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Words as Citizens in Romulus’s Asylum

Adam Gitner

Indiana University Bloomington

In a showdown between the grammarian Pomponius Porcellus and the emperor Tiberius, who used a word of doubtful Latinity, the grammarian reportedly had the last laugh: “You, Caesar, are able to give citizenship to people, but not to words” (Suet. Gram. 22.2; cf. Dio 57.17.2). The anecdote is a telling one about the relationship between the princeps and intellectual culture (Wallace-Hadrill 2008, 70), but it also illustrates a distinctly Roman way of viewing vocabulary: through the prism of citizenship (civitas). On this model, words, like people, migrate and can eventually gain full equality as part of a linguistic body politic, where the grammarian rather than princeps is in charge. The metaphor is animated by a Roman conception of citizenship as a juridical rather than ethnic status and a long, contested tradition of extending the franchise, inspired partly by the legend of Romulus’s asylum (Dench 2005; Ando 2015, 7–28). Discourse about loanwords thus participates in some of the same debates: Is identity defined by blood (Short 2008, 141–61) or territory? How much foreign influence is acceptable? And who gets to decide? It is also a perceptive way to talk about loanwords, which challenge neat theoretical boundaries between native and foreign. It draws attention to what linguists now call phonological and morphological integration and marks a distinction between Lehnwörter and Fremdwörter. In this way, the political trajectory of the Roman commonwealth led to new insight into a linguistic phenomenon, which was not fully available to Greek sources.

            My talk discusses the five overt occurrences of this metaphor in relation to alternative, ancient models used to describe neologisms and foreign borrowings (Rochette 1996; Fögen 2000) and explores its political and linguistic implications. The model of words as citizens is already implicit in the designation verba peregrina, which Varro and Roman grammarians prefer to the Greek formulation verba barbara (Müller 2005, 372–73). Peregrinus, originally describing someone from “across the fields” (< per- + ager), designated a resident alien in contrast to a full citizen (Var. L. 5.33; Diff. ed. Beck p. 32.36; Kübler, RE XIX.1 639–55). If human peregrini could become cives, certainly words could as well. Seneca twice uses citizenship to describe loanwords that were integrated into Latin (eurus at Nat. 5.16.4; and analogia at Ep. 120.4). Quintilian has recourse to the metaphor when recommending the use of clear, native vocabulary (Inst. 8.1.3). The metaphor takes an even more elaborate form in a debate between Fronto and Apollinaris Sulpicius about the Latin word for “dwarf,” pumilio and its borrowed equivalent, nanus. Sulpicius claims that Fronto has granted nanus citizenship “or settled it into a Latin colony” (Gell. 19.13.3 civitate donatum aut in Latinam coloniam deductum), evoking an even finer distinction between full Roman citizenship and ius Latinum.

            It is significant that several occurrences (Quintilian, Suetonius, Fronto) cluster at the start of the Antonine dynasty—provincial-born authors writing under provincial-born emperors. To provide political context, I compare a near-contemporary discussion of civic identity, Claudius’s speech in favor of enrolling Gauls in the senate as reported by Tacitus (Ann. 11.23–24; see Malloch 2013 ad loc.). The speech illustrates and complicates some of the assumptions implicit in the linguistic metaphor and is especially illuminating for Quintilian. For instance, Claudius’s articulation of Italian civic unity (11.24.2) and criticism of Greek ethnic exclusivity (11.24.4) parallels Quintilian’s assertion of Italian linguistic unity (1.5.56 licet omnia Italica [sc. verba] pro Romanis habeam).

Session/Panel Title

The Politics of Linguistic Metaphors in Latin

Session/Paper Number


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