Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.02.12

Frédérique Biville, Jean-Claude Decourt, Georges Rougemont (ed.), Bilinguisme gréco-latin et épigraphie: actes du colloque, 17-19 mai 2004. Collection de la Maison de l'Orient et de la Méditerranée 37; série épigraphique et historique 6.   Lyon:  Maison de l'Orient méditerranéen, 2008.  Pp. 344.  ISBN 9782356680006.  €32.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Eleanor Dickey, University of Exeter (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

[The reviewer apologizes for the delay in this review, which is entirely her own fault.]

This enjoyable volume is the result of a conference on bilingualism in ancient epigraphy held in Lyon in 2004. The aim of the conference, which appears to have succeeded admirably, was to bring together epigraphers and linguists working on greco-latin bilingualism. The papers cover not only bilingual inscriptions, which are relatively rare, but also epigraphic corpora that include texts in both languages, which are much more common. The pieces vary in quality, but as a whole the volume will be of interest to anyone whose work deals with language use or identity issues in the ancient world.

The volume is divided into a long section on greco-latin bilingualism in the Greek east and a much shorter one on greco-latin bilingualism in the Latin west, with two more general papers at the start. Most of the papers deal with a particular inscription (two papers devoted to the Res gestae and one to an inscription on Delos) or, more often, a well-defined corpus of inscriptions (e.g. one paper each on inscriptions from Palmyra, Cyrene, Beroia, Rome, Moesia inferiora, and Gaul; one on Jewish inscriptions from Italy; and two papers on Delos). But the authors generally try to draw conclusions with larger applications from this restricted material, and usually succeed. The original remit of the conference restricted its focus to greco-latin bilingualism (hence the smaller number of papers on the western empire, in most parts of which Greek was much less common than Latin in the eastern empire); nevertheless a few papers consider other languages as well as Latin and Greek (Aramaic in Yon's paper, Gaulish in Decourt's), bringing an added dimension to the discussion.

Space precludes discussing all seventeen chapters, and a list of their titles can be found at the end of this review, so I shall concentrate here on a few that I found particularly interesting. Denis Feissel (pp. 214-30) discusses the way the Roman alphabet was used in sixth-century Byzantium. At this period the use of Latin itself was fast disappearing in Byzantium, and one might have expected the alphabet to vanish along with the language with which it was associated. But the use of the Roman alphabet was maintained by a new practice of transliterating Greek into Latin script. These transliterations are found, sporadically, in certain legal and administrative contexts where previously Latin would have been used, so it seems that a sort of fiction of the use of Latin was maintained by using Greek but transliterating it. In some legal texts a kind of hybrid developed, in which an essentially Greek sentence, in the Greek alphabet, contained Latin loanwords in the Latin alphabet -- or even Latin loanwords written in the Latin alphabet apart from their Greek endings, which reverted to the Greek script. Particularly interesting are the seals of imperial officials, which in the sixth and seventh century often contain Greek names in the Roman alphabet, and Feissel helpfully gives a list of these. He also notes that this practice in the 'protobyzantine' period helps explain Byzantine coinage of the eighth to tenth centuries, which shows a similar use of Latin transliteration. This paper stretches the boundaries of the volume by mixing epigraphic evidence with papyrus and manuscript material; the results are excellent (the non-epigraphic texts provide context and background for the epigraphic texts, and the epigraphic texts allow one to work out what has happened to the manuscripts in the process of transmission) and remind one of the importance of looking at multiple media when dealing with infrequent phenomena.

Heikki Solin (pp. 259-72) considers the way that days of the month were expressed by Greeks living in Rome. The Roman dating system, which counted backward from the Calends, Nones, and Ides using inclusive reckoning, was as different from the Greek way of dating as it is from our own. One might have expected the Greeks of Rome to use their own, simpler dating system when writing in their own language, but they did not do so: using examples from a collection of unpublished Greek graffiti from a private house of the II-III AD in Rome near Stazione Termini, Solin shows that even wall-scribblers with little education used the Roman dating system more or less as the Romans themselves did. Such usage involved introducing into Greek the loanwords καλανδαί, νωναί, and εἰδοί. Solin argues that the forms of these words in Greek attests to very early borrowing, before the time of Plautus and Ennius; his evidence is meagre, and few will consider him to have decisively proved the point, but the possibility is an interesting one and cannot be excluded a priori, as other very early loans into the Greek of southern Italy are attested.

