Wednesday, August 23, 2017


J. N. Adams, An Anthology of Informal Latin, 200 BC - AD 900: Fifty Texts with Translations and Linguistic Commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. Pp. xi, 719. ISBN 9781107039773. $200.00.

Reviewed by Eleanor Dickey, University of Reading (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Anthologies of Latin texts are usually aimed at students, often ones who have not been studying Latin for very long and need easy selections with notes focussing on translation difficulties. This anthology is completely different, a huge body of meticulous scholarship and high-level academic discussion. It was originally intended as an appendix to the latest of Adams' monumental tomes on Latin, Social Variation and the Latin Language,1 but when that work turned out to fill 956 pages even without an appendix, this one took on a life of its own. It offers short (often very short) extracts, each with an introduction, translation, and commentary focussing on linguistic features; although unsuitable for most students, it is a gold mine for scholars interested in the Latin language, Latin stylistics, the beginnings of the Romance languages, or the specific texts included.

The texts all share one feature: their language differs significantly from the Ciceronian Latin typically described by grammars both ancient and modern. 'Informal' Latin is not the ideal description of this type of Latin, as Adams explains in the introduction, since some of the texts contain literary features and some were in fact their authors' best attempts at writing formal Latin. But since the ousting of the term 'Vulgar Latin', a standard term for Latin texts containing interesting linguistic features has been lacking, and 'informal' is as good as any. The vast majority of Latin spoken and even written in antiquity contained some of these 'informal' features, but the transmission process by which Latin texts have survived favours 'correct' Latin, giving us a distorted impression of how Romans generally used their language. By reading 'informal' texts one can gain a better understanding not only of the language as a whole, but also of the usage of writers like Cicero who made conscious choices not to do certain things that other Romans did.

A few of the texts included will be familiar to most Classicists, for example Plautus, Petronius, Seneca, graffiti from Pompeii, the Vindolanda tablets. But most of the texts are from lesser-known literary works (e.g. Ennius'Euhemerus, the Confessio of St Patrick, the Historia Apollonii regis Tyri) or documentary material that has hitherto been largely unknown and in many cases inaccessible to non-specialist Classicists, including curse tablets, papyrus letters, ostraca, inscriptions, and a mosaic with acclamations for a wild beast fight. Although most of the documentary texts are late, a few are surprisingly early, including a curse tablet from Rome dating to c. 100 BC (text 6) and a loan contract from Puteoli dating to AD 37 (text 15). The highlighting of this material is useful in itself, as it will allow ordinary Classicists to learn about works that are of great interest, not only for their language — but as the extracts provided in this book are usually very short, it cannot be used as an actual source for these works.

The commentary is intended to be read continuously from the beginning of the book to the end (concepts such as 'OV order' are explained once when they first come up and then used without any further explanation or cross-reference to the original one) and focusses on the points where Adams has something to add to the current scholarly consensus, rather than offering an introduction to that consensus. That approach, which Adams' followers will be familiar with from his other recent books, gives scholars maximum value per page but can be challenging for readers without extensive background; for example, common spelling errors such as the interchange of b and v may be passed over without any comment at all. Readers new to non-standard Latin may find it easier to use this work alongside one that provides more basic information, such as Adams' own The Vulgar Latin of the Letters of Claudius Terentianus.

The commentary goes into particular depth on certain points, including word order, relative clauses, asyndeton bimembre, indirect statement, and the relationship between case usage and prepositions. A number of appendices with additional data are included; these are not listed in the table of contents, which is unfortunate as they have a utility going beyond the particular texts to which they are attached.2 Fortunately there is a 'conclusions' section to the commentary on each text, a 'final conclusions' section, and a detailed index; these will mostly suffice to allow readers to find discussion of specific linguistic features.

Adams often spends particular energy attacking previous scholarship on specific points without stating exactly how he thinks the overall scholarly consensus should be revised to incorporate his findings. When this happens it is easy to misunderstand what he means, so readers should be very careful: I once heard someone summarize Adams' Regional Diversification with 'Adams says there wasn't any', revealing a disastrous failure to appreciate that the points on which Adams argued against regionalisms previously claimed by others were numerically outweighed by the points on which he did find regional variation. Summaries of the Anthology with 'Adams says there are no informal texts', 'Adams says Latin did not change over time', or 'Adams says the grammars are all wrong' would be equally unfortunate, but they could be equally tempting. To clarify, what Adams' conclusions on these points really boil down to is the following.

1) Many of the texts included turn out not to be as 'informal' as they have previously been considered: a recurring theme is the discovery of elevated stylistic features in unlikely places, such as a private letter from Myos Hormos (text 24) or Ennius' Euhemerus (text 1). Other texts, however, have large numbers of informal features.

