So… how would they talk? by Martha Marks

Posted by on May 10, 2012 in Ancient Rome, Historical Research | Comments Off on So… how would they talk? by Martha Marks

Interesting. Enlightening. Gratifying. Perplexing. All describe readers’ reviews from an author’s point of view.

Sometimes, readers post gratifying comments, the kind you want to quote on your website.

Other times, they post perplexing comments, as in the case of two reviewers of Rubies of the Viper. One complained that “Roman slaves did not use ‘ain’t’ or double negatives. That is new world slang and its use is really jarring in a novel set in ancient Rome.” The other wrote: “Having someone in Rome say ‘ain’t’ and ‘he don’t’ puzzled me at first, then made me laugh. There HAVE to be better ways of showing class structure in Roman–where they spoke Latin–than using ungrammatical English.”


Those comments raise a number of linguistic issues that I’d like to begin addressing here. Other posts on the subject of language will come later. I would love to hear your comments on this topic.

Let’s start with three basic assumptions:

  1. First-century Romans spoke Latin, not 21st-century English.
  2. First-century Latin would have sounded just as contemporary (perhaps even slangy) to 1st-century Roman ears as 21st-century English sounds to 21st-century British, Canadian, Australian, or American ears.
  3. Illiterate 1st-century slaves and freedmen would not have spoken Latin in the same way as their well-educated patrician masters.

To those assumptions, let’s add three equally basic corollaries:

  1. A 21st-century novelist writing about 1st-century Rome will write in a contemporary language (English, Chinese, Italian, Russian, etc). He or she will not write in Latin.
  2. That novelist will have important linguistic choices to make.
  3. Most readers will understand and accept those choices; unfortunately, some will not.

It’s worth considering how authors in previous centuries dealt with these same language issues.

Reading 19th-century novels about 1st-century Rome—great works such as The Last Days of Pompeii (1834), Ben Hur (1880), and Quo Vadis (1896)—you find characters of all classes employing Biblical- or Shakespearean-sounding constructions such as “Dost thou think ’tis time to leave?” and “Hast not thy father returned?” All three novels were hugely popular, so the linguistic choices their authors made undoubtedly rang true with readers of the era.

Nowadays, an author who employed archaic words such as dost, hast, canst, thou, and thy would be laughed out of the bookstore. English has moved on, and so has the manner in which contemporary novelists portray the speech of ancient characters.

The question of the moment boils down to this:

How should a 21st-century author, writing a novel in modern English about 1st-century Rome, convey the speech patterns of educated patricians and illiterate slaves and freedmen?

I see a range of alternatives, each with its own downside(s).

  • One could write all the dialogue in correct English and assume readers will figure out that some characters surely are speaking correct Latin and others surely are not. One might even drive home the point early in the book that “So-and-so spoke poor Latin” and say no more about it. That would be the safest approach, but to me the subsequent dialogue would lack both sparkle and verisimilitude.
  • One could write all the dialogue in correct English and consistently tag each line spoken by a slave as “Stefan said in uneducated Latin” or “Lucilla asked in slangy Latin” or “Alexander remarked in proper-but-accented Latin.” In a book with several major slave characters —such as Stefan, Lucilla, and Alexander in Rubies of the Viper—tag lines of that sort would get old very fast.
  • One could attempt to create a “Br’er Rabbit” or “Uncle Remus” type of slave brogue in an effort to convey the sound of illiterate Latin. A hundred years ago, that technique was acceptable, but today it would backfire in unimaginable ways. Besides, it would be nearly impossible to read… and tiring!
  • One could use a few patterns of ungrammatical (but still common and comprehensible) English—“I ain’t” or “He don’t” or “Nobody said nothing”—to suggest the kind of ungrammatical (but still common and comprehensible) Latin that uneducated 1st-century slaves and freedmen must have spoken. To me, that seemed the most reasonable approach, and it’s what I chose to do in Rubies of the Viper. The downside, of course, it that some readers will be turned off because “Roman slaves did not use ‘ain’t’ or double negatives.”


It’s true that uneducated 1st-century slaves did not literally say “I ain’t” or “He don’t,” because they were speaking Latin badly, not speaking English badly. But how else can an author who does not know Latin convey the essence of bad Latin grammar to a reader who also does not know Latin? And even if an author does know Latin, would dropping in bad Latinisms really be the best way to convey the flavor of illiterate speakers of Latin to a broad, English-speaking, modern audience?

To extend that thought… educated 1st-century Romans like Theodosia, Vespasian, Flavia, and Titus—and even educated slaves like Alexander—did not use English contractions or slang either. I guess I’m lucky that, so far, nobody has objected to contraction-filled, slangy (“Father’s so tight!”), dropped-subjects, bubbly-daughter, and generally casual-but-educated dialogue like this snip from pages 18-19 of the paperback edition of Rubies of the Viper:

“Oooooh, what wonderful goblets!” Flavia turned hers around and inspected it closely. “This is the biggest ruby I’ve ever seen, and… what an amazing design!”

“Looks like a serpent eating an apple,” Titus said.

“Is that your family crest?” Flavia asked.

“I’ve never seen it before.” Theodosia turned toward Alexander. “Are these family pieces?”

“No, mistress. My lord Gaius brought them from Rome last year.”

“Oooooh, they’re exquisite!” Flavia ran her finger around the edge of her goblet and down the raised silver face of the ruby-eating snake. “Look at this… even little rubies in the eyes. You’re lucky to have such beautiful things, Theodosia.” She made a show of pouting. “Father’s just so tight. Won’t spend money on anything. Everything we use is as dull and practical as what our slaves use.”

“Soon, my girl,” her father said, “you can squander Lucius Sergius’ money. Let’s hope he’s rich enough to buy you all the things you want.”


As I said above… I welcome your comments on this subject. Please do let me know what you think!

Martha Marks, author of Rubies of the Viper

text copyright © Martha Marks

photograph copyright © Generale Lee (own work)