The Common People of Rome

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This section discusses how the Romans "romanized" their subjects so that the conquered nations were incorporated into Roman society.

The Romans, as is well known, used two agencies with great effect in Romanizing their newly acquired territory, viz., colonies and roads. The policy of sending out colonists to hold the new districts was definitely entered upon in the early part of the fourth century, when citizens were sent to Antium, Tarracina, and other points in Latium. Within this century fifteen or twenty colonies were established at various points in central Italy. Strategic considerations determined their location, and the choice was made with great wisdom. Sutrium and Nepete, on the borders of the Ciminian forest, were "the gates of Etruria"; Fregellæ and Interamna commanded the passage of the river Liris; Tarentum and Rhegium were important ports of entry, while Alba Fucens and Carsioli guarded the line of the Valerian road.

This road and the other great highways which were constructed in Italy brought not only all the colonies, but all parts of the peninsula, into easy communication with the capital. The earliest of them was built to Capua, as we know, by the great censor Appius Claudius, in 312 B.C., and when one looks at a map of Italy at the close of the third century before our era, and sees the central and southern parts of the peninsula dotted with colonies, the Appian Way running from Rome south-east to Brundisium, the Popillian Way to Rhegium, the Flaminian Way north-east to Ariminum, with an extension to Cremona, with the Cassian and Aurelian ways along the western coast, the rapidity and the completeness with which the Latin language overspread Italy ceases to be a mystery. A map of Spain or of France under the Empire, with its network of roads, is equally illuminating.

The missionaries who carried Roman law, Roman dress, Roman ideas, and the Latin language first through central, southern, and northern Italy, and then to the East and the West, were the colonist, the merchant, the soldier, and the federal official. The central government exempted the Roman citizen who settled in a provincial town from the local taxes. As these were very heavy, his advantage over the native was correspondingly great, and in almost all the large towns in the Empire we find evidence of the existence of large guilds of Roman traders, tax-collectors, bankers, and land-owners.[5] When Trajan in his romantic eastern campaign had penetrated to Ctesiphon, the capital of Parthia, he found Roman merchants already settled there. Besides the merchants and capitalists who were engaged in business on their own account in the provinces, there were thousands of agents for the great Roman corporations scattered through the Empire. Rome was the money centre of the world, and the great stock companies organized to lend money, construct public works, collect taxes, and engage in the shipping trade had their central offices in the capital whence they sent out their representatives to all parts of the world.

The soldier played as important a part as the merchant in extending the use of Latin. Tacitus tells us that in the reign of Augustus there were twenty-five legions stationed in the provinces. If we allow 6,000 men to a legion, we should have a total of 150,000 Roman soldiers scattered through the provinces. To these must be added the auxiliary troops which were made up of natives who, at the close of their term of service, were probably able to speak Latin, and when they settled among their own people again, would carry a knowledge of it into ever-widening circles. We have no exact knowledge of the number of the auxiliary troops, but they probably came to be as numerous as the legionaries.[6] Soldiers stationed on the frontiers frequently married native women at the end of their term of service, passed the rest of their lives in the provinces, and their children learned Latin.

The direct influence of the government was no small factor in developing the use of Latin, which was of course the official language of the Empire. All court proceedings were carried on in Latin. It was the language of the governor, the petty official, and the tax-gatherer. It was used in laws and proclamations, and no native could aspire to a post in the civil service unless he had mastered it. It was regarded sometimes at least as a sine qua non of the much-coveted Roman citizenship. The Emperor Claudius, for instance, cancelled the Roman citizenship of a Greek, because he had addressed a letter to him in Latin which he could not understand. The tradition that Latin was the official language of the world was taken up by the Christian church. Even when Constantine presided over the Council at Nicæa in the East, he addressed the assembly in Latin.

