To celebrate the launch of The Battle for Rome in Australia, HNSA is delighted to welcome Ian Ross, author of the Twilight of Empire series, to educate us on how to talk like a Roman! Ian was born in England, and studied painting before turning to writing fiction. He has travelled widely, and after a year in Italy teaching English and exploring the ruins of empire reawakened his early love for ancient history, he returned to the UK with growing fascination for the period known as late antiquity. He now lives in Bath and has been researching and writing about the later Roman world and its army for over a decade.
How to talk like a Roman
How did ancient Romans speak? The obvious answer is that they spoke in Latin; everybody knows that. True enough, Latin was the principal language of the empire for nearly a thousand years, the language of government, the army and the law. But the majority of the population in the eastern half of the empire continued to speak Greek, even to write in Greek and to carve their grave inscriptions in that language. There were other tongues too: Syriac and Aramaic, and the older languages of the Italian peninsula, North Africa, and the Celtic and Germanic peoples of the north. All them coexisted beneath the surface of Latin unity.
Even within Latin there were accents and dialects. The population of the old Carthaginian territories of North Africa continued to speak with a Punic accent, which sounded rather slurred to Roman ears. The emperor Septimius Severus, who came from that land, apparently had a strong Punic accent even after years in Rome. He would probably have pronounced his own name as Sheptimiush Sheverush. We could almost imagine that inhabitants of different ends of the empire having trouble understanding each other, both speaking their own version of Latin.
But beyond different languages and dialects, there were other sorts of speech in the Roman world. Soldiers, for example, had their own particular language, the sermo militaris. Only a few words of this ‘soldier talk’ have survived, so we don’t know much about it. Was it something the troops themselves devised, like the ‘jack speak’ of the 18th century Royal Navy, or the ‘thieves’ cant’ supposedly spoken by criminals of the Georgian underworld, to avoid detection by honest folk? Something deliberate and exclusive, in other words, a private code for initiates only? Or was it just a basic form of Latin used by those in command, to communicate orders to recruits who may have come from different cultures, and spoken different languages?
Whatever it involved, this ‘barracks Latin’ was probably rather rough and barbaric to the educated Roman ear. But so was the speech of the common people more generally, who had their own way of talking too: the sermo vulgaris. We can get some idea of this, at least, from the graffiti remaining on the walls of Pompeii. Roman society, of course, was extremely patriarchal, and Roman culture was suffused with what we might call machismo. Pompeian graffiti often features violently graphic sexual slurs and boasts. But this is hardly surprising, when even high-class metropolitan poets like Catullus, whose audience included Julius Caesar himself, made sexual jokes so offensive to modern tastes that until fairly recently they could not be translated into English for fear of obscenity.
It’s often amusing, therefore, when readers today complain of historical novelists putting ‘bad language’ into the mouths of their fictional Romans. Often, writers are more likely to tone down their portrayals. Romans, most probably, spoke much the same as we do, with all of our differences and dialects, our crudity and politeness. But just as we ‘translate’ the Latin of our characters into various forms of modern English (the older habit of using ‘archaic’ speech in historical novels seems, thankfully, to have died out), so we translate their thought processes, their reactions and their ideologies into forms recognisable to a contemporary readership. This, of course, is inevitable. I have yet to read a historical novel that manages completely to eradicate all trace of a modern consciousness. Perhaps I would not want to.
Many thanks for the great post, Ian!
You can learn more about Ian and his books on his website and he would love to connect with you via Facebook and Twitter. Take a look at his Journal for more great posts on the Roman world.
The Twilight of Empire series can be purchased from Harper Collins Australia.
The Roman Empire is on the brink of civil war. Only Maxentius, tyrant of Rome, stands between the emperor Constantine and supreme power in the west. Aurelius Castus, promoted from the ranks for valour and loyalty, is now a tribune in Constantine's army. But great honour brings new challenges: Castus is tormented by suspicions that his aristocratic wife, the mother of his child, has been unfaithful. And as Constantine becomes increasingly devoted to Christianity, Castus is forced to ask himself whether he is backing the wrong man. All know that the coming war will decide the fate of empire. But Castus's own battle will carry him much further - into the shadowy realms of treachery at the heart of Rome itself. The third book in the brilliant Twilight of Empire.
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Elisabeth Storrs is the author of the Tales of Rome saga. Head over to her blog Triclinium for the chance to win a set of the Twilight of Rome series.