When things go wrong, children are often encouraged to solve problems with words, not violence. This is nothing new. Already, over 2,000 years ago, life advice was being framed through comparisons between the relative power of words and weapons.
All languages are systems that enable communication. Long ago, when travel was difficult and communication media more limited, language was a common currency. But even “once upon a time. . .” things were much more complicated.
In the turbulent era when ancient Rome’s Republican governmental system was giving way to autocracy (first and second centuries BCE), investigating and policing of language was at the heart of the shake-down. Some of the dissonance reflected in surviving texts remains strikingly resonant. One study by Marcus Terentius Varro (116-27 BCE), de Lingua Latina, specifically tackles the crackling tensions involved in speaking and systematizing Latin during that time of intense cultural change.
In Rome’s expanding empire, the assertion “I am a Roman citizen” (“ciuis Romanus sum”) was spoken by peoples across the Mediterranean and beyond. In an era with increasing need for code-switching and linguistic flexibility—when slaves, tradesmen, intellectuals, soldiers, bureaucrats, and immigrants might speak very different native languages—Varro posed crucial questions: what then did it mean to speak Latin? To speak it “well”? And whose Latin was it?
Through Varro’s investigation, the era’s violence, electoral disruption, and corrupt politicians gained context from their language’s name: Latin. “Latin” embodied history and legends of early military aggression against local peoples (such as the Latins), and Rome’s dynamic assimilation of foreign voices and identities.
It is no coincidence that as Rome confronted new ways of thinking and speaking amongst allies, enemies, and conquered peoples, Latin was also contested. Language offered a testing ground for exploring some of the difficult ideas and challenges to beliefs around ethnicity, value, and identity which became evident when a citizen speaking Latin was no longer “like us”.
Through study and systematization of the structures, intellectual heritage, and patterns of Latin and its cannibalization of local peninsular languages, lessons might be learned. Rome’s elites might, Varro suggested, look not just for a way of expressing consensus on what was important to them as individuals, or to their vision of civic identity, but for a balanced framework within which celebration of tradition and novelty was possible, baked into the structures and etymologies of language in use.
When the streets were running with blood, and gangs were disrupting elections, this solution had recognizable life-and-death potential—in the 20s BCE political evolution and revolution converged in Rome’s weary and relieved welcome for a radical-conservative solution: a reframed autocracy, new frameworks for remembering the past, and a new brand of leader. The “Emperor” Augustus, whose choice of an old title—Princeps, “First Citizen”—for a new role made an open secret of the revolutionary power of words.
Diana Spencer is a professor of classics and the dean of Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences at the University of Birmingham (UK). Her Recent publications include contributions to The Routledge Handbook of Identity and the Environment in the Classical and Early Medieval Worlds and the Cambridge Classical Journal Supplement 39, Varro Varius: The Polymath of the Roman World.