Widespread bilingualism at some level was characteristic of the ancient world. Latin and esp. Greek were the languages of culture and education (in the Roman empire, Latin was the language of law and army), as well as power, so that while many other languages coexisted alongside Latin and Greek, neither Greeks nor Romans ever had to impose their language on others.
Greek unwillingness to learn other languages was linked to their assurance of cultural superiority. Herodotus learned no other languages (and suffered at interpreters' hands, Greek thinkers categorize languages as Greek or barbarian. Yet this monolingualism may be more characteristic of the literary élite and of high culture. Other Greeks—mercenaries in Egypt, those in Persian service, traders and colonizers—must have acquired other languages and often married non‐Greek women. The ori‐entalizing period of Greek culture is hard to envisage with merely monolingual Greeks. Late 5th‐cent. Athens has a mixture of customs and languages ‘from all the Greeks and barbarians’ (Old Oligarch). However, by the Classical period, the bilinguals in a Greek city would be mainly foreigners, traders, and slaves, i.e. outsiders.
The picture becomes more complex with Alexander (2) the Great's conquests of large non‐Greek‐speaking areas. In the Seleucid empire, there is a mixture of Greek and Aramaic in the administration. In Ptolemaic Egypt, Greek became the language of administration; the extent to which Egyptians learnt Greek and became bilingual, however, or Greeks integrated at all into Egyptian society, is difficult to gauge. There is evidence for individuals with double names, one Egyptian, one Greek, and for scribes fluent in both demotic and Greek. So the weight of administrative documents in Greek may hide greater Egyptian participation. Individual bilingualism, esp. among prominent and ambitious Egyptian officials, must have been widespread.
The Roman empire was bilingual at the official, and multilingual at the individual and non‐official, level. With the increasing Hellenization of Rome itself (see hellenism), educated Romans were expected to be bilingual in Latin and Greek, esp. from the 1st cent. bc, at least for cultural purposes. Quintilian advised that children start learning Greek before Latin. Greek was widely used in diplomacy: Licinius Crassus, proconsul of Asia in 131 bc, who spoke five Greek dialects, was exceptional. Tiberius tried, too late, to discourage Greek in the senate, a rare case of Latin chauvinism. Most Roman emperors were fluent in Greek: Marcus Aurelius, despairing of Latin, wrote his Meditations in Greek.
The Romans made little attempt to impose Latin on the empire. The language of administration in the west was certainly Latin, and ambitious provincials simply had to acquire it. In the Greek‐speaking east, administration was mostly conducted in Greek, and edicts, imperial constitutions, and letters sent by Rome to Greek cities were usually translated into Greek first (and inscribed in Greek). Greek‐speakers were unenthusiastic about learning Latin, and Roman colonies in the east were linguistically quickly absorbed. However, the extent of bilingual inscriptions implies there was no strict single language policy. Decisions of the Roman courts were probably always given in Latin, and Latin was necessary in law for certain documents for Roman citizens.
Subjects: Classical studies