In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Archaic Latin

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews of Archaic Latin
  • The Most Archaic Latin Inscriptions and the Early Latin Alphabet
  • Archaic Latin Epigraphy from the Third and Second Centuries bce
  • Citations of Archaic Latin in Later Roman Writers
  • Archaic Latin Phonology and Sound Change
  • Archaic Latin Morphology and Word-Formation
  • Archaic Latin Syntax
  • Archaic Latin Vocabulary
  • Pragmatics and Politeness
  • Archaic Latin Verse
  • Registers and Varieties of Archaic Latin
  • Latin in Contact with Other Languages

Classics Archaic Latin
James Clackson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 April 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0411


Archaic Latin refers to the earliest attested stages of Latin (other labels are (Very) Old Latin and Early Latin) and is often used in contrast to classical Latin, with the dividing line between the two periods placed around 100 BCE. Archaic Latin is attested through three principal sources. First, around fifteen hundred Latin inscriptions are recorded from the seventh century to the end of the second century BCE; although many of these are short, and some fragmentary or not well understood, these texts show how speakers at the time wrote Latin. Second, literary, legal, and religious texts are transmitted through the manuscript tradition. The bulk of this material is comprised by twenty complete or near-complete verse plays of Plautus and six of Terence; only one short prose work, Cato’s De agri cultura, survives in its entirety. Many other literary works, including the Annales of Ennius and the Saturae of Lucilius, are attested in citations of later writers, most of which are less than two lines in length. Texts transmitted in the manuscript tradition usually show spellings adapted to later classical norms, including, for example, the Greek letters Y and Z, which do not occur in the epigraphic record at this date. The third source of information is given by statements about the earlier stages of the language or citation of individual words in grammarians and other Roman writers from later periods. A number of significant sound changes took place during the archaic Latin period, including rhotacism, monophthongization, and vowel weakening, and as a result some of the oldest archaic Latin forms have a very different appearance to their classical counterparts. The morphology, syntax, and vocabulary of archaic Latin are also distinctive, and sometimes are better explained by comparison with phenomena in the other Italic languages of Italy, including Oscan and Umbrian, or the older languages of the Indo-European family. During the archaic Latin period, Roman writers started composing verse in adaptations of Greek meters, but some inscriptions, and the epic poetry of Livius Andronicus and Naevius, make use of what appears to be a native verse form, known as the Saturnian, the analysis of which is disputed. Despite the general paucity of surviving textual materials, it is possible to arrive at some definite conclusions about different registers or regional and social varieties of archaic Latin. Faliscan, attested epigraphically between the seventh and third centuries BCE, is now identified by many scholars as a dialect of Latin, rather than a separate language.

General Overviews of Archaic Latin

The collected papers in Clackson 2011; Adams and Vincent 2016; and Adams, et al. 2023 gather many of the leading scholars with chapters covering a very wide range of aspects of Latin: Adams, et al. 2023 is unusual in that it concentrates only on archaic Latin and its reception. Poccetti, et al. 1999 and Clackson and Horrocks 2007 provide narrative histories of Latin, with much space devoted to the archaic period; Meiser 1998 and Weiss 2020 are both structured as historical grammars, with separate chapters devoted to phonology and sound changes, along with nominal, pronominal, and verbal morphology.

  • Adams, James N., Anna Chahoud, and Giuseppe Pezzini, eds. 2023. Early Latin: Constructs, diversity, reception. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    The twenty-nine chapters of this volume include surveys of aspects of archaic Latin and detailed investigations into specific texts.

  • Adams, J. N., and Nigel Vincent, eds. 2016. Early and Late Latin: Continuity or change? Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A number of papers deal with aspects of archaic Latin in comparison with later stages of Latin.

  • Clackson, James, ed. 2011. A companion to the Latin language. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

    This volume has a survey chapter “Archaic and Old Latin” by John Penney, and includes many other chapters which are of importance for the study of archaic Latin, including those on the development of Latin from Proto-Indo-European, the Latin alphabet, and inscriptions and the language of Roman comedy.

  • Clackson, James, and Geoffrey Horrocks. 2007. The Blackwell history of the Latin language. Malden, MA: Wiley.

    A narrative history which includes three chapters on archaic Latin with linguistic commentaries on several literary and inscriptional texts from the period.

  • Meiser, Gerhard. 1998. Historische Laut- und Formenlehre der lateinischen Sprache. Darmstadt, Germany: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.

    Includes many citations of forms from the Sabellic languages and inscriptional forms.

  • Poccetti, Paolo, Diego Poli, and Carlo Santini. 1999. Una storia della lingua latina: Formazione, usi, comunicazione. Rome: Carocci.

    Poccetti, a leading expert on Sabellic languages, is responsible for the first section of the work, which includes much information about contact between speakers of Latin and those of other languages. Santini then deals with the development of the literary language and Poli with Latin viewed through the eyes of ancient grammarians and others.

  • Weiss, Michael. 2020. Outline of the historical and comparative grammar of Latin. 2d ed. Ann Arbor, MI, and New York: Beech Stave Press.

    The most up-to-date and reliable source for the history of Latin, with copious references to Latin inscriptions and texts and secondary literature, as well as much comparative material.

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