An inflectional language, Latin averages three morphemes per word. As in Spanish and Russian, the Latin vowel system has a two-dimensional structure involving three heights with the added contrast of front-back or unrounded bottom: high (i, u), mid (e, o), low (a), front unrounded (i, e), back rounded (u, o).

Latin has fifteen to eighteen consonantal phonemes in native words, a phoneme being a significantly different and distinct sound. Latin orthography did not distinguish between short and long vowels (which are phonemically distinct) nor between consonantal and vocalic i and u. The Latin phonemic system underwent a number of changes. Early Latin had from twenty-seven to thirty-one phonemes (depending on the distinction between long and short vowels), and by the mid-first century BCE, the phonemic inventory was from thirty-one to thirty-six phonemes.

Verbs have two voices, active and passive. A verbal form is a “sentence/word,” that is, a word that contains the nuclear construction of the favorite sentence-type of the language, in this case a predicate constitute. Nouns and adjectives share the inflectional category of number and case; nouns have a gender, and adjectives are inflected for gender. The eight cases of Indo-European were reduced to seven in Latin: nominative, accusative, vocative, genitive, dative, ablative, locative.

Although archaic Latin had a stress accent falling on the first syllable of a word, classical Latin developed a system of accentuation based in part on Greek models. Words of two syllables are accented on the first syllable. Words of more than two syllables are governed by the “penultimate rule.” They are accented on the penult (next to the last syllable) if long (e.g., a-mī′′-cus, “friend”; con-fi′′-ci-o, “invention”) or on the antepenult (syllable before the penultimate) if the penult is short (e.g., do′′-mi-nus, “lord”; a′′-lǎc-ris, “eager”).

History of Latin.

The term Latin was derived from a group of related tribes called Latini, who settled in the region of Latium, where Rome eventually came to occupy a significant position. The Latini originated in central Europe and settled in Latium by the tenth century BCE. Latin belongs to the Italic group of the Indo-European family of languages, and is divided into two groups, Oscan-Umbrian and Latin-Faliscan. Oscan was the standardized common language of central Italy until the area was subjugated by the Romans. Originally the language of Latium and the city of Rome, Latin eventually displaced the other Italic languages as a result of the increasing political and military power which Rome exerted first in central Italy, then throughout the Italian peninsula, then in the western Mediterranean and finally throughout the ancient world.

By the end of the Republic (31 BCE), Greeks dominated Roman education (grammar, rhetoric, philosophy); Greek literature, mythology, and history were basic to Roman education; and Greek was the first language of Roman education. By the first century BCE, young male Roman aristocrats were regularly educated in Greece. Nonetheless, educated Romans were privately bilingual but never boasted publicly of their appreciation of Greek culture or fluency in Greek. By the first century CE, only a small percentage of the population of the residents of Rome were of Roman or Italian ancestry, perhaps 10 percent. Within Rome itself various national groups often maintained linguistic and cultural traditions; the extensive Jewish community, for example, which numbered from thirty thousand to fifty thousand, was a Greek-speaking community, doubtless because of the hellenization of Palestine. Of the 534 Jewish catacomb inscriptions, 76 percent are in Greek, 23 percent are in Latin, and one is in Aramaic. Roman emperors were generally bilingual. Marcus Aurelius, for example, chose to write his Meditations in Greek. By the fourth century CE, however, most educated Romans in the west were monolingual and understood little or no Greek. The formal end of classical Latin may be dated to 813, when Charlemagne officially recognized the colloquial forms of Latin as independent Romance languages.

Writing Systems.

The Latin alphabet of twenty-one letters was ultimately derived from the Greek alphabet of twenty-six letters. The Greeks in Italy did not use a single, uniform alphabet, but five different alphabets. Of these, the Ionic alphabet of Tarentum was used in some south Oscan inscriptions, and an alphabet from central Greece was the basis for the primitive Etruscan, Oscian, and Umbrian alphabets, as well as those of Rome and Latium. The Latin system, derived from the early twenty-six-letter Etruscan alphabet, originally consisted of twenty letters; The capital letters C and G were both represented by the C. C as an initial capital letter served for both letters in abbreviations for the praenomina (forenames) Gaius (C.) and Gnaeus (Cn.), and z and y were added as phonemes in transliterated Greek words. Later the Latin alphabet was increased to twenty-one letters with the distinction between c and g. The Roman alphabet lacked j (the consonantal version of i), u (the vocal version of v), and w. During the first century CE, emperor Claudius attempted to add three new letters to the Latin alphabet, but for the most part these innovations did not long survive his decease (Quintilian, 1.7.26; Suetonius, Claudius, 41.3; Tacitus, Annals, 2.13–14).

Latin in the West.

