AN ANTHOLOGY OF INFORMAL LATIN 200 BC – AD 900: Fifty Texts with Translations and Linguistic Commentary

J. N. Adams

CUP (2016) h/b 719pp £120 (ISBN 9781107039773)

For some two thousand years, knowing Latin has meant getting forms and constructions right. If we ask what is meant here by ‘right’, the traditional answer is that correct usage is that of good classical prose authors like Cicero. This book explores the history of the Latin language through a selection of over fifty texts and extracts that deviate from the ‘rules’ as we know them.

It will come as no surprise that Adams’ Anthology includes some early Latin texts and many late texts. A widespread understanding of the history of the language has it that Classical Latin emerged in the first century BC as the result of some sort of standardisation process—a process of ‘selection and rejection, the pursuit of latinitas under the banner of urbanitas’ (Palmer, The Latin Language, p. 123). Against this background, it is widely believed that early Latin authors were writing before the Classical norms had crystallised, whereas late Latin texts were written as the Classical language became increasingly far removed from the everyday speech of ordinary people. Early authors could hardly be expected to follow rules that did not exist in their day, and late authors deviated from the rules if their own command of the rules was limited or if they were writing for relatively uneducated people.

There are large grains of truth in this story, but one of the main goals of Adams’ work is to show that it is all a bit more complicated. To begin with, it is a mistake to think that early Latin writers wrote in a simple style just because they had not yet developed the stylistic resources we associate with Ciceronian Latin. In the early chapters of his Anthology, Adams emphasises the diversity of style and register to be found in early Latin. He begins with a fragment of Ennius’ Euhemerus, a prose work based on the Sacred Scripture by Euhemerus of Messene. Ennius here retells myths as rational stories, with the gods featuring as humans who lived a long time ago. The Latin appears very simple: in Vahlen’s edition, from which Adams quotes, this 180-word extract contains fifteen sentences, ranging from four to twenty-six words in length; eight of these sentences begin with a temporal adverb such as tum or deinde. We are a world away from Cicero’s periodic sentences. Yet it would be wrong, for two main reasons, to think that Ennius wrote like this simply because of his early date (239–169 BC):
(i)      A similar style is adopted for popular storytelling throughout the history of Latin. For this point Adams (p. 9) refers readers to the Index, under ‘temporal adverbs, repetitious’. Following up this reference leads us to further examples spanning many centuries: narratives from Terence (Adams, p. 24); a narrative used in the Rhetorica ad Herennium to illustrate the debased variant of the simple rhetorical style (Adams, pp. 133–4); a passage of Vitruvius, telling how Caesar discovered the fire-resistance of larch wood (Adams, pp. 165, 185); and a dream supposedly written down by Vibia Perpetua before her execution, from the third-century AD Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas (Adams, pp. 318–19, 346–7).
(ii)     Other stylistic possibilities were available in Ennius’ time too. To illustrate this point Adams (p. 25) quotes part of a military narrative from Ennius’ older contemporary Plautus (Amphitryo 188–94), in a completely different narrative style. This 48-word extract contains (for example) three ablative absolutes, a construction rarely found in Plautus but associated with military narrative. What we have here is a parody of a military report, not a popular narrative.

The story with which we began is too simple in further respects too. Importantly, for example, Adams suggests that the uniformity of élite Latin in the classical period has been exaggerated by the over-representation of Cicero in our evidence. A crucial passage to illustrate this point is an extract from a letter of Marcus Caelius Rufus to Cicero (Cicero, ad Familiares 8. 15. 1–2). Not only do we find forms that Cicero uses in his letters but not in his speeches (such as isto ‘to that place’ and the exclamation hui), but we also find usages that recur elsewhere in letters to Cicero but are never used by Cicero himself. For example, strong assertions introduced by peream nisi ‘may I die if…not’, and strong denials introduced by peream si ‘may I die if’, are attested three times in letters of Cicero’s correspondents, and in a letter of Augustus quoted by Suetonius, but never in Cicero (Adams, p. 141). Given how many letters of Cicero’s survive, this difference is unlikely to be accidental. Adams argues that it is tendentious to classify deviations from Ciceronian usage as ‘vulgar’ at this period, rather than simply as evidence for diversity in late republican educated language. If Caelius rather than Cicero had achieved the sort of success that leads to the survival of one’s works in large quantities, generations of prose composition pupils might have been taught to introduce strong assertions and denials with peream nisi and peream si.

Intriguingly, Adams also suggests that Cicero’s own works come down to us in a form that may be more ‘Ciceronian’ than they were when Cicero wrote them. Knowing that Cicero used Ciceronian Latin, generations of copyists and editors may have emended ‘un-Ciceronian’ features out of the text of Cicero while letting them stand in other authors (Adams, pp. 185–6, 641).

This book is magnificent in its breadth and depth of learning, and will repay reading by students and scholars of the history of the Latin language. Readers should be warned, however, that the book is not aimed at beginners: as Adams says himself (p. 4), ‘The book might be used by students, but is not intended as an elementary reader’. For an accessible and up-to-date introductory history of the Latin language, generously illustrated through samples of text, readers are referred to J. Clackson and G. Horrocks, The Blackwell History of the Latin Language (Malden 2007).

Philomen Probert

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