Discover more from Rafael’s Commentary
Why do billions speak languages with large Latin heritage while less than 14 million speak languages derived from Ancient Greek?
Answer: historical contingency that Latin's influence could be preserved in Western Europe while most Greek speaking regions of antiquity the local language was replaced exogenous invaders
While I was reading Marcus Aurelius’ Mediations, a book that was written as a personal diary by a Roman Emperor in Ancient Greek led me to think about this question: Why was Greek the dominant language among the educated in antiquity and that was apparently true even after most Greek-world was subjected to Roman rule by the time of Marcus Aurelius, but today, Latin has such an enormously greater influence on modern languages?
The massive influence of Latin on modern languages
While Latin is regarded by some as a dead language (although the Vatican might disagree), the fact is that today over 1 billion people speak languages directly derived from Latin, such as Italian, French, Portuguese, and Spanish, while the world’s most spoken language, English, with about 1.5 billion speakers, while officially regarded as a Germanic language, has the bulk of its vocabulary made up of words with Latin origin either directly or indirectly such as words adopted from French:
Thus, today billions of people speak in languages that can be regarded as either modern Latin dialects or languages with enormous influence from Latin, such as English. In addition, the Latin alphabet is the standard writing script in the majority of the world:
Today more than half of the world’s population speaks a language with a large influence from the Latin vocabulary and writing script.
In contrast, Modern Greek, which is the only major language today that evolved from Ancient Greek; although it is closer to Ancient Greek than Spanish is to Latin, it is spoken by less than 14 million people, which is likely a smaller population in absolute terms than the population that spoke Greek during the Hellenistic and Roman periods, when the world’s population was perhaps 30 to 40 times smaller than it is today. Similarly, the Greek script is not widely used outside of Greece and Cyprus.
Languages of antiquity
In antiquity, the situation was different. As I noted before, Greek was the most common written language in Western Eurasia, even during the Roman period; for instance, the vast majority of surviving literature from Classical Antiquity (roughly from 600 BC to 600 AD) is in Greek, although the corpus of surviving Latin works is also large:
While achieving political unification in most of the Western Eurasian hemisphere for many centuries, the Roman Empire never achieved a single standard language spoken by the majority of its population during the peak of its geographical extent. Latin and Greek together were likely spoken by the absolute majority of literate people, but substantial spoken languages existed across Western Eurasia even at the height of Roman influence in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD.
Other major languages spoken in Western Eurasia during classical antiquity include Punic, which was the dominant language in regions of the Carthaginian Empire for centuries (after the defeat and fall of Carthage to Rome, all their literature was destroyed, and none of it survives today although Punic survived as a spoken language in North Africa for seven centuries after the fall of Carthage), and Aramaic, which was the dominant language in parts of the Levant (also, most of the Old and all of the New Testament of the Bible were written in classical antiquity, the Old Testament was mostly written in Aramaic while the New Testament was mostly written in Greek) and Mesopotamia. Another major language during classical antiquity was Coptic, which was the last version of Ancient Egyptian that was written using a modified version of the Greek alphabet. Latin was dominant in Western provinces as a written language, but Celtic and Germanic languages were widely spoken in the least urbanized parts of Western Europe (like Roman Britain).
Still, the fact is that the overwhelming majority of ancient literature consists of Greek, which appears to mean that among the educated population, the most common language was Greek. Although, since a large fraction of the population in ancient times was not literate, it is hard to make good estimates of the distribution of spoken languages from written languages. In fact, we do not have any data regarding literacy rates in antiquity. Bresson (2016) suggests that in Greek city-states, it was a common policy for all citizens to receive basic education, so literacy in Greek-speaking regions of the ancient world might have been near universal, at least among free adult males.
So, it might be a possibility that during Hellenistic and Roman times, there were less than 10 million Greek speakers across all the regions of Western Eurasia, and this population had a male literacy rate close to universal, but they were only 10 to 15% of the total population which was estimated at around ca. 70-80 million people (of which around 80% came to be under direct Roman rule by the time of Augustus). It is also possible that the literacy rate of the rest of Western Eurasia, even under Roman rule, could have been as low as 2-3%, so the Greeks were the majority of the literate population while being a small minority of the total population. That might account for why they were so culturally dominant while considering the possibility that maybe Greek lacked the same demographic weight as Latin. But such extreme inequality in literacy rates is unlikely, and I think there were more than 10 million Greek speakers by the time of Augustus.
