The ancient worlds:  

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Mediterranean Sea

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    Language and Writing

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    Archaeological sites


language - writing - alphabet - numeral system
The language    

During the second millennium B.C., Indo-European populations moved toward the south and west of Europe. Their language evolved in the different areas and according to the local populations they met. We do not know it directly, but we know it is the common root of many languages that developed later in Europe and partly in Asia: Slavic, Germanic, Scandinavian and Baltic languages, Celtic, Greek, Italic languages, Sanskrit and Persian in Asia, the Hittite in the Middle East.

In the area which is now Italy, the languages of those immigrants evolved in a various way among the Oscans, Umbrians, Faliscans, Venetics and Latins. We remember here that the Etruscan language has other origins.

In the 8th century B.C., Latin was the language of the inhabitants of Latium, the region where Rome is located (according to the legend, Rome was founded in 753 B.C.). As their power grew, they imposed Latin among the neighboring populations, but Latin evolved also through these contacts.

Throughout Roman history, but especially from the 3rd century B.C., the Latin language got a growing influence in the territories of Western Europe, North Africa and in the Danubian areas. It was the administrative and official language of the conquered territories, although Greek remained well established around the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

During this long era, Latin of course evolved, and we distinguish usually Old Latin, Classical Latin and Vulgar Latin.
Old Latin
The earliest Latin inscriptions date from the 6th century B.C. Their language (also called archaïc, or early latin) became soon difficult to understand. The Greek historian Polybius, in the middle of the Republican time, mentions the first treaty between Rome and Carthage (452 B.C.) and states that this text "can only partially be understood when paying careful attention and by most intelligent men."

Until the 3rd century B.C., Latin evolved gradually, but we do not know under what influences, because very few works from this time have survived. Those text were often freely translated from Greek or written in imitation of Greek. A Roman from Imperial times, however, could still read most of the texts dating from the late Republic. The transition between Old Latin and Classical Latin is generally located about the year 75 B.C., though no sudden change occurred at this date
For this period, we’ll remember the works of Plautus, Cato the Elder, Terence.
Classical Latin
This term essentially refers to the Latin used in Imperial Rome. The period spreading from roughly the 1st century B.C. to the early 1st century A.D., is called "the golden age of Latin literature", with authors such as Catullus, Sallust, Virgil, Horace, Livy, Ovid, Vitruvius, etc.

The first century of our era is the time of Seneca, Pliny the Elder, Plutarch, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Juvenal, Suetonius. However, the period which begins about the year 20 and ends with the second century, was considered as less brilliant for literature, and is called "the Silver Age" or "post- Augustinian" time.
Today, we generally call "Classical Latin" the literary language derived from the old Latin, from which it had already diverged.

In fact, in daily life, the inhabitants of the Roman Empire, especially from the second century, spoke a far less literary language, known as Vulgar Latin, which had become different in vocabulary, grammar and, with the course of time, pronunciation.

The arch erected in 114 in Benevento in honor of Emperor Trajan.
It bears the inscription:
POTEST(ate) XVIII IMP(eratori) VII CO(n)S(uli) VI P(atri) P(atriae)
(To emperor Caesar, son of the divine Nerva, Nerva Trajan Optimus Augustus, victor of the Germans and Dacians, high priest invested eighteen times of the tribunitian might, proclaimed imperator seven times, consul six times, father of the country, a very brave prince, the Senate and People of Rome).

Vulgar Latin
Vulgar latin was the usual language in the western provinces of the Roman Empire. It was the one that marked the local dialects to transform them into Romance languages. The real divergence began about the second century, accelerated after the fall of the empire and ended around the 9th century A.D.

The written Latin, on its side, remained closer to the Classical language, though it did not escape the influence of the vulgar language. It evolved into the Late Latin. From the 3rd to the 6th century, it remained the writing language of the romanized areas, of educated people and later of christian priests.


The Roman time is the most recent among the great periods we call Antiquity. Thus, writing existed already when Rome began to assert itself over other Italic peoples. At this time, the Etruscans were already writing, using the alphabet they had learned from the Greeks, who themselves learned it from the Phoenicians.

Since the Etruscans were among the closest neighbors of the Romans, and the most powerful people at the birth of Rome (the first kings of Rome were Etruscan), logic suggests that the Romans, like other Italic people, learned in turn the alphabet from the Etruscans.

Of course, they had to adapt it, like other people had done before them, to the requirements of their language.

This is probably the way things happened, but some authors defend other theories. Indeed, the oldest known Latin script is the Lapis Niger (left), a stele of the 6th century B.C., written in boustrophedon ("like the ox plowing the furrow”, with lines written alternatively from left to right and from right to left, a common practice at the time), and using letters very similar to those of Greek script.

