Greek in Italy

Project Research Blog

Leave a comment

From Neapolis to Calimera

Last week was our second “Greek in Italy” project trip to the south of Italy. Like our last trip in September 2014, I’m sure that pictures and thoughts from this trip will keep bubbling up in my blog posts and articles for quite some time. But even though we’ve only just got back and I’ve not had time to go through all my notes and photos yet, I wanted to write a quick summary of what we did – partly to show off some great sites and museums which deserve more visitors, and partly to help remind myself later.

We started out in Paestum, which boasts some of Italy’s most beautiful and well-preserved Greek temples, dating from the sixth and fifth centuries BC. Today it’s a popular tourist sight, and rightly so. The temples are (mostly) not reconstructed – their amazing state of preservation made them a key sight of the Grand Tour. There are even some Early Modern engravings showing the temples all overgrown and disused.


There were plenty of inscriptions around the site to keep us busy, mostly in Latin. Inscriptions in Greek, Oscan and Latin have been discovered at Paestum, making it a very important site for research on ancient multilingualism in Campania and Lucania. We don’t know exactly which ancient region Paestum would have been in, since ancient authors aren’t always specific about borders: Paestum is in modern Campania, but is often considered to be part of ancient Lucania because of the use of Oscan in the Greek alphabet there.


Next we traveled to Velia, also known in Greek as Elea, home of several famous pre-Socratic Greek philosophers, the Eleatics. One of the main attractions of the site for me was the view, which naturally made me feel very philosophical. We made sure to take some time to ponder whether change is impossible (as believed by Parmenides) and a couple of Zeno’s paradoxes on the way up the hill.


Next we travelled to Roccagloriosa – a non-Greek site whose original Oscan name isn’t recorded in any ancient source. It’s near the later Roman colony of Buxentum, but distinct from it. Again, the views were brilliant – I think the whole team was in agreement that Basilicata (ancient Lucania) has some of the best landscapes in Italy. You can just about see the sea to the right-hand side of the picture below – I’d never realised that the sea would be visible from Roccagloriosa at all, despite having read about it for several years.


Roccagloriosa is a fascinating site, and despite its relative obscurity two important Oscan inscriptions have been found there. The longer text is a fragment of a bronze law, one of the earliest legal texts in Italy. Nick and I have written an article on this text, so it was great to see it in person again.


Excavators also found a piece of lead which bears both a commercial text in Greek (probably some kind of receipt) and a curse in Oscan. The photo below is a close-up in which you can just about see the small letters scratched on the lead.


The next day, we returned to Paestum to visit the museum. This silver disc with an obscure inscription in the Achaean alphabet attracted our attention. Even though it’s very clear indeed, it’s still not well understood. We’re not even sure what a couple of the letters are supposed to be (any suggestions for the letter on the left which looks like a tau with two legs?).


Of course we also had to visit Paestum’s fantastic tomb paintings. In general art history seems to prefer the paintings from the “Greek” era of the town, but we also have a fondness for the later “Lucanian” paintings. Most of these show gladiators stabbing each other, but there are also some evocative scenes of funerals and the afterlife, including a demon welcoming a woman’s soul into a boat to the underworld.



We then travelled to Metaponto, where we found this great early example of the Achaean Greek alphabet. By the time we got to Metaponto it was 41 degrees, and even the Italians were wilting a little.


Moving on to Puglia the next day, we travelled to Brindisi. Ancient Brundisium was at the very end of the Appian Way, the main road south from Rome. This is the column which marked the end of the ancient road. I’ve seen quite a bit of the Appian way this year in Rome and Capua, so it was great to feel like I’d finally completed that journey.


Brindisi has an extensive epigraphic collection in its museum, which kept us busy looking at many interesting borrowings and contact effects between Greek and Latin. Brindisi also takes its strong Classical heritage pretty seriously, since many early Latin authors including Pacuvius, Ennius and Livius Andronicus were from Brundisium, Tarentum and the surrounding area. Though the Ennius quote they’ve displayed was perhaps not the most exciting one they could have found.


On the Thursday, we went to the Grotta della Poesia in Roca, near Otranto, where we were shown around by Dott.ssa Mazzotta of the University of Salento. This was not only a beautiful beach resort, but also an incredible source of Messapic, Greek and Latin inscriptions, all hidden away in a huge cave. Before we arrived, we had no idea just how many inscriptions there were – but it turned out that the entire cave is covered in writing, which often overlaps and covers previous generations’ messages. We’d like to thank the British School at Rome for helping us set up this visit.




Since we were in the area, we also swung by the town of Calimera (Greek for “good morning”), which is one of the few towns in Italy where Greek is still spoken, in the form of the dialect Griko. We were rewarded by several signs and posters written partly in Griko, which our resident Greek speaker had a go at translating for us.


On our final day, we visited Canosa and Venosa on our way back to Naples. Canosa has a very interesting Daunian history, which we all know relatively little about, as well as some evidence of a Greek presense there. I was quite taken with this dice marked with the first six Greek letters instead of numbers or dots (note the digamma on the left hand side for the sixth letter).


Venosa was a Roman colony, called Venusia, but the museum there also includes some Oscan and Latin material from the nearby town of Bantia. This block is part of a dedication to Jupiter, written in Oscan in the Latin alphabet.


Before we flew back to the UK at the end of the week, we also went round the touristy but very fun Naples Underground tour, where we saw remains of Greek and Roman cisterns, and the flats and hotels built into the ancient theatre – highly recommended if you’re visiting Naples. We also visited the Roman street preserved underneath the Chiesa di San Lorenzo nearby.