Although Rome does not appear to have had a formal language policy, Latin was the primary language of Rome (a polyglot city with a substantial Greek population), of all colonies founded by Rome (the first Roman colony outside Italy was Narbo in Gaul, founded in 118 BCE), and of the Roman army and Roman provincial civilian administrations. Italy had previously been multilingual, but Latin increasingly predominated until by the first century BCE it was the dominant language of the peninsula. In the western empire outside Italy and the Roman colonies, the army was one of the main vehicles for the spread of Latin, both through contact with the local population and the learning of Latin by non-Latin speaking auxiliaries. In Italy there were two different kinds of Latin, the formal, polished, correct Latin spoken by the educated and surviving in public speeches and most of extant Latin literature, and common colloquial Latin. Plautus is a major exception. There were striking phonological differences between regional varieties of Latin. (Cicero, Brutus, 171–172; JeRome, Epistles, 107.9; see Omeltchenko, 1977; Whatmough, 1970), that is, there were a number of vulgar types of Latins. Though some of these vulgar forms developed into the Romance languages, it is hardly appropriate to speak of Latin dialects during the earlier period.

In many of the provinces in which Latin was the language of the army, administration, and culture, there were also native tongues which inevitably exerted influence on Latin phonology (Historia Augusta Septimus Severus, 19.9). In North Africa, the indigenous language was Libyan (Berber, from the Greek term barbaroi, “foreign”). From the eighth century it was the language St. Augustine called the lingua Punica, that is, a Semitic language based on Phoenician. Libyan was the first language of both the emperor Septimus Severus (145–211 CE) and Augustine (354–430 CE). Although there are some inscriptions in Libyan, many in Punic, and some bilinguals in Punic-Latin and Libyan-Latin, the more than thirty thousand Latin inscriptions from North Africa are most numerous.

The relationship between Rome and the many Greek colonies in the western Mediterranean was complex. Many Greek settlements in Magna Grecia lost their Greek population and language through the conquests of the Samnites. After its capitulation to Rome in the Pyrrhic War in 272 BCE, Tarentum and many other cities were either destroyed or depopulated during the remainder of the Republican period until the inauguration (in 27 BCE and following) of Augustus's policy of the romanization of Italy obliterated the remaining pockets of Greek culture and language. Neapolis was the last city in the western Mediterranean to abandon Greek as an official language, and public and private inscriptions were written in Greek until the late first century CE, perhaps because Roman aristocrats found it convenient to have a Greek city near Rome. During the Second Punic War (218–201), Sicily was captured and plundered by the Romans and later (132 BCE) became the first Roman province. Subsequently, Augustus founded six colonies in Sicily in which Latin was the first language. This development was accompanied by a conscious program of Romanization which resulted in the gradual elimination of the Greek language during the first few centuries CE. Before Augustus, most public inscriptions and legends on coins were in Greek, thereafter, Latin was used almost exclusively. The replacement of Greek by Latin in old Greek colonies occurred primarily in the Augustan age.

Latin in the East.

Roman immigration to the East, which was under Greek control, began during the third century BCE and peaked during the second century. Although Macedonia, which was established in the second century (148) was the first Roman eastern province, official Roman colonization in the Greek East did not begin until the mid-first century.

By 14 CE there were about thirty colonies in the Greek East: four in Greece, fifteen in Asia Minor, six in Macedonia, one in Crete, and two in Syria. In addition by the mid-first century CE there were sixteen Roman provinces in the East: four in Greece (Achaea, Epirus, Macedonia, Thracia), six in Asia Minor (Asia, Bithnyia and Pontus, Galatia, Lycia and Pamphylia, Cilicia, Cappodocia), and four in Syria (Syria, Iudaea [Judea], Mesopotamia, Arabia), as well as Egypt and Crete and Cyrenaica (the latter two forming one province).

Latin was the first language of all Roman colonies. Although these settlements were eventually hellenized, the colonists formed a socially separate, privileged group, and the native populations had an inferior social status, lacking Roman citizenship. Both public and private inscriptions as well as legends on coins were exclusively Latin in such colonies.


Following the Roman conquest of Palestine in 63 BCE, Latin was used in Palestine primarily by the Romans for whom it was the language of the army as well as of the civilian administration. Inscriptional evidence for Latin includes dedications on aqueducts and buildings, funerary texts, milestones on Roman roads, and large numbers of bricks and tiles with stamp impressions of abbreviations for the Tenth Legion, Fretensis. The excavation of Caesarea Maritima has uncovered many Latin inscriptions, including a dedicatory slab erected by Pontius Pilate (prefect of Judea around 26–36 CE) for a cult center for Tiberius and a inscription of the Tenth Legion, which repaired the high-level aqueduct during the time of Hadrian. The multilingual character of Jerusalem is attested by the signs posted within the Temple in Greek and Latin forbidding foreigners to enter the holy place.

Two fragmentary Greek copies of this inscription have been found (Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum 8.169; 20.477). The inscription on the cross of Jesus was written in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek (Jn. 19:20).


The Romans generally regarded Egyptians with contempt, and often made no distinction between native Egyptians and Egyptian Greeks. Egypt had three Greek cities, Naukratis and Alexandria in Lower Egypt and Ptolemais in Upper Egypt. Alexandria was populated primarily by Greeks and Jews who engaged in intermittent conflict. The Greek language predominated in the administration of Roman Egypt. The papyri containing imperial constitutions, edicts, rescripts (orders) and decrees are 75 percent Greek and 25 percent Latin. Generally, imperial rescripts sent to private individuals, including Romans, as well as those for public promulgation in Egypt, are written in Greek, and communications and mandates addressed to Roman officials and instructions to the army are written in Latin. Edicts of the Roman prefect of Egypt and other Roman magistrates in Egypt are almost exclusively promulgated in Greek. Egyptian provincials who were not Roman citizens always used Greek in legal documents. Roman citizens necessarily used Latin for many types of legal documents (e.g., birth certificates, marriage contracts, petitions to the prefect, and wills).

Genre and Text.

Latin literature is customarily divided into three major periods: (1) the formative period, that is, Livius Andonicus to Cicero (c. 240–80 BCE); (2) the classical period or Golden Age, to the death of Augustus (c. 80 BCE–14 CE); (3) the Silver Age, to the death of Apuleius (14–180 CE). (Gian Biagio Conte's Latin Literature [1994] contains a masterful survey.)

Data for the formative period of Latin literature are limited because of the few texts that antedate the third century BCE. In the view of both ancient and modern scholars, Latin literature began during the late third century with Livius Andronicus, a Greek from Tarentum who became a school teacher in Rome and translated the Odyssey into Latin for a school text. Gnaeus Naevius, a Greek from Sardinia, was trilingual (Greek, Oscan, Latin), and wrote an epic on the first Punic war between Carthage and Rome in Latin. Another Greek, Quintus Ennius of Rudiae near Tarentum, adapted Greek metrical form to the Latin language. Latin prose has its beginning with Ennius's translation of Euhemerus preserved by the Christian rhetorician Lactantius. There was hardly a single author of Latin prose or poetry who actually came from the city of Rome. That means that no Latin literature is completely native. The earliest extensive body of literature that has survived, however, consists of the twenty-one plays of T. Maccius Plautus (late third–early second centuries), from Umbria, who became Rome's greatest dramatist. Terence (c. 195–159), a native of North Africa wrote comedies based closely on Greek originals, particularly Menander. Latin prose began with M. Porcius Cato (234–149 BCE), who wrote orations and essays. Only his De agricultura has survived. Prose Roman history, which had its beginnings in the Annales or yearly records compiled by the current pontifex maximus (the highest priestly office in Rome), was written in Greek beginning in the late third century BCE by Q. Fabius Pictor and his successors.

The classical period or Golden Age of Latin literature began with the admired didactic poem of Lucretius (94–55 BCE), De rerum natura, which focused on Epicurean physics. The most innovative author of the period, however, was Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 BCE), a politician and orator whose prose compositions, consisting primarily of primarily speeches, letters, and philosophical essays, became literary and rhetorical models for later writers. Other influential writers of this period include Cicero's contemporaries, M. Terentius Varro (116–27), who wrote the now-lost Roman Antiquities and his single extant work, De re rustica (On Agriculture); Julius Caesar (100–44), who wrote De bello Gallico (On the Gallic War), and De bello civili (On the Civil Wars) in crisp, unadorned prose; and Sallust (86–35), who also wrote historical works. During the empire period (31 BCE–476 CE), the poet of greatest stature was Vergil (70–19 BCE) whose most important work was the epic Aeneid, a modernized Iliad and Odyssey that promulgated the ideals of the Augustan principate. Other eminent Latin poets include Horace (65–8 BCE), Propertius (late first century), and Ovid (43 BCE–17 CE), who wrote in elegaic meter. Livy (59 BCE–17 CE) wrote a history of Rome in 142 volumes, of which thirty-five have survived.

During the early Imperial period the Latin literature produced during the classical period became models, but to be imitated and reacted against, during the following centuries. After varying degrees of intellectual and literary repression following the death of Augustus in 14 CE, Latin literature again exhibited creativity during the Silver Age, that is, from the end of the first to the middle of the second century CE. Authors of the Silver Age by turns imitated or reacted against the works of the Golden Age. Some of the more important literary figures are Seneca (c. 4 BCE–65 CE), an important writer of literary tragedies, philosophical essays, and letters, and his nephew Lucan (39–65 CE), who wrote Pharsalia; both were forced by the emperor Nero to commit suicide. Pliny the Elder (c. 23–79 CE), Pliny the Younger (c. 61–112); and Tacitus (born c. 56), who wrote Germania, Agricola, Histories, and Annals. The accomplished comic novelist Apuleius (c. 123–180 CE) wrote the Golden Ass.


