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What kind of Language did Ancient Romans Speak? A Fifteenth-century Debate

Christopher S. Celenza

The short answer to the question, “What can early modernity do for classics?” is that it can make a vital and interesting discipline even stronger by offering a set of powerful reciprocal connections.  The language skills that classicists possess allow them access to sources that historians and literary scholars often do not possess. At the same time, the insights that arise from studying the early modern period strengthen classics and give it a reach that few other disciplines possess.  It was in the early modern period that the lion's share of classical texts was either discovered or “fixed” by being printed.  And it was then, too, that forms of intellectual sociability were first cultivated that owed at least part of their origins -- sometimes real, sometimes imagined -- to the ancient world, as "Academies” formed, often with the central subject matter deriving from antiquity.
But studying the early modern period in relation to classics can help institutional classics in the US in other, deeper ways.  And it can do so offering the same advantages apparent in the study of other post-classical periods in which the languages, interpretive frameworks, and mentalities found in the ancient world were cultivated, from the early medieval period to the nineteenth century.  Seen in this light, classics becomes one of the most robust, because most inclusive, humanities fields.  
It is only through specific case studies that these more general ideas can begin to come to fruition.  This paper offers one such case study, in outline, presenting the debate in the fifteenth century over the Latin language.  All things considered, this debate, though still little studied, sheds light on the Renaissance appropriation of classicizing Latin, even as it demands attention from classicists, who are in a unique position to understand its subtleties. The central question was as follows: What sort of language did ancient Romans speak in Cicero’s day?  This question animated the discussions of a series of notable fifteenth-century Italian thinkers including Leonardo Bruni, Biondo Flavio, and Poggio Bracciolini, among others.  Did the ancients (“like us,” so the notion went) have a separate vernacular alongside Latin?  Or did they have one language, different in register, perhaps, but unitary nonetheless?  As fifteenth-century humanists addressed these questions in the context of lively epistolary debates, they gathered evidence from the ancient world, from the relatively newly discovered Brutus of Cicero to hitherto little known facts drawn from Varro, Gellius, and others.  Investigating the ancient world as they did, humanists arrived at the opinion, by the end of the fifteenth century, that ancient Latin had been a lingua naturalis: a “natural” language, with a history behind it, rather than a fixed, notionally eternal “artificial language.”  Discovering new things about the historicity of ancient Latin had an impact not only on their view of Latin but also on their view of history itself.  Though it was only in 1540 that the term “dead language” emerged for the first time to refer to Latin (in a treatise defending the vernacular by Alessandro Citolini), fifteenth-century thinkers prepared the way. Latin went from a highly charged vessel of possible cultural renewal to a more neutral subject of scholarly analysis, on the one hand and on the other, a standardized, classicizing vehicle of cross-cultural communication in an increasingly divided Europe.

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What Can Early Modernity Do for Classics?

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