Updated: Apr 8
The following is an example of a sample dialogue from an ancient collection of texts, known as the colloquia of the Hermeneumata Pseudodositheana (Colloquium Monacensia-Einsidlensia 6b–6d) (Dickey 2012, 115):
This is only one of many such texts which describe mundane events of daily life or recreate sample dialogues of common social interactions in the ancient Roman world.
Brief Overview of Scholarship
Although these texts had been published at the end of the nineteenth century (Goetz 1892), they had received relatively little attention throughout the twentieth century for a number of reasons: They had not been translated into a modern language, there was a lack of good comprehensive critical editions, and general overviews of the genre itself were hard to come by (Dickey 2012, 3). Fortunately, a scholar from the University of Reading, Eleanor Dickey (Prof. of Classics), has recently published an excellent two-volume set, in which she presents the colloquia of the Hermeneumata Pseudodositheana with an overview of the genre, text-critical notes, and commentary (Dickey 2012; Dickey 2015). Without question, these volumes are the gold standard on the colloquia today and should be consulted by anyone interested in these texts.
Nature of the Texts
So what exactly were these texts? Where did they come from? Who used them and how were they used? Dickey summarizes her take on these texts as follows (2012, 3):
‘The gist of my conclusions about those origins will be that the colloquia are composite works made up of material composed mostly between the second and the fourth centuries AD, some of it from the Eastern empire (designed to help Greek speakers learn Latin), and some from the West (helping Latin speakers learn Greek).’
In short, the colloquia belong to a wider genre of bilingual language-learning/teaching material known as the Hermeneumata Pseudodositheana, which also includes glossaries and grammatical texts such as lists of verb conjugations. Dickey divides the colloquia into ‘schoolbook’ portions (i.e., conversational descriptions of scenes in school) and ‘phrasebook’ portions (i.e., collections of phrases and dialogues on various topics). Their chronological starting point ultimately goes back to a first- or second-century AD context, but they have undergone a long process of development through their transmission history (including the combination of originally distinct texts) so that much of the material is from a later date. Although they reflect a Roman social and cultural context, the phrasebook portions of the colloquia were probably composed in the eastern part of the empire and the schoolbook scenes in the western part of the empire (Dickey 2012, 3, 44–48).
Learning a Second Language in the Roman Empire
Because of the multilingual nature of the Roman empire, learning a second language was a fairly regular practice. This usually took place between Latin and Greek speakers, though it was not limited to such. Because the colloquia contained both a Greek and a Latin column, they could be used by Greek speakers seeking to learn Latin as well as Latin speakers seeking to learn Greek (Dickey 2012, 4).
Who Was Learning Greek and Latin?
Who, then, would have used such texts? When it comes to Latin speakers learning Greek, the children of educated upper-class Romans started to learn Greek already at an early age. Greek was a regular part of the school curriculum for a Roman. After all, Greek symbolized high culture and literature and provided access to such. However, knowing two languages was also not uncommon among the lower classes and thus it is not out of the question that these texts were used by more than just the elites. When it comes to Greek speakers learning Latin, the situation was quite different. Typically, Greek-speakers did not learn Latin until they were adults and found some practical purpose for it. Dickey puts it as follows: ‘whereas Latin speakers learned Greek in order to gain access to Greek literature and culture, Greek speakers learned Latin because it was useful’. One can imagine that when those in the eastern part of the Roman empire realized that the administration, government, military, and legal systems were ultimately under Latin-speaking authorities, learning the language of the Romans became all the more appealing and pragmatic. Many times it was a career choice in law, the military, or the government that served as the impetus for a Greek speaker to learn Latin. The literary and cultural purposes for learning a second language, so common in the west, were essentially immaterial in the east, since knowing Greek and Greek literature was the mark of an educated person throughout the empire (Dickey 2012, 4–5).
How Were the Texts Used?
How, then, were such texts used to help these eager language learners? We know that they fit into a wider context of a number of tools and resources for helping the language learner. In fact, the Hermeneumata Pseudodositheana contained primarily four types of language-learning material:
The colloquia (conversational handbooks, phrasebooks, sample dialogues)
Greek–Latin glossaries in alphabetical order
Greek–Latin glossaries in topical arrangement
Bilingual literary texts
In addition to the colloquia, which we will return to in a moment, it was also common for language learners to use long list-like glossaries with one column in Greek and one column in Latin. It is especially important to note here that often these glossaries were often organized according to theme (e.g., military terms, foods, animals, Roman deities) rather than alphabetically. Grammatical topics such as verbal paradigms were also presented in this list format. Many times, such texts would even be transliterated (i.e., Latin written out in Greek letters). In addition to glossaries and word lists, it was also not uncommon for ancient language learners to read famous literary works, such as Homer’s Iliad or Vergil’s Aeneid, with parallel translation or glosses of difficult words (Dickey 2012, 5–16).
