You are here

Filiation Expressions and the Language of Official Roman Letters Inscribed in Greek

Christopher Haddad

As the Romans were consolidating their position in the eastern Mediterranean, they adopted from the Greeks the practice of sending official letters to Hellenistic states. Although Rome’s state language was Latin, official Roman Republican letters were inscribed in Greek. Recent scholarship on ancient letter writing has neglected these inscribed Roman letters, and their language in particular has not yet received satisfactory treatment. This paper demonstrates the value of focalized linguistic analysis for improving our understanding of the language of Roman Republican letters inscribed in Greek by presenting a case study on a particularly revealing feature of their formulaic language—filiation expressions.

Filiation expressions clarify a person’s identity by providing the name of a parent. Both Greek and Latin have intrinsic formulae for filiation, and they differ in Latin requiring a word for “son” (filius) with the father’s name in the Genitive case and Greek needing only the father’s name in the Genitive. While a word for “son” (υἱός) is occasionally included in Greek filiation to avoid ambiguity, it is standard practice to use υἱός for filius to create Roman-style filiation in Greek. The choice between Greek and Roman-style filiation in a bilingual context can be a statement of social identity, as Adams (2002) found in bilingual Greek and Latin inscriptions at Delos. Since Greek and Latin had different expressions for filiation and the choice of a particular formula could align the person named with a certain social group, authors of Roman letters inscribed in Greek faced challenges from the idiomatic conventions of both languages as much as from the sense of identity embodied by naming practices. The use of filiation expressions in response to these challenges therefore provides important evidence for understanding not only the Greek language of Roman letters, but also Greek and Latin bilingualism and the interaction between Rome and the East.

Despite its importance, earlier assessments of the Greek in these letters have not utilized the evidence provided by filiation. While the two works which have addressed the language of official Roman Republican letters inscribed in Greek—Viereck (1888) and Sherk (1969)—both discuss some important formulaic expressions, they do not investigate filiation in the Roman letters. Adams (2002) incorporated evidence from filiation into an analysis of language choice and linguistic proficiency in bilingual inscriptions at Delos and exemplifies what is needed for inscribed Roman letters in Greek. What Adams found at Delos is remarkably similar to what is present in these letters—the form and function of filiation in these texts is often the result of multiple linguistic features and cultural conventions; and the product is important for understanding the languages and the cultures themselves.

I have analysed the use of filiation expressions in the 64 most complete official Roman Republican letters inscribed in Greek from 197 BCE–13 CE. I then compared the data with the evidence from a ‘control’ corpus of 126 inscribed Hellenistic Greek letters from 311 BCE–21 CE, which corresponds to the Roman corpus in language, medium, and time period. The evidence from an extensive selection of examples of filiation in Greek and Roman inscriptions, papyri, and classical and biblical literature was also incorporated into the assessment. The results show that filiation expressions in the Roman letters mostly follow Greek idiom or use an acceptable alternative to express Roman identity. Some divergences from the standard filiation expressions for each culture seem to be the result of authors reflecting on the subject matter and selecting a particular formula. Latin interference occasionally results in improper use of Roman-style filiation, but such occurrences are remarkably rare. The findings indicate that filiation expressions, with their idiomatic difficulties and social connotations, were applied with high linguistic proficiency and social sensitivity in the majority of official Roman Republican letters inscribed in Greek. This evidence is important for our understanding of the Greek language in inscribed Roman letters, Greek and Latin bilingualism, and Roman interaction with the East.

Session/Panel Title:

Epistolary Epigraphy

Session/Paper Number


Share This Page

© 2019, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy