Originally Latin was spoken by a small group of people
who settled in Latium (west Italy) around the 1st millennium BC.
Afterwards it became the spoken language of ancient Roman people. With the
rise of the Roman political power the Latin language became popular. The
languages that developed from Latin were called the Romance languages and
were spoken in those countries that were once a part of the Roman Empire.
The main Romance languages are: Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese
and Romanian. ‘To speak in a Roman way’ in Latin is,
fabulare romanice. That’s how it got the name Romance. There were two
forms of Latin: classical and the locally spoken vernacular.
The first one was popular among educated people and the second one was the
spoken language of the common people. The Romance languages were
developed from the dialects of the vernacular Latin (called Vulgar Latin)
over a period of several centuries, and around 1200 AD most of the western
Europeans were speaking Latin or Romance language (especially Italian,
French and Spanish). All of the Romance languages had their own dialect as
spoken in different parts of the country and had their own history of
development as to how their style of writing, grammar, phonology and
vocabulary changed and developed in 1,000 years and how they received
their modern shape.
Latin was the prestigious language of the West. It
didn’t have the ambiguity of meaning like other languages had. It had
precise expression, that’s why it achieved its dignity and it was the best
suited language for legal and other such specific purposes, but it took a
very long time to develop from the early spoken Latin to a fully developed
form of Classical Latin. The earliest inscriptions could be traced back to
only 6th century BC when it was in its infancy. It underwent many changes.
Very little is known about its earliest stages as it changed so
drastically between 500 and 300 BC that older texts were hardly
intelligible. The golden age of its development was between 100 BC to 14
AD. Emperor Augustus (27 BC to 14 AD was called the Augustan Age) took
special interest to develop the literary aspects of Latin.
The spoken Latin language continued to change over a
wide period of time and it deviated from the pronunciation, vocabulary and
the grammar of Classical Latin as well. To differentiate it from the
Classical Latin, it began to be called Vulgar Latin after the 3rd century
AD. Thus, there were two kinds of Latin: Classical and Vulgar. The works
of St. Augustine (354-430 AD) are in Vulgar Latin.
Before the 3rd century AD Classical Latin went
through a number of changes. Inflections were simplified, word order was
regularized, the earlier system of vowel length was changed, sound of
consonants was modified, future and imperfect tenses were modified and
syntax too was stabilized. In this way the morphology of Classical Latin
was improved and standardized to a greater extent, making it use nominal
inflections and a distinctive use of conjunctions.
Vulgar Latin also continued to be changed. It was
almost standardized during the middle ages. Its phonology changed
considerably, for instance: viridem (green) became virdem, vinea
(wine) became vinia; the difference in the pronunciation of short
and long vowels was dropped and changed in time, resulting in the
confusion of i and e, and u and o etc.; and
ae became e, and au became o.
In this way the Latin language had a lot of changes in
its syntax, spellings, vowel sounds, the overall structure of the language
and also the writing system of letters as it is evident from the available
literature of various periods. In earlier writings there were no
punctuation marks. They were introduced afterwards at various stages of
the development of the language.
There were similar situations with other Romance
languages. There were more rapid changes in the language of northern
France. All of these languages have many dialects. French alone has
about 15 dialects spoken in different parts of the country. The grammar of
Romance languages is closer to Latin and their common vocabulary is also
inherited from Latin. The literary dialect of standard Italian
language developed more between 13th and 14th century AD. It had adopted
more of the Latin structure. Due to its linguistic consistency Latin was
still being used for scholarly, religious and scientific purposes in many
of the Romance speaking countries. By 1500 AD Latin was a fully developed
language. Later on with the development of the English language it died
out in England. Its popularity started declining after 16th c. AD and it
almost died out after 19th century. The vocabulary of Latin contains most
of the words from Greek, some of its own dialects and some from the
Romance languages as well.
The Roman civilization started along the Tiber river,
in the west of Italy. Early inhabitants before 1st millennium BC came from
somewhere and settled. They were shepherds who started farming and
acquired lands. Better climate and fertile soil promoted their village
living. Slowly they grew and developed their colonies. Their social life
began to expand. Some farmers also raised livestock and began to trade on
a small scale. Wealthy farmers built up their estates and brought slaves
to work in their fields. The head of the family had the sole power to run
the family the way he liked. He could even sell his children for slavery
if they were unwanted in the family.
Sometime around 1st millennium BC some other tribe,
probably from the eastern Mediterranean side, came and settled in Etruria
(now Toscana or Tuscany) on the northwestern side of the river Tiber. They
were a smart and aggressive kind of people. Once settled they made the
earlier inhabitants of that area their subordinates. These people were
called the Etruscans. They had their own language but they
used Greek (Phoenician) alphabet for their writings and also used the
style of Greek art. Historians have found a number of inscriptions of
their language, all in brief, but still they are unintelligible. They
improved their living status and moved towards the north and south
increasing their domain up to Latium. The peak of their prosperity and the
dignity of their kingship was through the 7th century BC.
