Colloquial English in Ancient Rome: Striking a Balance

If you chance to pick up a translation of a Greek or Latin Classic produced in the 19th or early 20th century, you can quickly come away with an impression of the Greeks and Romans as stodgily archaic, stilted and formal in their diction and, possibly, with a vision of them as somehow medieval, slightly gothic, even. This is because translators of that era liked to make the ancients speak with words borrowed from their own cod-medieval romances. Writers such as the poet Catullus or  Plautus, author and adaptor of slapstick comedies, who, in their very different ways, delivered sharply contemporary entertainment, twisting everyday language in new and inventive directions are forced to intone wilt thou? woulds’t or, if you’re very unlucky, prithee. This faux-medievalism has nothing of the genuine energy, beauty or innovation of, say, Chaucerian English; it is, rather, archaism for the sake of archaism, intended to signal to the reader that they are reading something very old and, therefore, very worthy and very serious.

If an ancient writer is tasteless enough to make a sexual reference or, indeed, allude to a common bodily function, the Victorian or Edwardian translator with a sad shake of the head, will either omit it altogether, translate it into yet another language or render it so obscurely and squeamishly that your imagination is left to run riot about what the original must have said.

The historical novelists often tended to reflect the style of the translators; here for example is a brief extract from the famous The Last Days of Pompeii;

‘And lo! one of the handsomest in Pompeii, old Diomed’s daughter, the rich Julia!’ said Clodius, as a young lady, her face covered by her veil, and attended by two female slaves, approached them, in her way to the baths.
‘Fair Julia, we salute thee!’ said Clodius.

In recent decades, we have tended to take a different approach; the Romans can be seen to hold up a mirror to us, yet one showing a somewhat different likeness to that which the proudly imperialist Victorians saw looking complacently back at them.

Like the Romans, we live in big cosmopolitan cities in cramped apartments or centrally heated houses. Like the Romans, we are bombarded with sexual imagery and we talk about or allude to sex throughout all levels of society with an openness that the Edwardian bourgeoisie would never have dreamed of. Divorce and remarriage are common among us, as with the Romans, and the existence of same sex relationships is increasingly acknowledged and accepted in our society, also with clear Graeco-Roman parallels.

If the Romans acted a bit like us, did they also sound a bit like us? Writers such as Plautus, Catullus and, of course, the notorious novelist Petronius suggest that they did. Unlike the measured, formal longwindedness of Cicero, the Latin of everyday parlance, which these writers strove to imitate was concise, direct, peppered with now-mysterious colloquialisms, laden with polyglot borrowings and, not infrequently, crudely explicit: rather like 21st century English, in fact.

When translating writers such as these, or when writing fiction in which Romans carry on their everyday lives, we can feel cautiously justified in using modern, colloquial English. Our Romans can happily say fuck, whether as a verb or expletive. They can have boyfriends and girlfriends, respond with a laconic ‘yeah,’ or refer to an acquaintance as ‘this guy’.
Why is caution needed? One important reason is that, for all the surface similarities between Roman society and our contemporary society that I have sketched above, there are still gaping differences.

For a start, we can look at the word ‘girlfriend,’ for which we have the seemingly friendly Latin equivalent of amica – literally a female friend. If an elite Roman male tells us he has an amica, however, we can’t assume he means a woman with whom he has an egalitarian sexual relationship, freely entered into by both parties, that may or may not be eventually solemnised in marriage. He very probably means that he has an arrangement with a courtesan in which a sexual relationship is negotiated through more or less direct financial inducements and which will end when either he tires of the courtesan or the courtesan gets a better offer. If, by chance, he is having a relationship with a woman of similar social status then he is alluding daringly to something transgressive. Respectable Roman women were not supposed to have extramarital relationships. Therefore, while we can use the word girlfriend, we need to be aware that the word will have rather different connotations in the context of Roman society than ours.

Another area of extreme caution is the idea of ‘gay’ Romans. As we have mentioned, Romans had no problem with acknowledging and accepting the fact of sexual relationships between males (they had much less to say about relationships between women, probably because ‘they’ were men, writing in a patriarchal society, and what they did have to say was generally bemused and disapproving). There wasn’t, however, a portion of the population that identified as some equivalent to gay, or were seen as having gay relationships, as such. Nobody cared whether an adult male Roman citizen fucked his slave boy or his slave girl and, certainly, no one cared whether the slave boy or slave girl wanted to be fucked. Neither of them would be seen as embodying some particular sexual identity because of what went on between them. At most, it might be mentioned as a matter of idle gossip that so and so tended to prefer boys to girls and then it might go on to say, ‘and he was also very fond of anchovies…”

A source of much nastier, more pointed gossip, however, would be if a young man of elite birth was believed to be having a relationship with another free man. In that case, he was putting himself in the position of a woman, a slave and a whore, and, if he happened to be your political enemy, you could go on about it at great length. Of course, if there was no evidence of such a relationship, you could always make it up…

The Greek perspective seems to have been somewhat different, in that it could be acceptable, within limitations, for well-born youths to have romantic relationships with older men (or sometimes young men their own age), but scandalous if it continued beyond the early twenties. It is on this basis that, in Gaius and Achilles, Achilles conducts his relationship with the very conventional Hippothous.

Gaius can do what he likes (with a degree of discretion), because he is an aristocrat who prefers to associate with poets, actors and courtesans and hasn’t the slightest interest in competing in the political arena, where his private life would become a matter of public interest. He can openly have ‘boyfriends,’ even of equivalent social status, like Tiberius, within the context of his own demimondaine social circles, but not in the mainstream of Roman public life. Gaius and his friends are the stuff of Cicero’s rhetorical nightmares.

Roman attitudes to sexual relations, then, were not very much like those of the Victorians, but they were not necessarily particularly ‘liberal’ or uninhibited, either; they were governed by their own sets of rules and conventions. When writing about Romans and putting our own idiom into their mouths, we need to be aware that the words may come out with very different meanings and implications.


4 thoughts on “Colloquial English in Ancient Rome: Striking a Balance

  1. What a delightful post! I really enjoyed reading it. It never occurred to me to look at Roman and Greek translations done in the 18th and 19th Centuries this way, but of course, it makes perfect sense.

    • Why thank you! I think translations of works of literature can often tell you as much about the society that produced them as about the original work itself.

  2. Excellent points, Clodia. I always feel I am missing something when I read a translation of anything. It puts another conciousness (filter) between me and the author. Umberto Eco’s novels are a good example of writing appears difficult to translate, and still have the same feel as the original. Probably a lot of early spiritual writings as well…the bible, for instance.

  3. Thanks for reading and commenting; I’m glad you found this interesting.
    Yes, a filter is a good way of describing a translation and the Bible is an excellant example. The King James Version is a great work of English literature in its own right, but it carries so much of its own 400 – odd years of cultural baggage that it is hard to remember that you’re engaging with a millennia old collection of Hebrew texts. The modern, colloquial translations create yet another effect which may be far from what was intended.

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