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Posts Tagged ‘Roman Empire

The Romans were the last civilization to use Latin as a common language.

The Romans were the last civilization to use Latin as a common language.

While at a New Year’s Eve party the other day, I mentioned my latest goal of learning Latin. Almost immediately somebody smarted off saying something along the lines of “Wow, that’s cool. Now you’ll be able to converse with all the other Latin speakers around the globe.”

I don’t blame the person for making the sarcastic comment. Latin is, in fact, a dead language, spoken mostly by a small number of traditional Roman Catholic priests and eccentric Roman history buffs. In high school, I used to question the small number of Latin students’ rationale for wasting their time learning a language that they would never actually use.

So what made me decide to “waste” my time now by learning to speak Latin? Well, for starters, it’s important to understand that almost nobody learns to “speak” Latin anymore. Of course, that wasn’t always the case. If you were living in the Roman Empire during the year 100 BC, Latin was the primary language spoken.  As the empire expanded and conquered foreign populations, however, regional differences in the Latin language, or dialects, began to arise. After the Germanic invasions in the fourth and fifth centuries AD, these regional differences only intensified, causing less and less people to understand classical Latin. By the eighth century AD, the common people could hardly, if at all, understand Latin, and it became the language of the educated elite and clergy.

So yes, Latin has been dead as a “spoken” language for 1300 years. Anybody who wants to learn Latin understands that quite well. Latin is today a “written” language, meaning that people learn only to read and write it, not necessarily to speak it. Indeed, open up any Latin textbook, and you will see that it is aimed at teaching you to understand the language rather than produce it on your own.

imagesF6BASKUIBut that still begs the question: Why even bother learning to read and write Latin? It turns out that there are a number of reasons to do so.

Latin is Everywhere

If you speak English, then you already know a little bit of Latin. Even though Latin died out as a spoken language centuries ago, it helped create other languages. Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese and Romanian, also known as the Romance languages, are direct descendants of Latin. English, although it has Germanic roots, has also borrowed heavily from Latin. As a result, you can figure out what many Latin words mean just by knowing English and vice versa.  Check out these examples:

Porto means “to carry” as in “portable (able to be carried)”

Laboro means “to work” as in “labor”

Femina means “woman” as in “female”

Longa means “long”

Expecto means “to expect, await”

I could go on and on, but I’m sure you get the point.

Latin helps you learn other languages

A natural result of the fact that many modern languages have borrowed from Latin is that understanding Latin can help you to learn other languages more quickly. For example, the word “in” means the same thing in Latin, English and German. The Latin word “amicus” means friend, as does the French word “ami” and the Italian word “amico.” Not only will you see these similar word roots appearing in many languages, but you will also acquire a more profound understanding of how a language’s grammar and structure work, which leads me to my next point…

Latin can help you understand English better

Remember the ACT English portion and how you had to remember all those technical grammar rules to proofread the passages correctly? I always tried to get away by just circling what “sounded” right, but that didn’t always work. If you learn Latin, you have to learn the various ways the language is structured (i.e. what ending does the indirect object of the sentence take if it is a plural, feminine noun). If you learn that for Latin, you will be able to pick out pronouns, direct objects, indirect objects etc. in English without any problem.

Latin was used in the Roman Catholic church for centuries and continues to be used today.

Latin was used in the Roman Catholic church for centuries and continues to be used today.

Latin still appears in Religion and Science

Religion and science, bitter rivals on most occasions, have at least one thing in common—Latin. If you are Roman Catholic, the Mass used to be completely celebrated in Latin, and many churches today still keep that tradition. Additionally, many hymns, songs and prayers were originally written in Latin and are best understood in that language.

On the science front, the official name for your four-legged, barking friend is “canis lupus familiaris.” This incredibly complicated name for “dog” is Latin, and if you plan on going into biology you will probably end up learning this and other scientific names. So brush up on your Latin.