Rome was founded in 753 BC. Around 600 BC Rome and the
whole of Latium came under the rule of Etruscans. They had an advanced
civilization. They promoted trade and gave the idea of the citizen
assembly. Under their rule, Rome grew into a prosperous city. But, with
the urbanization of Latium and the prosperity of wealthy farmers and
business people, a new social class developed in Rome that was more
Thus, in 509 BC the Romans took over the rule of Rome
by throwing out the last king of the Etruscans and started the Roman
Republic. It consisted of two elected consuls serving for only one
year, and the senate, which was the powerful government body of the
Roman Republic. All the senators were the members of Rome’s richest
families who were called the patricians. They were so powerful that
they also controlled the assembly that elected the consuls. The rest of
the citizens were called the plebeians. They had no say in the
government. (They only gained rights in the government after 287 BC.)
Thus, there were the most powerful upper class people (the patricians),
ordinary citizens and the slaves.
By 396 BC Rome had become the largest city in Italy.
The Romans expanded their empire, gained full control over the
Mediterranean coasts up to Spain, and conquered Greece and Macedonia by
140 BC. Wealthy Romans were getting more and more wealthy through
business, tax revenues and the looted property of the defeated landlords,
and thus, the gap and the friction between the rich and the poor was
getting wider and wider. The unrest in the society grew and when some
people tried to oppose the senate, they were removed forever.
A change occurred in the Roman history when Julius
Caesar became the sole ruler of the Roman empire by pushing off the
others; but he was assassinated by a group of Republican aristocrats in 44
BC. His heir (the adopted son) Octavian took over the reign with the
alliance of two more army officers including Mark Anthony who fell in love
with Cleopatra (the Queen of Egypt). There was already a civil war that
went on for about 20 years which destroyed the domination of the
Republicans and thus the Roman Republic ended in 27 BC when Octavian, the
main power of the alliance (who changed his name to Augustus), became the
first unchallenged emperor of the Roman world.
The Roman Empire reached its height between 100 to 180
AD in power and prosperity and all of the neighboring countries of the
Mediterranean including Jerusalem were under its regime. The emperor
had the power to reject or overrule any of the decisions of the senate and
he was worshipped like a god of the earth.
There was a period of chaos in the emperorship between
235 to 286 AD when any powerful person or officer could seize the power by
force and overthrow his rival. As a result more than 20 emperors were
acclaimed during that short period, with a towering figure of five
emperors in one year in 238 AD.
For the convenience of administration the Roman Empire
was split into two sections, Eastern and Western, with separate
emperorships. The Roman Empire was permanently divided into ‘East Roman
Empire’ and ‘West Roman Empire.’ The Western Empire began to grow weak and
in 476 AD it saw its final downfall when the Germanic chieftain Odoacer
dethroned the last ruler of the empire, Romulus Augustulus. However, the Eastern Empire, called
Byzantine Empire, lasted up to 1453 when the Turks captured it.
They also introduced a calendar around 738 BC
that had only 10 months in a year, and a year had only 304 days. Two
months were ignored because they were useless due to the cold weather.
They were added around 452 BC, but still the days of the year were only
355 because the calculation was based on the solar system which caused
continuous confusion in every progressive year. Finally, in 46 BC the
calendar system was reformed.
For general recreation, in 80 AD, they built a four
story open amphitheater in Rome with a 50,000 seating capacity, called the
Colosseum where violent and bloody entertainments were held until
500 AD. For example: gladiators, the condemned victims trained for
this purpose, were made to fight with one another until death. They were
mostly slaves, criminals in prison or prisoners of war. Sometimes armed
men fought with wild animals and sometimes certain condemned criminals or
Christians were thrown in front of starving beasts like lions and tigers
who attacked them and ate them. Chariot races by skilled charioteers were
also a common game of the Romans. There were also certain theaters for
Roman gods and goddesses.
Before 300 AD, in the Roman empire, most of the people
worshipped a number of traditional gods and goddesses like: Jupiter, Juno,
Pluto, Bacchus, Diana and Venus, etc., of which Jupiter, god of thunder
and lightening, was their chief god. Some poeple followed the Jewish
religion, and a very small minority followed the Christian religion. There
was a further setback to Christianity when Diocletian restricted it. But
in 313 AD Constantine I accepted the Christian religion and since then
Christianity flourished. However, Julian did not like the way
Christianity was spreading, so during his reign (361-363 AD), he
discouraged Christianity and preferred the traditional worship of gods and
goddesses. Again, a change came when, after the death of Theodosius I in
395 AD, the Roman Empire was permanently split into two Empires, East
and West, and Christianity was accepted as their state religion.