* and Cleopatra
|Mithridates and Cleopatra as polyglots|
Home > Mezzofanti > Eminent linguists > Ancient period > Mithridates and Cleopatra
In like manner, it would be difficult to shew, either from the Cyropaedia, or the Expedition of Cyrus, that Xenophon, during his foreign travel, became master of Persian or any kindred Eastern tongue. Nor am I aware that there has ever been discovered in the writings of Plato any evidence of familiarity with the language of those Eastern philosophers from whose science he is believed to have drawn so largely. It is strange that the two notable exceptions to this barrenness of eminent linguists which characterizes the classic times, Mithridates and Cleopatra, should both have been of royal rank. The former, the celebrated king of Pontus, long one of the most formidable enemies of the Roman name, is alleged to have spoken fluently the languages of all the subjects of his empire; an empire so vast, and comprising so many different nationalities as to throw an air of improbability over the story. According to Aulus Gellius, he " was thoroughly conversant" (percalluit) with the languages of all the nations (twenty-five in number) over which his rule extended. The other writers who relate the circum-stance—Valerius Maximus, Pliny, and Solinus—make the number only twenty- two. Some commentators have regarded the story as a gross exaggeration; and others have sought to diminish its marvellousness by explaining it of different dialects, rather than of distinct languages. But there does not appear in the narrative of the original writers any reason, whether for the doubt or for the restriction. Pliny declares that "it is quite certain;" and the matter-of-fact tone in which they all relate it, makes it clear that they wished to be understood literally. It was the king's invariable practice, they tell us, to communicate with all the subjects of his polyglot empire directly and in person, and "never through an interpreter;" and Gellius roundly affirms that he was able to converse in each and every one of these tongues " with as much correctness as if it were his native dialect," The attainments of Cleopatra, although far short of what is reported of Mithridates, are nevertheless described by Plutarch as very extraordinary. He says that she "spoke most languages, and that there were but few of the foreign ambassadors to whom she gave audience through an interpreter." The languages which he specifies are those of the Ethiopians, of the Troglodytes (probably a dialect of Coptic), of the Hebrews, of the Arabs, the Syrians, the Medes, and the Persians ; but he adds that this list does not comprise all the languages which this extraordinary woman understood Now the very prominence assigned to these examples, and the absence of all allusion to any other which might be supposed to approximate to them, may afford a presumption that they are almost solitary. Valerius Maximus, in his well-known chapter De Studio et Industria, cites the case of Mithridates. as a very remarkable example "of study and industry." It is highly probable therefore, that, if he knew any other eminent linguists, he would have added their names. Yet the only cases which he instances are those of Cato learning Greek in his old age, of Themistocles acquiring Persian during his exile and of Publius mastering all the five dialects of Greece during the time of his Praetorship. In like manner, Aulus Gellius has no more notable linguist to produce, in contrast with Mithridates, than the old poet Ennius, who used to boast that he had three hearts, because he could speak Greek, Latin, and his. rude native dialect, Oscan. And Pliny, with all his love of parallels, is even more meagre ;—he does not recite a single name in comparison with that of Mithridates.
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