Roman Language: Written and Spoken


From their distinctive history and architecture to their leisure activities and leaders, the Romans have a historical presence shared by few other civilizations. The language of the Roman era proves to be no exception.

The Roman language system is uniquely intricate and stylistically complicated. The following will briefly overview Latin, the language of the Romans.


I. The Latin Language - Written

II. The Latin Language - Spoken

III. Examples of Latin Authors

IV. The Latin Influence



I. The Latin Language - Written


The language of the Romans was Latin. In order to understand the intricacies of Latin literature, it is necessary to understand some of the structure and grammar of the language.

Latin grammar and syntax is completely unlike English. Simply stated, Latin has no syntax requirements. That’s right: there is no such thing as Latin word order. As in English a sentence may be: “John kicked his ball.” But in Latin, the same sentence might be written “Ball kicked John his.” This direct translation of Latin word order makes no sense. The translator must decode every sentence, indeed every word, like a puzzle. However, the lack of word allows for many rhetorical tropes.

However, since original Latin has no punctuation, there are numerous conventions that are widely followed. To complicate matters more, each writer had his or her own style, using constructions that were typical of themselves.



Latin has special endings for nouns (like German and Spanish) depending on their gender. Latin nouns are divided into five groupings called declensions based on how they are “declined” through the Latin cases. The concept of declining a noun is a very strange one to speakers of English, where no such protocol exists.

Latin has seven cases, compared to English’s three, and they are as follows (cases marked with a ‘*’ have counterparts in English):

Nominative*: These are the subjects of sentences in both Latin and English.

Genitive*: These are the possessive forms of words. They show ownership.

Dative: This case features words translated with “to/for.” They generally express indirect objects, objects of prepositions, possession, or direct objects (with dative verbs).

Accusative*: This case features words translated as the direct object in a sentence (called the Objective case in English). This case can also be used as an object of certain prepositions.

Ablative: This case is used in prepositions, passive voice (as an indicator of agent – “by”), and in special constructions known as ablative absolutes.

Vocative: This case is used for direct address. (This concept exists in English, but is not marked by any word structure changes.)

Locative: This case is used to express the locations of cities, towns, and nations (translated with the use of “at”).

An example of a First Declension Latin word “via” – meaning "road" - would be done as follows. The stem “vi” will have the appropriate case and number ending attached.

  Singular Plural


via viae
Genetive viae viarum
Dative viae viis
Accusative viam vias
Ablative via viis
Vocative via viae
Locative viae --


This example shows one declension of endings. There are five separate declensions, each with their own vocabulary and word endings.



Latin verbs are also grouped according to how they are conjugated (much like Spanish). There are four conjugations of Latin verbs. Just as in English, Latin verbs conjugate to agree with their subject.

To complicate the matter somewhat, Latin verbs have special rules for their usage. The classification system works as follows:

  1. Mood: Indicative or Subjunctive
  2. Voice: Active or Passive
  3. Tense: Present, Imperfect, Future, Perfect, Future-Perfect, Plu-Perfect
  4. Person: First, Second, or Third
  5. Number: Singular or Plural

This may seem complicated, and in some cases it can be. When translating Latin, it’s necessary to understand each of these elements to properly translate the verb. Sometimes there are overlaps, where identical forms can mean two different things based on context!

For instance, the word “amaveris” comes from the verb “amo, amare” – meaning “to love.” Breaking down “amaveris” would work as follows:

  1. Mood: Could be Indicative or Subjunctive
  2. Voice: Whether Indicative or Subjunctive, the voice is Active
  3. Tense: If Indicative, the tense is future-perfect; if Subjunctive, the tense is perfect
  4. Person: Whether Indicative or Subjunctive, the verb in a second person verb form.
  5. Number: Whether Indicative or Subjunctive, this is a singular verb form.

So depending on context, this verb could translate as “You had loved” or “You might have loved,” depending on the context.

There are many complications for the process of translating, and the rules for how to conjugate the Latin verbs are beyond the scope of this paper.



In addition to the nouns and verbs, Latin is complete with adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, and other details that make the job of writing and translating Latin time consuming. All of these speech elements have their own rules for usage.



Some of the greatest Latin works are poems, written in meter. Meter is the rhythm of the poem. In English, the best known meter is iambic pentameter. In Latin, the most famous meter is dactylic hexameter. Each poet has his or her favorites including elegiac couplets, hendecasyllabic, limping iambic, and so on.

Writers would use a series of accented and unaccented syllables. Unlike English, there were a number of rules for determining the scansion of words. (Scansion is the process of identifying the meter and syllable stresses). This process is also beyond the scope of this paper, but specific meters often compliment the content of the poem.