The two last-mentioned agencies, the Latin of the Roman official and the Latin of the church, were the influences which made the language spoken throughout the Empire essentially uniform in its character. Had the Latin which the colonist, the merchant, and the soldier carried through Italy and into the provinces been allowed to develop in different localities without any external unifying influence, probably new dialects would have grown up all over the world, or, to put it in another way, probably the Romance languages would have come into existence several centuries before they actually appeared. That unifying influence was the Latin used by the officials sent out from Rome, which all classes eagerly strove to imitate. Naturally the language of the provinces did not conform in all respects to the Roman standard. Apuleius, for instance, is aware of the fact that his African style and diction are likely to offend his Roman readers, and in the introduction to his Metamorphoses he begs for their indulgence. The elder Seneca in his Controversiae remarks of a Spanish fellow-countryman "that he could never unlearn that well-known style which is brusque and rustic and characteristic of Spain," and Spartianus in his Life of Hadrian tells us that when Hadrian addressed the senate on a certain occasion, his rustic pronunciation excited the laughter of the senators. But the peculiarities in the diction of Apuleius and Hadrian seem to have been those which only a cultivated man of the world would notice. They do not appear to have been fundamental. In a similar way the careful studies which have been made of the thousands of inscriptions found in the West[7], dedicatory inscriptions, guild records, and epitaphs show us that the language of the common people in the provinces did not differ materially from that spoken in Italy. It was the language of the Roman soldier, colonist, and trader, with common characteristics in the way of diction, form, phraseology, and syntax, dropping into some slight local peculiarities, but kept essentially a unit by the desire which each community felt to imitate its officials and its upper classes.

The one part of the Roman world in which Latin did not gain an undisputed pre-eminence was the Greek East. The Romans freely recognized the peculiar position which Greek was destined to hold in that part of the Empire, and styled it the altera lingua. Even in Greek lands, however, Latin gained a strong hold, and exerted considerable influence on Greek[8].

In a very thoughtful paper on "Language-Rivalry and Speech-Differentiation in the Case of Race-Mixture,"[9] Professor Hempl has discussed the conditions under which language-rivalry takes place, and states the results that follow. His conclusions have an interesting bearing on the question which we are discussing here, how and why it was that Latin supplanted the other languages with which it was brought into contact.

He observes that when two languages are brought into conflict, there is rarely a compromise or fusion, but one of the two is driven out of the field altogether by the other. On analyzing the circumstances in which such a struggle for supremacy between languages springs up, he finds four characteristic cases. Sometimes the armies of one nation, though comparatively small in numbers, conquer another country. They seize the government of the conquered land; their ruler becomes its king, and they become the aristocracy. They constitute a minority, however; they identify their interests with those of the conquered people, and the language of the subject people becomes the language of all classes. The second case arises when a country is conquered by a foreign people who pour into it with their wives and children through a long period and settle permanently there. The speech of the natives in these circumstances disappears. In the third case a more powerful people conquers a country, establishes a dependent government in it, sends out merchants, colonists, and officials, and establishes new towns. If such a province is held long enough, the language of the conqueror prevails. In the fourth and last case peaceful bands of immigrants enter a country to follow the humbler callings. They are scattered among the natives, and succeed in proportion as they learn the language of their adopted country. For their children and grandchildren this language becomes their mother tongue, and the speech of the invaded nation holds its ground.

The first typical case is illustrated by the history of Norman-French in England, the second by that of the European colonists in America; the Latinization of Spain, Gaul, and other Roman provinces furnishes an instance of the third, and our own experience with European immigrants is a case of the fourth characteristic situation. The third typical case of language-conflict is the one with which we are concerned here, and the analysis which we have made of the practices followed by the Romans in occupying newly acquired territory, both in Italy and outside the peninsula, shows us how closely they conform to the typical situation. With the exception of Dacia, all the provinces were held by the Romans for several centuries, so that their history under Roman rule satisfies the condition of long occupation which Professor Hempl lays down as a necessary one. Dacia which lay north of the Danube, and was thus far removed from the centres of Roman influence, was erected into a province in 107 A.D., and abandoned in 270. Notwithstanding its remoteness and the comparatively short period during which it was occupied, the Latin language has continued in use in that region to the present day. It furnishes therefore a striking illustration of the effective methods which the Romans used in Latinizing conquered territory.[10]

