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Discovering Ancient Greek and Latin
Discovering Ancient Greek and Latin

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1.2 The spread of Latin

One clue about early Latin exists in the name. Why ‘Latin’ and not ‘Roman’? The answer to that question is in the beginnings of Rome itself. Latin was originally the language not of Rome but of Latium, a small region south-east of the river Tiber inhabited by the ‘Latini’, now part of the much larger Italian region of Lazio. Rome was, at first, just one of a number of cities in this area, although by 300 BCE she was the dominant one and the conquest of Latium was complete.

In one respect the history of Latin is the opposite of Greek. Greek already had an impressive literary pedigree before being carried further afield by the imperial conquests of Alexander the Great. For Rome, on the other hand, empire came first. Latin literature appears from around the middle of the third century BCE, by which time Rome was the strongest power in Italy and was beginning to create provinces overseas in Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia. More than two centuries later in the time of Virgil, Horace and Livy, Rome could already boast a long history as an imperial power, and its empire included provinces carved out of the kingdoms ruled by Alexander the Great’s successors in Greece and Syria, along with the recently added kingdom of the Ptolemies in Egypt. The development of Latin, especially Latin literature, needs to be seen against this background. It can be understood in part as the conscious creation of a language and literature to match Rome’s imperial achievements and a language appropriate for telling Rome’s story.