Greek in Italy

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On Friday, I was very fortunate to be invited to a wonderful conference at the University of Verona (“Beyond Lexicon: Diachronic language contact on the structural and systemic level”), brilliantly organised by Paola Cotticelli and Federico Giusfredi. After a series of excellent papers and before a particularly pleasant evening dinner, I walked to the nearby Museo Archeologico al Teatro Romano, open till 7 pm most nights, to enjoy its spectacular views over the city. There is also a good selection of inscriptions, and this third century mosaic caught my eye.


As you can see from the photo below of the museum label (I learned always to photograph the label from Katherine),  the text is said to read ROROPES ZETA meaning ‘Roropes lives’. This attracted my attention at first because I thought it seemed a nice parallel to the modern habit of pronouncing letter-names of abbreviations rather than spelling out the whole phrase: people now say ‘oh em gee’ for OMG, the abbreviation of ‘Oh my God/gosh!’, and ‘double u tee eff ‘ for WTF, even though the abbreviation is no shorter, indeed in the second case longer than what is being shortened. In the Museum’s reading, ZETA would stand her for Z, the abbreviation for Greek ζήσῃς, which is not uncommon in the formula pie z (also written out in full pie zeses) ‘drink and may you live’ found on a number of Latin drinking cups from the later Roman Empire. There are other examples of Romans using the letter name to stand for a Greek word: a fragment of Varro’s Menippea has labda as a cover term for the obscene verb λαικάζειν (probably following Aristophanes who has the same euphemism).


But a bit of further reflection made me think that there was a better explanation for this text. After all, ‘may you live’ would be a typical sentiment on a goblet, but less usual on a private mosaic. Furthermore, the name Roropes is, as far as I can tell, unparalleled anywhere in Greek and Roman texts, and isn’t built out of any recognizable elements. I would read RODOPES (note that the right hand leg of the second R of the mosaic is entirely drawn in), genitive singular of the well-attested Greek name Rhodope (34 examples from Rome alone according to Solin Die griechischen Personennamen in Rom). ZETA has nothing to do with the Greek letter, but is a later Latin way of writing the Greek loanword diaeta, which means not only ‘way of life’ (hence our modern diet) but also ‘room’. So the text just means ‘Rhodope’s Room’—incidentally, a nice example of a Latin text containing only Greek words and Greek morphology.

I should say that this was the only slip I found in the museum labels, and I hugely enjoyed the wonderful displays and stunning layout of the Museo. Highly recommended as a prelude to dinner for anyone visiting the beautiful town of Verona.


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