On the Edge: Writing in Roman Britain

I’ve just given a talk for the Cambridge Festival of Ideas about the different kinds of written evidence that survive from Roman Britain and what they can tell us, so thought I’d write up a summary here for any interested readers who couldn’t come to the talk! The title “On the Edge” was chosen to fit in with the theme of this year’s festival, “Extremes”, and to reflect the position of Britain on the very edge of the Roman Empire (a journey from Rome to London in October could take up to 40 days), and for that matter the position of many of the surviving texts, which come from Hadrian’s Wall in the north of Britain, on the very edge of the Roman-controlled part of the island. A major theme of the talk was how, despite this remote position, Britain was very well connected with the rest of the Roman world, as the evidence of many of the written documents shows.

hadrianswall2007
Hadrian’s Wall. Photo by Michael Hanselmann via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

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Greek, ancient and modern

I’ve recently started taking some classes in modern Greek – something I’ve been meaning to do for ages, since it would be nice to be able to speak it when I travel to Greece (my repertoire up until now has consisted of a relatively fluent ability to order kebabs, but little else). The first thing people normally ask when I mention that I’m learning modern Greek is “how different is it really from ancient Greek?” To which the answer is, well, a) I can’t really speak ancient Greek, as opposed to reading it (the average Classics course is generally more concerned with teaching the vocabulary you need to read about the Persian War than useful phrases like “excuse me, I’m lost, which way is the marketplace please?”), and b) even if I could, I’d still have a lot of trouble making myself understood if I went around speaking it in modern-day Athens, because the language has changed so much. Continue reading “Greek, ancient and modern”

It’s All Chinese To Me?

The phrase “it’s all Greek to me” (meaning “I don’t understand it, it’s unintelligible”) is a common enough one in English to be the name of an awful lot of Greek restaurants, as well as this blog. Quite a few other languages also use Greek as the stereotypical hard-to-understand language – mostly European languages like Portuguese, Spanish, or Norwegian, but also Persian/Farsi. The phrase seems to start turning up in English in the 17th century – the most widely-quoted example is from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:

CASSIUS: Did Cicero say any thing?

CASCA: Ay, he spoke Greek.

CASSIUS: To what effect?

CASCA: Nay, an I tell you that, I’ll ne’er look you i’ the
face again: but those that understood him smiled at
one another and shook their heads; but, for mine own
part, it was Greek to me.

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