Here are a few historical facts that most amateur ancient historians are aware of:

  • The Romans began speaking Latin.
  • After the conquest of Alexander the Great, Greek became a "lingua franca" in the extensive territories of his conquests, though Rome wasn't much affected by this.
  • Rome proceeded to conquer Greece and surrounding territories: Greek was studied and spoken as a language of cultivation by many Romans, including Cicero. It is even quoted in plays by Plautus.
  • By the time of Christianity's spread, Greek was well-enough understood that Paul wrote the epistle to the Romans in Greek and Clement of Rome (1st c., 4th pope) wrote his epistle in Greek.
  • This "trend" seems to continue: Marcus Aurelius wrote his Meditations in Greek.
  • Eventually, Latin seems to regain prominence in Rome itself, while Greek becomes the language of the Eastern Roman Empire.

This collection of loose "facts" lacks cohesion in my mind. Some questions:

  1. Was Greek ever spoken in the streets of Rome in a non-ghettoized way? Would your average free-born Roman grow up bilingual?
  2. Was there ever a movement to exclude Greek as "foreign" or shun Latin as "uncivilized"?
  3. Am I mistaken in my perception that Greek "took over" Rome for a few centuries and then seemed to recede back?

Feel free to suggest ways to narrow down this question in the comments, if this is ridiculously broad. Although I'm interested in movements throughout the empire, I chose Rome as the primary focus for this question.

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    This may be broad, but I would much like to see an overview of this topic. Deeper details can be discussed in follow-up questions.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Feb 28, 2017 at 22:08
  • I would need a lot of time to look up specific instances, but I remember from a linguistics course that Greek words containing <Υ> were often transcribed with a <u> in preclassical Latin (inscriptions, Plautus, ...) and with an <i> in classical transliterated words and in semi-literate postclassical writings such as Pompeii's graffiti. With some good will, one could suppose that the sensitivity to the foreign sound /y/ (closed front rounded vowel) improved over time ? I realize it's a threadbare argument btw, but I think it might be interesting if backed by actual data.
    – blagae
    Commented Feb 28, 2017 at 23:36
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    @blagae I believe much of the data is already found in J. N. Adams' Bilingualism and the Latin Language. I think the question as it stands is too large, and even to summarize Adams' tome would make for a too hefty a post, especially if those further questions were added.
    – cmw
    Commented Mar 1, 2017 at 5:13
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    @C.M.Weimer Could you suggest an appropriate narrowing of the topic?
    – brianpck
    Commented Mar 1, 2017 at 14:09
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    @blagae: AFAICR, iotacism begun in certain Greek dialects as early as 2nd c. B. C. The change is likely caused by a phonetic shift in Greek rather than the development of the Roman ear. Commented Apr 5, 2017 at 22:23

1 Answer 1


Here is the stub of an answer.

There were many, many Greeks in Rome around the turn of the millennium. Many of them were educated slaves, 'imported' to teach Greek to Roman children of the middle and upper classes. The language was considered an essential part of the education of an educated Roman child. It may be compared to the position of Latin in Europe and in its (former) colonies until ca. 1800. As far as we know, Caesar most probably did not say et tu, Brute to Brutus upon his death, but possibly καὶ σὺ, τέκνον; although Suetonius argues against this then common story.

I am not aware of an actual Greek ghetto: I think the Greeks lived all over the city. So you could probably hear some Greek in the streets.

The first Greek colonies near Naples may have appeared in the second millennium BC, before the mythical date of the foundation of Rome in 753 BC. In the 8th century, there was a a wave of Greek colonisation all along the coasts of southern Italy, Sicily, southern France, and many other places around the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, e.g. Cumae and Ischia near the later Naples. The Greek colonies in Italy and Sicily are known collectively as Magna Graecia.

There was much contact between Etruscans, Romans, and Greeks in Italy when Rome was still a smallish city-state. Major Greek towns like Naples and Cumae are about 200 km south of Rome, or 10 hours (by trireme) to 25 hours (merchant ship) away. The Etruscans also conquered some Greek colonies and used an adaptation of the Greek alphabet before Rome, too, adopted (another) variant of the Greek alphabet. By the fourth century BC, Rome had acquired so many territories that it practically bordered on Greece near Neapolis.

Contact between the Romans and the [Greek] Cumaeans is recorded during the reign of Aristodemus [of Cumae, c. 550 – c. 490 BC]. Livy states that immediately prior to the war between Rome and Clusium, the Roman senate sent agents to Cumae to purchase grain in anticipation of a siege of Rome.[8] Also Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, the last legendary King of Rome, lived his life in exile with Aristodemus at Cumae after the Battle of Lake Regillus and died there in 495 BC.[9]

By the fourth century, Rome ruled over some Greek cities, such as Cumae.

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Even now there are speakers of Greek in southern Italy. It took millennia for Greek to (almost) disappear from there, see this question:

Why is it that Latin was more “successful” in the western part of the Empire than in the eastern part?

During the Roman Republic, many complained about Greek influence on literary Latin style, as can be read in contemporary Roman literature. The Greek style of sculpture was also imported to Rome. From what I recall, traditional Romans even objected during the late Republic to the naked and idealised, muscular statues. Traditional Romans also inveighed against other Greek influences, amongst which they sometimes placed the influence of rich merchants: a good Roman was a farmer and a soldier, not a merchant. Even now, the upper classes around the world generally look down on people who have become rich through trade or business.

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    Interestingly, Latin was used in the Eastern portion of the Empire as the language of law. Thus, the Corpus Iuris Civilis was written in Latin in the early Byzantine Empire. It was translated later when legal Latin fell into disuse, possibly accelerated by the earthquake and tsunami that destroyed the law school at Beirut in 551.
    – C Monsour
    Commented Sep 2, 2019 at 18:03
  • @CMonsour: Yes! But only for a relatively short period of time, I believe? That is, I don't think local government in the East worked in Latin before Constantine, or did it? What Imperial bureaucracy there was in the East probably did use Latin at least in official proclamations?
    – Cerberus
    Commented Sep 2, 2019 at 23:46
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    From Constantine's accession to Justinian's death is roughly the same amount of time the United States has existed. It's not a short period.
    – C Monsour
    Commented Sep 3, 2019 at 0:36
  • @CMonsour: Well, it is not short, but is it enough to gain true cultural respectability, enough to stand the test of time?
    – Cerberus
    Commented Sep 3, 2019 at 1:04

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