Ars Grammatica or Τέχνη Γραμματική, by Dositheus – Description

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DOSITHEUS MAGISTER, Greek grammarian, flourished at Rome in the 4th century AD. He was the author of a Greek translation of a Latin grammar, intended to assist the Greek-speaking inhabitants of the Empire in learning Latin. The translation, at first word for word, becomes less frequent, and finally is discontinued altogether. The Latin grammar used was based on the same authorities as those of Charisius and Diomedes, which accounts for the many points of similarity. Dositheus contributed very little of his own. He remains, even so, an invaluable source for the study of education in Late Antiquity.

This book is a complete reprint of the 1871 Heinrich Keil edition. In addition, it contains an Introduction by Sean Gabb.


There may be further inferences that someone will press from the text. Or some new text may one day be discovered that will shed new light on our author. Until then, nearly all we can know of Dositheus is given in this entry from The Encyclopaedia Britannica:

DOSITHEUS MAGISTER, Greek grammarian, flourished at Rome in the 4th century AD. He was the author of a Greek translation of a Latin grammar, intended to assist the Greek-speaking inhabitants of the empire in learning Latin. The translation, at first word for word, becomes less frequent, and finally is discontinued altogether. The Latin grammar used was based on the same authorities as those of Charisius and Diomedes, which accounts for the many points of similarity. Dositheus contributed very little of his own.

I have decided to republish his book because I find it interesting, because it is short, and because none of the other republications I have found on Amazon appears to have been by anyone able to read and understand its content, or shows much regard for legibility. I will explain what I find of interest. Before doing so, it may be useful to discuss the extent to which and the reasons why Greeks bothered to learn Latin.

The Greek view of foreign languages was that they had no cultural value. Some knowledge of them was useful for trade, and perhaps for diplomacy, or for limited communication with foreign slaves. But no educated man would pride himself on his knowledge of foreign languages, or would ever, without a radical distortion of their sounds, allow foreign words or expressions into his own speech. This was a justified view. The Greeks were the exceptional people of Antiquity. Their mathematics and philosophy and science, and their literature and history and art, and their concern for political and spiritual freedom, place them in a category of their own. They knew this. Everyone who had dealings with them knew it. Their Persian overlords in Asia Minor communicated with them in Greek. Once Alexander had conquered much of the East, the Greek language and Greek culture became hegemonic. A civilised man, of whatever race, spoke Greek. Everyone else was some variety of barbarian.

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Latin is the partial exception. As evidenced in its early writings, it was undeniably inferior to Greek. In its own development from the common Indo-European, it was a rough and unexpressive language, suited only to a race of farmers and soldiers. It had a limited vocabulary. It had lost many participles. Its aorist had vanished into the perfect. Their conquest of the western Mediterranean, during the wars with Carthage, made those farmers and soldiers into a great power. It allowed and required them to take an interest in the affairs of the East. It found them in need of a language suited to their greatness. The question was how much of this they would learn from the Greeks.

The Romans might have followed the example of the Macedonians. They decided, early in their history, that they were Greeks; and the effort they put into persuading themselves and the world of this fact meant that whatever they did originally speak vanished with barely a written trace. Or they might have followed the example of the Jews and Carthaginians. These fell under Greek influence. They learnt from the Greeks. They found Greek useful for diplomacy and commerce, and for certain types of writing. But they kept mainly to their own language and ways, and remained at all times outsiders to the Greek mind.

Instead, the Romans followed no example, but set their own. They enfolded the Greeks in a strong and, on the whole, a loving embrace. They adopted every Greek standard applicable to their own circumstances. The higher classes gave their children to Greek tutors, and thought it money well-spent if these grew up speaking the language without a foreign accent. They sided with the Greeks against all foreign enemies. They saved the Greeks. They protected the Greeks. They showered the Greeks with favours and made them a privileged nation within their empire. But Latin was to remain their language of empire. They would recreate it along Greek lines. They would write Latin verse in Greek metres. They would write histories in Latin, and deliver great speeches. So far as they felt inclined, they would write in Latin about science and philosophy. They would not become Greeks, but they would create a Roman bottle and fill it with Greek wine.

