Ancient Rome and the Latin Language

By the time of Jesus’ birth in 36 CE or thereabouts, the drama mentioned in the last article was over. Rome controlled all the countries around the perimeter of the Mediterranean Sea except Mauretania, which, according to Greek historian Strabo, was named after the Mauri or Mouri people who lived there. By 125 CE, they controlled that, too. [Mauretania later became Morocco.]

The Roman Empire began to congregate in today’s Italy as early as 753 BCE. There is a myth that two orphaned twins, Romulus and Remus, founded Rome on the site where they had been suckled by a she-wolf. The boys gathered a band of their fellow shepherd warriors and commenced conquering nearby tribes. The map above reflects the height of the Roman Empire in 117 CE as managed by Emperor Trajan and his armies.

Being controlled by Rome did not mean everyone was a slave in Rome. It meant every person living within the empire paid taxes to the Roman government and was governed by Roman law. Though the Romans were not as scientifically curious as the Greeks, they left a huge legacy. Their Latin language formed the basis for French, Spanish, Italian and, somewhat, English.

If you were doing business anywhere in the Roman Empire, you had to learn to read and write in Latin. This legacy remained in Europe through the Medieval period. When Christopher Columbus drew up his patent with the Spanish monarchs, he had to write it in Latin. Every important document in Western Europe was written the ancient language– from wills to contracts to royal decrees – even sea charts. When drafting maps and charts, cartographers labeled oceans, countries, and rivers with Latin names, allowing captains and pilots from other countries to read them. Every man who obtained an university degree from Oxford, Cambridge, or the University of Coimbra in Portugal [founded in 1290] learned to read and write in Latin, as well as in Greek and Hebrew.

Scholars were enrolled in universities by their Latin names: Gulielmus for William, Johannes/Ioannes for John, Edvard for Duarte, and Jacobus/Iacobus for James. That is why the reign of King James is referred to as the Jacobean period. Classes were conducted in Latin. New Englanders continued the system when they founded Harvard College in 1636. The Latin School nearby was a preparatory school for boys ages eleven and twelve to learn Latin before they commenced Harvard at age thirteen.

Latin bridged the gap between people of different nationalities and languages. It was known as “the language of scholars and kings” because all the educated people, who tended to be scholars and kings, learned it and therefore could communicate with each other. Queen Elizabeth I spoke Latin fluently. Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, probably spoke in Latin to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, because her native language was Spanish. King João I of Portugal probably spoke in Latin to his English wife Philippa of Lancaster. And Columbus, who was Italian, needed to negotiate in Latin with Ferdinand and Isabella because they were Aragonese and Castilian.

That said, scholars living in the formerly Greek part of the empire continued to write in Greek. One such scholar was Claudius Ptolemy [Ptolemaîos in Greek and Ptolemaeus in Latin]. Ptolemy lived between c.90 and c.160 CE and worked as a Roman citizen in Alexandria, Egypt. His list of occupations included mathematician, astronomer, geographer, astrologer, and poet.

Ptolemy wrote [in Greek] a treatise called Almagest that would indirectly influence Christopher Columbus. It was about the movements and paths of planets and other celestial bodies. In it he drew a model of the solar system. According to Wikipedia, Almagest was “one of the most influential scientific texts of all time.” Its authority was accepted for 1200 years by the Byzantine and Islamic worlds. [Notice we did not include the Western Christian world.]

Not long after, in about 150 CE, Ptolemy compiled a book called Geographia comprised of two parts. One part was a collection of the latest technological data of his era, including information inherited from the Mesopotamians, Persians, Egyptians, Greeks, and others. The second part was an atlas of maps. Ptolemy revised some of the measurements he used in Almagest, making them more accurate.

Ptolemy, World Map, Geographia, Alexandria, 150 CE.(1)

Ptolemy quoted data from Roman and Persian gazetteers. [Gazetteers were like geographical dictionaries or directories.(2)] Not only did Ptolemy include the work of Eratosthenes, but he included the discoveries of Greek scientist Pythagoras (born c.570 BCE).

Pythagoras was a philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer. His teachers were Egyptian, Greek, Chaldean(3), Phoenician, and Persian scholars. Historians have had a difficult time proving which scientific advancements should be attributed to Pythagoras because he was surrounded by a brotherhood who kept his teachings and actions secret.(4) Nonetheless, historians credit Pythagoras for encouraging people to reason logically rather than blindly relying on religious dogma. They think he contributed to music, philosophy, medicine, and mathematics. They also give him credit for the famous concept that bears his name, the Pythagorean Theorem [a squared + b squared = c squared]. More important to this book, Pythagoras taught that the world was spherical and revolved around the sun.

