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In the 5th century BC, Latin was just one of many Italic languages spoken in central Italy. Latin was the language of the area known as Latium (modern Lazio), and Rome was one of the towns of Latium. The earliest known inscriptions in Latin date from the 6th century BC and were written using an alphabet adapted from the Etruscan alphabet.

Rome gradually expanded its influence over other parts of Italy and then over other parts of Europe. Eventually the Roman Empire stretched across a wide swathe of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Latin was used throughout the empire as the language of law, administration and increasingly as the language of everyday life. Literacy was common among Roman citizens and the works of great Latin authors were read by many.

Meanwhile in the eastern Mediterranean, Greek remained the lingua franca and well-educated Romans were familiar with both languages. In fact the earliest surviving examples of Latin literature are Latin translations of Greek plays, and Cato’s farming manual, which dates from 150 BC.

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