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Multilingual Cityscapes: Language and Diversity in the Ancient City

Olivia Elder

University of Cambridge

Ancient cities are frequently characterized as multicultural, cosmopolitan environments (Edwards and Woolf 2003; Moatti 2014). This paper questions how far the evidence of multilingualism in urban landscapes reflects this characterization and considers what this evidence reveals about the impact of large-scale migration on the culture, landscape, and identity of the ancient city. It focuses primarily on the epigraphic evidence of multilingualism from the city of Rome in the first to third centuries CE, but brings in comparative evidence from modern multilingual metropoleis and other ancient cities.

Recent studies of Rome’s migration patterns (Tacoma 2016) follow from earlier studies of foreign groups at Rome (Noy 2002; Ricci 2005). The evidence of multilingualism has, however, received minimal attention in these studies. In turn, (socio)linguistic analyses of evidence for bi- and multilingualism at Rome (Adams 2003; Felle 1997) have paid limited attention to wider historical questions about the nature and extent of migration and multiculturalism in the city. This paper demonstrates that the epigraphic evidence of different languages has an important role to play in answering these questions.

I argue that migration leads to the absence as well as presence of multilingualism in the city. The picture we get is partly the result of the nature and limitations of the epigraphic evidence, but it is also revealing of the space for debate and difference in language as a marker of culture and identity amongst different groups in the city.

I begin by briefly considering some comparative evidence from the modern world, making use of recent work on multilingualism in modern cities (King and Carson 2016). This evidence shows that languages of migrants are frequently invisible in cities’ landscapes. This overall picture is reflected at Rome, where there is only a handful of inscriptions in languages other than Latin or Greek, and Greek inscriptions are far outnumbered by those in Latin. I move on to consider how individual sets of inscriptional evidences fit into this broad picture, examining the evidence for Palmyrene and the evidence of language use in the Jewish catacombs. The exceptional nature of both these examples underlines the complexity of the relationship between language and migration at Rome and the layering of identities at stake in determining language choices. In the final section of the paper, I consider how far my conclusions hold for the epigraphic evidence from other ancient metropoleis including Alexandria and Antioch.

Overall, I argue that whilst the epigraphic evidence of language use offers glimpses of the diverse and multicultural ancient cityscape that we have come to expect, it also reveals a striking degree of homogeneity. In showing how multilingual evidence can be used to nuance and challenge existing assumptions, my conclusions contribute both to our understanding of the impact of migration on ancient cities, and to the panel’s wider argument about the value of multilingual evidence to historical questions.

Session/Panel Title

Epigraphic Approaches to Multilingualism and Multilingual Societies in the Ancient Mediterranean

Session/Paper Number


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