2) The neat classification of Latin into early, Classical, and late varieties is artificial and often misleading, since there was vast diversity at all periods: even Classical Latin was not as standardized as we think. Moreover, older usages nearly always remained available for use by later writers, and there are some interesting continuities between early and late Latin. Nevertheless, significant changes can be seen over the timespan included in this volume.

3) The tendency of Latin grammars to focus on Cicero's usage means that they do not accurately represent Latin as a whole: Cicero's usage was not typical, and on certain points not even typical of educated usage in his own time (cf. pp. 144-5, 641). Our assumption that educated Romans of the first century BC shared Cicero's attitudes towards particular linguistic features sometimes causes us to misunderstand what other Latin authors were doing when they used non-Ciceronian features: some of those features were not 'informal' at all from the point of view of either writers or audience.

Other interesting conclusions concern the development of technical languages, whose genre-specific features Adams scrupulously distinguishes from simple informality (see e.g. text 11 from Vitruvius, text 25 from a surveyor's inscription from Algeria, text 5 for the beginnings of medical prose in Cato's De agricultura, text 50 for a medieval veterinary treatise, and pp. 654-5). Bilingualism, the use of Latin in the army in Greek-speaking regions, and convergence between Latin and Greek are also themes (see e.g. pp. 288, 645-6).

Connections and contrasts between different texts are frequently highlighted; these discussions can be hard to evaluate, or even to follow, when only one of the texts concerned is reproduced in the anthology (e.g. text 31, a letter of Publicola to Augustine, is compared in detail to Augustine's reply, which does not appear in the anthology). More manageable — and equally interesting — are the comparisons between different texts in the anthology, such as the observation (p. 316) that the significant differences in spelling between two second-century AD private letters do not show that the speech of their writers differed, merely that one was more literate than the other. Likewise, a series of curse tablets from Britain are connected by the argument that British Latin did not have certain distinctive conservative features it has been alleged to contain (texts 32-7; the arguments here almost look as though Adams thinks British Latin had no distinctive features, but that would be a misunderstanding: see p. 646). Occasionally multiple versions of essentially the same text are presented, a practice that is very helpful in understanding the peculiarities of each version (text 38 provides a New Testament passage in a Vetus Latina version, the Vulgate version, and the original Greek; text 42 provides two versions of the late medical compilation Physica Plinii; text 43 two versions of the late novel Historia Apollonii regis Tyri; text 44 two versions of the sixth-century Itinerarium Antonini Placentini; text 48 two versions of the eighth-century Annales regni Francorum).

A few features of the work make it harder to use than would have been necessary. There are a lot of abbreviations of obscure works, only a few of which appear in the list of abbreviations; abbreviations for non-Biblical literary texts appear to follow the Index of the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, but this is not stated. The texts are presented without an apparatus criticus; often this is because Adams reproduces a particular earlier edition, but sometimes (e.g. text 26) it is not clear exactly what the text presented is based on. Moreover the reproduction of earlier editions means that editorial conventions shift between one passage and the next. For example, texts 6, 14, and 26 all have interpuncts in the original, but whereas 26 is presented as a diplomatic transcript (ancient interpuncts and no modern punctuation), text 6 has only modern punctuation (with the interpuncts found in the original omitted 'because editors usually omit them', p. 107), and text 14 has both the ancient interpuncts and modern punctuation. Such inconsistencies require alertness on the part of the reader, who must not make assumptions about the relationship of Adams' texts to the original.


1.   Cambridge University Press 2013; this work is the third part of a trilogy including Bilingualism and the Latin Language (Cambridge 2003) and The Regional Diversification of Latin (Cambridge 2007).
2.   The appendices can be found on the following pages; I include here also a few major digressions not presented as appendices that have a similar self-standing utility for readers:

Connectives in Cato's Origines: 22-3
Relative constructions in Cato's Origines: 23-4
Two passages from Terence ... exemplifying the popular narrative style: 24-5
A brief passage from Plautus illustrating a completely different narrative style: 25
Quid tibi debetur: 53-8
Asyndeton bimembre in Cato, De agricultura: 78-4
Asyndeton bimembre in Varro's Res rusticae: 81-3
Everyday language in the letters of Augustus: 194-6
Object pronouns, direct and indirect, in chapters 3-13 of the Passio sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis: 341-2
Word order in the Passio sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis: 342-8
Authorship of different narratives in the Passio sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis: 348-53
Tollo and levo: 517-19
Ad and the dative: 523-31

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