In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Bilingualism and Multilingualism in the Roman World

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • General Surveys of Languages
  • Modern Bilingualism Studies
  • Attitudes Toward Language and Language Policy
  • Greek and Other Languages in Latin Literature
  • Translation Literature
  • “Roman Greek”

Classics Bilingualism and Multilingualism in the Roman World
Alex Mullen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 July 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0197


Roman authors referred to Latin and Greek as utraque lingua (both our languages), and the study of Classics has traditionally entailed an appreciation of the entanglement and complex relations between Latin and Greek language and literature. However, the Roman world was linguistically diverse—multilingual, not bilingual. Especially since the pioneering work of James Adams (Adams 2003, cited under General Overviews), classicists have begun to engage more fully with modern bi- and multilingualism theory and practice and to explore more systematically beyond Latin and Greek, literature, and the elite. This article is designed to introduce some of the key scholarship in this rapidly expanding and important field, presenting not only recent works, but also some of the earlier research that remains influential. It begins with a selection of general overviews, which characterize the new wave and more traditional approaches. It then offers a short selection of general surveys of languages in the Roman world and introductory, influential texts in modern bilingualism studies. The rest of the article is split loosely between epigraphic regional studies, literary bilingualism, and technical linguistic studies. Discussion in the Regional Studies section makes it clear that some areas (e.g., Egypt) have a long tradition of investigation into bi- and multilingualism, whereas others remain relatively under-researched. In the largely literary sections, the focus is on Greek and Other Languages in Latin Literature, Translation Literature, and “Roman Greek”, which concentrates on the Greek of Roman writers and also considers epigraphic sources such as the senatus consulta. In these sections the viewpoint is primarily on bi- and multilingualism in literary and related sources and does not seek to encompass the wider literary scholarship. The final section, Technical Linguistic Studies, contains research related to both lexical and non-lexical contact phenomena.

General Overviews

This section contains two books written by the leading expert, James Adams, of which the first—Adams 2003—should be essential reading for any aspect of bilingualism in the Roman world. Also included are three multiauthored volumes, two of which are wide-ranging (Adams, et al. 2002; Mullen and James 2012), and a third restricted to epigraphy (Biville, et al. 2008). Of more historical than linguistic perspective are the monographs by Kaimio 1979 and Rochette 1997 (the first with a predominantly Western focus; the latter, Eastern). Two short articles offer brief overviews and further bibliography; the emphasis of Mullen 2011 is more epigraphical and that of Rochette 2010 more literary.

  • Adams, James N. 2003. Bilingualism and the Latin language. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511482960

    If this article had to reference only one book, this would be it. Adams uses modern bi- and multilingualism research and systematically includes non-classical languages and non-elite, non-literary sources. Unsurpassed in terms of breadth and insight.

  • Adams, James N. 2007. The regional diversification of Latin 200 BC–AD 600. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511482977

    The second of Adams’s trio of “big books” that have revolutionized our understanding of Latin (the third being Social Variation and the Latin Language [Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013]). This has less direct relevance for bilingualism than does Adams 2003, but it still has numerous sections that should be consulted by those interested in language contact. The focus is on the Western Empire.

  • Adams, James N., Mark Janse, and Simon Swain. 2002. Bilingualism in ancient society: Language contact and the written text. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199245062.001.0001

    An extremely wide-ranging volume with a particularly helpful introduction by Adams and Swain (pp. 1–20) and another very useful introductory offering by Langslow (pp. 23–51) that approaches bilingualism in corpus languages. Among a series of stellar chapters, that on code-switching in Cicero by Swain (pp. 128–167) stands out and provides a wonderful complement to the section on Cicero in Adams 2003 (pp. 308–347).

  • Biville, Frédérique, Jean-Claude Decourt, and Georges Rougemont, eds. 2008. Bilinguisme gréco-latin et épigraphie: Actes du colloque organisé à l’Université Lumière-Lyon 2 . . . les 17, 18 et 19 mai 2004. Lyon, France: Maison de l’Orient Méditerranéen.

    A conference volume, this time with a focus specifically on epigraphy. Although both East and West are covered, it is weighted toward the former; in the section on the West, only one paper (Decourt on Gaul, pp. 305–319) does not concern the Res gestae or Italy. Some papers do not engage with key work, e.g., Adams 2003.

  • Kaimio, Jorma. 1979. The Romans and the Greek language. Helsinki: Societas Scientiarum Fennica.

    A broad synthesis that claims to be sociolinguistic, but is really historical and literary. A useful place to start and commonly cited, but to be treated with some caution (see, e.g., the review by Michel Dubuisson, “La place du grec dans la société romaine: À propos d’un ouvrage récent,” in Revue Belge de Philologie 63.1 [1985]:108–115).

  • Mullen, Alex. 2011. Latin and other languages: Societal and individual bilingualism. In A companion to the Latin language. Edited by James Clackson, 527–548. Malden, MA, and Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444343397

    A helpful general introduction, which ranges across literary and nonliterary sources, and should be read with Rochette 2010.

  • Mullen, Alex, and Patrick James, eds. 2012. Multilingualism in the Graeco-Roman worlds. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139012775

    Another extremely wide-ranging volume extending across disciplinary and temporal boundaries (including, e.g., archaeological perspectives and the Graeco-Roman world of the medieval mind).

  • Rochette, Bruno. 1997. Le latin dans le monde grec: Recherches sur la diffusion de la langue et des lettres latines dans les provinces hellénophones de l’Empire romain. Brussels: Collection Latomus.

    An important book, which serves as a reference work especially for historical aspects of Greek–Latin bilingualism. After an extensive introduction, chapter 1 discusses Latin in official relations with the East and in the public life of the Greek-speaking provinces, chapter 2 treats Latin in the education of the eastern provinces, chapter 3 presents a prosopographical study of Greeks known for their knowledge of Latin, and chapter 4 tackles Latin literature in the Greek world. Extensive bibliography.

  • Rochette, Bruno. 2010. Greek and Latin bilingualism. In A companion to the Greek language. Edited by Egbert J. Bakker, 281–293. Malden, MA, and Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444317398

    A helpful general introduction, especially to the literary evidence, though with some questionable points. Weinreich’s Languages in contact: findings and problems (New York: Publications of the Linguistic Circle of New York, 1953) is the only modern sociolinguistic text cited, although it is now outdated, especially in its views on code-switching.

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