January 15, 2018

Expressing Identities in Graeco–Latin Bilingual Inscriptions

In the Roman world, Graeco-Latin bilingualism was a frequent and acknowledged phenomenon, as shown by expressions such as lingua doctus utraque, ‘learned in both languages’ (used by Martial in Book 10, epigram 76) and eruditissimus et Graecis litteris et Latinis, ‘most skilled in Greek and Latin letters’ (in Cicero’s Brutus, 205). Analysis of the epigraphic record allows us to observe that such a phenomenon was not only common in the élite, but that it was also widespread amongst non-élite individuals and freedmen. Inscriptions are written evidence; they do not represent a spontaneous act but require more thought than the spoken word: therefore, the use of bilingualism in epigraphic texts always reflects a choice, whether it is personal or communal (Bauzon, 2008: 111).

In bilingual inscriptions, it is often the case that the Greek and Latin versions have content in common and overlap, at least in part. There are also instances where we can observe code-switching, which is the practice of switching from one language to the other within the same discourse, in order to express a single piece of information (Rochette, 2010: 287).

The number of individual and communal identities expressed in bilingual inscriptions in Greek and Latin vary greatly from one text to the other, especially in the funerary context. The analysis of the following epitaph will shed some light onto some of the elements encountered when tackling bilingualism in the ancient world.

The inscription IGUR 972 (CIL VI 27246), dated to the end of the second century A.D. and set up by Terentius Zoticus, reflects the dual identity of the individual:

D(is) M(anibus)/ T(erentiae) Marciae coiugi/ dulcissime Ter(entius) Zoticus/ dignae et merite fecit cum/ qua vixit m(enses)/ XI hec que vi/ xit ann(os) XXI et m(enses) VI λέγει δὲ/ Ζωτικὸς ὀμνύων ἀληθῶς/ Μαρκία μόνη καλὴ καὶ σεμ/μνὴ καὶ πρὸ πάντων σο/φή et Myrineti liberte eius/ dignissime fecit

[Latin] To the spirits of the departed, Terentius Zoticus made [this] to Terentia Marcia, his sweetest, worthy and well-deserving wife, with whom he lived eleven months and who lived twenty one years and six months.

[Text code-switches to Greek] But Zoticus says, swearing truly, [that] Marcia [was] the only beautiful [one] and honourable and, before all things, wise.

[Latin] And he [also] made [this] to Myrine, his most deserving freedwoman.

Zoticus dedicated the epitaph to his wife, Terentia Marcia, and his freedwoman, Myrine. The first five lines and the last two lines are in Latin, whereas in the sixth line, the text code-switches to Greek. We notice that the ‘official’ information about Terentia Marcia is written in Latin and this part of the inscription is quite formulaic: we encounter the famous dis manibus, found at the beginning of almost all epitaphs, as well as other formulaic expressions, such as coiuge dulcissime. The biological information of Terentia Marcia is also present and, again, this element is seen very often in funerary inscriptions.

However, at the time of complimenting his wife, Zoticus code-switches to Greek: the introduction of the verb λέγει clearly emphasises that these are his own words (Adams, 2003: 365). The phrase ὀμνύων ἀληθῶς is not formulaic and probably indicates that Zoticus himself commissioned this part to be written in Greek. Zoticus’ name reveals indeed his Greek origin and he possibly felt more at ease with this language rather than with Latin to compliment and commemorate his wife. Latin was considered the language of power and authority, and often used in bilingual inscriptions to express official information (Montiel, 2014: 127). The fact that Zoticus switches back to Latin at the end of the inscription to mention his freedwoman, Myrine, clearly demonstrates this: he has only saved the most affectionate, personal and Greek words for his deceased wife.

Zoticus’ bilingualism is not only caused by the desire to express his grief at his wife’s loss: his words in Greek are introduced by λέγει δὲ Ζωτικὸς which reveals that he actually wished to be perceived as a bilingual individual. Although he set up the inscription for his wife, he does not give this dual identity to her, but only to himself. Zoticus’ code-switching to Greek could then be considered as a reflection of his bilingual identity and expresses a desire to convey this mixed identity to other readers.

In conclusion, this epitaph demonstrates how complex Graeco-Latin bilingualism can be in inscriptions: in some cases, individuals used bilingualism to simply convey information about the deceased to passers-by, in order to reach a broader audience (this was especially the case of Romans living in Greek-speaking areas and Greeks dwelling in Latin-speaking areas). In other cases, the use of Greek and Latin in one single inscription actually reflects how the individual wished to be remembered. Therefore, the use and choice of bilingualism in the funerary context is always significant for all the individuals involved.


CIL Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, Inscriptiones urbis Romae latinae (Vol. VI), ed. Henzen, W., Rossi, G. B., Bormann, E. and Hülsen, C. (Berlin, 1894)

IGUR Inscriptiones Graecae Urbis Romae, ed. Moretti, L. (Rome, 1968)


Adams, J.N. (2003) Bilingualism and the Latin Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Bauzon, E. (2008) ‘L’épigraphie funéraire bilingue des Italiens en Grèce et en Asie, aux IIe et Ier siècles av. J.-C.’, in Bilinguisme gréco-latin et épigraphie : Actes du colloque organisé à l'Université Lumière-Lyon 2… les 17, 18 et 19 mai 2004, eds. F. Biville, J-C. Decourt and G. Rougemont (Lyon: Maison de l'Orient et de la Méditerranée) 109-128.

Montiel, J. F. (2014) ‘La influencia griega en el léxico érotico latino’, Agora. Estudos Clássicos em Debate 16: 105-136.

Rochette, B. (2010) ‘Greek and Latin Bilingualism’, in A Companion to the Ancient Greek Language, ed. E.J. Bakker (United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell) 281- 293.

Paloma Perez Galvan is a PhD candidate in the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance (with joint supervision in the Classics and Ancient History Department) at the University of Warwick. Her research looks at syllogai of classical inscriptions in the sixteenth century, exploring how these evolved over the course of the century. She is particularly interested in analysing the change from manuscript to print collection and how it affected the production of these epigraphic corpora and also how it influenced the way in which inscriptions were perceived.

Email: P.Perez-Galvan@warwick.ac.uk

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