Old Latin: The Foundation of an Empire

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Language is the foundation in which any culture or society is built. Western European languages owe their shared alphabet to the Romans.

We previously explored how the language of Latin became such a driving force as we uncovered The Language of an Empire: How Latin Changed the World. There are also some videos about communication within the Imperium Rōmānum (Roman Empire) in the categories tab Language on the left.

But there was still more to share, so that is why today we uncover the foundation of what would become a conquering language as we explore Old Latin!

Expansion of the Roman Republic in which very little Latin is likely to have been spoken beyond the green area, and other languages were spoken even within it (2nd Century BC).

Also known as Early Latin or Archaic Latin, this Latin language refers to the period before the age of Classical Latin (before 75 BC). In New and Contemporary Latin, it is called Prisca Latinitas (Ancient Latin) rather than Vetus Latina (Old Latin), as Vetus Latina is used to refer to a set of Biblical texts.

The use of “old”, “early” and “archaic” has been standard in publications of Old Latin writings since at least the 18th Century. The definition is not illogical, but the terms refer to writings with word forms and spelling conventions not generally found in works written under the Roman Empire.

The Praeneste Fibula

The earliest known specimen of the Latin language is from the Praeneste Fibula (Brooch of Palestrina). An analysis performed in 2011 declared it to be genuine “beyond any reasonable doubt” and dating from the Orientalizing period, in the early half of the 7th Century BC.

Etruscan Alphabet

Old Latin surviving in inscriptions is written in various forms of the Etruscan alphabet as it evolved into the Latin alphabet. The writing conventions varied by time and place until classical conventions prevailed.

The works of authors in manuscript form were copied over into the scripts current in those later times. The original writing does not survive.

Some differences between Old and Classical Latin were of spelling only. Pronunciation, however, was thought to be essentially as in classical Latin: Single for double consonants: Marcelus for Marcellus; Double vowels for long vowels: aara for āra; q for c before u: pequnia for pecunia; gs/ks/xs for x (e.g. regs for rex, saxsum for saxum); c for g: Caius for Gaius.

Latin Alphabet

These differences did not necessarily run concurrently with each other and were not universal. That is, c was used for both c and g.

The concept of Prisca Latinitas is as old as the concept of Classical Latin, both dating to at least as early as the late Res Publica Romana (Roman Republic). In that time period Cicero, along with others, noted that the language he used every day (probably the upper-class city Latin) included lexical items and phrases that were heirlooms from a previous time, which he called verborum vetustas prisca (the old age/time of language).

Page from the Codex Bobbiensis showing Old Latin.

During the classical period, Prisca LatinitasPrisca Latina and other idioms using the adjective always meant these remnants of a previous language. In the Roman philology, this was always taken to be much older in fact than it really was.

An example would be the phrase Viri Prisci (Old-time Men) which was used to describe the population of Latium before the Founding of Rome.

In the Late Latin period, when Classical Latin was behind them, the Latin- and Greek-speaking grammarians were faced with multiple phases, or styles, within the language. Isidore of Seville reports a classification scheme that had come into existence in or before his time: Latinas autem linguas quatuor esse quidam dixerunt (The Four Latins).

Relief depicting the Salii (National Museum of Rome – Palazzo Altemps).

The Four Latins were Prisca, Latina, Romana, and Mixta. Prisca, to which Isidore dated the Carmen Saliare, was spoken when Janus and Saturn ruled Latium.

Latina, in which period Isidore placed the laws of the Twelve Tables, dated from the time of King Latinus. Romana was basically equal to Classical Latin.

Mixta (mixed) Classical Latin and Vulgar Latin, which is known today as Late Latin. The scheme persisted with little change for some thousand years after Isidore.

In 1874, John Wordsworth used this definition:

By Early Latin I understand Latin of the whole period of the Republic, which is separated very strikingly, both in tone and in outward form, from that of the Empire.

Although the differences are striking and can be easily identified by Latin readers, they are not such as to cause a language barrier. Latin speakers of the Empire had no reported trouble understanding Old Latin, except for the few texts that must date from the time of the Kings, mainly songs.

The Carmen Saliare

Thus, the laws of the Twelve Tables from the early Republic were comprehensible. The Carmen Saliare, probably written under Numa Pompilius, was not entirely clear and still remains as such.

An opinion concerning Old Latin, of a Roman man of letters in the middle Republic, survives. The historian, Polybius, read “the first treaty between Rome and Carthage”, which he says “dates from the consulship of Lucius Junius Brutus and Marcus Horatius Pulvillus, the original Consuls after the expulsion of the kings.”

Knowledge of the early Consuls is somewhat obscure, but Polybius also states that the treaty was formulated 28 years after Xerxes I crossed into Greece. This occurred about the time of the Decemviri, in 452 BC, when the constitution of the Roman Republic was being defined.

Polybius says of the language of the treaty “the ancient Roman language differs so much from the modern that it can only be partially made out, and that after much application by the most intelligent men”.

Classical Latin inscription displaying apices from the shrine of the Augustales at Herculaneum.

There is no sharp distinction between Old Latin, as it was spoken for most of the Republic, and Classical Latin, but the earlier grades into the later. The end of the Republic was too late a termination for compilers after Wordsworth.

Charles Edwin Bennett said the following about the distinction:

Early Latin is necessarily a somewhat vague term … Bell, De locativi in prisca Latinitate vi et usu, Breslau, 1889, sets the later limit at 75 BC. A definite date is really impossible, since archaic Latin does not terminate abruptly, but continues even down to imperial times.