Latin makes you sound smart (and cool)

Finally, as a teacher, I can honestly say that if you can explain the Latin root words of everyday English vocabulary, then your students will automatically view you as being smart. The same is probably true for many other situations. Basically, you will sound interesting, intelligent and cultured, and that will make people look up to you.  And if some smart aleck still tries to make fun of you, just yell out “favete linguis!”


I couldn’t resist.



We have, in the modern world, an expectation of continual progress. Society, technology and knowledge always seem to be improving and moving forward. We seem to believe that things can only get better in the future, never worse.

            Unfortunately, history has revealed that such optimism is not always backed by reality. In a previous article on the Indus Valley civilization, I mentioned that the Indus drainage system was very advanced for its time, and that centuries later people had reverted to dumping excrement out of their windows. This is just one example of society actually devolving.

A Roman Aqueduct

A Roman Aqueduct: An example of ancient technology that was lost.

            We pride ourselves on being so much more advanced than those who came before us, but we forget that, like the business cycle, human civilization has had its expansionary and recessionary periods. We need only look at the fall of Rome, a collapse that brought the end of the ancient world, for an example of a severe societal recession.

            The Roman Republic, beginning in 509 B.C., almost immediately became obsessed with expansion. Over the next few centuries, Rome conquered the rest of Italy, Greece, Carthage, Gaul, Iberia, North Africa, Macedonia, Asia Minor (Turkey), Syria and Palestine. In 31 B.C., Octavian reorganized the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire and took on the title of Augustus. The empire continued to expand, conquering Britannia, Armenia, Dacia and parts of Germany.

            Now, there is nothing civilized about bloodshed, and in that respect Rome was no more civilized than any other period in human history. However, Rome brought a number of technological advances to its imperial holdings which, after its collapse, were not seen to the same degree again for centuries.

            Among these advancements was the road. This might at first seem like a simple accomplishment, but there is more to it.  It is true that primitive roads and paths had already existed for centuries, but they were not in any sense orderly or systematic. They might have connected points A and B but not points A and C. At its peak, Rome had 53,000 miles of roads connecting its entire empire. Furthermore, many of these roads were paved, making them extremely durable. Rome, therefore, brought an interconnectedness to its world that had not been seen before and was not really seen again for many centuries.

A Roman Road

A Roman Road

            Another amazing technological development by Rome was the aqueduct. Aqueducts brought water from distant locations into a city or town and could carry waste out. Built in Rome itself and in other major centers of the empire, they stretched for thousands of miles and brought fresh water to millions of people. Construction was not simple, requiring years of land surveys and advanced engineering skills. The Romans even had a water purification system. Rome’s aqueduct system was actually analogous to a modern day water supply network in its sophistication, reach and effectiveness.

            Finally, Rome’s government administered its territory so effectively that it brought about the Pax Romana, or Roman Peace, during its golden age. Granted, there was plenty of bloodshed occurring on the frontiers, but the average Roman citizen could traverse the empire without fear of harassment. A strict legal code created order, while cooperation with local authorities allowed for far flung control.

            All of this began to collapse with the Germanic invasions in the third century B.C., and by 476 B.C. the Western Roman Empire had fallen. What followed is what historians have dubbed the Dark Ages. Rule and order was decentralized, the old Roman roads and aqueducts, still in use for centuries after, began to deteriorate, and people could no longer get around safely. Indeed, the Romans, who had served as the police force, were gone. Now if you wanted to go from France to Spain, you were on your own. A few people began to consolidate local power, hiring warriors to fight for them and peasants to work for them—this was the beginning of feudalism and knighthood.

            Essentially, with the collapse of Rome, Europe lost the only central authority powerful and wealthy enough to create and maintain technological advancements and widespread order. Just think if the U.S. government disappeared. The interstate highway system would fall into disrepair along with commerce; the various states would fight over water supply, land and access to goods. Investment in new technology, in our case NASA and other such organizations, would cease. We would suffer a severe societal recession just like fifth century Europe.

            So although it is good to be optimistic, we should understand that we are not entitled to a brighter future. Societies like ours have come and gone. It is up to us to ensure our own survival and development.


Encyclopedia Britannica

Davies, Norman. Europe: A History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Inc.,   1996.