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Decline of the Study
Home > Mezzofanti > Eminent linguists > Ancient period > Decline of the Study

But it was not so for Greek. From the Augustan age onwards, this polished language began to dispute the mastery with Latin even in Rome itself. " Graecia capta ferum cepit captorem, et artes Intulit agresti Latio—" applies to the language, even more than to the arts. In the days of the Rhetorician, Molon, (Cicero's master in eloquence,) Greek had obtained the entrée of the Senate. In the time of Tiberius, its use was permitted even in forensic pleadings, With the emperors who succeeded, the triumph of Greek was still more complete. From Pliny downwards, there is hardly an author of eminence in the Roman Empire who did not write in that language;—Pausanias, Dion, Galen, even the Emperor Marcus Aurelius himself, with all the traditionary Roman associations of his name. It was so also with the Christian population and the Christian literature of Rome. Almost all the Christian writings of the first two centuries are in Greek. The early Roman liturgy was Greek. The population of Rome was in great part a Greek-speaking race. A large proportion of the inscriptions in the Roman Catacombs are Greek, and some even of the Latin ones are engraved in Greek characters. Nay, the early Christian churches in Gaul, Vienne, Lyons, and Marseilles, and the few remains of their literature which have reached us, are equally Greek. In a word, during the first two centuries of the Christian era making due allowance for the difference of the periods, Greek and Latin held towards each other in Rome the same relation which we find between Norman- French and Saxon in , England after the Conquest; and we may safely say that, during those centuries, a knowledge of both languages was the ordinary accomplishment of all educated men, and was shared by many of the lowest of the population. Beyond this limit, however, we read of no remarkable linguists even among the accomplished scholars of the Augustan age. No one will doubt that the two Varros may fairly be taken as, in this respect, the most favourable specimens of the class. Now neither of them seems to have gone further than a knowledge of Greek. Out of the four hundred and ninety books which Marcus Terentius Varro wrote, there is not one named which would indicate familiarity with any other foreign language. The Neo-Platonists of the second and third centuries, whose researches in Oriental Philosophy must have brought them into contact with some of the Eastern languages, may possibly form an exception to this general statement; but, on the whole, in the absence of positive and exact information on the subject, it may not unreasonably be conjectured that, among the Christian scholars of the second, third, and fourth centuries, we might find a wider range of linguistic attainments than among their gentile contemporaries. The critical study of the Bible itself involved the necessity of familiarity, not only with Greek and Hebrew, but with more than one cognate oriental dialect besides. St. Jerome, besides the classic languages and his native Illyrian, is known to have been familiar with several of the Eastern tongues; and it is not improbable that some of the earlier commentators and expositors of the Bible may be taken as equally favourable specimens of the Christian linguists. Origen's Hexapla is a monument of his scholarship in Hebrew, and probably in Syriac and Samaritan. St. Clement of Alexandria was perhaps even a more accomplished linguist; for be tells that of the masters under whom he studied, one was from Greece, one from Magna Graecia, a third from Coele-Syria, a fourth from Egypt, a fifth an Assyrian, and a sixth a Hebrew. And St. Gregory Nazianzen expressly relates of his friend St. Basil, that, even before he came to Athens to commence his rhetorical studies, he was already well- versed in many languages.

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