Students have long struggled, often in vain, with the rules of Latin grammar. It’s not the parsing out of the various endings of nouns, adjectives, and verbs that causes the main trouble. One eventually memorizes them or learns to recognize them. Rather, the structure of sentences seems strange to the mind of an Indo-European native speaker. Also, Latin’s heavy use of gerundive and absolute constructions: all those verbal nouns entail a very different pattern of thinking than goes on in modern Indo-European languages.
But in the eyes of a Hungarian or Turk, the grammar of classical Latin should seem oddly familiar. Their languages are rich in gerundive and absolute constructions. A sentence structure in which certain words are encapsulated within others in an order that confounds Indo-Europeans makes everyday sense (verbs in Germanic and Slavic languages form a partial exception). Yet Latin is the mother of the Romance languages and the fons et origo of grammatical studies in Europe.
An intriguing scenario might help explain this apparent paradox.
Some Greek writers held that the Etruscans were Trojans; and a great deal of myth, echoed by Vergil, claimed that Aeneas and other escapees from the destruction of Troy were the founders of Rome. Yet the Etruscans have come down in history as mysterious invaders from the East, or as autochthonous types (according to some scholars), whose language defies translation and seems related only to the remnants of Lemniac once spoken on the island of Lemnos.
Here is an explanation.
A Steppe People
Let us assume that Homer’s “horse-taming” Trojans were a people who originated in the steppes north of the Black Sea and spoke a Ural-Altaic language like those in the modern world: Finno-Ugric languages, Turkic languages, Mongol, and Manchu—and their more distant cousins Korean and Japanese. Around the year 1200 B.C., perhaps in response to an earthquake that wrecked the walls of cities, the proto-Trojans moved south to settle on both banks of the strategic Straits leading from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, conquering and intermingling with the local peoples. The Trojans possessed an instinct for domination and great military prowess—equal to the task of destroying the Hittite cities and the Mycenaean palaces, for which they must be considered the prime suspects, as well as becoming one of the Peoples of the Sea who attacked Egypt and eventually settled as the Philistines on the coast of Palestine.
The famous Phaistos disk may also be written in Trojan. Curiously, its only analogue is the Magliano disk of Etruscan origin.
To account for the complexity of Homer’s Iliad, three main episodes seem warranted. The first would have been a pan-Hellenic Mycenaean expedition that conquered Troy in the era preceding 1200 B.C. and left a rich tapestry of Bronze Age detail in the oral epics that became the Iliad and Odyssey.
The second would have been the descent into the Aegean world around 1200 B.C. of the steppe nomads who became known as the Trojans and proceeded to conquer the city the Greeks would call Ilion.
The third episode would have been a second pan-Hellenic Iron Age conquest of Troy, this time around 900 B.C. Perhaps this was the archaeological Troy VIIA.
Homer evidently conflated the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age Greek expeditions against Troy.
Following their conquest of the Straits region, the Trojans would have intermingled genetically with the peoples they subjected, and it seems that they picked up some local vocabulary and customs as well. The Trojans’ superior might enabled them to control the trade through the Straits, either via attacking merchant ships or by levying a toll. Presumably, they also engaged in trade themselves and through it and war loot amassed the wealth that went into building the fortress city of Troy that withstood a Greek siege for a long time. Control of both banks of the Straits was essential to this strategy, and it fits much better the realistic demands of a mighty kingdom such as Troy’s than the picture of an isolated, inexplicably powerful city that emerges from the Iliad. In keeping with this train of thought, Troy was actually the ancient name of the country of the Trojans, while Ilion was the name of its capital city.
For the sake of argument, we can posit that the Trojans were roughly equally divided between the European and Asian sides, with smaller numbers occupying islands like Lemnos.
Meanwhile, after a long period of chaos and Trojan aggression, the Greeks had recovered sufficiently to begin to expand their range, deploying the greatest seafaring capability of all the regional peoples. But they were divided into warring clans. Eventually, the Greeks must have become fed up with the depredations and/or exactions of the Trojans on their shipping through the Straits; and they presumably bore a deep grudge against them on account of the devastating attacks that the Trojans had conducted against them over the years.
So very roughly around 900 B.C. the Greeks overcame their incessant quarrels in a bid to smash the Trojan monopoly of the Straits and get their hands on the rich booty that the city of Troy offered. The Greeks were able to put many tens of thousands of men on the field for years on end. This gave them a significant numerical superiority over the Trojans on the Anatolian side because the Greek fleet could blockade the Straits area and thereby split the Trojan forces in three, preventing the European and island contingents from coming to Troy’s aid. Also, naval superiority permitted the Greeks immediately to open the Black Sea to shipping and thereby obtain supplies and trading advantage to help ease the financial burden of the long war.
Once Troy fell, the “European” Trojans had three options: fight—probably to the death against superior numbers of Greeks; permit themselves to be subjugated or enslaved by the triumphant Greeks; or escape. Their merchants and adventurers must have been familiar with Balkan trade routes, so it was natural that they should escape through present-day Bulgaria and the former Yugoslavia. Settling in the Balkans was not an attractive option: too close for comfort to Greece. So the Trojans had a choice between heading north into Central Europe or turning west into northern Italy, and they chose the latter.
