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Separation of the two empires
Home > Mezzofanti > Eminent linguists > Ancient period > Separation of the two empires

From the death of Constantine, however, the study began rapidly to decline, even among ecclesiastics. The dis- ruption of the Empire naturally tended to diminish the intercourse between East and West, and by consequence the interchange of their languages. It would appear, too, as if the barbarian conquerors adopted, in favour of their own languages, the same policy which the Romans had pursued for Latin. Attila is said to have passed a law prohibiting the use of the Latin language in his newly conquered kingdom, and to have taken pains, by importing native teachers, to procure the substitution of Gothic in its stead. At all events, in whatever way the change was brought about, a knowledge of both Greek and Latin, which in the classic times of the Empire had been the ordinary accomplishment of every educated man, became uncommon and almost exceptional. Pope Gregory the Great, who, bitterly as he has been assailed as an enemy of letters, must be confessed to have been the most eminent Western scholar of his day, spoke Greek very imperfectly ; he complains that it was difficult, even at Constantinople, to find any one who could translate Greek satisfactorily into Latin ; and a still earlier instance is recorded, in which a pope, in other respects a man of undoubted ability, was unable to translate the letter of the Greek patriarch, much less to communicate with the Greek ambassadors, except through an interpreter. More than one, indeed, of the early theological controversies was embittered through the misunderstandings caused between the East and West by mutual ignorance of each other's lan-guage. Pelagius succeeded in obtaining a favourable decision from the Council of Jerusalem in 415, chiefly because, while his Western adversary, Orosius, was unable to speak Greek, the fathers of the Council were ignorant of Latin. The protracted controversy on the Three Chapters owed much of its inveteracy to the ignorance of the Westerns of the original language of the works whose orthodoxy was impugned ; and it is well known that the condemnation of the decree of the sixth council on the use of sacred images issued by the fathers of Francfort, was based exclusively on a strangely erroneous Latin translation of the acts of the council, through which translation alone they were known in Germany and Gaul. The foundation of the Empire of Charlemagne consummated the separation between the Greek and Latin races and their languages. The venerated names of Bede and of Alcuin in the Western Church, and the more questionable celebrity of the Patriarch Photius in the Eastern, constitute a passing exception. But it need hardly be added that they stand almost entirely alone; and it will readily be believed that, amid the Barbarian irruptions from without, and the fierce intestine revolutions, of which Europe was the theatre during the rest of the earlier mediaeval period, even that familiarity with the Greek and oriental languages which we have described, entirely disappeared in the West.

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