Greek Language in the Byzantine Empire

What Language Did They Speak in Ancient Constantinople?

Byzantine Floor Mosaic In The Great Palace
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Constantinople, the new capital that Emperor Constantine developed in the East in the early fourth century A.D., lay in a largely Greek-speaking area of the Roman Empire. That doesn't mean that before the Fall of Rome the emperors headquartered and the people living there were native Greek speakers or, even if they were, incompetent Latin speakers.

Both languages, Greek and Latin, were part of the repertoire of the educated.

Until recently, those who considered themselves educated might be native English speakers but could piece out a short passage of Latin in their literary reading and get by speaking French. Peter and Catherine the Great ushered in an era where the politically important, the nobility of Russia, knew the French language and literature as well as Russian. It was similar in the ancient world.

Greek literature and themes dominated Roman writing until the mid-third century B.C., which is about a century after Alexander the Great had started the spread of Hellenism -- including the Greek Koine language -- throughout the vast areas that he had conquered. Greek was the language Roman aristocrats demonstrated to show their culture. They imported Greek pedagogues to teach their young. The important rhetorician of the first century A.D., Quintilian, advocated education in Greek since Roman children would naturally learn Latin on their own.

(Inst. Oratoria i.12-14) From the second century B.C., it became common for the wealthy to send their already Greek-speaking, but native-Latin-speaking Roman sons to Athens, Greece for higher education.

Before the division of the Empire first into the four parts known as the Tetrarchy under Diocletian in 293 A.D.

and then into two (simply an Eastern and a Western section), the second century A.D. Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote his meditations in Greek, following the affectations popular with philosophers. By this time, however, in the West, Latin had gained a certain cachet. A bit later, a contemporary of Constantine, Ammianus Marcellinus (c. 330-395 A.D.), from Antioch, Syria, but living in Rome, wrote his history not in his familiar Greek, but in Latin. The first century A.D. Greek biographer Plutarch went to Rome to learn the language better. (p. 85 Ostler, citing Plutarch Demosthenes 2)

The distribution was such that Latin was the language of the people to the west and north of a dividing line beyond Thrace, Macedonia, and Epirus down to northern Africa west of western Cyrenaica. In rural areas, the uneducated would not have been expected to know Greek, and if their native language were something other than Latin -- it might be Aramaic, Syriac, Coptic, or some other ancient tongue -- they might not even have known Latin well.

Likewise on the other side of the dividing line, but with Greek and Latin reversed In the East, they probably knew Greek in rural areas, to the exclusion of Latin, but in urban areas, like Constantinople, Nicomedia, Smyrna, Antioch, Berytus, and Alexandria, most people needed to have some command of both Greek and Latin.

Latin helped one advance in the imperial and military service, but otherwise, it was more a formality than a useful tongue, beginning at the start of the fifth century.

The so-called "Last of the Romans," Constantinople-based Emperor Justinian (r. 527-565), who was an Illyrian by birth, was a native Latin speaker. Living about a century after the Edward Gibbon-driven date of 476 for the Fall of Rome, Justinian made efforts to regain sections of the West lost to European barbarians. (Barbarian was a term the Greeks had used to mean "non-Greek speakers" and which the Romans adapted to mean those who spoke neither Greek nor Latin.) Justinian may have been trying to retake the Western Empire, but he had challenges closer to home since neither Constantinople nor the provinces of the Eastern Empire were secure.

There were also the famous Nika riots and a plague (see Lives of the Caesars). By his time, Greek had become the official language of the surviving section of the Empire, the Eastern (or later, Byzantine) Empire. Justinian had to publish his famous law code, the Corpus Iuris Civile in both Greek and Latin.

This sometimes confuses people who think the use of the Greek language in Constantinople means the inhabitants thought of themselves as Greeks, rather than as Romans. Particularly when arguing for a post-5th-century date for the Fall of Rome, some counter that by the time the Eastern Empire stopped legally requiring Latin, the inhabitants thought of themselves as Greeks, not Romans. Ostler asserts that the Byzantines referred to their language as romaika (Romanish) and that this term was in use until the 19th century. In addition, the people were known as Rumi -- a term obviously much closer to Roman than "Greek". We in the West might think of them as non-Romans, but that is another story.

By the time of Justinian, Latin was not the common tongue of Constantinople, although it was still an official language. The Roman people of the city spoke a form of Greek, a Koine.

Sources:

  • "Chapter 8 Greek in the Byzantine Empire: The Major Issues" Greek: A History of the Language and its Speakers, Second Edition, by Geoffrey Horrocks; Wiley: © 2010.
  • The Latin Language, by L. R. Palmer; University of Oklahoma Press: 1987.
  • Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin, by Nicholas Ostler; Walker: 2007.