Greek in Italy

Project Research Blog

Leave a comment

Allusions of grandeur

On Friday night I had a nice chat with Helen Zaltzman about alphabets, Oscan, Greek etc. She recorded it for her podcast, The Allusionist, which is about all things to do with language and languages. The conversation lasted about an hour, but she’ll be editing it down significantly, so hopefully I’ll sound a lot more articulate than I really was. That will take a while, so I think the podcast won’t be released for a couple of months – I’ll let you know when it’s available. In the meantime, keep an ear out for other editions featuring friends of ‘Greek in Italy’: Rachele De Felice and Lynne Murphy talking about politeness in British English and American English, and Miriam Wagner on the differences between German in East and West Germany.

An interesting Greek inscription from Cumae

1 Comment

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!)

2015-07-29 12.54.28
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.


Tile Stamps


‘Linguists just aren’t interested in tile stamps.’ I remember making that point years ago to Michael Crawford when collaborating on the Imagines Italicae project, and now my words come back to haunt me. It turns out that tile stamps, imprinted on wet clay during the manufacture of roof-tiles, can be more interesting —linguistically, epigraphically, and for social history—than I had imagined. On our recent trip to Calabria, the Greek in Italy project members spent quite a lot of time looking at tile stamps, most memorably in the deposito of the Museo Regionale Interdisciplinare di Messina (thanks to the extraordinary kindness of Dottore Agostino Giuliano and his colleagues, who gave up their Saturday morning to let us in and to show us around). The Messina collection includes Greek, Oscan and Latin tile stamps alongside each other, but most publications separate out the material into different languages. Seeing all the stamps together, it is not always easy at first glance to be sure which language they are in, particularly if the stamp is well-worn or broken. We spent an excited 15 minutes thinking that we had found a new tile stamp with Oscan written in the Greek alphabet, since it ended in the letter M. Greek words don’t end in M, but Oscan genitive plurals do, and one way of saying that the tile is the property of a particular community is to use a genitive plural—the name of the Mamertini, the mercenaries who captured the port of Messina at the beginning of the third century BCE, appear on tile stamps in the genitive plural, both in Greek (Μαμερτίνων), and in Oscan written in Greek (Μαμερτινουμ). But then Nick pointed out that we were reading the text upside down, and it was a familiar Greek text after all. Jpeg

Some of the other Greek tile stamps were also puzzling. One clearly reads ΡΗΠΙΝΟΝ ΟΡΘΟΝ – the first word can be corrected on the basis of other stamps to ΡΗΓΙΝΟΝ, i.e. Ῥηγίνων ‘of the Rhegians’, showing that someone had got a tile from Rhegium (modern Reggio Calabria) on the other side of the straits of Messina, but what of the second word? At first sight this appears to mean the ‘true’ Rhegians, as opposed to outsiders or imposters, but the Greek word ὀρθός isn’t used of people without further specification like this, and it is probably better to think that this is the name, Orthon, of the tile manufacturer.

What were tile stamps for, and who read them? It seems that stamps could have different audiences and functions. Latin tile stamps from Veleia and Oscan tile stamps from Bouianum, for example, include the name of magistrates, and Crawford argues that this is so that the purchaser of a tile would know its age, since a tile that had lasted over winter was more valuable. In other areas of the ancient world, stamps indicated that the tiles belong to a sanctuary or a public building. The marking of tiles with the genitive plural, as in ‘of the Rhegians’ or ‘of the Mamertini’ is limited (in Italy) to Greek texts from the south, and the only peoples of Italy who adopted this practice are the Mamertini and the Tauriani (whose bricks and tiles have been found in several areas just north of Reggio). So did the Mamertini abandon Oscan as they became Greek speakers, or did they start stamping in Greek and then switch to Oscan? Or was no one that much bothered about which language to use? Going to the trouble of making a stamp and marking tiles is unlikely to have been a trivial matter, and it seems to me that adopting the Greek alphabet and using the Greek style genitive plural shows that the Mamertini took a conscious decision to make the Greek practice their own. There is more to tile stamps than you might think.

Leave a comment

Greek is in the eye of the beholder

Identifying the language of an inscription is not always completely straightforward. In my case, I’m often interested in whether a particular text is in Greek, or a different non-Greek language.

Of course, there are various clues we can use to try to determine the language of a text. The first hint is often in the alphabet – but this isn’t always enough. There are at least three areas in the western Mediterranean where the Greek alphabet is used (with some slight adaptations) to write languages other than Greek. Two of these areas are in the south of Italy, where Oscan and Messapic are also written, broadly speaking in the toe and the heel respectively. The other is in southern Gaul, now southern France, where Gaulish was written in the Greek alphabet for a few centuries before the Latin script became more usual. In all of these areas, Greek was being written at the same time period as the local language, and we often find both languages being used at the same site. This means we have to look beyond the script to identify the language.