The earliest surviving Latin inscriptions date to the sixth century BCE. They often resemble Greek letter forms and are sometimes written in the so-called boustrophedon (“turning like oxen when plowing”) style in which alternate lines written from left to right then right to left. An example is perhaps the earliest Roman inscription from possibly the sixth century BCE (Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, vol. 1, pt. 2, no. 1). While an early Latin inscription from Praeneste from the seventh century survives (Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae, no. 8561), its authenticity is now doubtful (Gordon, 1983, p. 75f.). The Romans began to inscribe texts in the sixth century BCE, while most of the literary and inscriptional evidence for Latin begins to accumulate toward the end of the third century BCE. In addition to stone, bronze was commonly used, particularly for legal texts (Pliny, Nat. Hist., 16.237; 34.99). More perishable wooden boards were frequently used for public notices, such as Caesar's famous short text displayed at his triumph in 47 BCE: VENI VIDI VICI “I came, I saw, I conquered” (Suetonius, Caesar, 37.2). Vespasian tried to replace the more than three thousand bronze tablets that were destroyed by a fire on the Capitoline in Rome in 69 CE (Suetonius, Vespasian, 8.5).

More than three hundred thousand Roman inscriptions are known, mostly carved in capital letters, which reached their fullest development toward the end of the first century CE. The most extensive collection of Latin inscriptions is the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (Berlin, 1862– ), which consists of eighteen volumes to date, primarily arranged geographically. Hermann Dessau edited a selection of nine thousand texts published as Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae (Berlin, 1892–1916). In the western Mediterranean, the language of these inscriptions was primarily Latin, and in provinces east and south of the Adriatic, Greek—the lingua franca of the Levant—predominated. The evidence for the use of Oscan is limited to about two hundred inscriptions from the last two centuries BCE. Knowledge of Umbrian is largely restricted to the Iguvine tablets from the first century BCE. The main categories of inscriptions are (1) laws, treaties, and other public documents (often on bronze panels); (2) commemorations of the construction of a building; (3) honorific texts for individuals (often on a statue base); (4) altars and religious dedications; (5) gravestones; and (6) curse tablets.


  • Allen, W. Sidney. Vox Latina: A Guide to the Pronunciation of Classical Latin. Cambridge, 1965.
    Important discussion of the reconstructed phonetics of classical Latin.
  • Altheim, Franz. Geschichte der lateinischen Sprache von den Anfängen bis zum Beginn der Literatur. Frankfurt am Main, 1951.
  • Balsdon, John P. V. D. Romans and Aliens. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1979.
  • Conte, Gian Biagio. Latin Literature: A History. Translated by Joseph B. Solodow. Revised by Don P. Fowler and Glenn W. Most. Baltimore, 1994.
    One of the best short English-language introductions to Latin literature
  • Fitzmyer, Joseph A. “The Languages of Palestine in the First Century A.D.” In Fitzmyer's A Wandering Aramean: Collected Aramaic Essays, pp. 29–56. Missoula, 1979. Slightly updated version of the important article originally published in Catholic Biblical Quarterly 32 (1970): 501–531.
  • Gordon, Arthur E. Illustrated Introduction to Latin Epigraphy. Berkeley, 1983.
    Extremely informative for all aspects of the study of Latin inscriptions.
  • Keppie, Lawrence. Understanding Roman Inscriptions. Baltimore, 1991.
  • Lewis, Naphtali. Life in Egypt under Roman Rule. Oxford, 1983.
  • Meinersmann, Bernhard. Die lateinischen Wörter und Namen in den griechischen Papyri. Leipzig, 1927.
  • Millar, Fergus. “Local Cultures in the Roman Empire: Libyan, Punic, and Latin in Roman Africa.” Journal of Roman Studies 58 (1968): 126–134.
  • Omeltchenko, Stephen W. A Quantitative and Comparative Study of the Vocalism of the Latin Inscriptions of North Africa, Britain, Dalmatia, and the Balkans. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1977.
  • Pinkster, Harm. Latin Syntax and Semantics. London and New York, 1990.
  • Schmitt, Rüdiger. “Die Sprachverhältnisse in den östlichen Provinzen des römischen Reiches.” In Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, vol. II.29.2, edited by Wolfgang Haase, pp. 554–586. Berlin and New York, 1983.
  • Sherk, Robert K. Roman Documents from the Greek East: Senatus Consulta and Epistulae to the Age of Augustus. Baltimore, 1969.
  • Whatmough, Joshua. The Dialects of Ancient Gaul. Cambridge, 1970.
  • Wilson, Alan J. N. Emigration from Italy in the Republican Age of Rome. Manchester, 1966.

David E. Aune