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The Romans as polyglots
Home > Mezzofanti > Eminent linguists > Ancient period > The Romans

The Romans, especially under the early Republic, appear to have been singularly indifferent or unsuccessful in cultivating languages ; and the bad Greek of the Roman ambassadors to, Tarentum, for their ridicule of which the Tarentines paid so, dearly, is almost an average specimen of the accomplishments, of the earlier Romans as linguists. Nor can this circumstance fail to appear strange, when it is remembered over how many different races and tongues the wide domain of Rome extended. The very multiplicity of languages submitted to her government would seem to have imposed upon her public men the necessity of familiarizing themselves, even for the discharge of their public office, with at least the principal ones among them. But, on the contrary, for a long time they steadily pursued the policy of imposing, as far as practicable, upon the conquered nationalities the Latin language, at least in public and official transactions. And, so far as regards the Eastern and Northern languages, this exclusion was successfully and permanently enforced at Rome. The slave population of the city comprised almost every variety of race within the limits of the Empire. The very names of the slaves who are introduced in the plays of Plautus and Terence—Syra, Phoenicium, Afer, Geta, Dorias, &c. (which are but their respective gentile appellatives)— embrace a very large circle of the languages of Asia, Africa, and Northern Europe. And yet, with the exception of a single scene in the Paenulus of Plautus, in which the well-known Punic speech of Hanno the Carthaginian is introduced,t there is nothing in either of these dramatists from which we could infer that any of the manifold languages of the slave population of Borne effected an entrance among their haughty masters. They were all as completely ignored by the Romans, as is the vernacular Celtic of the Irish agricultural servant in the midland counties of England.

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