The Common People of Rome

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This was the state of things in the Roman provinces of southern Europe when the Goths, Lombards, and other peoples from the North gradually crossed the frontier and settled in the territory of Latin-speaking peoples. In the sixth century, for instance, the Lombards in Italy, the Franks in France, and the Visigoths in Spain would each give to the Latin which they spoke a twist peculiar to themselves, and out of the one Latin came Italian, out of the second, the language of France, and out of the third, Spanish. This initial impulse toward the development of Latin along different lines in Italy, France, and Spain was, of course, reinforced by differences in climate, in the temperaments of the three peoples, in their modes of life, and in their political and social experiences. These centrifugal forces, so to speak, became effective because the political and social bonds which had held Italy, France, and Spain together were now loosened, and consequently communication between the provinces was less frequent, and the standardizing influence of the official Latin of Rome ceased to keep Latin a uniform thing throughout the Empire.

One naturally asks why Latin survived at all, why the languages of the victorious Germanic peoples gave way to it. In reply to this question it is commonly said that the fittest survived, that the superiority of Roman civilization and of the Latin language gave Latin the victory. So far as this factor is to be taken into account, I should prefer to say that it was not so much the superiority of Latin, although that may be freely recognized, as it was the sentimental respect which the Germans and their leaders had for the Empire and for all its institutions. This is shown clearly enough, for instance, in the pride which the Visigothic and Frankish kings showed in holding their commissions from Rome, long after Rome had lost the power to enforce its claims upon them; it is shown in their use of Latin as the language of the court and of the official world. Under the influence of this sentiment Germanic rulers and their peoples imitated the Romans, and, among other things, took over their language. The church probably exerted considerable influence in this direction. Many of the Germans had been converted to Christianity before they entered the Empire, and had heard Latin used in the church services and in the hymns. Among cultivated people of different countries, it was the only medium of communication, and was accepted as the lingua franca of the political and ecclesiastical world, and the traditional medium of expression for literary and legal purposes.

Perhaps, however, one element in the situation should be given more weight than any of the facts just mentioned. Many of the barbarians had been allowed to settle in a more or less peaceful fashion in Roman territory, so that a large part of the western world came into their possession by way of gradual occupation rather than by conquest.[15] They became peasant proprietors, manual laborers, and soldiers in the Roman army. Perhaps, therefore, their occupation of central and southern Europe bears some resemblance to the peaceful invasion of this country by immigrants from Europe, and they may have adopted Latin just as the German or Scandinavian adopts English.

This brings us to the last important point in our inquiry. What is the date before which we shall call the language of the Western Empire Latin, and after which it is better to speak of French, Spanish, and Italian? Such a line of division cannot be sharply drawn, and will in a measure be artificial, because, as we shall attempt to show in the chapter which follows on the "Latin of the Common People," Latin survives in the Romance languages, and has had a continuous life up to the present day. But on practical grounds it is convenient to have such a line of demarcation in mind, and two attempts have been made to fix it. One attempt has been based on linguistic grounds, the other follows political changes more closely. Up to 700 A.D. certain common sound-changes take place in all parts of the western world.[16] After that date, roughly speaking, this is not the case. Consequently at that time we may say that unity ceased. The other method of approaching the subject leads to essentially the same conclusion, and shows us why unity ceased to exist.[17] In the sixth century the Eastern Emperor Justinian conceived the idea of reuniting the Roman world, and actually recovered and held for a short time Italy, southern Spain, and Africa. This attempt on his part aroused a national spirit among the peoples of these lands, and developed in them a sense of their national independence and individuality. They threw off the foreign yoke and became separate peoples, and developed, each of them, a language of its own. Naturally this sentiment became effective at somewhat different periods in different countries. For France the point may be fixed in the sixth century, for Spain and Italy, in the seventh, and at these dates Latin may be said to take the form of French, Spanish, and Italian.

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the common people of rome