Greek in Italy

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Violent language contact near Sicily

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Carrying on the theme of my last post: the final battle of the First Punic War took place near the Aegates (now Egadi) Islands west of Sicily in 241 BC. A Roman fleet caught a Carthaginian fleet sailing to Eryx (now Erice) by surprise and sank or captured many of the Carthaginian ships. Amazingly, in recent years eleven bronze rams have been found on the seabed from this area, of which most or all probably come from ships sunk during the engagement.
Seven of the rams bear Latin inscriptions, and one bears a Punic inscription, and they reveal quite different contents. A representative example in Latin reads L. QVINCTIO. C. F. QVAISTOR. PROBAVET ‘Lucius Quinctius, son of Gaius, Quaestor, approved (this ram)’. A quaestor is a Roman magistrate. While the language is a great example of mid-third century Latin, and there is much to interest the historian as well, it must be admitted that the actual message conveyed is on the dry side. Compare the Punic inscription, of which two translations of the visible part have so far been suggested: either ‘We pray to Baal that this ram will go into the enemy ship and make a big hole’ or ‘… Tanit, for in it are its officers. Blow, gales of Reshep! and build the surge under… ‘. The differences between the translations do not fill one with confidence, but both suggest a rather more direct relationship on the part of the Carthaginians between the function of a ram and its inscription.
Since the battle was such a heavy victory for the Romans, it might seem surprising that it is primarily Roman rams (and hence Roman ships) that ended up on the sea floor. It’s been suggested that actually the Roman ships may have been manned by Carthaginians, who had captured them in an earlier battle.
If you’re interested, you can find out more about the rams in two recent articles, both in the Journal of Roman Archaeology: ‘The landscape of the naval battle at the Egadi Islands (241 B.C.)’ by Sebastiano Tusa and Jeffrey Royal in JRA 25 (2012), which is freely accessible here. And ‘Bronze rostra from the Egadi Islands off NW Sicily: the Latin inscriptions’ by Jonathan Prag in JRA 27 (2014), for which a subscription is necessary. You can see a picture of the Carthaginian ram on the Wikipedia page about the battle here: and a cool video about how they found the rams here.

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2 thoughts on “Violent language contact near Sicily

  1. Mary Beard’s Ultimate Rome on BBC2 tonight shows the very ram Nick discusses. A Cambridge conspiracy?

  2. Pingback: Sicily in Oxford and London | Greek in Italy

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