Why Compare Greek and Latin?

Joshua T. Katz

If you wish to become a Classicist, you may want to learn Ancient Greek and Latin. I hope you will! A detailed look at the reasons we Classicists focus on these two languages to the exclusion of others – in my opinion, sometimes to the detriment of whatever matter we are considering – is not the project here. My goal is more modest: to take you through the thinking behind one thing many Classicists like to do, namely compare the language of Homer and Plato, on the one hand, and the language of Vergil and Cicero, on the other.

Why should we compare Greek and Latin? Perhaps the primary reason we do compare them is convention. Old habits die hard, and it so happens that these two tongues, and speakers of them, have long been the bread and butter of people who call themselves Classicists. As a matter of the history of scholarship, this is a second-order answer – a very interesting one, certainly, but not one that really explains why we should compare them.[1]

There are at least three first-order reasons to compare Greek and Latin:

(1) Greek and Latin share a linguistic and cultural patrimony in the distant past.

(2) Greek and Latin were spoken at the same time in the wider Mediterranean world.

(3) There was a tradition in the literary culture of the one of translating, adapting, and alluding to material in the other.

Each of these is associated with a different methodology or approach:

(1′) Historical linguistics.

(2′) Bi- and multi-lingualism.

(3′) Intertextuality and the study of allusion.

All three have benefits and limitations that deserve extensive discussion on Antigone and elsewhere. My intention is to make brief remarks about each; to place a light emphasis on the third, in which I happen myself to be especially interested and which probably receives the least attention; and to point to a synthesis by means of an example from the shared Greco-Roman poetic tradition.

Central medallion of Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, and Homer, from a mosaic found in a Roman villa at Vichten, Luxembourg, AD c.240 (now in the Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Trier, Germany).

Among literary scholars, allusion and intertextuality are currently dominant principles. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “intertextuality,” which was coined in French (as “intertextualité”) by the Franco-Bulgarian critic Julia Kristeva in 1967 and made its way into English soon thereafter, as

[t]he need for one text to be read in the light of its allusions to and differences from the content or structure of other texts; the (allusive) relationship between esp[ecially] literary texts.

One of the six citations of the word in the OED comes from a 1984 study by the Hellenist Simon Goldhill: at issue is the relationship between two Greek works, the Oresteia, Aeschylus’ dramatic trilogy first performed in Athens in 458 BC, and the Odyssey, an originally oral epic poem attributed to a bard called Homer and datable to about 250 years earlier.

As for the other term – “allusion” – the reader will notice that it plays a role in the definition of “intertextuality”. The line between the two is often unclear, but the first port of call for Classicists remains Stephen Hinds’s influential 1998 treatise Allusion and Intertext: Dynamics of Appropriation in Roman Poetry, which attempts to distinguish the two concepts through intention: allusion is a specifically conscious homage.

One of the most lauded sections of Allusion and Intertext considers the opening verse of what is often considered the first piece of Latin literature, the Odusia (Odyssey) of Livius Andronicus, composed in 240 BC. Here is that first verse, which is, alas, only an isolated fragment (that is to say, we don’t have the second verse of the work, though we do have 45 scattered others):

virum mihi, Camena, insece versutum

Tell me, Camena, of the versatile man.

The opening line of the Odusia is cited by Aulus Gellius in his discussion of the meaning of insece and its various forms (18.9, here pictured in a 1624 reprint of Henri Estienne/Henricus Stephanus’ edition of Gellius, I.420).

While you are unlikely to have read this before in any language, it may nonetheless sound awfully familiar. And with good reason! It is a translation of the opening verse of a very well-known poem in Greek, Homer’s Odyssey:

ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον

andra moi ennepe, Mousa, polutropon

Tell me, Muse, of the man of many turns.

Hinds goes carefully through every one of the five Latin words, showing just how artful Livius’ translation is.[2] Take, for example, the adjective versutum, which I translated clunkily, but with an eye to the Latin, as “versatile”: literally “turned” (compare Greek -tropon, which we have borrowed as the second element in the adjective heliotropic ,“turning toward the sun,” said of plants like the sunflower), it is also the technical term for “translated”. In short, then, the famously wily Odysseus is not just “a complicated man” – this is Emily Wilson’s rendering in her justly famous translation of 2017 – but, for Livius, a difficult-to-translate though ultimately successfully translated man. Indeed, the prototype of a translated man: translated from Troy back to Ithaca via Ogygia and, after arriving and being sung about, translated alla Romana and, subsequently, into dozens and dozens of further languages across the globe.

The connection between Latin literature and Greek is extraordinarily intimate and has no parallel anywhere else in the ancient world. Nonetheless, as Denis Feeney points out in his 2016 book Beyond Greek: The Beginnings of Latin Literature, literary translation is not as straightforward an activity as we tend to imagine today, and it is in some sense amazing that we have a rendition of Homer into Latin at all. But since we do have it, at least in bits, it behooves us to figure out how Livius went about the task.

A task not as simple as it sounds: the title-page of Matthew Arnold’s famous account.

