Etruscan/Latin bilingualism and class

This term, I’m working on the translations for my Italy Before Rome sourcebook. (Among other things, I’ve learned very swiftly that I am not capable of translating more than one language in the same day, so I have to block out each day for different things.) The result of reading these texts so closely is that I’m spotting lots of things which I hadn’t really noticed before.

Here’s one example: there’s a passage of Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita which is often quoted in discussions of Etruscan bilingualism (Livy 9.35-36). In this story, which describes events of 310 BC, the Romans get the better of the Etruscan forces in battle, but then are unsure what to do when the Etruscans flee into a nearby forest. Here’s my (draft) translation:

With a renewed shout, the Roman spearmen and the second line charged with drawn swords. The Etruscans did not return the attack and, turning their signals, ran back to their camp in disorganised retreat. The Roman cavalry, riding across the plain at an angle, obstructed the fleeing soldiers, who gave up on reaching their camp and headed to the mountains. Mostly unarmed and shaken by their wounds, they dived into the Ciminian wood. With many of the Etruscan soldiers killed, thirty-eight standards captured, and the camp taken, the Romans gain a huge amount of spoils. Then they debated whether or not to pursue the enemy.

The Ciminian wood was, at that time, more impassable and terrifying than the German forests are now. No merchants had been through before that day. Almost no one apart from the general himself dared to enter it – all the others had not yet forgotten the disaster at Caudium [when the Roman army had been trapped without water and had had to negotiate a quick surrender]. Then one of those who was there – Marcus Fabius, the brother of the consul (others say it was Caeso, and others Lucius Claudius, who had the same mother as the consul) – said that he would go and explore and would soon bring accurate news. He had been brought up at Caere at the house of friends, was highly educated in Etruscan literature and knew the Etruscan language well. I have sources that say that generally Roman boys of that time were educated in Etruscan literature, in the same way as they are now in Greek literature. But probably it is true that there was also something special about someone who mixed with the enemy in disguise with such bravery. He is said to have had one slave as a companion, who had been fed by the same wet-nurse and also knew the Etruscan language.

On setting out, they briefly found out about the nature of the region they were travelling into, and the names of the most important men in the community, so that they could not be caught out hesitating about something obvious during a conversation. They went disguised as shepherds armed with rustic weapons – pruning hooks and a pair of heavy iron javelins. But neither their fluency in the language nor the style of their clothes and weapons disguised them as much as the fact that it was incredible that any foreigner would enter the Ciminian forest. It is said that they went as far as Camerinum in Umbria. There, Fabius dared to say who they were: he was introduced to the city’s senate, and in the name of the consul he made a treaty of alliance and friendship with them.

You can immediately see why bilingualism is important to this story – Livy emphasises that Marcus Fabius and his (unnamed) slave are able to complete this dangerous mission because they are bilingual in Etruscan and Latin. In fact, they are fluent enough to go completely undercover, though they have to brush up on current events a little. Livy also claims to have made use of other historical sources which give an explanation for Fabius’s bilingualism – he says that he has read that it was common in the fourth century for Romans to be educated in Etruscan literature. This is the element of the story that is quoted most frequently – I have underlined the lines which are very often quoted in isolation.

If we only pay attention to the underlined text, it gives the impression that Livy’s account only mentions elite bilingualism. In fact, there are two men on the mission, both of whom are bilingual – one an elite free citizen, and one a slave – and so Livy’s story hints at wider Etruscan/Latin bilingualism than is sometimes implied. A slave who was fed by the same wet-nurse as an aristocrat is likely to have had many privileges, but he was a slave nevertheless. From the reading I had previously done, I was not aware that there was a slave mentioned in this story, and the scholarship tends to remove him from the picture.

Here are some places where I’ve seen this anecdote mentioned, by way of example. Bakkum, in his 2009 book The Latin Dialect of the Ager Faliscus, quotes the underlined passage and says, ‘Livy’s portrayal presents him [Fabius] as a typical “elite bilingual”‘ (p.322). Kathryn Lomas’s chapter in A Companion to Roman Italy (2016), likewise references this passage to support the claim that, ‘The level of bilingualism (or perhaps more properly, multilingualism) in ancient Italy is likely to have been quite high, especially among the elite.’ (p.22) She then goes on to say that Etruscan’s use in divination might have afforded it a prestigious status among the Roman aristocracy. These interpretations are completely valid, but they all privilege the elite bilingualism in the story over the non-elite bilingualism. In Adam’s Bilingualism and the Latin Language (2003), the focus is also on the Roman nobility and Fabius himself, although a footnote does mention the slave too (p.167) (and, to be honest, I had not remembered this footnote).

All this goes to show that our problem is not just the nature of our sources. Our historical sources relentlessly privilege the stories of wealthy men from a very particular social group – this is always a problem, and not something we can necessarily get away from. But in this case, I was surprised to see that language competence among slaves is mentioned in the original source, but often not mentioned in scholarly discussion – and, even where the slave is mentioned, he is not given anything like as much prominence as the (more interesting? more widely studied?) issue of the development of the education system of elite Roman men.

We can, of course, question how much Livy could possibly have known about the slave and his language skills, and whether his discussion of education (which he has clearly given a bit of thought to, and for which he has perhaps consulted other relevant sources) is more helpful evidence than his relatively brief mention of the slave companion. But, all the same, this is a nice mention of Etruscan/Latin bilingualism among the slave population at Rome, which deserves a mention in our analysis. How did this slave become bilingual? Was he educated alongside Fabius at Caere? Or was he a native speaker of Etruscan who had learned Latin as a second language? The latter is what we would probably assume if this was a Greek-speaking slave; but I don’t know whether Etruscans were routinely enslaved by Romans, in contrast to the well-documented import of millions of slaves from the Greek-speaking east into Italy. Presumably the detail about the wet-nurse, if true, means that the slave had been in Rome since childhood.

In any case, there are more questions we need to ask about bilingualism outside the elite – and sometimes there are more sources to work with than I expected.

Image: bronze figurines of Etruscan warriors in the Villa Giulia Museum, Rome.




3 thoughts on “Etruscan/Latin bilingualism and class

Add yours

  1. Yes, great point, Troy – I hadn’t thought of that. It’s possible that servus could cover some different kinds of relationships here!


  2. I love this episode from Livy! Non-elite mobility is such an important but largely invisible phenomenon in the early/middle Republic that its awesome to find actual attestations in the literary record.

    I am aways curious of the nuances of servus here (is this guy a slave/a dependent/a Mastarna type guy…) Livy and his sources have so little reason to understand dependency relationships in the 4th century but I wish they did!


  3. That class looks so interesting and I would love to take it but am very far away, lol. If I ever win the lotto I will come and audit it.


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