Friday, December 01, 2017


Latin in Egypt

Alan Cameron, "Wandering Poets: A Literary Movement in Byzantine Egypt," in Gregory Nagy, ed., Greek Literature, Vol. 9: Greek Literature in the Byzantine Period (London: Routledge, 2001), pp. 14-54 (at 38-39; footnotes omitted):
Another aspect of the claim of the Egyptian poets of the age to the title doctus poeta is that a surprisingly large number of them seem to have had some acquaintance with Latin literature. It had always been extremely rare for Greeks to take the trouble to learn what most of them had never ceased to regard as a barbarian tongue, and in the Later Empire there were few indeed who took the trouble to learn it for any but strictly practical reasons, with a view to one of the careers where at least a smattering of Latin was still essential, the law, the army or the civil service. If Gibbon was exaggerating when he remarked that there is not one allusion to Virgil or Horace in the whole of Greek literature from Dionysius of Halicarnassus to Libanius, he was not exaggerating much. Libanius affected complete and ostentatious ignorance of Latin, and even required an interpreter to make out a letter written in that language. The emperor Julian was able to make himself understood in Latin ("Latine ... disserendi sufficiens sermo", as Ammianus patronisingly observed), but "seems guiltless of the most rudimentary acquaintance with Latin literature". But in sharp contrast to this conventional attitude, as a result of the widespread Latinisation of Egypt following the reforms of Diocletian, the study of Latin began to flourish, comparatively speaking, in fourth and fifth century Egypt. Papyri have revealed the unexpected fact that many Egyptians began in the fourth century to acquire not merely the necessary smattering of legal jargon in Latin that was required for the bar, but read a modest range of classical authors, and not only in the traditional centres of learning. The schools of Alexandria must have had quite a reputation for Latin in the fifth century, for Severus, the future patriarch of Antioch, was sent there from Sozopolis as a young man in order to study grammar and rhetoric in both Greek and Latin. Pupils battled their way through Cicero's Catilinarians with a word-for-word Greek 'crib' (fragments of which have survived), and in addition to these and other prose works, read the poets as well. The most popular poet, as might have been expected, was Virgil, who is represented by more papyri than any other Latin literary writer; several juxtalinear texts of the Aeneid have come to light in recent years, some marked with accents and symbols denoting quantity. Even the 'Silver' poets were read; Lucan was studied, and even so hard a poet as Juvenal was read with an elaborate commentary in fifth century Antinupolis. One Virgil papyrus has been found dating from as late as the sixth century, but by the second half of that century Dioscorus seems to have known no more than the odd bit of Latin jargon he had picked up in his legal studies (e.g. ἀβστινατίω) and by its close Theophylact Simocatta thought that rex was Gothic!
Hat tip: Eric Thomson.

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