Country, Identity, and Language

by Dave Schuler on June 30, 2014

We don’t know very much about classical antiquity despite living in its ruins. Most of what we think we know is from romantic reconstructions dating from the early modern era.

However, I don’t think we can know even that if we don’t recognize the interrelationships amoung country, identity, and language in antiquity. “Egypt” is where Egyptian was spoken and it was spoken by Egyptians. “Rome” is where Latin was spoken and it was spoken by Romans. “Gaul” is where Gaulish was spoken and it was spoken by Gauls.

We can be pretty confident that Picts and Scots spoke different languages because the Romans distinguished between them and they would have made that distinction based on the language they spoke. My guess would be that the ancient Scots spoken a Goidelic language (like Irish or Scots Gaelic) while the Picts spoken a Brythonic language (like Welsh or Cornish) but that’s just a guess since we have no attestations of the Pictish language. It might have been a linguistic isolate (like Basque).

Now go back and read the Hebrew Bible. You’ll get a very different impression about stories, like say the “captivity in Egypt”. Just as a side note to the best of my knowledge the earliest attestation we have of Hebrew is that it was apparently spoken in a Persian fort about 2,500 years ago in Upper Egypt.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Craig June 30, 2014 at 11:29 am

Your examples tend to undermine your point.

Rome is certainly not where Latin was spoken: that was Latium, originally, and later when the Romans were settling colonies of Latin-speakers all over the place they didn’t call those places “Rome” as opposed to their hinterlands, or the provinces where Latin never became a popular language.

“Egypt” is perhaps the most geographic of the ancient countries: it’s the Nile delta and valley (well, valley downstream of whichever cataract). Alexandria, a Greek-speaking city, was capital of Egypt for centuries and nobody would have dreamed of saying it wasn’t in Egypt.

Gaul, I will give you, though I’m not sure how long the Romans kept calling parts of northern Italy “Cisalpine Gaul” and how that compared with the linguistic history.

michael reynolds June 30, 2014 at 3:14 pm

And then there’s the Goths: Visigoths, Ostrogoths, and now Mallgoths, not to be confused with Emogauls.

PD Shaw June 30, 2014 at 3:54 pm

I thought Gaul was the place where people wore mustaches, or at least that is how the earliest Greek descriptions described them (or the Celts in the region that became known as Gaul). And then later on, the Gauls (or their Frankish successors) depicted their ancestors as mustached.

To me, knowing how the Greeks tended to write about their own appearance (the bestest), I think we can have an idea of how the Gauls looked, and to some extent how the Greeks appeared as well (the mustache being an oddity). And even if its all just made-up, the myths of late antiquity tend to become reality as people claim them for themselves.

Dave Schuler June 30, 2014 at 5:40 pm


You’re missing the point. It’s true that Alexandria (or where Alexandria is) has always been a part of Egypt. But at one point or another so were Damascus and Benghazi (or at least where they are) and were called “Egypt” by people at that time.

We routinely impose our ideas of national boundaries, national identity, and ethnicity on the ancients where they may not be appropriate.

PD Shaw June 30, 2014 at 5:51 pm

@Craig, IOW, Ukrainians, Iraqis and Palestinians not “a People.”

mike shupp June 30, 2014 at 8:15 pm

Michael Reynolds:

And, not to forget, my personal favorites, the Vandals.

Craig July 1, 2014 at 12:20 pm

Well, if that’s your point, you shouldn’t have stressed language. it was front and center in modern nationalist movements, for one thing, and it’s quite true that we shouldn’t really think of nations before the modern world.

Language didn’t strongly define countries in pre-modern eras: the population wouldn’t have been speaking Egyptian in Damascus whether or not the Pharoah controlled it. It was a stronger but not necessarily a controlling element in defining peoples: there were, at times, quite a few Greek-speakers who were self-consciously Roman.

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