence, quickly scanning page after page, but in antiquity people
read aloud.
The earliest form of imaginative literature in Rome of which any-
thing survives are plays, which we have already discussed. After the
early comedies of Plautus and Terence not a lot came of the art of

Latin and the Romans

drama in Rome, but other kinds of literature became more interesting.
A number of poets wrote mainly about love, and the best of them have
hardly been surpassed to this day. Catullus was one of the ¬rst. His
love for a woman called Lesbia gave rise to a number of passionate
poems. Here is one:

Dicebas quondam solum te nosse Catullum,
Lesbia, nec prae me velle tenere Iovem.
Dilexi tum te non tantum ut vulgus amicam
sed pater ut gnatos diligit et generos.
Nunc te cognovi. Quare etsi impensius uror,
multo mi tamen es vilior et levior.
˜Qui potis est?™ inquis. Quod amantem iniuria talis
cogit amare magis sed bene velle minus.
You said one day you only knew Catullus, Lesbia,
And you™d refuse to embrace even Jove instead of me.
I loved you then, not only as common men their girlfriend
But as a father loves his sons and sons-in-law.
I know you now. So though my passion™s more intense,
Yet for me you™re much cheaper and lighter-weight.
˜How can that be?™ you ask. It™s because such hurt compels
A lover to love more but to like less.

This is one in a series of poems where we can follow the develop-
ment of the relation between Catullus and Lesbia, from the joy and
delirium at the beginning of their affair through the quarrelling
and deceit we see here to a ¬nal phase of bitter memories and
But the poet Catullus did not only write about this intense love of
his. He was a bright, talented young man who for a few hectic years
moved in Rome™s inner circles. He was only thirty when he died and
he had published just one collection of poems, which contains many
other things apart from the Lesbia poems: humorous poems for his
friends, some poems about gods and goddesses, and not least love
poems to the boy Juventius. That a man might be in love with both

A natural history of Latin

women and men did not cause any great surprise in antiquity and
there was no special term for people who were. It was not regarded as
deviant behaviour.
One of Catullus™ real specialities was libellous poems. When he
was living in Rome in the 60s and 50s bce, the economy was expand-
ing and the politics turbulent. Parties, factions, and generals were
engaged in a ruthless struggle for power and the tone of public con-
versation was, to put it mildly, outspoken.This suited Catullus down
to the ground. He set about both those in power and other people he
did not like with great gusto, and the poems are sometimes
unashamedly rude. One short poem, which is relatively moderate in
tone, is famous. The reason is that the person he was having a go at
was already, in Catullus™ time, one of the most famous people in
Rome, the dictator-to-be Julius Caesar:

Nil nimium studeo, Caesar, tibi velle placere
nec scire utrum sis albus an ater homo
I am none too keen to wish to please you, Caesar,
nor to know whether you are a white man or a black.

After Catullus there were many poets who dedicated themselves to
writing about love. The most famous is Ovid, who lived a couple of
generations later during the reign of Augustus and at the time of the
birth of Christ. His poems are both beautiful and knowing, but he
writes in a more gentle manner than Catullus did. He does not attack
anyone and does not seem to suffer any intense passions himself.
Rather, he is good at relating all kinds of elegant love affairs, both his
own and those of others. His most famous work is a sort of handbook
for lovers in verse called Ars amatoria ˜The Art of Loving™, which
deals with what gentlemen must do to meet ladies, and ladies gentle-
men, in the right social circles in Rome. It also discusses what to do
after they have met and has been considered scandalous because it
gives some good advice about the best positions to adopt for sexual
intercourse and related matters. Even so, it is a lot less explicit than
today™s handbooks let alone modern pornography.

Latin and the Romans

Ovid was very industrious and wrote a great deal of other poetry.The
work that has been most widely read is called Metamorphoses, or
˜Transformations™. The word is a Greek loan, just as many centuries
later it was in English and other European languages. The transforma-
tions in question are those that occur in the world of fairy tales and the
gods, as for instance when the nymph Daphne changes into a laurel
bush in order to escape the god Apollo.The stories are well told,and con-
tain large chunks of ancient mythology, so it is not surprising that they
have been used in the teaching of Latin in schools for many centuries.
One of the most famous episodes concerns the sad story of Pyramus and
Thisbe. They grew up next door to each other in ancient Babylon, but
when they fell in love their parents tried to stop them seeing each other.
They spoke to each other through a crack in the wall between their two
houses, and agreed to escape and meet each other outside town. A fatal
misunderstanding makes Pyramus think Thisbe has been eaten by a
lion, and racked with guilt he takes his own life.When Thisbe, who is in
fact unharmed, ¬nds him she too commits suicide.
As in many of the stories, the transformation that then occurs
seems somewhat contrived. Pyramus kills himself under a mulberry
tree, and the berries turn black from his blood. That is why mulber-
ries are white as long as they are unripe, but turn black when they
ripen.The story of Pyramus and Thisbe has been taken up many times
since Ovid.The best known is a passage of burlesque in Shakespeare™s
A Midsummer Night™s Dream, where a group of tradesmen rehearse
their amateur performance of this story which then becomes a
parodic play within the play.
Love poetry was important and well liked, but it was not accorded
the highest praise by Roman writers. This was reserved instead for
epic poetry, and it was also under Augustus that a great epic, the most
famous Latin poem of all, was written. To write a long, gripping tale
the Greeks and the Romans usually adopted the hexameter.The ¬rst
and greatest poet to do so was Homer, author of the Iliad and the
Odyssey. After him, many others tried to compose similar long
poems, both in Greek and in Latin, but for the most part they have
been quite deservedly forgotten.

A natural history of Latin

But one Roman, Virgil, succeeded. He ¬rst demonstrated his
exceptional talent in a series of poems about pastoral life, the
Bucolica, or Eclogae. These charming pieces introduce simple shep-
herds in a rural setting who mysteriously also sometimes talk and
feel like poets or even prophets.The famous Fourth Eclogue foretells
the birth of a child who is to save the world. Not surprisingly,
Christians interpreted this as a prophesy of the coming of Christ,
and it earned its author pride of place among pagan writers in the
Middle Ages.
Later, Virgil ventured to rival Homer himself and write a long
poem, an epos, which contained similar themes to both the Iliad and
the Odyssey, but written in Latin and in accordance with Roman
tastes. He succeeded brilliantly: the resulting work, the Aeneid, has
even been considered by some critics to be the greatest poem in
the whole history of literature. Here are the ¬rst few lines in the
original Latin, in a literal prose rendering and in a famous English
translation by John Dryden:

Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris
Italiam, fato profugus, Laviniaque venit
litora, multum ille et terris iactatus et alto
vi superum saevae memorem Iunonis ob iram;
multa quoque et bello passus, dum conderet urbem,
inferretque deos Latio, genus unde Latinum,
Albanique patres, atque altae moenia Romae.
I sing of arms and of the man who, made fugitive by fate, ¬rst came from
the coasts of Troy to Italy and the Lavinian shores; hard pressed both on
land and at sea by the force of the gods above on account of the unforget-
ting wrath of ¬erce Juno, he suffered much in war until he founded the
city and brought in the Gods to Latium, whence came the Latin people, the
Alban fathers and the walls of glorious Rome.

Arms, and the man I sing, who, forc™d by fate,


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