Welcome to Rome Across Europe!
Mastery of a modern language allows you join to enjoy our site. Modern language has its foundation in Latin as we have described in The Language of an Empire: How Latin Changed the World and Old Latin: The Foundation of an Empire.
Now it’s time to take a deeper look into the language as we explore Classical Latin!
Classical Latin is the modern term used to describe the form of the Latin language recognized as standard by writers of the late Res Publica Romana (Roman Republic) and the Imperium Rōmānum (Roman Empire). In some later periods, it was regarded as Good Latin, with later versions being viewed as debased or corrupt.
The word Latin is now taken by default as meaning Classical Latin. Marcus Tullius Cicero and his contemporaries of the Late Republic, while using lingua Latina and sermo Latinus to mean the Latin language as opposed to the Greek or other languages, and sermo vulgaris or sermo vulgi to refer to the vernacular, regarded the speech they valued most and in which they wrote as Latinitas (Latinity).
Latinitas was spoken as well as written, and it was the language taught by the schools. Prescriptive rules therefore applied to it, and where a special subject was concerned, such as poetry or rhetoric, additional rules applied.
Now that the spoken Latinitas has become extinct the rules of the politus (polished) texts may give the appearance of an artificial language, but Latinitas was a form of sermo (spoken language) and as such retains a spontaneity. No authors are noted for the type of rigidity evidenced by stylized art, except possibly the repetitious abbreviations and stock phrases of inscriptions.
The style of language refers to repeatable features of speech that are somewhat less general than the fundamental characteristics of the language. The latter give it a unity allowing it to be referenced under a single name.
Thus Old Latin, Classical Latin, Vulgar Latin, etc., are not considered different languages, but are all referenced under the name of Latin. This is an ancient practice continued by moderns rather than a philological innovation of recent times.
That Latin had case endings is a fundamental feature of the language. Whether a given form of speech prefers to use prepositions such as ad, ex, de for “to”, “from” and “of” rather than simple case endings is a matter of style.
Latin has a large number of styles with each and every author having a style, which typically allows his prose or poetry to be identified by experienced Latinists. The problem of comparative literature has been to group styles finding similarities by period, in which case one may speak of Old Latin, Silver Latin, Late Latin as styles or a phase of styles.
The ancient authors themselves first defined style by recognizing different kinds of sermo. In making the value judgement that Classical Latin was “first class” and that it was better to write with Latinitas they were themselves selecting the literary and upper-class language of the city as a standard style and all sermo that differed from it was a different style. Style, therefore, is to be defined by differences in speech from a standard and that standard was Golden Latin.
The term classicus was devised by the Romans themselves to translate Greek enkrithentes (select), referring to authors who wrote in Greek that were considered model. Therefore, classicus is anything primae classis (first class), such as the authors of the polished works of Latinitas, or sermo urbanus.
It had nuances of the certified and the authentic or testis classicus (reliable witness). African–Roman lawyer and language teacher, Marcus Cornelius Fronto, in the 2nd Century AD was the original known reference to classical applied to authors by virtue of the authentic language of their works.
In imitation of the Greek grammarians, the Roman ones drew up lists termed indices on the model of the Greek lists, termed pinakes, considered classical. The classical Romans distinguished Old Latin as prisca Latinitas and not sermo vulgaris.
The lists of classical authors were as far as the Roman grammarians went in developing a philology. The topic remained at that point while interest in the classici scriptores declined in the medieval period as the best Latin yielded to Medieval Latin.
The Golden Age of Roman Literature has been dated as 671–767 AUC (83 BC – 14 AD). Chronologically, this would be between the dictatorship of Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix and the death of the Emperor Augustus.
The Ciceronian Age was dated 671–711 AUC (83 BC – 43 BC), ending just after the death of Marcus Tullius Cicero, and the Augustan 711–67 AUC (43 BC – 14 AD), ending with the death of Augustus. Authors are assigned to these periods by years of principal achievements.
The literary histories list all authors canonical to the Ciceronian Age even though their works may be fragmentary or may not have survived at all. With the exception of a few major writers, such as Cicero, Caesar, Virgil and Catullus, ancient accounts of Republican literature are glowing accounts of jurists and orators who wrote prolifically but who now can’t be read because their works have been lost, or analyses of language and style that appear insightful but can’t be verified because there are no surviving instances.
In that sense, the pages of literary history are peopled with shadows: Aquilius Gallus, Quintus Hortensius Hortalus, Lucius Licinius Lucullus and many others who left a reputation but no readable works. They are to be presumed in the Golden Age by their associations.
The Golden Age is divided by the assassination of Julius Caesar. In the wars that followed the Republican generation of literary men was lost, as most of them had taken the losing side.
Marcus Tullius Cicero was beheaded in the street as he inquired from his litter what the disturbance was. They were replaced by a new generation that had grown up and been educated under the old and were now to make their mark under the watchful eye of the new Emperor.
As the demand for great orators was more or less over, the talent shifted emphasis to poetry. Other than the historian Livy, the most remarkable writers of the period were the poets Virgil, Horace, and Ovid.
Although Augustus evidenced some toleration to republican sympathizers, he exiled Ovid. Imperial tolerance, however, ended with the continuance of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty.
The Imperial Period, applying to the Latin and not just to the age, also changed the dating scheme from years AUC to modern. Here the Silver Age of Roman Literature (14–117 AD) took place, from the death of Augustus to the death of Trajan.
The last of the Classical Latin is the Silver Latin. The Silver Age is the first of the Imperial Period and is divided into the Julio-Claudian Dynasty (14–68 AD); the Flavian Dynasty (69–96 AD); and the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty (96–117 AD). In the late 19th Century further division of the Imperial Age were made: the 1st Century (Silver Age), the 2nd Century: Hadrian and the Antonines; and the 3rd through the 6th Centuries.
The Renaissance brought a revival of interest in restoring as much of Roman culture as could be restored and with it the return of the concept of classic, “the best”. According to Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, the term classical (from classicus) entered modern English in 1599, some 50 years after its re-introduction on the continent.
Governor William Bradford in 1648 referred to synods of a separatist church as “classical meetings” in his Dialogue, a report of a meeting between New-England-born “young men” and “ancient men” from Holland and England. In 1768 David Ruhnken (Critical History of the Greek Orators) recast the mold of the view of the classical by applying the word canon to the pinakes of orators, after the Biblical canon or list of authentic books of the Bible.
We hope that you found something enlightening in today’s adventure. Maybe you might even have been encouraged to explore some of these historic periods on your own.
Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!
Bielfeld, Baron. The Elements of Universal Erudition, Containing an Analytical Abridgement of the Science, Polite Arts and Belles Lettres. G Scott, 1770.
Citroni, Mario. “The Concept of the Classical and the Canons of Model Authors in Roman Literature”, in The Classical Tradition of Greece and Rome. Princeton University Press, 2006.
Cruttwell, Charles Thomas. A History of Roman Literature from the Earliest Period to the Death of Marcus Aurelius. Charles Griffin & Co, 1877.
Littlefield, George Emery. Early Schools and School-books of New England. Club of Odd Volumes, 1904.
Settis, Salvatore. The Future of the ‘Classical’. Polity Press, 2006.
Teuffel, Wilhelm Sigismund. A History of Roman Literature. George Bell & Sons, 1873.