What is the Latin word for ‘Greek’ and Why?

James H. Dee

University of Illinois, Chicago - Emeritus

There is a well-established fable de convenance among historical linguists to account for the fact that the Romans throughout their history used a decidedly unattractive and untraditional word-group to denote the land and people of Greece, viz. Graecia and Graeci (and the poeticism Grai), instead of the terms universally preferred, at least from the Classical Period forward, by the Greeks themselves, viz. Hellas, Hellênes, Hellênikos. The story receives a brief retelling in the Dictionnaire étymologique of Ernout and Meillet, along with a comment on the oddity of the choice (and a reference to Ernout’s more extensive discussion in RPh for 1962 [=Philologica 3.82ff.]), and it is summarized as ‘the most convincing explanation’ in the ‘Note on Orthography’ in Jonathan Hall’s recent book, Hellenicity. This paper does not seek to overthrow that communis opinio, but rather to explore its flip-side, the almost total absence of the family of Hellas and its kin from the whole corpus of Classical Latin texts. For no matter how comfortable the otherwise philhellene Romans may have been with Graecus etc., one can hardly doubt that native-speaker Greeks might have winced a little each time such a word was used—rather as a native-born Southerner stationed in England during World War II might have reacted to being called a ‘Yank’. Of course, the typical power relationships between Romans and Greeks would make it difficult for anyone to protest openly or effectively against such a semibarbarism.

This vacuum has been noted before: Ernout in the article just mentioned surveys the surviving literary texts and concludes, l’élimination est complète—a technical usage in linguistics which of course does not imply conscious or deliberate choice by Latin-speakers. The first part of the paper will broaden the scope of that survey and assess the results, looking for possible socio-cultural ramifications of this quite striking fact. Of particular interest are, inter alia, the few ‘intercultural’ texts written by Greeks addressing Romans (e.g. Parthenius’ Erotika Pathêmata, dedicated to Cornelius Gallus) and various bilingual inscriptions where someone, perhaps a native Hellene, had to decide how to render Graecus etc. in Greek. For example, it may be observed that in the three published volumes of Inscriptiones Graecae ad res Romanas pertinentes, the indices for res geographicae show not one occurrence of any form of Graikos etc. but several dozen of the Hellas/Hellênes set. It is not clear what sort of conclusions should be drawn from these circumstances, but the second part of the paper will consider the possibility suggested in the previous paragraph—that the difference in linguistic usage is in some way a reflection of the ‘discourse of power’ between the two cultures. That argument could be maintained even if the Romans of the late Republic and early Empire hardly gave a thought to the words they used with such casualness (and, I would suggest, insensitivity).

There will be a compact handout of the most relevant passages and a brief bibliography.



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