(The very close linguistic resemblance of “Trojan” (Troyan) and “Dorian” suggests that the Dorian invasion of the Peloponnesus and Aegean involved “trojanized” Greeks—parallel to the phenomenon of “etruscanized” Romans discussed below—which in turn might explain the extreme militarism of the Dorian Spartans and their domination of the helots. The silence of Greek sources about the true history of the Dark Age between 1200 and 900 B.C. and the lack of more than heroic myths may constitute a tacit cover-up of the embarrassing reality that the Dark Age of Greece was an age of Trojan ascendancy.)
The Trojans’ military prowess and relatively advanced technology permitted them to dominate the less organized local Italian peoples. In turn, the locals did not have a clue who these “Etruscans” were (although many observers have noted the linguistic similarity of the words “Trojan” and “Etruscan”). At least some Greeks, however, knew very well that they were escaped Trojans. The Trojans on Lemnos and other islands were stranded by the Greek fleet and so eventually succumbed to Greek conquest, colonization, and assimilation, as did any remnants of Anatolian Trojans who survived the Greek victory.
In other words, the highly plausible assumptions that the Trojans were roughly equally present on the two shores of the Straits and that the Greeks wielded naval superiority explain how the Greeks won the war (by dividing the Trojan forces), why the Trojans could have been so severely defeated yet show up not long thereafter in sufficient numbers to conquer much of northern and central Italy, and why the only language traditionally connected with Etruscan is Lemniac (the Rhaetian of the Alps was spoken by Etruscans who had escaped the Celtic invasion of northern Italy in the fourth century B.C.).
In Italy, the Trojans/Etruscans swiftly conquered the main towns of Etruria, then apparently herded the rural population at swordpoint into these urban centers. Around 800 B.C. they seem to have conquered Latium, including Rome. Many historians have recognized that Roman accounts of the early years of Rome deserve little credence and seriously underplay the role of the Etruscans. (The exceptional skill and ferocity with which relatively small contingents of Etruscans could dominate much greater numbers of other peoples led to a continuity of cultural remains of the Italic majority in cities like Rome and Perugia that gave rise to the theory that the Etruscans were autochthonous.)
But this Etruscan role went deeper than merely providing a source of cultural artifacts that the Romans “borrowed”. How exactly the Etruscans related to their more numerous Latinii underlings remains shrouded in obscurity; but a logical explanation would be that the hundreds or thousands of Etruscan warriors who enforced the kings’ rule gradually intermarried with Latinii, and these Etruscan-Latinii spoke among themselves a parlance that grafted an Italic, Indo-European vocabulary onto an Etruscan grammar (with great snob appeal), forming the basis of the classical Latin spoken by the patrician class. One can hypothesize that the patricians also pronounced Latin in an Etruscan manner, for instance, in the pronunciation of c’s as k’s and v’s as w’s: Veni, vidi, vici. pronounced Weni, widi, wiki.
These patricians—the Quisling class of Etruscan Rome—also retained the Etruscan (Trojan) military and cultural ethos, though the leaders of the Romans who subsequently overthrew the Etruscan king Tarquin the Proud were not eager to remind people that they themselves had descended, at least in part, from the Etruscan elite. As the Dorians were trojanized Greeks, so were the patricians etruscanized Latinii.
Thus the fundamental, distinctive characteristics of Rome that led to its disciplined, aggressive, enormously successful military expansion and its well-organized civic life were neither home-grown nor borrowed from the Etruscans but rather were part-and-parcel of the Trojan-Etruscan inheritance of the Roman people, and specifically of the close-knit, patrician class.
In this context, the befuddlement of poor Indo-Europeans—whether the Roman plebs or modern students—over classical Latin makes profound sense. Latin has a grammar that clearly places it within the large Ural-Altaic family. In fact, we can be more specific. For a long time various Hungarian scholars have argued that Etruscan was related to Hungarian (Magyar). A book by Italian linguist Mario Alinei refines and buttresses this argument.1 Alinei finds a remarkable resemblance between Etruscan and ancient Magyar magistrature names as well as similarities in typologies, vocabulary, and historical grammar between Etruscan and Hungarian. Like some Hungarian scholars, he posits a “theory of continuity” that places Hungarians as inhabiting the Carpathian-Danubian area from a much earlier time than other evidence suggests.
But the argument here is that in fact the Trojans/Etruscans were Ugric-speaking cousins of the Hungarians, not Hungarians themselves. The Hungarians continued to live in the steppes north of the Black Sea during the long centuries of the histories of the Trojans, Etruscans, and Romans. The Ugric branch of the Finno-Ugric language group (itself a subset of the Ural-Altaic language family) thus included four languages: the languages of the Khanty and Mantsi peoples of Siberia, Magyar, and Trojan/Etruscan. In terms of grammar, the Ugric branch included a fifth language as well: Latin.
This account of the origin of Latin lends the study of Latin greater value than it would otherwise possess, for a student actually learns the basic grammar of one major group of languages and the vocabulary of another one. It also explains why the phenomenon of vowel harmony, highly characteristic of Ural-Altaic languages, is very rare in French and Spanish, yet can be found in early Latin (e.g., “proxumus” instead of “proximus“, Terence, Andria 636) and is common in Italian dialects (from Etruscan influence) and in Romanian (from Magyar influence).
And the pattern went deeper than linguistics. Via this cultural transmission belt, a specific disciplined, aggressive steppe pattern of ordering human society formed the template for much of what came later in the history of Western Civilization. Obviously, the Roman way of doing things remained but one of competing traditions—yet an especially prevalent and recurringly dominant one.
Kenneth J. Dillon is an historian who writes on science, medicine, and history. See the biosketch at About Us.