We have already had occasion to notice that a fusion between Latin and the languages with which it was brought into contact, such a fusion, for instance, as we find in Pidgin-English, did not occur. These languages influenced Latin only by way of making additions to its vocabulary. A great many Greek scientific and technical terms were adopted by the learned during the period of Roman supremacy. Of this one is clearly aware, for instance, in reading the philosophical and rhetorical works of Cicero. A few words, like rufus, crept into the language from the Italic dialects. Now and then the Keltic or Iberian names of Gallic or Spanish articles were taken up, but the inflectional system and the syntax of Latin retained their integrity. In the post-Roman period additions to the vocabulary are more significant. It is said that about three hundred Germanic words have found their way into all the Romance languages.[11] The language of the province of Gaul was most affected since some four hundred and fifty Gothic, Lombardic, and Burgundian words are found in French alone, such words as boulevard, homard, and blesser. Each of the provinces of course, when the Empire broke up, was subjected to influences peculiar to itself. The residence of the Moors in Spain, for seven hundred years, for instance, has left a deep impress on the Spanish vocabulary, while the geographic position of Roumanian has exposed it to the influence of Slavic, Albanian, Greek, Magyar, and Turkish.[12] A sketch of the history of Latin after the breaking up of the Empire carries us beyond the limits of the question which we set ourselves at the beginning and out of the domain of the Latinist, but it may not be out of place to gather together here a few of the facts which the Romance philologist has contributed to its later history, because the life of Latin has been continuous from the foundation of the city of Rome to the present day.

In this later period the question of paramount interest is, why did Latin in one part of the world develop into French, in another part into Italian, in another into Spanish? One answer to this question has been based on chronological grounds.[13] The Roman soldiers and traders who went out to garrison and to settle in a newly acquired territory, introduced that form of Latin which was in use in Italy at the time of their departure from the peninsula. The form of speech thus planted there developed along lines peculiar to itself, became the dialect of that province, and ultimately the (Romance) language spoken in that part of Europe. Sardinia was conquered in 241 B.C., and Sardinian therefore is a development of the Latin spoken in Italy in the middle of the third century B.C., that is of the Latin of Livius Andronicus. Spain was brought under Roman rule in 197 B.C., and consequently Spanish is a natural outgrowth of popular Latin of the time of Plautus. In a similar way, by noticing the date at which the several provinces were established down to the acquisition of Dacia in 107 A.D., we shall understand how it was that the several Romance languages developed out of Latin. So long as the Empire held together the unifying influence of official Latin, and the constant intercommunication between the provinces, preserved the essential unity of Latin throughout the world, but when the bonds were broken, the naturally divergent tendencies which had existed from the beginning, but had been held in check, made themselves felt, and the speech of the several sections of the Old World developed into the languages which we find in them to-day.

This theory is suggestive, and leads to several important results, but it is open to serious criticism, and does not furnish a sufficient explanation. It does not seem to take into account the steady stream of emigrants from Italy to the provinces, and the constant transfer of troops from one part of the world to another of which we become aware when we study the history of any single province or legion. Spain was acquired, it is true, in 197 B.C., and the Latin which was first introduced into it was the Latin of Plautus, but the subjugation of the country occupied more than sixty years, and during this period fresh troops were steadily poured into the peninsula, and later on there was frequently an interchange of legions between Spain and the other provinces. Furthermore, new communities of Roman citizens were established there even down into the Empire, and traders were steadily moving into the province. In this way it would seem that the Latin of the early second century which was originally carried into Spain must have been constantly undergoing modification, and, so far as this influence goes, made approximately like the Latin spoken elsewhere in the Empire.

A more satisfactory explanation seems to be that first clearly propounded by the Italian philologist, Ascoli. His reasoning is that when we acquire a foreign language we find it very difficult, and often impossible, to master some of the new sounds. Our ears do not catch them exactly, or we unconsciously substitute for the foreign sound some sound from our own language. Our vocal organs, too, do not adapt themselves readily to the reproduction of the strange sounds in another tongue, as we know from the difficulty which we have in pronouncing the French nasal or the German guttural. Similarly English differs somewhat as it is spoken by a Frenchman, a German, and an Italian. The Frenchman has a tendency to import the nasal into it, and he is also inclined to pronounce it like his own language, while the German favors the guttural. In a paper on the teaching of modern languages in our schools, Professor Grandgent says:[14] "Usually there is no attempt made to teach any French sounds but u and the four nasal vowels; all the rest are unquestioningly replaced by the English vowels and consonants that most nearly resemble them." The substitution of sounds from one's own language in speaking a foreign tongue, and the changes in voice-inflection, are more numerous and more marked if the man who learns the new language is uneducated and acquires it in casual intercourse from an uneducated man who speaks carelessly.

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the common people of rome