reek and Latin were the most important languages in the ancient Mediterranean world. Both languages belong to the family of Indo-European languages, a group of languages with a common root, thought to have originated some 6,000 years ago in a region of Eurasia near the Black Sea. As people migrated from this region, they took their language with them, and different languages developed from their native tongue. Almost all the modern languages of Europe, including English, are considered part of this linguistic* group, as well as some of the languages of India and Persia, such as Hindi and Persian. Today, a modern form of Greek is spoken in Greece and a few other places, including the southern tip of Italy. Latin, although now used only for official communication within the Roman Catholic Church, gave rise to the Romance languages of Europe, including Italian, French, Spanish, Portugese, and Romanian.


It is not known for certain when Greek-speaking peoples first arrived in Greece, but it may have been as early as 2000 B.C. Five major dialects* of Greek were spoken in different regions of Greece as early as 1000 B.C. The dialects may have arisen from different waves of settlement in Greece, or they may have evolved in different classes of Greek society. The five dialects are commonly classified into two groups: East Greek and West Greek. East Greek included Arcado-Cyprian, spoken in Arcadia and Cyprus; Aeolic, spoken in Boeotia, Thessaly, and part of Asia Minor, including Lesbos; and Attic-Ionic, spoken in Attica, the Ionic islands of the Aegean, and Asia Minor. West Greek included Doric, spoken in the Peloponnese*, the Doric islands of the Aegean, such as Crete and Rhodes, parts of North Africa, and Sicily; and Northwest Greek, spoken in the northern part of the Greek mainland, including Aetolia and Epirus, and also in Achaea in the Peloponnese.

The early Greek writers, regardless of their own spoken dialects, used different ones for composing various forms of literature. For example, Homer used the Ionic dialect in his poetry, as did Herodotus and Hippocrates in their writings. Each city-state* also developed its own version of one of the five major dialects. Having its own dialect gave each city-state a sense of independence as a political unit.

Originally, Attic was the dialect spoken in Athens. Starting in the 400s B.C., as Athens grew in importance, the Attic dialect spread throughout the Aegean area. Philip II, king of Macedonia, chose Attic as the official dialect of his court, and it came to be the dialect of philosophers* and orators. As Athens became more dominant, the dialects of the other city-states disappeared. This occurred more quickly in the cities and towns than it did in the countryside. Speaking one of the old dialects became a sign of a rural background or a lack of education.

* linguistic related to the study of the development and structure of language

* dialect form of speech characteristic of a region that differs from the standard language in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar

* Peloponnese peninsula forming the southern part of the mainland of Greece

* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory

* philosopher scholar or thinker concerned with the study of ideas, including science

Eventually, Attic spread throughout the entire Greek world and evolved into a common dialect called koine. After the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 300s B.C., koine became the common dialect of educated people throughout the entire Hellenistic* world. Koine was also adopted as the language of Christianity and of the later Byzantine* Empire. It continues as the language of the Greek world to this day.

The importance of the Greek language in the ancient world is inestimable. It provided the Greek people with their main unifying bond, and it transmitted their culture to many other parts of the Mediterranean world. The Greeks considered anyone who did not speak their language to be a barbarian (barbaros)—someone who spoke nonsense or babbled. They made no attempt to learn the languages of the peoples with whom they had contact. Thus, everywhere Greeks went, their language went, too.

The Greek language even spread to the western provinces* of the Roman Empire, where Greek was taught in schools, as it was in Rome and throughout Italy. From the first century B.C., educated Romans were bilingualspeaking both Latin and Greek—and Greek was the language of culture. The Greek language also continued to be the common language of the eastern Mediterranean world even after the Roman Empire came to dominate the region. Latin was used only in the army and in the courts of law.

Then, from about the A.D. 200s, as Latin gained importance, the Greekspeaking world gradually began to shrink. By the A.D. 300s, Greek was taught only to the families of the Roman aristocracy*, and it was almost unknown in the western provinces of the Roman Empire. Greek was also steadily overtaken by Latin in the Christian church. By the A.D. 500s, the Greek-speaking world comprised only southern Italy, Greece, the Aegean islands, and the coast of Asia Minor, including Byzantium, which continued to be a Greek-speaking center throughout the Middle Ages.

* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.

* Byzantine referring to the Eastern Christian Empire that was based in Constantinople

* province overseas area controlled by Rome

* aristocracy privileged upper class


The Latin language takes its name from Latium, the region of central Italy in which the city of Rome is located. The earliest written evidence of the Latin language comes from Roman inscriptions dating to the 500s B.C. However, inscriptions in Latin were not common until the 200s B.C., a period that coincides with the date of the earliest surviving Latin literature.

Latin was just one of several Indo-European languages in Italy at this time. As a group, these languages are sometimes referred to as Italic languages. The other Italic languages include Faliscan, which is most closely related to Latin, as well as Oscan, Umbrian, and Venetic.

As Rome came to dominate Italy, Latin began to spread, and by the A.D. 100s, the other Italic languages were no longer written. Soon after that, they disappeared altogether, having been replaced by Latin. Indeed, the spread of the Latin language—like the earlier spread of Greek—was the primary means by which Roman culture spread throughout the Mediterranean world. The areas where Latin was spoken expanded with Rome’s rising political fortunes and widening imperial* borders, at least in the western part of the empire.

As Latin spread, it was changed by the other languages with which it came in contact. Roman soldiers returning from campaigns in foreign lands brought many foreign words with them. Many other words were borrowed from Greek. Even the alphabet used for Latin was adapted from the Greek ALPHABET.

* imperial pertaining to an emperor or empire

Like Greek, the Latin language also evolved into several dialects: Colloquial Latin, Vulgar Latin, and Classical Latin. Colloquial Latin was the everyday spoken language of educated people. It was also used in writing popular literature and personal letters. Vulgar (meaning “common”) Latin was the spoken language of uneducated Italians and people who lived in the provinces. It was rarely written except as dialogue in plays, although some examples survive in inscriptions and graffiti. Classical Latin was a highly cultivated written form of Latin, based on Greek literary models. It evolved over many years and was refined by the Roman statesman and writer Cicero. Classical Latin was very artificial and was only written, never spoken.

Although Classical Latin was the language of culture and learning, it was the spoken forms of Latin that eventually evolved into the Romance languages of Europe. Although all of the Romance languages were derived from Latin, they differ considerably from one another. The differences are due to the timing of the conquest of the region by Rome, the speed with which Latin was adopted, and the characteristics of the native languages.


English, like Latin, is an Indo-European language. Although English is not a Romance language, derived directly from Latin, it was nonetheless greatly influenced by Latin. A few words crept into Old English when the Romans conquered Britain around A.D. 50, and when Britain was converted to Christianity in the A.D. 600s. But the biggest influx of Latin came with the Norman invasion in A.D. 1066, when the French-speaking Normans conquered England. With them, thousands of new words entered the English language, especially in the fields of religion, law, and science. Castle, royalty, nobility, felony, and attorney are all English words derived from Latin through French.


The most striking feature of the development of language in the ancient Mediterranean region is the speed and completeness with which language after language was replaced by Greek in the East and Latin in the West. The only other ancient written languages from this region that have survived to the present are Hebrew and Coptic, both of which are associated with major religions that have strong scholarly traditions. Many other languages survived for a time as spoken languages, especially in more inaccessible, less urbanized regions, but only three ancient languages—Albanian, Basque, and Berber—are still spoken today.

Although neither the Greeks nor the Romans had a deliberate policy of eliminating the native languages in the areas they ruled, Greek and Latin were the languages used in schools, literature, government, trade, commerce, and military service. It is not surprising, then, that Greek and Latin came to be widely spoken and understood wherever Greeks or Romans governed. (See also Classical Studies; Dorians; Education and Rhetoric, Greek; Education and Rhetoric, Roman; Ionians; Literature, Greek; Literature, Roman; Migrations, Early Greek; Migrations, Late Roman; Peoples of Ancient Greece and Rome.)

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!