What emerges from a survey of the language learning material of the Hermeneumata Pseudodositheana is that the resources language learners had at their disposal indicate a very practical and task-oriented learning process. The language-learning material was designed to be used to prepare the learner for a practical everyday task such as meeting a teacher, interacting with soldiers, borrowing money, or looking for work, to name a few. Presumably, the student would study the dialogue or collection of phrases using the column of the language he knew to clarify that of the one he did not.
Dickey suggests that the phrasebooks, when they stood separate from the rest of the Hermeneumata, were used as reference tools just like a modern phrasebook. Alternatively, they could have been used as texts to memorize so that the user would be ready when he encountered such a situation in his daily life. At a certain point, they were also likely used alongside the schoolbook portions. The language learners may have used them as beginning readers, memorized them, and perhaps practiced with them in pairs. Interestingly, these text continued to be used even into the Middle Ages (Dickey 2012, 52–54).
Is the Language in These Texts Authentic?
One of the obvious problems with any bilingual text is that one has to consider if one language is a translation of the other. If that is the case, one has to determine which language is the original and which language is the translation. Once one has identified the translation, one must approach its linguistic evidence with a grain of salt. Therefore, if the Greek of these texts is a translation of the Latin, one may wonder (justifiably) if they should really be used to teach modern students ancient Greek.
This issue is not as significant of a problem as it may seem at first thought. While it is true that sometimes one language translates the other—Greek may translate the Latin and Latin may translate the Greek, there is no one direction for translation—Dickey finds that most passages in the colloquia re quite idiomatic and do not exhibit any hints of translation. This is rather surprising, since one would expect a parallel columnar text to exhibit a stilted translation, but somehow the ancient authors of these texts largely avoided that problem. This leads Dickey to suggest that the colloquia generally did not begin as a text in one language and then a scribe came along and translated it into the other language. Rather, the texts were composed idiomatically in both languages side-by-side from the beginning. The authors had proficiency in both languages and thus were familiar with the common idiom and conversational parlance of each. The authors tend to intentionally avoid structures that would be problematic in either language, thus limiting their grammar and phrases to that which would “translate” well—rather, have a smooth corresponding phrase—in the other language. Further, although peppered with some classical language and high literary words and phrases, the colloquia often reflect the spoken idiom of their day (Dickey 2012, 48–50).
What was the Original Date of the Texts?
Finally, due to the long and complicated history of composition and transmission of the colloquia, we must consider when which parts of the colloquia were composed. This is necessary to determine if they may serve as authentic and helpful examples of Koine Greek.
Dickey argues that the ‘schoolbook’ portions (i.e., conversational descriptions of scenes in school) and ‘phrasebook’ portions (i.e., collections of phrases and dialogues on various topics) may both be dated to the Roman imperial period (ending in the 3rd or 4th century AD). The phrasebooks have enough internal clues (e.g., government by emperors, no references to Christianity) to place the content mostly between the first and third centuries AD. Nevertheless, due to the transmission history, the phrasebooks also have elements from the fourth century AD and later. The schoolbooks, on the other hand, are more difficult to date. While difficult to determine precise dating, Dickey points to a number of clues which indicate that they pre-date the phrasebook portions, dating back to the first century AD. In short, the schoolbook portion was created in the first century AD or earlier, the phrasebook portion was likely created in the second century AD, and then some evolutions followed over the next couple centuries. After the fifth century, only occasional additions and alternations obtained in the phrasebook portion (Dickey 2012, 50–52).
The colloquia of the Hermeneumata Pseudodositheana provide modern students with an opportunity to travel back in time to a first-, second-, or third-century AD school in the Roman empire and learn Greek just as they did at the time. It is hard to imagine a better source for authentic material for modern learners of the language looking to grow in spoken fluency of Koine Greek. Experiencing these dialogues in audio-visual form can only add to the benefit of these texts. At the time of this blog posting I have completed one audio-visual dialogue of a conversation from the colloquia of the Hermeneumata Pseudodositheana (Harleianum 12: An offer of employment), but hope to create many more.
Archive.org (Goetz’s Edition):
Dickey, Eleanor. 2012. The Colloquia of the Hermeneumata Pseudodositheana: Volume 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Dickey, Eleanor. 2015. The Colloquia of the Hermeneumata Pseudodositheana: Volume 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Goetz, G. 1892. Hermeneumata pseudodositheana. Vol. 3 of Corpus glossariorum Latinorum. Leipzig: In aedibus B. G. Teubneri.