Greek in Italy

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An interesting Greek inscription from Cumae

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Since Nick and Katherine have been blogging about our recent trip, I thought I should get in the act as well. I was invited by Ulrike Roth to give a talk on Epigraphy and Language at the British Epigraphy Society Summer School in London earlier in August, and I decided to talk about some of the inscriptions we had seen on our Italian trip in order to illustrate different Greek dialects and letter forms. I chose to discuss this text, inscribed on a large stone slab from Cumae and dating to the second half of the sixth century, and now residing in the splendid Museo Archeologico dei Campi Flegrei (thanks again to the wonderful Ludovica for taking us round!)

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I initially thought that the letters and short length of the text would make it a fairly simple one for the neophyte epigrapher to get to grips with, but the more I looked into it the more difficult it became.

Reading the Greek letters is quite easy, and gives a text as follows:

The text has no word-dividers, though, and splitting this up into separate words is not as easy as it might first appear. The first three words divide as hυπυ τει κλινει, and this might be recognisable to those with some Greek as what would be in Attic Greek ὑπὸ τῆι κλίνηι. The preposition ὑπὸ is written hυπυ, with the letter H still used for the aspirate, which means that they only have E to represent both the long and short e of Greek. But ὑπὸ τῆι κλίνηι would mean ‘under the couch’ in Attic Greek, and here κλίνη must refer to the ‘grave-niche’, a meaning that the word also has in another Greek inscription from South Italy.

After this, the division of words and their interpretation gets a bit more tricky. The word hυπυ occurs again at the end, here acting as a preverb, with the verb itself, ἐστί, ‘is’ missed out.

But how to divide up ΤΟΥΤΕΙΛΕΝΟΣ? You might at first think that this is a genitive phrase with a personal name, something like, τοῦ Τειλενος ‘of Teilen’, but there are two problems with this. Firstly there is no name Teilen or similar known from Greek sources, and secondly this would leave the whole sentence without a subject: ‘under the grave-niche of Teilen there is …’ So it makes sense to break it up differently, as τουτει λενος. Now τουτει is a dialectal form for ταύτηι and belongs with the preceding ὑπὸ τῆι κλίνηι: ‘under this grave-niche’, and λενος is the subject of the verb, presumably. Earlier experts on Greek dialects and archaic inscriptions, including Buck and Ann Jeffery  had suggested that λενος is a man’s name, so the whole line would then mean ‘Lenos is under this grave niche’ (which might be englished as ‘Here lies Len’).

But here again there is no Greek parallel for the name λενος. So perhaps it is a noun? There are two possible Greek nouns that it could be, neither of which are particularly common, nor particularly promising. First there is ληνός, which basically means a ‘tub’, and can be used of anything from a wine-vat or water trough to a bath-tub; then there is λῆνος, probably related the Latin word lana and other words for ‘wool’ in IE languages, which is used as the name for a fillet or headband made of wool, or a flock of wool. Why on earth would anyone write on a grave that there was a tub or wool underneath?

With the Epigraphy Summer School talk fast approaching, and realising I couldn’t yet give a definitive translation of this text, in desperation I looked in the Revised Supplement to the Liddell and Scott dictionary. To my immense relief, I found that they had given there a whole new entry for a third word λῆνος, occurring only in this inscription, and meaning ‘someone who had been inducted into the Bacchic mysteries’. In a fragment of Heraclitus there is a reference to female Bacchants as λῆναι, and, moreover, there is another inscription from the necropolis at Cumae that says that only those initiated in the Bacchic rites can be buried there, so this interpretation of λῆνος seems quite plausible. The whole inscription would then mean something like ‘An initiate lies here’. Not everyone at the BES talk was convinced: one learned epigrapher in attendance wondered whether ΤΟΥΤΕΙΛΕΝΟΣ should actually be read as τουτει (hε)λενος, with the very common man’s name Ἕλενος losing its first syllable after a preceding vowel.


One thought on “An interesting Greek inscription from Cumae

  1. The alternatives (ληνός ‘tub’ and Λῆνος ‘Mr Wool’?!? ‘Mr Tub, Tubbs, or Tubby’?!? with a recessive accent for a personal name? That would have to be Λήνης, I think…) get a mention in LSJ s.v. ὑπό Β Ι 1 (of all places!).

    The interpretation that a Bacchic initiate is very plausible, but in defence of Len (put into Attic with a long η or a short ε), it is worth recalling that many of the names on archaic inscriptions are not attested elsewhere (at least as far as LGPN knows): all the names are unique on the Rhodian lescha of Euthytidas, as are those of the Boeotians Echestrotus and Mogea, of the Cretan Erpetida{mu}s, and the Ionians Exoides, Cheramys (perhaps), and even the notorious Nicandre, her father and her husband.

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