It took generations of effort to make what we know as Classical Latin. Tens of thousands of new words needed to be made—either adapted from Greek or built from Latin roots. New rules of syntax were needed. To write periodic sentences, and to write verse in alien metres, they had to discover how far they could stretch the flexible order of Latin words before the sense went out of them. Being Romans, they eventually got what they wanted. During the two centuries about the birth of Christ, they created a great literature, and gave the West a language that would be just as well suited to Aquinas and Newton as it was to themselves.

This does not mean the Greeks felt obliged to learn it. Because they were so powerful and so obviously partial to the Greeks, even as conquerors, the Romans were not to be regarded as barbarians. But Latin was something for the Romans to admire. The loss of political independence fixed the Greeks more than ever on their own intellectual world. Moreover, until the first century before Christ, Roman literature was little more than a set of experiments. If we now regret the substantial loss of these experiments, it is because we want to know more about the heritage that Cicero and Catullus transformed. Most of them appear to have had limited intrinsic merit. What Greek would go to the trouble of learning Latin just to read Ennius?

As for speaking it, Greek slave traders and prostitutes would know enough for bargaining with Roman soldiers. Greek slaves taken to Rome would have no choice but to learn it. But for any conversation between the educated, every Roman knew Greek as a matter of course. When Gaius Verres robbed the Sicilians, he laughed at them and jeered in Greek. When Julius Caesar wooed Cleopatra, it was in Greek. When Pontius Pilate argued with the Sanhedrin, it was in Greek.

Even after the stream of Roman literature turned pure, the Greeks remained indifferent. They were unaware of what the Romans were achieving. There was no printing press, and no periodicals of review. The Romans made no effort to urge their language and literature on the Greeks. Shortly before his death, Vergil met Augustus in Athens. The Athenians knew Augustus as the God-like ruler who had brought peace to the world. Probably none of them knew a line of his friend’s poetry. I do not think there is a single unambiguous allusion to Roman literature by any Greek author during its golden and silver ages.

As an example of the Greek attitude to Latin, take this from Plutarch, writing in the second century after Christ:

[W]hen I was in Rome and various parts of Italy I had no leisure to practise myself in the Roman language, owing to my public duties and the number of my pupils in philosophy. It was therefore late and when I was well on in years that I began to study Roman literature. And here my experience was an astonishing thing, but true. For it was not so much that by means of words I came to a complete understanding of things, as that from things I somehow had an experience which enabled me to follow the meaning of words.  But to appreciate the beauty and quickness of the Roman style, the figures of speech, the rhythm, and the other embellishments of the language, while I think it a graceful accomplishment and one not without its pleasures, still, the careful practice necessary for attaining this is not easy for one like me, but appropriate for those who have more leisure and whose remaining years still suffice for such pursuits. (Demosthenes, c.2)

Here is a man who had lived and taught for many years in Rome. The research for his Parallel Lives required some knowledge of Latin. But he reveals without shame that he had learned barely any Latin while in Rome, and that he never made the effort to become fluent. He also feels obliged to explain to his Greek readers that Latin is not without merit—something they evidently did not know for themselves.

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It was only in, or slightly before, the fourth century that the Greeks began to take an interest in Latin. We have the text to which this is an introduction. We have papyri from Egypt that show Greek schoolchildren there were copying lines from Vergil. By the end of the fourth century, two of the most notable writers in Latin—Claudian and Ammianus Marcellinus—were Greeks. There is reason to believe that Eutropius was Greek. Even as Greek education in the West began to fade—so that neither Symmachus nor Augustine was fluent in Greek—Latin education in the East was coming to life. Western developments are outside the scope of my present enquiry. But the reasons for this change in the East can be summarised as follows:

First, the Greeks were no longer a subject nationality within the Empire. During the second century, wealthy Greeks made their way into the Senate and into the wider ruling class of the Empire. After 212 AD, all Greeks were automatically Roman citizens, with the same rights and duties as Italians and Romanised Westerners. Latin was no longer the language of their masters, but one of the two official languages of what they could feel was their Empire.

Second, time had accustomed the Greeks to the idea that there was a second classical language, and had allowed this language to heap up a vast literature of its own. Even in ages without the printing press, books did travel; and even a small number of those able to read them might eventually spread some news of their value.

