Language spoken by Roman soldiers


While reading random news I stumbled on this:

The main story is unrelated, but it includes a bit where scholars says Roman Soldiers spoke Greek, not Latin. I understand that there were two types of Latin, and I thought that soldiers spoke the vulgar version. Did they actually speak in Greek instead?

Thanks in advance.

Strange. Most educated Romans would have known Greek, but to speak it as a primary language would have been unusual. Unless the soldiers stationed in Palestine were already of Greek origin, and used the language because it was more commonly understood in the region, I’m not sure I understand.

Only during the very beginning of the Roman Empire were most soldiers Roman, or at least Italian. After a certain point each province recruited its own troops, which naturally spoke their native languages (mainly Greek in the eastern half of the Empire).

Towards the end, not only did hardly any Romans actualy serve in the military, relatively few members of the Empire did - most of the legions consisted of foreign mercenaries.

Wouldn’t it be cheaper to outfit your own army than pay for expensive mercenaries?

And where were they from? Weren’t most of the people nearby that weren’t part of the Empire their enemies?


According to Monty Python, the Latin used by subject peoples in the far-flung corners of the Empire was less than reliable…


Not to mention their HTML coding…


In the Imperial period Roman legions were substantially recruited in the colonies, and few actual Romans served in the armies. For example, one of the legions stationed in England (the famous IX ‘Hispana’) was [originally] recruited in Spain. Greek was spoken very commonly in the Eastern half of the Empire: it was the common tongue in which all the different national groups did business together, like Germans speaking English to Italians and Japanese. So Greek woulod naturally have been the common language of a polyglot legion. It would also have been the language that the Roman administrators spoke to their subjects. It is not for nothing that the Gospels were written in Greek a generation or so later.

But that’s not all. I vaguely remember that at least one of the legions stationed in Palestine about the time of Tiberius was recruited in Greece. It was the cause of some serious disturbances.


In the long run, yes, even without taking into account the political dangers. But it is also cheaper to buy a house than to rent one. Nevertheless, many people pay expensive rent because they need somewhere to live right now, and can’t assemble the capital to buy.

Similarly, rulers often hire expensive mercenaries because they have the income to rent troops and equipment, but not the capital on hand to train the men and buy the equipment.

And another thing is that the semi-barbarians from the border zone would have been cheap mercenaries, not expensive mercenaries.

Romans and provincials were rich and lived in peaceful lands with a comparative wealth of opportunity. It would have taken large salaries to lure them into a soldier’s life of hardship and danger. But the people beyond the borders were poorer and enjoyed less security and opportunity at home: they would find life in the legions attractive at a much lower salary.

Don’t think of the Romans hiring mercenary units outfitted and trained and with their own leaders, and paying a premium for them. (At least, not until the foederati, who were qite late.) Think of them recruiting foreign lads into Roman units with loyal officers paying them, training them, and equipping them just as though they had grown up in Roman provinces. ‘Mercenaries’ in the Roman legions were mercenaries in the sense in which the French Foreign Legion or the Gurkhas in the British Army are mercenaries, not mercenaries in the sense in which the condottieri were mercenaries. They were career soldiers in a national army which happened not to be that of their native country, that’s all.

A lot were Germans, others Syrians and Dacians. These peoples are often listed as enemies of Rome, but that categorisation obscures the complexities. You might have heard of the great German leader Hermann, whose tribal forces wiped three legions under Quintilius Varus in the Teutoberger Forest during the reign of Augustus. His brother was a loyal friend to Rome.

Think about the French. Were they enemies of the British in WWII? Well, Commonwealth troops and US troops did fight [Vichy] French troops in Syria and North Africa in 1941 and 1942. But there were Free French on the Allied side, and France ended up as a Permanent Member of the Security Council (unlike Australia, which is very unfair). Or are the Iraqis enemies of the USA? The US army has just fought the Iraqi army, and there are Iraqi ‘freedom fighters’ trying to kill US soldiers every day. So naturally you might say ‘yes’. But probably a majority of Iraqis are neutral or favourable to the US, and if the US Army had a Foreign Legion it would doubtless be recruiting Iraqis and Afghans now.


So it was right, and that Greek was spoken by soldiers in Jesus’s day, at least in his area?

That really surprised me. Thanks for reaffirmation.

