Greek in Italy

Project Research Blog

Multilingual Mirrors Part 2

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Katherine wasn’t the only person thinking about Etruscan around Christmas (see her post below). On Boxing Day I went to the Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia in Rome to see their fantastic collection of Etruscan finds. They’ve got some spectacular stuff including the sarcophagus of the spouses (of which there’s a picture in Katherine’s post), and three gold tablets from Pyrgi which are written in Etruscan and Punic (pictured below). In real life they’re surprisingly small, but just as golden as they look here (Etruscan on the right and left, Punic in the middle). It’s thanks to these tablets – which aren’t direct translations of each other, but contain similar material – that we know the Etruscan word for ‘three’, which is ci. The museum has a particularly good section on writing and the alphabet.


What, you may be asking, does all this have to do with mirrors? Well, in addition to lots of lovely Etruscan inscriptions, the museum also has quite a good selection of early Latin inscriptions, several of which are captions to the scenes on the backs of mirrors. One of them shows two dancing figures, who it identifies as marsuas (Marsyas, a satyr) and painiscos ‘little Pan’. In addition, along one of Marsyas’s legs we have a signature: uibis pilipus cailauit ‘Vibius Philippus engraved it’. Although he’s writing in Latin, Vibius’s names give a hint of the complex linguistic situation in third century BC Praeneste, where the mirror is from*: the missing final vowel in uibis is characteristic of a Sabellic language (Oscan?), while pilipus is the Latinised version of the Greek name Philippos (it would be a hundred years before Greek ph, ch, th were written with an h in Latin). Vibis Pilipus may have been a Greek slave or freedman belonging to an Oscan-speaking family, writing in Latin. But why does he Latinise only one of his names? Why does he give pilipus a Latin ending, but keep the Greek ending in painiscos (not painiscus) and marsuas (not marsua)? This is the kind of thing that keeps us awake at night…

*Praeneste is modern-day Palestrina, in Lazio, about 25 miles from Rome. It’s built into a hill-side, with great views, and another excellent museum.

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