Monday, January 19, 2015

Language Profile: Classical Latin

Since last Friday was the anniversary of the foundation of the Roman Empire, we took a brief look at Old Latin, the oldest form of the language. Today we're continuing our look at the evolution of this important historical language.

Latin as it appeared after 75 BC is referred to as Classical Latin. This is the Latin used during the later years of the Roman Republic and throughout the span of the Roman Empire. It may sound surprising, but one man, Marcus Tullius Cicero, is given significant credit for a lot of the changes between Old Latin and Classical Latin.

A young Cicero reading.
Cicero lived from 106 BC until 43 BC, and if you happened to write in Latin between 83 BC and 43 BC, you were doing so during the Ciceronian Age. Cicero's legacy includes the transformation of Old Latin, a supposedly dull and frumpy utilitarian language, into Classical Latin, the sexy literary language that was arguably the Marilyn Monroe of languages at the time. He did this through his many works on many subjects which also include a huge number of neologisms.

For his contributions, Cicero was praised and admired by the most important people of the time, including Julius Caesar, who was the dictator of the Roman Republic at the time. Caesar is quoted as saying "it is more important to have greatly extended the frontiers of the Roman spirit than the frontiers of the Roman empire". While this is clearly a grand compliment, it seems somewhat cheapened coming from a dictator who happened to be in control of a large portion of the known world at the time.

This form of Latin is often considered as Latin at its best, and when people refer to "Latin", they are often referring to this incarnation of the language as it appeared until the 3rd century. It just so happens that Classical Latin existed at the same time the Roman Empire was in control of just over a fifth of the world's population. Mere coincidence? I think not!

We'll be back on Wednesday as we move from Classical Latin to Late Latin. We hope to see you then!

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