Bennett’s own date of 100 BC did not prevail but rather Bell’s 75 BC became the standard as expressed in the 4-volume Loeb Classical Library and other major compendia. Over the 377 years from 452 to 75 BC, Old Latin evolved from being partially comprehensible by classicists with study to being easily read by scholars.

The Forum Inscription, one of the oldest known Latin inscriptions, is written boustrophedon, albeit irregularly.

Old Latin authored works began in the 3rd Century BC. These are complete or nearly complete works under their own name surviving as manuscripts copied from other manuscripts in whatever script was current at the time.

Numerous inscriptions placed by various methods (painting, engraving, embossing) on their original media survive just as they were except for the ravages of time (of course). Some of these were copied from other inscriptions.

No inscription can be earlier than the introduction of the Greek alphabet into Italy but none survive from that early date. The imprecision of archaeological dating makes it impossible to assign a year to any single inscription, but the earliest survivals are probably from the 6th Century BC.

Some texts, however, that survive as fragments in the works of classical authors, had to have been composed earlier than the Republic, in the time of the Rēgnum Rōmānum (Roman Kingdom). The following are Notable Old Latin fragments with estimated dates:

The Carmen Saliare (chant put forward in classical times as having been sung by the Salian brotherhood formed by Numa Pompilius, approximate date 700 BC)

The Praeneste Fibula (date from opening half of the 7th Century BC)

The Forum Inscription (illustration, right c. 550 BC under the monarchy)

The Duenos Inscription (c. 500 BC)

The Garigliano Bowl (c. 500 BC)

The Lapis Satricanus (early 5th Century BC)

The preserved fragments of the laws of the Twelve Tables (449 BC, but attested much later)

The Scipionum Elogia

Epitaph of Lucius Cornelius Scipio Barbatus (c. 280 BC)

Epitaph of Lucius Cornelius Scipio (consul 259 BC)

Epitaph of Publius Cornelius Scipio P.f. P.n. Africanus (died about 170 BC)

The Senatus Consultum de Bacchanalibus (186 BC)

The Carmen Arvale

Altar to the Unknown Divinity (92 BC)

The authors are as follows:

Lucius Livius Andronicus (c. 280/260 BC — c. 200 BC), translator, founder of Roman drama

Gnaeus Naevius (c. 264 — 201 BC), dramatist, epic poet

Titus Maccius Plautus (c. 254 — 184 BC), dramatist, composer of comedies

Quintus Ennius (239 — c. 169 BC), poet

Marcus Pacuvius (c. 220 — 130 BC), tragic dramatist, poet

Statius Caecilius (220 — 168/166 BC), comic dramatist

Publius Terentius Afer (195/185 — 159 BC), comic dramatist

Quintus Fabius Pictor (3rd Century BC), historian

Lucius Cincius Alimentus (3rd C entury BC), military historian

Marcius Porcius Cato (234 — 149 BC), generalist, topical writer

Gaius Acilius (2nd Century BC), historian

Lucius Accius (170 — c. 86 BC), tragic dramatist, philologist

Gaius Lucilius (c. 160s — 103/102 BC), satirist

Quintus Lutatius Catulus (2nd Century BC), public officer, epigrammatist

Aulus Furius Antias 2nd Century BC), poet

Gaius Julius Caesar Strabo Vopiscus (130 BC — 87 BC), public officer, tragic dramatist

Lucius Pomponius Bononiensis (2nd Century BC), comic dramatist, satirist

Lucius Cassius Hemina (2nd Century BC), historian

Lucius Calpurnius Piso Frugi (2nd Century BC), historian

Manius Manilius (2nd Century BC), public officer, jurist

Lucius Coelius Antipater (2nd Century BC), jurist, historian

Publius Sempronius Asellio (158 BC — after 91 BC), military officer, historian

Gaius Sempronius Tuditanus (2nd Century BC), jurist

Lucius Afranius (2nd & 1st Centuries BC), comic dramatist

Titus Albucius (2nd & 1st Centuries BC), orator

Publius Rutilius Rufus (158 BC — after 78 BC), jurist

Lucius Aelius Stilo Praeconinus (154 — 74 BC), philologist

Quintus Claudius Quadrigarius (2nd & 1st Centuries BC), historian

Valerius Antias (2nd & 1st Centuries BC), historian

Lucius Cornelius Sisenna (121 — 67 BC), soldier, historian

Quintus Cornificius (2nd & 1st Centuries BC), rhetorician

Hopefully we haven’t twisted your tongue today. We hope your experience was enjoyable and that we shall see your return soon.

Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!



Allen, Frederic de Forest. Remnants of Early Latin. Ginn, 1897.

Bennett, Charles Edwin. A Latin Grammar: With Appendix for Teachers and Advanced Students. Allyn and Bacon, 1895.

Bennett, Charles Edwin. Syntax of Early Latin. Allyn and Bacon, 1910.

Buck, Carl Darling. Comparative Grammar of Greek and Latin. University of Chicago, 1933.

Gildersleeve, Basil Lanneau; Lodge, Gonzalez. Gildersleeve’s Latin grammar (3rd ed.). University Publishing Company, 1900.

Gippert, Jost. “Old Latin Inscriptions” (in German and English). Titus Didactica, 1994.

Lindsay, Wallace Martin. The Latin language: an historical account of Latin sounds, stems and flexions. Clarendon Press, 1894.

Palmer, Leonard Robert. The Latin Language. University of Oklahoma Press, 1988.

Roby, Henry John. A grammar of the Latin language from Plautus to Suetonius, Volume I (2nd ed.). MacMillan and Co, 1872.

Wordsworth, John. Fragments and specimens of early Latin (with Introduction and Notes). Clarendon Press, 1874.