This doesn’t seem right to me. Greek was the language of culture and the educated, but Latin was the common tongue. When Julius Caesar wrote his “commentaries” and other works, he wrote it in Latin, not Greek. I’ve always heard it explained that he did so in order to make his work and views well known among the “common people”. Roman grafitti is almost invariably in Latin, not Greek. Inscriptions in far-flung parts of the Empire were generally in Latin, not Greek. Finally, the forms of the language that grew up in areas overrun by the Roman Empire were forms of Latin, niot Greek – the “Romance languages” of Spanish, Portugeuse, French, Romanian, and even, to a degree, Polish, were based on Latin, not Greek.

There’s no doubt in my mind that all those Roman soldiers were speaking Latin, not Greek.

In every movie I’ve ever seen the Roman soldiers spoke English.

Sure, that was probably the case in the western part of the empire, but I believe that the eastern part of the mediterranean was quite different. Don’t forget that the hellenistic civilization predated the roman.
I don’t know for sure what the linguistic proportions were around 0BC, but a couple of hundred years in either direction, and you would find greek spoken. In the Hellenistic world, as well as in the East Roman empire.

I’m with Agback on this one.

Ok, here’s a list and brief history of each legion, so if somebody wants to check, they can probably figure out who was stationed in Jerusalem at the time and where the legion came from.

From that site, as part of a description of the X Fretensis

So there are 4 legions stationed in the area.

WTF? Polish is not a Romance language, the Romans never even penetrated Slavonia to any great degree. Polish is a Slavic language, whatever Latin vocabulary is within it came from the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, which spread to Poland several centuries after the fall of the Roman empire, and modern international Romance-based words.

Yeah, you might have put “even, to a degree, Polish” to mark that the influence of Latin was lesser than the others, but that you would even list Polish marks you a fool. Remember when people who posted in GQ knew what they were talking about?


For some reason, when you ever see dramatic depictions of Roman soldiers/people, they often spoke with a british accent. I never understood why people decided to give them a british accent. Why not give them an Italian and/or Greek accent? Wouldn’t that give a better prespective of where they’re from?

Remember a time when GQ was unpeppered with jerks?

UnuMondo, personal insults are not permitted in this forum. You can disagree with a person’s facts, but do not call any of your fellow posters a fool again outside of the BBQ Pit. Consider yourself warned.

And Speaker for the Dead, you’re skaing close to the edge. No warning, but please don’t pour oil on the fire.

moderator GQ

Well, Rumanian is a romance language spoken in the Balkans (the far flung province of Dacia). The colonists who settled there spoke Vulgar Latin.

In most of the provinces the people did speak their native tongues, but as the provinces became increasingly romanized they often began to speak Vulgar Latin. Only Dacia really became romanized, as well as areas of Yugoslavia which were the Dalmatian region.

Areas that already were Hellenized kept speaking greek, such as Asia Minor, and Egypt. But the western provinces all eventually abandoned their local languages and spoke Latin.

Soldiers from the Hellenized areas would probably have spoken Greek, but soldiers coming from Gaul or Hispania would have been speaking Vulgar Latin. Even in Italy there were small pockets of former Greek Colonies that spoke a variety of Greek.

Side note: The populace only spoke vulgar latin (in its many varieties). No one spoke Classical Latin natively.

UnuMondo, I’ve studied both Polish and Latin for years in school. Have you?

I’ve been struck by a great many correspondences between the languages, particularly and most telling the fact that the most common forms of the verb “to be” are virtually identical. Polish 3rd person singular jest corresponding to Lastin third person singular est, and Polish third person plural sa (pronounced “sewn”, roughly) corresponding to Latin third person plural sunt.

These are the verbs for “to be” – about as basic in a language as you can get – not later additions or “borrowed” words (like Polish sol = "salt = Lapin sal). To me that shows a profound influence.

Egypt was only weakly Hellenized, the Greek population having clustered almost exclusively in Alexandria. The overwhelmingly dominant language was native Coptic until well into the Islamic era.

Not that it matters much anyway in the context of this discussion, as no one between a desperate Ptolemy IV Philopater in the 3rd century B.C.E. and Muhammed Ali in the 19th century, bothered to recruit native Egyptians as soldiers.

  • Tamerlane