Discovering Ancient Greek and Latin
Discovering Ancient Greek and Latin

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Discovering Ancient Greek and Latin

1.6 Language and literature

In addition to looking at the mechanics of languages, it is also important to consider the way they were actually used. One fact of great importance for the development of Greek and Latin is that they became vehicles for writing literature (which is not true of every language). This pushed them in novel and interesting directions, allowing them to express new ideas with freshly minted words or with existing words endowed with new meanings.

We catch sight of this process in the development of Latin as a philosophical language. The responsibility for this lies primarily with Cicero, who has been credited with creating ‘nothing less than a whole language and literature of Latin philosophy’ (Taplin, (2001) Literature in the Roman World, Oxford, Oxford University Press, p. 41). This ‘philosophical’ language included works such as ‘On The Republic’ (De re publica) and ‘On Laws’ (De legibus), inspired by Plato’s similarly named Republic and Laws, along with a great deal of new technical vocabulary for expressing philosophical ideas which until that point could only be expressed satisfactorily in Greek. Much of this work took place in a short burst of productivity during the years 45 and 44 BCE. We can only speculate what Cicero might have achieved, and its impact upon Latin, had he not been killed in 43 BCE on the instructions of Mark Antony. Here are some words coined by Cicero, with Greek equivalents where they exist.

Table 2 Latin words coined by Cicero

quālitāsποιότης (poiotēs)quality, distinguishing characteristic
mōrālisἠθικός (ēthikos)concerned with ethics, moral
essentiaοὐσία (ousia)essence
hūmānitāshuman nature

The Greek words had in their turn been invented centuries earlier for the purpose of philosophising. Indeed Plato, who coined the word ποιότης (poiotēs) for ‘quality’ (from ποῖος, poios, meaning ‘of what kind?’), apologised to his audience for its strangeness (Theaetetus, 182a).

If we wish to emphasise the expressive power of Greek and Latin, we need to think of this not as a built-in feature of either language, but as the result of a long process of development, stimulated by a number of factors which include:

  • the ambition, imagination and sheer hard work of individual authors
  • competition between writers, sometimes literal as in the dramatic contests in Athens and other Greek cities
  • the existence of a rich and varied literary tradition for inspiration. For Romans, this tradition was Greek as much as Latin
  • a supportive environment for writing – such as the cycle of festivals in classical Greece, the ‘bookish’ culture of the library of Alexandria, a circle of like-minded aristocratic friends and readers in first century BCE Rome, or the patronage and encouragement of writers under the Emperor Augustus
  • the role of both languages within long-lived historical institutions, such as the Empires of Alexander the Great and his successors, the Roman Empire and the Christian Church.

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