Latin is famous for its rhetorical tropes (also known as rhetorical devices). These stylistic elements could greatly enhance a written piece of Latin literature. Some of the most common rhetorical tropes are:

  1. Synchisis: A construction of word order such that related words form the pattern A B A B.
  2. Chiasmus: A construction of word order such that related words form the pattern A B B A
  3. Consonance, Assonance, and Alliteration: These constructions include the repetition of consonants and vowels.
  4. Homeoteleuton: A repetition of sound at the end of a word.
  5. Metonymy and Synecdoche: A kind of substitution for words with significant textual importance.
  6. Syncopation: The verb conjugation has letters removed, or the conjugation has been abbreviated for effect.
  7. Enjabment: Enjambment calls for for the continuation of a concept in poetry beyond the end of the line. Useful often to various effects.

Some other tropes include tricolon, zeugma, tmesis, polysynedton, and many, many more. The Roman writers were extremely skilled at manipulating their language into beautiful and meaningful constructions.


This information and the examples should begin to showcase the intricacies of writing in Latin. Hopefully you have started to build an appreciation for the writers that undertook the challenge of composing in Latin.


The Latin Language – Spoken

The Latin language was spoken almost exactly as it was written. Of course there was less formality in tropes and rhetorical construction for daily conversation.

When confronted with this idea, many people ask, “How could they talk effectively when translation is such a difficult task?” The answer to this question is all about conditioning and education. The Romans spoke Latin all the time and were familiar with its structuring. Just as easily as Americans say “I am” instead of “I is,” Romans were able to say “Ego sum” instead of “Ego est.”

To hear a sample of spoken Latin, choose one of the selections below:

Ovid's Amores I.13 - (Available from

Virgil's Aeneid 4.9-29 - (Available from


Examples of Latin Authors

Rome has had a number of truly talented writers. Three of the most famous authors are Ovid, Virgil, and Livy.


Publius Ovidius Naso, or Ovid, wrote a number of more controversial poems during his lifetime (43 BC –- 17 AD) ("Ovid"). His main works include the Amores - love poems - and the Metamorphoses - a book of changes.

During Ovid's lifetime, Rome transition from a republic to an empire, and Augustus, the leader of this new empire, propounded family values. Ovid's racy texts quickly earned him disrepute with the emperor, and he was eventually banished to the Black Sea (“"Ovid"”), where he lived the remainder of his life in exile.

Even while living away from the city he loved, Ovid continue to write. His Epistulae ex Ponto - Letters from Pontus - convey the sorrow and repent for his unspecified crime. It is uncertain what may have caused Augustus to exile this talented writer. Ovid never openly mentions his transgression, but it is believes that a reference to the sexual exploits of Augustus' daughter may have been the cause.





Publius Vergilius Maro (70 BC - 17 BC), or Virgil, is best known for his Aeneid, a national epic of Rome’s history inspired by Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. This masterful work of twelve books is written in dactylic hexameter and recounts the tale of how Aeneas escaped the fall of Troy and went on to found Rome (“"Virgil"”).

An interesting fact regarding the Aeneid is that it was almost never published. Virgil fell sick and ordered the manuscript destroyed before he died, but the Emperor Augustus intervened and saved the publication from oblivion (“Virgil”).






Titus Livius, or Livy (59 BC – 17 AD), is best known for his massive history of Rome entitled Ab Urbe Condita – “From the Founding of the City.” An immense undertaking, this prose piece featured nearly half a millennium of history and narrative (“Livy”).

Of the original one hundred and forty-two books, only thirty-five remain today. An interesting element about Livy is that he wrote history’s first recorded “what if” scenario. In his Ab Urbe Condita, Livy plays out what might have happened if Alexander the Great had attacked the Romans (“Livy”). According to Livy, the Romans would have prevailed.





The Latin Influence

The influences of the Latin language are multiple and can be found everywhere in modern society.

  1. English Words: A multitude of English words have roots in the Latin language. These words span all elements of language and often deal with math or science.
  2. Numeral System: The Roman numbering system is still used in television and movie production. (It is also a convenient system for numbering Super Bowls)
  3. Stories and Literature: The Roman myths have a profound place in our culture. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is directly based on Ovid’s Pyramus and Thisbe.
  4. Law: Many legal documents have Latin phrases and words, an homage to the birth of our modern legal system.
  5. Education: Many schools offer Latin as it is immensely useful in understanding English.
  6. Religion: Many Christian religious services include Latin. The official language of Vatican City is still Latin.
  7. Science: Many naming conventions for taxonomy are based in Latin.



Few languages have had a greater world impact than Latin. The means of communication of one of the biggest empires in the history of the world, Latin was once the language of progress and civilization.

Producing an intricate and adaptable system, Latin remains the cornerstone of the great languages of the world.

Note: The information on the latin grammar and structures is the product of over five years of latin education at the high school and university level