It is estimated there were already around 10 million Greek speakers at the time of Alexander the Great around 330 BC (Hansen 2006), and there was a large process of Hellenization in the centuries following his conquests across the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, which likely meant that the Greek-speaking population increased substantially. By Late Antiquity, after many centuries of Hellenization, Greek was certainly the dominant language in the region:
Demographically is likely that the western half of the Roman Empire might have had half of the total population where Latin was the dominant spoken language, and the Eastern provinces, where Greek was the dominant language, had the other half of the population. Thus it is likely that the total population who spoke Greek was of similar size to the Latin-speaking population. However, since the Greek-speaking regions were more developed and urbanized (as I noted before, among the ca. 900 cities in the Roman Empire with a measured archeological footprint, 12 of the 15 largest were located on the eastern half of the empire), they had higher literacy rates and produced more literature to survive to the present.
It is conventionally estimated that during the first two centuries AD, the eastern half of the Roman Empire had about 30 to 35 million inhabitants; as Greek was the dominant language in the eastern provinces, then perhaps around 20 to 25 million were Greek speakers, and the other 10 million most likely spoke Aramaic, Coptic, and Latin (many Italian colonies were set up in the Danubian basin). A total Greek-speaking population of 20 to 25 million means an increase of roughly two to two-and-half times over the Greek-speaking population of the time of Alexander in the mid-4th century BC. That estimate implies that nearly 10% of the world’s population at the time spoke Greek compared to less than 0.2% today. Given that Latin started to replace local languages in Western Europe centuries later than Greek started to replace local languages in the Eastern Mediterranean, there were likely more Greek speakers than Latin speakers during most of the Roman period (traditionally dated from Rome’s conquest of Carthage and mainland Greece in 150 BC to the beginning of the fall of the empire after 400 AD).
Latin became dominant by historical contingency.
While the Hellenization of territories deep into Western Asia gradually eroded over the centuries following the collapse of the major Hellenistic empires like the Seleucid, Greco-Bactrian, and Ptolemaic empires, it is unlikely that a large fraction of the population far from the Mediterranean in Western Asia spoke Greek. The Hellenistic territories of central and southeast Asia, like the Greco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek kingdoms, likely only had a small elite of Greek speakers connected to the courts of those kingdoms, which explains why the influence of Greek culture quickly collapsed after these kingdoms collapsed. So while there were Greek kingdoms expanding into as far east as India during the Hellenistic period, the near totality of the Greek-speaking population lived close to the Mediterranean as the regions close to the Mediterranean had easy access to cheap maritime transportation and thus could more easily communicate with the Greek heartland, enabling a greater degree of Hellenization. So, it’s not a coincidence that most of the large Hellenistic cities like Alexandria and Antioch were very close to the Mediterranean.
As Rome annexed all lands bordering the Mediterranean, it is likely that over 90% of Greek speakers eventually became Roman subjects, and Greek continued to be the dominant language in the Hellenized regions annexed by Rome. Thus, the decline of the fraction of the global population that spoke Greek likely only occurred after the 6th century: the Persian and Arab invasions of the 7th century and the Turkish conquest of Asia Minor in later centuries of the Middle Ages were the most critical events to explain the de-Hellenization of most of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Conversely, in Western Europe, the Germanic tribes failed to replace the local languages of nearly all the regions they conquered from the Romans (except Roman Britain), and after more than five centuries of Roman influence, these regions all spoke Latin. Later, the countries of Western Europe that emerged from these former Roman provinces came to colonize most of Earth’s surface and spread their Latin-influenced languages across the Earth, while Greek in the Eastern Mediterranean was mostly replaced by Arabic and Turkic languages. Thus, we reached the point today where only 0.2% of the world’s population speaks Greek, while billions speak languages with a heavy Latin influence.
By historical accident, the Greek-speaking regions of the Greco-Roman world were closer to the center of the Eurasian landmass. They, thus, were much more vulnerable to being occupied by hostile cultures. In contrast, the Latin-speaking regions of the Greco-Roman world were allowed to develop in splendid isolation in the westernmost peninsula of Eurasia, Western Europe, for centuries. Until modern times arrived, and by this point, this region, Western Europe, had become the center of the world and exported its languages everywhere else.