Third, with the foundation of Constantinople in 324 AD, the main capital of the Empire was placed in the middle of the Greek world. This opened opportunities for large numbers of Greeks in a bureaucratic and legal and military establishment that worked, for the next three centuries, in Latin. It created a demand for Latin schooling throughout the Greek world. Much of this was utilitarian in the sense that few foreign learners of English today want to read Tennyson or Gibbon. But there is evidence in the Egyptian papyri that Cicero and Vergil had come modestly into fashion. There is, indeed, from Antinoopolis, a commentary in Greek on Juvenal.

Fourth, the Empire had become Christian. This brought sometimes a slight, sometimes a radical shift in Greek perceptions of their status. Christianity is, in principle, a universalist faith. If its core documents were in Greek, it had first been revealed to the Jews, and there was a duty on all the faithful to spread its truth to every nation. Greek bishops did not, on the whole, become fluent in other languages. They were generally from the higher classes, and had received the same literary education as the pagans. But Greek theologians needed to know what their counterparts were saying in other languages, and to combat perceived heresies published in these languages. Greek missionaries needed to know the languages of their prospective converts. The first Patriarch among equals was based in Rome, and his branch of the Universal Church was insistent on working in Latin. There was a continuing need for translations in and out of Greek, and at least a theoretical acceptance that Greek, while primary, was not the exclusive language of salvation.

By the seventh century, the need for Latin was fading among the Greeks. The Western Provinces had mostly fallen away. The Roman Church was heading in its own direction. The Law had been digested into a finite set of texts that could be translated into Greek. Demographic change had made Constantinople a Greek city. The Persian and Islamic and barbarian threats from other directions drew military and diplomatic interest away from the West. Except on its coins and in a few ceremonial utterances, what has, with some justice, been called the Greek Empire lost interest in Latin. By the end of the sixth century, Theophylact Simocatta could believe that rex was a word in Gothic. When Luitprand of Cremona visited Constantinople in the ninth century, he was assured by the Emperor that Latin was a language of the barbarians. Interest revived only in the eleventh century. It peaked after the catastrophe of 1204, when the Greeks faced a literary and philosophical challenge from Latin the Romans themselves had never thought to make, or had the creative brilliance to make. But this again, is outside my present scope.

I turn at last to Dositheus. According to the Editor of the text republished here, the single manuscript copy dates from the early tenth century, and was used in the monastic school at St Gall in what is now Switzerland. This manuscript contains various corruptions, together with consistent spelling mistakes that reflect the mediaeval pronunciation of Greek—for example, διδασκαλεια στοιχια instead of διδασκαλια στοιχεια, or λεγην instead of λεγειν. These have been corrected by the Editor, who has also arranged the Latin and Greek text into columns beside each other. This latter is particularly useful, and makes the present text, published in 1871, easier to follow than the text published by the same Editor nine years later in Volume 7 of his Scriptores de Orthographia, where the Latin text is placed above the Greek.

The principle followed by Dositheus is to take or summarise a basic introduction to Latin grammar, and to accompany this with a fairly literal translation into Greek. This allows a Greek student to read the text in his own language, and then to puzzle out the meaning of the Latin. The further he reads through the text, the less he is expected to need the Greek translation, and so this is gradually discontinued, falling silent at the end of the discussion of nouns and their cases.

The book can be read as a self-study guide, rather like any number of language courses now available. If so, it probably works. It makes greater demands on a student than its modern counterparts. But these are not impossible demands. Greek and Latin are similar languages in their structure. A parallel text in these two languages is a more obvious key to either than a parallel text of either with English. It was by comparing the Greek and Latin text of the Acts of the Apostles that I made my own first steps in Greek. I have read accounts from the middle ages of men who learnt Greek in the same way. Some years ago, I published a tri-lingual version of the Acts—in Greek, Latin and English—that makes this approach available to others. If it has not made me rich, this continues to sell in good numbers.

On the other hand, bearing in mind the price and scarcity of books in the ancient world, it is more likely that this book would have been owned by a teacher. He would have used it to give a structure to his lessons, and to make students learn it by heart—a more common duty for everyone before the invention of printing. Otherwise, students would have been set oral or written tests, and there would have been much conversation in Latin. But I have no reasonable doubt that the book was useful, both for self-study and for learning with a teacher.