One reason his version works so well – and here I move from approach (3′) to (2′) – is that Livius really knew his Greek in addition to his Latin. As well he should since he was a native speaker of Greek who, having perhaps been captured as a boy at Tarentum in 272 BC, was brought to Rome as a slave and eventually freed by a member of the gens Livia. It is surely only thanks to Livius’ true facility with both Greek and Latin that we find in his Odusia a subtle but important change from Homer: versutum is what I am tempted to refer to as the very first non-compound in Latin literature! What a hack would have done is convert the unremarkable Greek compound polu-tropon, “many-turned,” piece by piece into multi-versutum, or multi-versum, forms that at first glance appear unproblematic but in fact show up nowhere in all of Latin literature. Livius, however, was steeped in the multi-lingual environment of ancient Italy and knew that the simple adjective versutum was the right choice, for Latin has a less affectionate relationship to compounds than Greek.

The first and last words of the first verse of both Homer’s poem and Livius’ are the noun-adjective combination “man … (many-)turned”: andrapolutropon and virumversutum. The reader is unlikely to see a similarity between the two words for “man” or between the two words for “turned”. This is because these sets of words are indeed fundamentally different: what andra (borrowed to form the English term android) and virum (the source of English virility) have in common is their basic meaning but not their form; the same is true of -tropon and versutum. By contrast, the pronouns moi and mihi share form as well as meaning: both begin with m and end with i. This is not accidental.

We come now to approach (1′): historical linguistics. A striking fact about Greek and Latin is that they are, from a historical point of view, the same! Around 3500 BC, thousands of years before either language was written down, a form of speech now known as Proto-Indo-European (PIE) was spoken, probably in the steppe north of the Black and Caspian Seas. Thanks to migrations and the inevitable changes that arise over time, PIE developed, through the centuries and millennia, into the distinct languages Greek and Latin – and into English, Hindi, Scots Gaelic, Russian, Armenian, and a host of other so-called Indo-European tongues. If you want to know more, read the authoritative and engaging textbook Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction by Benjamin W. Fortson IV (2nd ed., 2010). The similarities between moi, mihi, and for that matter English me, have nothing to do with borrowing but rather reflect the reality of five or six thousand years ago, when PIE had a first-person pronoun whose first sound was m.

The families of ‘Indo-European’ languages (with Greek and Latin highlighted); to see where modern languages fit in, explore this much more detailed version.

The roots of Greek andra, Mousa, and polutropon all go back to PIE as well; so do the roots of Latin virum and versutum. Take, for example, Mousa “Muse.” Although this will not be immediately obvious, the word had the precursor *montwa and probably contains the PIE root *men- found in Latin mens (the source of English mental) and English mind. (An asterisk before words indicates that a given form is not found in an actual text – the speakers of PIE left no written records – but is reconstructed on the basis of historical linguistic principles that you can learn about in Fortson’s book and elsewhere.) Delightfully, Mousa appears to be the same word as Vedic Sanskrit mántu-, “counselor”: the Muse is literally mindful.

But to return to Homer and Livius: what can we say about the prehistory of the verbs ennepe and insece, both trisyllabic imperatives (“tell!”) of the shape “VnCeCe” (where V = vowel and C = consonant)? As it happens, they look similar because once upon a time they were one and the same: PIE *ensekwe, a combination of *en-, the prepositional prefix meaning “in” (Greek en, Latin in, English in); *sekw, a root meaning “tell” (it survives in English in the verb say, which a thousand years ago, in Old English, had the form secgan); and the imperative ending *-e. Speakers of Latin in Livius’ time will have considered insece unusual, and the poet surely chose it to match Homer’s ennepe, which itself had an archaic ring already nearly three millennia ago. But the match was made possible thanks to the historical linguistic reality of PIE.

Apollo and the Muses, Baldassare Peruzzi, 1514–23 (Palatine Gallery, Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Italy).

So why should we compare Greek and Latin? Five words in Homer’s Greek and five words in Livius’ Latin serve, I hope, to exemplify three reasons. Livius, who lived in a world in which many people spoke both Greek and Latin, used his knowledge for the artistic purpose of learned allusion to his fabled predecessor – and because Greek and Latin share a common source in a past long before even Homer, some words are similar in the two languages and, by extension, some ideas and larger concepts are similar in the two cultures as well.

The one word I have not yet mentioned is instructive: Camena, the name of a native Italian water divinity. Its etymology is unknown; we do not know whether Camena can be traced back to PIE. What we do know is that Livius could have translated Homer’s Mousa simply as Musa, using the word that Latin had surely already borrowed from Greek.

So why did he not do so? One reason is that he wished to put a Roman spin on the story from the start. But another may be that reversing the elements ennepe, Mousa in Camena, insece allowed him to sneak in an allusion to the opening of what is conventionally considered the foundational work of Western literature: Homer’s other great poem, the Iliad. There is, after all, an unmistakable echo in -mena in- of that first, incredibly powerful word of the tradition, which, like Mousa, happens also to go back to a form of the PIE root *men-: menin “wrath.” The implications of this, however, are a topic for another day.

Joshua T. Katz is Cotsen Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Classics at Princeton University; he is also a Nonresident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. A linguist by training, a classicist by profession, and a comparative philologist at heart, he spends his time thinking about badgers, Indo-European poetics, and the disintegration of the academy.


1 The formation and perpetuation of the discipline are subjects for another article.
2 For reasons which we can only guess, Livius chose to translate Homer out of the Greek dactylic hexameter and into a native Italian (and to us rather mysterious) metre, the “Saturnian“.