And so what did all that look like? Something like this:

2015 trip map

It’s been a very valuable trip for me – there’s nothing quite like putting the inscriptions and literature I’m working on in their context, and getting to see the landscapes and towns where this writing was produced. I feel very lucky to have taken not one but two trips to southern Italy with this project. Here’s one last photo of the team at the Grotta della Poesia, looking hot but pleased with our discoveries.



Leave a comment

Two Latin words for elephant

There are two words for “elephant” in Latin, and both have to do with Greeks in Italy.

The first one, elephantus (or sometimes elephas or elephans), is fairly straightforward. It’s used in Latin from about the second century BC, and it’s a borrowing of the Greek word ὁ ἐλέφας, –αντος. That’s the normal Greek word for both African and Indian elephants, and is also used in Homer to mean “ivory”. By the second century BC, there were plenty of Greek-speakers in Italy, including upper-class Romans who could easily have come across the term in Herodotus, or heard it from a well-travelled friend. The spelling <ph> for Greek φ also shows that the Romans were probably preserving the aspirated pronunciation that was found in the Greek word (a p followed by an h sound, not as we say it now like an English f).

But in fact, the Romans already had a word for “elephant”, which stuck around as a poetic variant: Luca bos, or “Lucanian cow”. This term seems completely ridiculous at first sight, since of course there are no elephants native to Lucania (modern Basilicata, in Southern Italy). The idea of a “Lucanian cow” came about because of the use of war elephants in invasions of Italy.

Hannibal’s use of elephants is fairly famous, but before him came Pyrrhus of Epirus. King Pyrrhus fought a number of campaigns against the Romans in Italy in the late third century BC, supported by troops from most of the local Greek and Oscan populations. As a well-connected Hellenistic Greek monarch, he raised funds for his trip from all over the Greek East, and was given 20 (Indian) war elephants by another Hellenistic king. One of his biggest victories was the Battle of Heraclea in Lucania in 280 BC. As a result of Pyrrhus’ campaigns, Roman soldiers had seen elephants – not in north Africa, which belonged to Rome only after Hannibal’s time, but in Lucania. King Pyrrhus and his war against the Romans are somewhat forgotten, except in the phrase “Pyrrhic victory” (those elephants turned out not to be such a good idea after all) and in the Latin Luca bos.

This small example just goes to show how complicated language contact can be. The two different ways in which Latin speakers created terms for a new animal they had never seen before happened at two different points in their history. Why didn’t they borrow the Greek word the first time round? By the time the word elephantus was borrowed, were Romans more comfortable with Greek? That could make sense in terms of the history of the Roman Empire, and the expansion into the Greek East. But if you come across the term Luca bos in a poem, remember that even this apparently purely Latin term came about because of the Greeks in Italy too.

Leave a comment

An Oscan inscription in Milan

This weekend I visited the Museo Poldo Pezzoli in Milan. It had a great exhibition on Wunderkammern, which includes a unicorn horn* and a beautifully mounted bezoar (‘a calculus or concretion found in the stomach or intestines of some animals, chiefly ruminants, formed of concentric layers of animal matter deposited round some foreign substance, which serves as a nucleus’, –  it’s less disgusting than it sounds). But the main attraction for me was an Oscan inscription in the Greek alphabet, which I needed to look at for the book I’m writing (on Oscan inscriptions in the Greek alphabet…). It is written on the cheek-pieces of a Chalcidean-type helmet and comes from the early fourth century BC (making it one of our earliest Oscan inscriptions). You can see a picture of the helmet here: (the inscription is visible on one side).

Metapontum Temple of HeraThe helmet is not very well presented, but you can just about read vereias kam[]sanas metapontinas (right cheek-piece), sup medikiai po (left cheek-piece), which means ‘of the ?something? Metapontine vereia; in the magistracy of Po…’ (the text is Metapontum 1 in Crawford et al., Imagines Italicae, Lu 37 in Rix, Sabellische Texte). The translation of the left side is fairly clear, although the name of the magistrate is abbreviated; since there are several Oscan names beginning Po, we can’t be sure which one this is. Unfortunately, apart from the fact that we can tell it is an adjective, we don’t really know what kam[]sanas means (not helped by the fact that minor damage has erased one letter – here represented by []). A vereia is some kind of body of people, and this one is Metapontine, i.e. it belongs to Metapontum (modern day Metaponto in Basilicata), a city on the Ionian sea between the toe and the heel of Italy (the in-step?). Metapontum was originally a Greek colony until it was captured by the Oscan-speaking Lucanians in the early fourth century (you can see its rather nice temple of Hera in the picture to the left). So in 2,400 years the inscription has travelled from one end of Italy to the other!

* Really a narwhal horn

Leave a comment

Research Trips

We hope to tell you more about how we gather our data as the project progresses. We all use inscriptional and archaeological evidence to different extents – and so research trips to Italian museums and archaeological sites are an important (and fun) element of our research.

These pictures are from a recent research trip to Campania, Basilicata and Calabria, in May 2012.

The archaeological site at Tortora (near Cosenza, Calabria) guarded by a rather intimidating herd of cows (not pictured).

The beach at Tortora. The island in the middle of the shot was a popular mooring place for ships from Greek colonization onwards, because of the protection it offered from the open water.

Muro Lucano, Basilicata. Many Oscan-speaking sites are perched up in the hills like this, which makes for some dramatic views.