Article by Jean-Paul Brachet, Université Paris-Sorbonne

Language Family and Linguistic Characteristics

A western Indo-European language, Latin, as its name indicates, was originally the language of the small central Italian area called Latium, which contained, among others, the city of Rome. Latin is part of the sub-family typically called the Italic languages, all of which share a common ancestor: this group includes Oscan and Umbrian, as well as other, less attested languages. Oscan, Umbrian, and their closely related languages form a separate, smaller branch of the sub-family, commonly called Sabellian, which can be clearly distinguished from Latin by a number of traits.

Writing System

The peoples of Italy adopted alphabetic writing from the Greeks, specifically Euboeans from Chalcis who had established themselves at Pithekousai and Cumae. This was an alphabet of the Chalcidian type, in which <X> represented the sound sequence /ks/, and not the aspirated /kh/. This Greek alphabet was adopted first by the Etruscans (by at least 700 BCE), and then by the other peoples of Italy: in the seventh century BCE in Latium and the Ager Faliscus, sixth to fifth centuries BCE elsewhere. In the case of the Latins, clear indications demonstrate that the Etruscans served as intermediaries. This twenty-sign alphabet, enriched later by several graphemes, is found in the oldest surviving Latin documents.

Chronological and Geographical Extent

Latin is attested in epigraphy from the seventh to sixth centuries BCE, but before the first literary texts of the third century BCE, we have only a few dozen, generally brief, inscriptions. The literary language was fixed by the first century BCE, in the period of Cicero and Julius Caesar, and this norm, despite a number of limited developments, survived until Late Antiquity, if not later. Significant deviations from the written norm are limited to epigraphy, and they only surface in literary texts in the fifth or even sixth centuries CE.

Latin experienced a continuous expansion from the period that Rome began to conquer Italy beyond the borders of Latium, from the fourth century BCE. We may note that the Romans never had a true "language policy"; they never attempted to impose their language upon subject populations. Instead, elites, generally the most open to Roman domination, would gradually adopt the language, before it would spread to lower social strata. Bilingualism was, at first, the rule in the most elevated social circles, and also in other spheres where knowledge of Latin was indispensable for carrying out business - here we might think of commerce, for example. Latin was, in addition, the language of the administration and the army. Nonetheless, in the eastern part of the empire, Greek remained the language of culture and communication.

Latin survived until the Carolingian period, in almost every part of the former Western Roman Empire, after which it survived in the form of the Romance languages, and so its chronological extent is therefore impossible to fix except arbitrarily. Once it had been replaced as the vernacular language, Latin would still survive for many centuries, nearly frozen in its classical form, as the language of the Roman Catholic Church, and as a learned language across Europe.

Vectors of Cultural Influence

Latin is intimately implicated in the diffusion of Graeco-Roman culture across the Roman Empire, at least in its western half, in particular in the area that would become Europe once the Empire had broken up; as we have seen, it would later also become the language of the Roman Catholic Church. The Latin language can thus be said to have served as the foundation of the development of European culture in almost every domain.

Text Corpus for the study of Peace

To study the terminology of peace among the Romans we must place them within the history of Rome, a city founded upon conquest, which never ceased to extend its domination over others - first its immediate neighbours, and then those further away. "Peace", pax, for Romans, was an unequal relationship, and in fact signified their domination, accepted by the conquered, which was usually formalised by the conclusion of a "treaty", foedus, with their conquerors. The Romans also had a concept of "war between citizens", the bellum ciuile, from which the English calque "civil war" derives. To avoid this, and maintain internal pax, it was necessary to preserve concordia between the parts of society. The terms for peace upon which we will there focus are pax, foedus, and concordia. To study these, we will draw upon the works of historians, in particularly Livy, who offers numerous attestations of these terms, as well as other authors.


  • Ernout, Alfred, and Meillet, Antoine. Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue latine. 4th edition. 1959, 4th edition reviewed by Jacques André, Paris, Klincksieck, 1985.
  • Leonhardt, Jürgen. La grande histoire du latin. Des origines à nos jours. Paris, CNRS Éditions, 2010 (French translation of Latein. Geschichte einer Weltsprache, Munich, Beck, 2009).
  • Oxford Latin Dictionary. Director P. G. W. Glare, Oxford University Press, 1968-1982.
  • Article pax in Dictionnaire Historique et Encyclopédie Linguistique du Latin,