Greek alphabet map

Ideally, an inscription might have vocabulary (lexicon) or word endings (morphology) that pin it down as one language or another. But this is where it gets tricky, as many inscriptions are very short indeed – very often, they contain only personal names, or words that are abbreviated. How do we assign these texts to a particular language? Well, we might decide that the name appears to be of a particular origin – for example, an inscription naming a Vibis Adirans would look very “Oscan” in origin, because traditionally Greek-speakers don’t have inherited family names. We wouldn’t want to rely on this too much, though, because it’s easy for people to have names that don’t match up to the languages that they speak – particularly if their parents or grandparents spoke another language, or had friends that did. Names can also be a matter of parents’ personal preference – not everyone called Siobhan is from Ireland, for example.

All of this can become particularly interesting when we take into account the trade routes between the three areas on the map. In the late twentieth century, a silver drinking cup imported from southern Italy was found in Alesia, a site in southern Gaul, inscribed with the Greek letters MEDA ARAGE (SEG 34 1035, if you are interested in looking this up). This looked like an abbreviated name, or two names, but in what language? Greek, Gaulish, or Oscan? Something like MEDA could more or less be the beginning of a name in any of them, and ARAGE looked suspiciously like the beginning of a word for “silversmith” (Greek arguros: so maybe this is not quite Greek?).

People have argued about this text a little bit, but whatever your opinion you have to agree that the language is not that clear. Since the object has travelled from one area to another, we don’t even know where the inscription was added. But it’s possible to look at a text like this in a different way. What if the writer, knowing that the cup might be sold in an area that spoke a different language but used the same alphabet as him, wrote his name in this abbreviated way so that the purchaser could read it in whatever language he or she preferred?

If we accept that writers of ancient inscriptions, especially if they were artisans producing goods for the export market, could be deliberately ambiguous in this way, that opens up some interesting avenues for us. Firstly, it means can’t always be sure what language a text is written in. And secondly, it gives us an interesting insight into the horizons of some of the people of the ancient Mediterranean – they’re wider than we sometimes think.

This post is based on a talk given at the Indo-European Seminar, University of Cambridge, 5th March 2014.

Leave a comment

Launch Podcasts

Our project launch event was held in the Faculty of Classics, Cambridge, on Friday 31st January. Below you can hear the talks that Nick, Geoff and I gave about our upcoming work. Enjoy!

Podcast 1: Oscan and Greek in Italy, Katherine McDonald

Podcast 2: Oscan Orthography and the Greek Alphabet, Nick Zair

Podcast 3: Greek Dialects in Magna Graecia, Geoff Horrocks


Christmas Adventures in Etruscan

Now that term is over in Cambridge, one of my next challenges is to learn some more about Etruscan. One of my main research interests is early adaptations of the Greek alphabet, and the Etruscans were among the very first to adapt the Greek alphabet to write their own language. The Etruscan alphabet is also important because it was then used and altered by speakers of various other languages, not least the Romans. So Etruscan is very much part of the story of the languages and alphabets of ancient Italy, and ultimately represents one stage in the development of our own alphabet.

Louvre-Lens - Les Étrusques et la Méditerranée - 191 - Paris, musée du Louvre, DAGER, Cp 5194 (Sarcophage des Époux) (F)

Although I already know the alphabet and a few basics, I’m not yet that familiar with the Etruscan language. Sometimes people are surprised when I say I want to learn Etruscan, because they’ve heard it’s an undeciphered language. Actually, this isn’t exactly the case. It’s true that Etruscan is not Indo-European and is not related to any languages that we can already understand well. But we can read the vast majority of the thousands of existing Etruscan inscriptions. Unfortunately, most of the texts produced are gravestones or sarcophagi. Some are very decorative and include images of the deceased, as in the famous “Sarcophagus of the Spouses” pictured (though this particular example does not include an inscription). Typically, gravestones don’t contain much vocabulary or syntax beyond a few formulaic phrases and personal names – if you think of the relatively small range of words and phrases commonly used on gravestones today, you’ll see how this might be a problem.

There are a few longer inscriptions, and some of them even give us clues to what they mean. The most beautiful are the Pyrgi tablets, written in Etruscan and Punic (Phoenician). Punic is a bit easier for us to understand than Etruscan, and the two versions say similar things, and so these can help us a lot. Other useful texts include dice, which obviously give us the numbers one to six. Overall, we understand a few hundred Etruscan words, and plenty of names, which is definitely enough to read a lot of the writing that survives.

In case you’re wondering, my favourite Etruscan word so far is a borrowing from Greek – phersu “theatre mask” which Latin borrowed as “persona”, giving us the words “person” and “persona”. I’ll try to come up with some more during the vacation using Zikh Rasna by Rex E. Wallace – currently sitting on my desk next to a mince pie.