In early days a great variety of languages was spoken in Italy, but by the end of our period Latin predominated, though such dialects as Oscan survived till the first century AD, while Greek was adopted by educated Romans as a second tongue. Apart from Etruscan all these languages were Indo-European and thus akin to one another: in the north was Celtic and the Ligurian speech, which linguistically is intermediate between Celtic and Italic; on the Adriatic coast a group of ‘Illyrian’ dialects is found (Mesopic, Venetic, Rhaetic and perhaps ‘Old Sabellic’); Greek was spoken in the cities of Magna Graecia; in central Italy the Italic dialects prevailed. These last fall into two main classes: Latin and Faliscan; and Umbro-Sabellian including Oscan and minor dialects. Apart from affinities with Greek and Celtic which derive from a distant common Indo-European origin, the Latins borrowed much from their neighbours’ speech in historical times, from Sabine, Oscan, Greek, Etruscan and even Celtic. Of the ten thousand Greek words which came into Latin use, a considerable number was introduced by the actual process of intercourse in speech. The Latins borrowed their alphabet from the Greeks by way of Etruria. But out of a tongue which was uncouth and heavy the Romans by borrowing and still more by adaptation wrought a language which became the medium for one of the noblest literatures; one that outlived the Roman Empire, and became the servant of learning and religion and the direct ancestor of a great portion of the languages of modern Europe.
Few traces of early Latin survive. They include the inscription written alternatively up and down the Forum stele under the Lapis Niger (sixth century?), that written (c. 600 BC?) from right to left on the Praeneste fibula: ‘Manios med fhefhaked Numasioi’ =Manius me fecit Numerio, and that on the Duenos bowl (fourth century) found on the Quirinal which shows Greek influence (Duenos med feced). Somewhat earlier than the Hannibalic War is a dedication from Tusculum: ‘M. Fourio Cf. tribunos militare de praidad Maurte dedet’ (M. Furius C.f. tribunus militaris de praeda Marti dedit.) To the same period belong the epitaphs in Saturnian verse of Scipio Barbatus, consul of 298, and his son, consul in 259: ‘Honc oino ploirume consentiont R(omai) – (Hunc unum plurimi consentiunt Romae) – Duonoro optumo fuise viro’ – (Bonorum optimum fuisse virum) – ‘Luciom Scipione’ – (Lucium Scipionem). It is uncertain to what extent certain literary remains have been corrupted and how far their archaic Latin is genuine. Examples are the fragments of the litany of the Salii, which was unintelligible in Horace’s day, the hymn of the Arval Brethren which begins, ‘Enos, Fases, iuvate’ (nos, Lares, iuvate), and the Twelve Tables.
The beginning of Latin prose may be found in official documents such as the Twelve Tables, priestly Commentarii, Acta, Fasti and Annales, and early laws and treaties. Speeches in the Senate and funeral orations stimulated the development of Roman oratory. Early poetry is represented by the hymns already mentioned, by didactic proverbs (e.g. ‘Hiberno pulvere, verno luto, | Grandia farra, camille, metes’), lullabies (e.g. ‘Lalla, lalla, lalla: i aut dormi aut lacta’), wedding or funeral songs, and by the words chanted by workers in the fields or women at the loom. Whether any real poetry was conceived is uncertain. Varro records that at banquets boys used to sing lays celebrating the deeds of great men; Cato says that the banqueters themselves contributed songs. On such evidence Niebuhr proposed, and Macaulay popularized, the theory of the existence of an early popular ballad literature, from which Livy derived many details of the legends of early Rome. Though Rome produced no Homer to sing the glory of heroes (κλέαάνδρων), clearly songs were sung in early days, and the mead-hall of Caedmon’s day had its Roman counterpart. But such carmina probably had little influence upon later historiography.2 The metre of these early songs and litanies was the native Saturnian, which Ennius depised as crude in contrast with his own Hellenic hexameters: ‘quos olim Fauni vatesque canebant’ Popular drama originated in Fescennine verses, satura, and Atellan farce. Livy (vii, 2) describes how performances with musical accompaniment called saturae were enacted by Etruscans in Rome in 364 and replaced the earlier Fescennine banter; the ‘satire’ was in turn superseded by the more regular drama on Greek models introduced by Livius Andronicus.3 Fescennine verses were rough jests, improvised and sung at harvest and vintage festivals to avert the evil eye; they long survived at marriages and triumphs. These crude jests may have developed into dialogue, but they remained amateur efforts. The term originates from Fescennium in Etruria or from ‘fascinum,’ a phallic symbol to avert the evil eye. The dramatic nature of satura has been questioned by some who see in Livy’s account a reflection of Aristotle’s view of the origin of Greek comedy. With Ennius satura lanx, a mixed dish, became a literary miscellany, but it may have started its career on the stage. The fabulae Atellanae were Oscan farces, originating at Atella in Campania. When introduced into Rome, perhaps in the third century, they became popular and were acted by amateurs who did not suffer from that stigma which was later attached to professional actors at Rome.4 The characters were stock figures: Maccus the Fool, Pappus the Dotard, Bucco the Glutton, Manduccus the Champer, and Dossennus (probably a glutton rather than a hunchback). From such crude beginnings did Latin literature spring.