As a consequence, one could wonder whether the Romans did not learn the alphabet directly from the Greeks. The Greek colony of Cumae was besides also very close to Rome. The most often raised argument in opposition to this hypothesis is this:

In their language, the Etruscans did not make a difference between the sounds G and K. So they pronounced the greek letters Γ (gamma) and K (kappa) in the same way.

For the Romans, who made the distinction, this led to some confusion, in the writing and reading of names in particular. Did the name spell Gaius or Caius?

To avoid this ambiguity, the Romans created a new letter, G, by adding a horizontal bar to the C, a letter which was somewhat redundant with the K.

We may note here that the C is precisely the third letter in our alphabet, inherited from the Latin, while the third letter of the Greek alphabet is Γ (gamma). If the Romans had adopted the Greek alphabet directly, they would not have met this problem !

The Latin alphabet    

The Old Latin alphabet (with different variations for each letter)

Thus, in its first (archaic) form, the Latins used an alphabet having 20 letters:

A, B, C, D, E, F, H, I, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, V, X

U and V were the same sign.
The letter Q may seem useless, but it was used to make up a diphthong together with the U (example: Quid!).

After some hesitation, the writing direction was set from left to right, and words were separated by dots. The notion of block and small letters appeared much later: in ancient languages, small letters may often be considered as the cursive writing style (handwriting), while the "block letters" are those of the alphabet used for monumental inscriptions.

Three new letters were later added to the alphabet, first the G as we told before, as from the 3rd century B.C., then the letters Y and Z in the 1st century B.C., which were mainly useful for transcribing foreign names, especially Greek ones. According to some authors, the "X" also appeared later, but other interpretations are proposed...).

The other letters in our current alphabet (J, W) were added much more recently.

The Roman numeral system     

The origin of Roman numerals was also the subject of various theories. Indeed, Roman figures resemble letters of their alphabet, and it is easy to imagine that if the "C" stands for hundred (centum), and “M” for thousand (Milia), it is not just by chance.

And yet, the Romans indeed learned the figures from the Etruscans... And why not, since they had already taken over their alphabet!
The early "Roman numerals" are extremely close to the symbols used by the Etruscans.

We can admit, however, that the changes made when drawing symbols so that C reminds hundred, and M reminds thousand, could be seen as "practical".

So we know 7 Roman classic "figures": I, V, X, L, C, D et M.

Writing occurs from left to right, starting with the largest figure, up to the last unit required.

Reading is therefore the result of a mental addition. Thanks to the “5 by 5” progression, each sign is used only 4 times at the most, and then the upper one is used. This was also the tradition : no sign appears more than 4 times in a number. To represent a number above 4999, another solution was needed
Substractive principle
L’écriture "par soustraction" est beaucoup plus tardive, et si les Romains l’ont connue, son usage ne s’est réellement généralisé qu’au moyen-âge, après quelques hésitations.

The substractive notation of roman numerals came much later, and even if the Romans knew it, it became really widespread only in the middle ages, and after some hesitation: For writing 9, the additive notation is VIIII, while the subtractive principle writes it IX (according to the rule "a numeral which is smaller than the next one must be substracted from it”). We wrote two signs instead of five, fine! For the 8, most people wrote VIII but some wrote IIX, with only one sign less… and anyway, if writing numbers is shorter this way, it also complicates dramatically the calculations (how much are IV x XIX ???)
And what about numbers above 5000?
The Romans first used additional special signs, which express a certain logic, but are not convenient to draw:

During the Roman Empire, other solutions were selected: the thousands were marked by drawing a horizontal line above the number.

For 15 231 :

Vertical additional bars at each end, or even a closed frame around the number, could mean “hundred thousand”:

For 356 238:

Other systems were used, like writing II.C for 200, III.C for 300, II.M for 2000, III.M for 3000, etc., which means “when a M stands behind the number, it must be multiplied by 1000”.

Thus for 890 500, we write DCCCXC.M.D

For one million, two horizontal bars were sometimes put above the number 1.
The Romans used “base 12” fractions (1 = 12/12). This system is simpler than the decimal fraction for representing halves, thirds and quarters which are “integer numbers of twelfths”.

The Latin name for 1/12 is "uncia", which is still present in Ounce the weight unit.

A specific name suggesting a substraction was given to some fractions like 3/4 (1 minus 1/4) or 5/6 (1 minus 1/6) or 11/12. Specific signs such as S, Σ, and an inverted C were also used for 1/2, 1/24 (half ounce), 1/48, etc.