Giovanbattista Galdi (pp. 141-54) compares the Latin and the Greek of inscriptions from Lower Moesia (parts of modern Bulgaria and Romania). The Latin inscriptions cover three centuries and the Greek even more, and Galdi finds a consistent difference in the use of the two languages throughout the period: the Greek is on the whole correct, and the Latin is on the whole incorrect. The errors in the Latin are of two types: vulgar or colloquial features that were no doubt common in speech in many parts of the empire but that in other provinces would not have been allowed to show up in inscriptions, and Greek influence. Galdi traces both types of error to the same source, a generally poor grasp of Latin on the part of the composers of the inscriptions in a region where Greek was far more commonly spoken than Latin. The author of this paper seems himself to be a multilingual phenomenon: at the time this piece was written he evidently had a position at a French university, he now holds a position in Cyprus, in between the two he worked at a German university, he is Italian by birth, and he has also published work in English.

Miltiade Hatzopoulos (pp. 129-36) discusses the corpus of inscriptions from Beroia in northern Greece. The main epigraphic language of Beroia was Greek, and for most of the Roman period Latin inscriptions are extremely rare (and, when they do occur, connected with foreigners). In the fifth and sixth centuries, however, the percentage of inscriptions in Latin increases dramatically, and Latin is used in connection with local inhabitants. Hatzopoulos also finds increased influence of Latin on the language of the Greek inscriptions in this period (a phenomenon by no means confined to Beroia). The area concerned is one in which the survival of a language descended from Latin has been documented in the modern period, and the writer speculates about whether there could be a connection between the writers of these late antique inscriptions and the modern Romance language. Perhaps, he wonders, a Latin-speaking minority won greater tolerance as a result of the spread of Christianity? Unfortunately, as he admits, this explanation is unlikely as the speakers of the modern language are believed to be relatively recent migrants.

The volume is reasonably well produced, with footnotes at the bottoms of pages and with some photographs (not always legible; I would have preferred line drawings). Bibliography is provided separately at the end of each chapter. Each piece is preceded by an abstract (these vary greatly in both length and quality), which is provided in English translation as well as in French; apart from the abstracts (which are often difficult to decipher without recourse to the French original) the volume is entirely in French.


I: Contacts linguistiques et témoignages épigraphiques

Langue et culture ou les ambiguïtés identitaires des notables des cités grecques sous l'Empire de Rome (Athanassios Rizakis)

Situations et documents bilingues dans le monde gréco-romain (Frédérique Biville)

II: Grec et latin en orient

Le bilinguisme dans les inscriptions des magistri de Délos (Claire Hasenohr)

Usages des langues et élaboration des décisions dans le "Monument bilingue" de Delphes (Denis Rousset)

L'épigraphie funéraire bilingue des Italiens en Grèce et en Asie, aux IIe et Ier siècles av. J.-C. (Élodie Bauzon)

Le grec et le latin dans les inscriptions de Béroia (Miltiade Hatzopoulos)

Aspects du bilinguisme gréco-latin dans la province de Mésie inférieure (Giovanbattista Galdi)

Sur quelques faits de bilinguisme gréco-latin dans le corpus épigraphique cyrénéen (Catherine Dobias)

Le recours au latin dans les documents officiels émis par les cités d'Asie Mineure (Cédric Brélaz)

Bilinguisme et trilinguisme à Palmyre (Jean-Baptiste Yon)

Écrire grec en alphabet latin: le cas des documents protobyzantins (Denis Feissel)

III Latin et grec en occident

Remarques sur le vocabulaire politique des Res gestae divi Augusti (Jean-François Berthet)

Interférences onomastiques et péri-onomastiques dans les Res gestae d'Auguste (Daniel Vallat)

Observations sur la forme grecque des indications calendaires romaines à Rome à l'époque impériale (Heikki Solin)

Le bilinguisme gréco-latin dans les communautés juives d'Italie d'aprés les inscriptions (IIIe - VIe s.) (Bruno Rochette)

Le bilinguisme des inscriptions de la Gaule (Jean-Claude Decourt)

Conclusion (Jean-Louis Ferrary)

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2010
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review
Bryn Mawr Classical Commentaries

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010

HTML generated at 12:15:59, Friday, 05 February 2010