I’ve recently been reading Eve McDonald’s book ‘Hannibal, a Hellenistic Life’. I’m not very well up on Roman Republican History, so it’s fascinating to fill this gap in my knowledge. But I also came across some old friends – the Mamertini. The Mamertini were a tribe from Samnium or Campania (the ancient sources differ), who were hired as mercenaries by Agathocles, who was the tyrant of Syracuse, on Sicily. The problem with soldiers, of course, and especially mercenaries, is that they tend to cause trouble when at a loose end. In the case of the Mamertini, they took over Messina. When the Syracusans tried to turf them out, they appealed to first the Cathaginians and then the Romans to help them. After the Carthaginians had already turned up and occupied Messina, the Mamertini decided that the Romans were a better bet, and ejected them. The Carthaginians teamed up with the Syracusans, and the stage was set for twenty-three years of war between the superpowers of the Mediterranean, which is now known as the First Punic War (264-241 BC).
This is all particularly interesting for me because the Mamertini were – originally at least – Oscan speakers. I wrote a bit about them in my book, but I hadn’t realised that they occupied such a key place in Roman history. It’s also very timely, because I’m going to Messina in a couple of weeks to attend a conference on the ‘Languages of the Strait of Messina in Material Documentation from the Hellenistic Period to Late Antiquity’ where I’ll be discussing in some more detail the Oscan inscriptions that remain from the time of the Mamertini (all seven of them!). Since Messina is one of the few examples we know of where an Oscan-speaking group took over a city with a Greek-speaking population, there’s been a fair amount of discussion about whether the Oscan inscriptions from Messina show any evidence for the relationship between Greek and Oscan in this area.
Unfortunately, as so often, our interpretations are heavily dependent on fairly uncertain material. I’ll report back after the conference on what I and other people said, but for the time being I’ll just give one example. One of the arguments rests on how the name works on the inscription below. It reads ‘-s son of Stennis. Of Apollo’. How it’s understood all depends on whether there’s the remains of the right hand stroke of an A before the Σ in the first line far left: what do you think?
(The picture was taken on our research trip in 2014, at the Museo Regionale Interdisciplinare di Messina. We’re very grateful to the staff there for their kind assistance).