Ptolemy stated that he learned much of his information from a scientist that preceded him named Marinus of Tyre (fl c.110 CE). Historians have not found any more information about Marinus than what Ptolemy wrote about him. In other words, they cannot find the manuscripts Marinus supposedly wrote. But, according to Ptolemy, Marinus was the first scientist to develop mathematical geography. It was Marinus who came up with the concept of a grid, somewhat like today’s longitudes and latitudes. He made a list of all the important places in the world, assigned each a latitude and longitude, and then placed them appropriately on a gridded world map. No one has found that map yet, either.

Instead of using Greenwich, England, to mark the meridian, or zero longitude, as we do today, Marinus placed the meridian at the most western place he knew of: El Hierro Island among the Canary Islands west of Africa. Marinus, Ptolemy, and other ancients called the Canary Islands the Fortunate Islands. [We will tell you about the Fortunate Islands in our article on Mythical Islands of the Atlantic.] Marinus incorrectly measured the east-west width of the ecumene [the distance from the Canaries to the eastern edge of Asia] to be 225 degrees. The actual distance is around 142 degrees. That miscalculation will throw Christopher Columbus off 1400 years later.

Ptolemy included a map of the world in Geographia that gives us a clear view of what mariners knew about the earth’s geography during Roman rule. Only later copies of that map exist. The version we have inserted below was drawn during the 15th century. It is a bit difficult to decipher. The blue is, of course, the sea, and the white area is the land. To get your bearings on these old maps, we suggest you look for the boot of Italy in the middle of the Mediterranean.

Comparison of Ptolemy’s map to a contemporary map with Ptolemy’s nomenclature.(5)

Ptolemy illustrated the earth as a sphere using Marinus’ primitive indications of latitudes and longitudes. He measured latitudes from the equator, as we do today. But rather than measuring by degrees of an arc [360 degrees in a circle], he noted the differences in the length of the midsummer days between countries to the north and countries to the south.

Like Marinus of Tyre, Ptolemy placed the meridian at the Fortunatae Insulae [Fortunate Islands](6). He estimated the span from west to east of the ecumene to be 180 degrees, which was somewhat more accurate than Marinus’ 225 degrees. If Columbus had believed Ptolemy’s measurements rather than Marinus of Tyre’s, he might have decided against crossing the Ocean Sea. He would have known the distance was too great.

The twelve directions of the winds are indicated by curly-headed figures blowing trumpets in each direction. Areas of the globe that had not yet been explored were labeled terra incognito [Latin for land unknown]. Ptolemy called China, Serica. From this word we get the name for silk. He named today’s Gulf of Thailand Sinus Magnus [Great Gulf,]. The Mare Indicum [Indigo Ocean] was the most eastern port reached by Roman traders. Indigo is a blue color, like the color of blue jeans.

Though Ptolemy knew a lot more about Asia than we might expect, he did not know where the Eurasian [Europe and Asia] landmass came to an end at its eastern shore. Westerners will learn more about Asia from Marco Polo in the 1200s. Ptolemy admitted that he was knowledgeable about only one quarter of the globe. Little did he suspect that there were two major continents in the middle of the other three quarters, and that the rest was ocean.

Ptolemy did not know that the earth orbited the sun. The Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus revived Pythagoras’ theory in 1543 after the Spanish had already conquered Central and South America.


  1. Header Photo: Ring of Brodgar aka Brogar, a neolithic stone circle and henge monument. Loch of Harray in the background. Photo by Stevekeiretsu - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Image source url.,_Orkney.jpg
  2. Ptolemy’s World Map, redrawn in the fifteenth century. {{PD-Old}} Public Domain, The British Library Harley MS 7182, ff 58v-59, Alexandria, Egypt, 150. Image source: )#mediaviewer/File:PtolemyWorldMap.jpg
  3. Modern day newspapers have used the term, such as the Nob Hill Gazette and the New York Gazeteer.
  4. Chaldea is in south-eastern Mesopotamia.
  5. Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism claim to have evolved from the Pythagorean Brotherhood. Both groups encouraged the study of mathematics and logical reasoning over religious dogma.
  6. Mare Prasodum meant Green Sea.
  7. Ptolemy named the western island of the Canaries El Hierro, which means the Iron. Maybe the ancients procured iron from that island.

Next article: Iberia, Brittania, and the Fall of Rome