I turn to the content of the book. As might be expected, much of it needs a bare mention to a Greek student. The first three Latin declensions are close to the three Greek. The function of the Latin nominative, vocative, accusative and dative is much the same in Greek. The limited use of the Latin genitive, compared with the Greek, needs more discussion, as does the ablative, which does not exist in Greek. I am not sure if Dositheus is wholly clear on the ablative. He makes distinctions that I had never noticed or thought important. But he appears to have been an experienced teacher of Latin, and what he says or summarises we must assume to have been directed to solving the known problems of his students.

More surprising is the time he spends on the Latin alphabet. In most English introductions to Greek, the alphabet comes at the beginning and takes one or two pages. Greek students of Latin appear to have needed a small dissertation on the letters. Most of this tells them nothing more than they ought already to have known from their own alphabet. Of minor interest, though, I note that Latin B is described as close to P, and is not distinguished from its obvious counterpart in Greek, which suggests that the V sound that β has in Modern Greek had not yet begun to emerge in the fourth century. This being said, Latin X is described as a double consonant, but no warning is given to distinguish it from χ.

Most interesting for me is the discussion of accents. I was unaware that ergo is accented on the last syllable. It joins illic and illuc in the small category of exceptions to a general rule. I am grateful to have clear authority that Greek words taken into Latin and written in Roman letters are accented according to the Latin rule, whereas Greek words written in Greek keep the Greek accent, even if that falls on the last syllable. The counterpart for us would be our pronunciation of Jacobin according to the English rule, and of régime according to the French.

Of highest interest, however, in the statement that the Latin accent is of exactly the same kind as the Greek. Therefore, the accent on a syllable long by nature must be a circumflex—for example, Cethêgus. The accent on a syllable long by position must be an acute—for example, Catúllus.

Now, the modern consensus is that the Greek and Latin accents, before about the second century, were different. The Latin accent was of the same kind as in English. An accented syllable was marked by stress, or a greater force of utterance. See this in English:

I looked upon the rotting sea,
And drew my eyes away.
I looked upon the rotting deck,
And there the dead men lay.

The Greek accent, though, was tonic. It was marked at least primarily not be greater force but by a variation in pitch. An acute accent marks a raised pitch for a syllable. A circumflex marks a rise and fall across the syllable. What Dositheus says about accent repeats what the Greeks before the second century could say about their own language. Unless it had a significant variation of pitch as well as a stress on the accented syllables, what he says of Latin makes no sense. Try finding a circumflex in the Coleridge quoted above.

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Worse, we are assured that, by the fourth century, the Greek accent was at least primarily one of stress, and that that the Latin stress accent had become powerful enough to bring on a repatterning of popular verse to take account of the changes in sound. Both languages, we are assured again, were losing, or had lost, most variation of long and short syllables. Was Dositheus in the grip of an obsolete scheme of classification? Was he, without once taking thought for himself, transcribing and teaching facts that had long since ceased to be true? Did no student with better ears ever challenge him? Or could he, as late as the fourth century, hear differences of sound that our own scholarly consensus denies were there? More genteel authors could flatter themselves and their readers that the language they spoke was unchanged from that of the ancients. Dositheus was writing for money. He was teaching for money. Could he really afford to be deaf?

I have no idea. I am aware of the main modern works on this matter. There is, for example, Helmut Lüdke:

The Latin grammarians were not just bad phoneticians, they were no phoneticians at all; they were not even good phonologists, but continuously confused phonological and orthographical evidence; besides, they of course lacked the diachronic perspective, and on top of all that they allowed themselves—gravest error of all—to be enticed by the example of Greek grammarians to make statements which with respect to the Latin language were utterly senseless.[1]

Before I began reading the source material for myself, I took the modern dismissive comments as beyond question. After reading Dositheus, I am no longer so confident.

And this, I suppose, is what brings me to republish him. I appreciate that everyone who takes the trouble to buy and read this book will be more learned than I am, and may look over the above with a degree of impatience. But, since I have made the effort to find a text that is both intrinsically good and reasonably legible, and since I do not like to publish books that contain nothing original, I claim the right to insert my Introduction.

Sean Gabb
February 2018 

[1] Die Strukturelle Entwicklung des romanischen Vokalismus, Bonn, 1956, translated and quoted by Ernst Pulgram, “The Accentuation of Greek Loans in Spoken and Written Latin,” American Journal of Philology, 1965, p.143).

© 2018, seangabb.

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