Originally spoken by small groups of people living along the lower Tiber River, Latin spread with the increase of Roman political power, first throughout Italy and then throughout most of western and southern Europe and the central and western Mediterranean coastal regions of Africa. The modern Romance languages developed from the spoken Latin of various parts of the Roman Empire. During the Middle Ages and until comparatively recent times, Latin was the language most widely used in the West for scholarly and literary purposes. Until the latter part of the 20th century its use was required in the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church.
The oldest example of Latin extant, perhaps dating to the 7th century BCE, consists of a four-word inscription in Greek characters on a fibula, or cloak pin. It shows the preservation of full vowels in unstressed syllables—in contrast to the language in later times, which has reduced vowels. Early Latin had a stress accent on the first syllable of a word, in contrast to the Latin of the republican and imperial periods, in which the accent fell on either the next or second to the last syllable of a word.
During the Classical period there were at least three types of Latin in use: Classical written Latin, Classical oratorical Latin, and the ordinary colloquial Latin used by the average speaker of the language. Spoken Latin continued to change, and it diverged more and more from the Classical norms in grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary. During the Classical and immediate post-Classical periods, numerous inscriptions provide the major source for spoken Latin, but, after the 3rd century CE, many texts in a popular style, usually called Vulgar Latin, were written. Such writers as St. Jerome and St. Augustine, however, in the late 4th and early 5th centuries, wrote good literary Late Latin.
Subsequent development of Latin continued in two ways. First, the language developed on the basis of local spoken forms and evolved into the modern Romance languages and dialects. Second, the language continued in a more or less standardized form throughout the Middle Ages as the language of religion and scholarship; in this form it had great influence on the development of the West European languages.