The Romans spoke a language called Latin, which was used all through their Empire in Europe. Modern languages such as Italian and French are descended from Latin, and many English words also come from Latin. Our modern English alphabet also comes from the Latin alphabet.

The way people speak in the story is based on the little we know about everyday Roman language. They said “heavens” and “wash well”, called each other “husband” or “chick”, and used insults like “bubble” and “snake”. The Romans used the name of the god Jupiter as an exclamation, like Carotus does, although we have changed the format to suit the story. We took Firmo’s toast “drink and live” from a toast written on a glass cup.

Scene of a quarrel over a dice game painted on a wall in the Bar of Salvius, in Pompeii. The painting has speech captions which inspired the scene at the inn, in chapter 21. You can just make out one of the captions “it’s not a 3, it’s a 2” written in Latin on the painting. Image via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Did you notice that none of the Roman characters says “Please”? Latin had no single word for please – instead, Romans used expressions like “I wish” or “I ask”. 

When I told Anna that Roman children learned to write by copying out moral sayings, she created my favorite character, Balbus the tutor, who talks in sayings and quotes from great writers. Anna was constantly asking me to “find me a quote about …” and all of Balbus’s quotes are from the real writings of Roman poets and philosophers: Cato, a late Roman writer of a book of moral teachings; the philosophers Cicero and Seneca; Plutarch, a writer of moral biographies of great men, who mentions Forum Voconii in his Life of Antony; and the poets Juvenal and Virgil. 

In many other places in the Roman Empire Greek was used instead of Latin, which is why Valentia wonders if Perry speaks Greek when she first meets him in chapter 6 . Different groups of “barbarians” spoke different languages, including early forms of German which also became part of English. 

Even though nobody speaks Latin in the modern world, we know that “C” was pronounced like the English “K”, and “V” was pronounced like the English “W”. So Valentia’s name would have sounded like “Walentia” and “Vale” (Goodbye) was pronounced “Wah-lay”.  But when historians talk about famous people like Emperor Valentinian or the writer Cicero, they use a modern pronunciation. “Yo Saturnalia”, the Saturnalia greeting, was actually spelled “Io Saturnalia”, but we have spelled it with a “Y” to make it easier to read and pronounce. The Romans did not use the letter “J”, but in the book we have written Jupiter (instead of Iupiter) to be less confusing to readers. Carotus  would have pronounced it as “Yu-pi-ter”. 

At Saturnalia, Perry sees the words IMP CONSTANTINVS written around the edge of a coin, like the one below. In Latin a capital U is written V. IMP stands for ‘imperator’, a Roman title translated as ‘emperor’.

An early 4th century nummus of Emperor Constantine with a wreath on his head. Photo Somerset County Council via Wikimedia Commons

In Latin, words change their form according to the grammar of the sentence. For example, when Valentia addresses Peregrinus directly, in Latin she would actually use the form “Peregrine” (pronounced Peregrinay) but we have used the English form since her speech is translated into English.

The Latin sentences in chapter 4 should be pronounced like this:

Ave: pronounced Ah-weh (meaning: “Hello” or “Greetings”)

Tu – demove! Adveniunt: pronounced Too – Day-mow-eh! Ad-wen-ee-yoont (meaning: “You! Move out of the way! They are arriving”)

Latine loqui, memento: pronounced Latin-ay lock-wi, memen-toe (meaning: “Speak Latin, remember”)

“Memento” (remember) is a word used in English today for something that helps you to remember a person or special event.

“Tu” is still used in modern French as the word for “you”. In English, people used to say “thou” to mean “you” when they were talking to only one person.

These Latin expressions used by the characters in the book should be pronounced like this:

Eia: pronounced eiya (meaning “hey!”)

Ecce: pronounced eck-eh (meaning “look!”)

Vah: pronounced wuh (meaning “huh!”, an exclamation of surprise, anger or joy)

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