There are written documents in Latin from the 8th or 7th century BC up to our own time. The earliest inscriptions were made at a time when Latin was just one of many languages spoken in what is now central Italy. Later on, however, the little Indo-European dialect from the area around the Tiber became the administrative language in the vast Roman Empire, and the language spoken in the large areas conquered by the Romans. The Romans also developed a literature of their own quite early on, with key figures such as Virgil, Cicero, Livius, and Ovid, who have come to exert an almost immeasurable influence on western culture and art up until the present day.

After the fall of the Roman Empire at the end of the 5th century AD, Latin lived on, and the Germanic tribes who now lived on what previously was roman territory, eventually, and almost entirely, abandoned their own languages in favour of Latin – or rather Proto-Romance, which Latin had by then developed into.

During the Carolingian renaissance around 800, increasing attention was paid to the difference between the spoken Proto-Romance language and the written language of the ancient Romans. This period also marks the birth of a renewed interest in the literary heritage of the Romans. During the Middle Ages Latin diffused across vast areas outside the former Roman territory through the Catholic Church. Medieval Latin is in different ways influenced by various forms of Latin from Late Antiquity, for instance by the Latin written by the fathers of the church from the 4th and 5th centuries AD.

Around 1500, however, it became fashionable to imitate the Latin of the Roman classics and the so-called Neo-Latin was born. Latin functioned as the means of communication in the church, at the universities and in international diplomacy until the 18th century. It was, however, gradually abandoned in favour of the modern languages. It was not definitely abandoned in the Scandinavian universities until the early 19th century and it is still the official language of the Catholic Church.

There are a lot of texts from this long period. We have documents which are contemporary with the text found in it: these are often, especially in the earlier periods, inscriptions on stone, clay or metal. The literary texts are, however, mostly preserved in manuscripts, which in most cases are considerably later than the texts themselves. Latin is one of the best documented early languages and it is one of few languages in the world which are documented during a very long period of time. The history of the Latin language therefore gives us an excellent picture of how a language can change over time, which is important to the general linguist. To the Latinist the history of the language is of importance for the correct understanding of the texts but also for a correct understanding of the mistakes in the manuscripts in which most older Latin texts are preserved.

Roman literature, preserved from the decades just before 200 BC, and up until the end of antique times, in many respects represent a direct continuation of, and a development of, Greek literature. The literary blossoming which took place in the third century BC around the library in Alexandria, provided a fruitful impulse to Roman poets such as Catullus and Virgil, who carried on the tradition, adding their own specifically Roman traits, and created works which have made up the foundations of western literature as a whole. The statesman Cicero, one of the first orators in history, carried on the heritage of Demosthenes, and also became an important intermediary of Greek philosophy in Roman form. Historians such as Livius and Tacitus told the history of the empire in stylistically accomplished Latin.

Research projects in Latin

Research in the field of Latin in Uppsala deals with texts from the entire period of the long and varied history of the Latin language, with a clear focus on antique Latin. The texts are studied from a linguistic and philological as well as from a literary and historical point of view. The research on the texts from the Ancient period (ca. 600 BC–ca. 600 AD) focuses on linguistic problems as well as on literary, philosophical and historical ones. Both literary texts and epigraphy are dealt with.

Gerd Haverling (professor), Christer Henriksén (professor), two researchers connected to the department (Karin Westin Tikkanen and Marianne Wifstrand Schiebe) and, at present, two active PhD students (Tuomo Nuorluoto and Samuel Douglas) all work on different aspects of the texts from the ancient period.

The research on Neo-Latin deals with both text editions and studies on the linguistic, literary and historical context of the texts. Hans Helander (professor emeritus) and Elena Dahlberg (researcher) work on different aspects of Neo-Latin.