The Uses and Benefits of Multilingualism

The L’Africa Romana series is both a treasure trove and a complete nightmare. It comprises the proceedings of a series of broad international conferences, co-ordinated by the University of Sassari, dedicated to the study of Roman North Africa. They cover the widest possible range of studies related to this exciting, vibrant region of the Roman world. Many a gem tends to go unnoticed in the overwhelming stream of articles that are published in those voluminous, daunting tomes on a regular basis, unsurprisingly not seldom buried among numerous pieces of lesser significance.

In the nineteenth volume of this series, the distinguished Tunisian scholar Zeineb Benzina Ben Abdallah, in collaboration with Lotfi Naddari, in their piece ‘Omnium litterarum scientissimus …: à propos d’une famille des lettrés des environs d’Ammaedara’, report a pair of clearly related funerary inscriptions of the Caecilii family from Ammaedara (Haïdra, Tunisia).

One of the two items they discuss in this article caught my attention due to its prominent mention of multilingualism.

The text has been inscribed on an impressive hexagonal cippus of 2.37 metres’ height, and it reads as follows:

D(is) M(anibus) s(acrum). | Q(uintus) Caecilius | Vitalis uix(it) | ann(os) LXXV m(enses) II. | h(ic) s(itus) e(st). | Caecilii Vitali|anus Barba|rus et Rusticu|lus filii pa|tri optimo | omnium litte(ra)|rum scientissi|mo et in utra|q(ue) lingua tam | Graeca quam | Latina peritis|simo propa|gatori huius | surculi bono | uiro fece[ru]nt.

Sacred to the Manes. Quintus Caecilius Vitalis lived for 75 years and 2 months. He lies here. The Caecilii Vitalianus, Barbarus, and Rusticulus, his sons, had this made for their best father, most learned in all disciplines as well as most experienced in the Greek language just as much as in Latin, promoter of this sprig, a decent man.

(Afr. Rom. XIX p. 2118–20 with fig. 5–6)

This monument deploys a veritable array of superlatives. The father is described by his three sons as omnium litte(ra)|rum scientissi|mo et in utra|q(ue) lingua tam | Graeca quam | Latina peritis|simo, ‘most learned in all disciplines as well as most experienced in the Greek language just as much as in Latin’.

The phrase stresses not only the father’s bilingualism, but simultaneously volunteers an understanding of in utra|q(ue) lingua in the form of a comparison. Could there possibly have been any ambiguity over the meaning of utraque lingua, one must wonder?

Well, actually, yes, there could have been, for the linguistic landscape of Roman North Africa was anything but homogeneous, as J. N. Adams in his monograph on ‘Bilingualism and the Latin Language’ has demonstrated with meticulous care.

Since the inscription was found in Roman North Africa, it is altogether unsurprising that the father’s native language or at least his preferred ‘official’ language was Latin: this area was part of the Latin-speaking hemisphere of the Roman empire. Yet, Latin was by no means the sole language that was in use in Roman North Africa, and in that respect it was of course perfectly possible that someone buried in that area also knew a native language or regional dialect of Africa Proconsularis.

This, however, is not at all the impression the dedicants of this inscription wanted to give – in fact, they seem to have been eager to avoid it at all costs –, and thus they clarify their statement by likening his command of Greek to that of his (native? preferred?) Latin.

Why did it matter so much to them?

A reasonable response to this question would be that it mattered because reference to the utraque lingua is shorthand code for an apparent, traditional Roman aristocratic education. The father had command of two prestige languages, command to a degree that even Quintilian should have been proud of him.

Asserting (classical) learning and multilingualism is, as Ben Abdallah and Naddari have seen in their fascinating article, not an altogether uncommon motive in the sphere of the Northern African provinces.

One can add to their observations that, in addition to Rome and some Italic regions, Africa is in fact the sole area of the Roman Empire in which multilingualism seems to have made it into the canon of topoi on funerary inscriptions – it did not seem to matter anywhere near as much in the Western, Northern, and Eastern regions of the empire.

North Africa in one way was far away from Rome and main Italy. Those who assert multilingualism here, in the way in which the Caecilii did, may indeed have done so as a means of asserting their traditional, upper-class education.

This, however, is only one use of their promoted multilingualism. Roman North Africa was an area of the Roman empire that saw almost unparalleled levels of growth and prosperity, of urbanisation and cultural wealth from the first century A. D. onwards. The area sits at the crossroads of the Greek-speaking East and the Latin-speaking West, and it was an vibrant area of global trade and commerce. In such an area multilingualism, whether acquired as an object of prestige or for purely practical reasons, was an economic necessity.

A bit of this mentality – in addition to that of education for education’s sake – shines through in the above inscription as well: the Caecilius Vitalis is stylised as a propagator huius surculi, a ‘promoter of this sprig’, a driving force behind a fresh, young branch of a family that clearly is determined to grow and to prosper.

The same mindset emerges from the second inscription that is discussed in Ben Abdallah’s and Naddari’s article, an inscription that honours Vitalis’ father: the father is described as the institutor huius regionis et surculi, the one who set up this entire region as well as the family branch – the very branch that Vitalis then managed to advance even further.

The decidedly entrepreneurial spirit behind this set of texts thus makes it very unlikely that the desire to reveal classical learning was the sole driving force behind their language learning. At the same time, the veneer of a classical education clearly will have been welcome to them, too.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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