A stela with Oscan inscription from Pompeii, first century BC, reading: ‘Vibius Popidius, son of Vibius, chief magistrate, was in charge of this work and the same man approved it.’

A stela with Oscan inscription from Pompeii, first century BC, reading: ‘Vibius Popidius, son of Vibius, chief magistrate, was in charge of this work and the same man approved it.’ (The Trustees of the British Museum)

The Language of the Roman Empire

Latin was used throughout the Roman Empire, but it shared space with a host of other languages and dialects, including Greek, Oscan and Etruscan, which give us a unique perspective on the ancient world.

Latin may be the language that we associate with the Roman Empire, but the question of whether the Romans spoke Latin does not have a simple answer. Rome grew from a tiny community in the middle of a culturally diverse peninsula into an empire that reached from Britain to Syria. As Rome’s power spread, Romans interacted with speakers of dozens of other languages – and made them into fellow citizens. The Romans’ love of Greek culture meant that the Greek language also had a central place in Roman society, while Rome itself was a city of immigrants and slaves, many of whom brought their languages with them.

Rome and Italy 

Rome started life as just one of many small urban communities in the Italian peninsula. Latium, the region on the west coast of Italy which contains the city of Rome, gave its name to the local language: Latin. But Italy was host to many other languages, some closely related to Latin. Faliscan, for example, was spoken in cities very close to Rome and some linguists consider it to be a dialect of Latin rather than a separate language. Other related languages belonging to the ‘Italic’ family include the widely spoken Oscan (central and southern Italy) and Umbrian (central Italy). Greek, a more distantly related language, was spoken in cities all along the coastline. Another prestigious neighbouring language, Etruscan, was not related to Latin at all: it is a non-Indo-European language and may not be related to any other known language.

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