Greek in Italy

Project Research Blog


Hypermobile Mamertines?

At last year’s Laurence Seminar (‘Migration, Mobility, and Language Contact‘), Nick presented a paper about ‘the Mobile Mamertini’, mercenaries from Campania or Samnium who captured Messina circa 288 BCE.

While investigating the earliest appearances of Italians in Egypt, I found that Csaba La’da, one of my papyrology teachers, had reported an instance of the ethnic Μαμερτῖνος in his Foreign Ethnics in Hellenistic Egypt (2002). Thanks to the amicitia papyrologorum, I have obtained a copy of the original edition. I have not yet seen an image or the inscribed surface itself…

The funerary inscription (TM 47467), which remains in situ in Hadra in Alexandria (ad Aegyptum), is still cited from its 1915 (re-)publication as SB I 419f and is dated between 199-30 BCE. It reads:

Μαραῖος Βακείου | Μαμερτῖνος.

‘Maraeus, son of Baceus, a Mamertine’.

So, we have another Mamertine, but outside Italy this time and later than expected (the items in Nick’s dossier are all assumed to belong to the third century BCE, the latest being coinage c. 225 BCE).

The content follows the Greek pattern of the deceased’s name in the nominative case, his father’s name in the genitive case, and, then, the deceased’s ‘ethnic’ (or equivalent for the context). The orator Demosthenes illustrates this pattern, but with his Attic demotic rather than this ethnic Ἀθηναῖος: Δημοσθένης Δημοσθένους Παιανιεύς (D.18.187). (The Latin pattern, in full, includes the tria nomina and F(ilius) after the father’s name in the genitive.)

Maraeus, Nick informed me, is a good Oscan name: Marahis. It is rarely attested in Greek texts. The Lexicon of Greek Personal Names (LGPN) knows nine instances, all more-or-less Late Hellenistic in date, several from Asia Minor, and two, comfortingly, from Naples in Campania (e.g.). The nine instances include two father-son pairs. Trismegistos People (TM), as a whole, adds only two more bearers of this name (from two Petrie papyri, both found at Gurob and both written in the last decade of the third century BCE). One of them was a τακτόμισθος (as LSJ puts it, ‘a rank in the army of the Ptolemies‘…). That term is confined to papyri and, on the face of it, might have something to do with soldiers for hire (μισθός). Fischer-Bovet suggested ‘(mercenary) with a fixed wage’ as a gloss.

The father’s name, Βακεῖος is hard to parallel. LGPN’s online search silently corrected it to Βακ<χ>εῖος (the printed edition is transparent on this point), a name that seems unremarkable except that it has only one other attestation: Baccheius of Tanagra, a third-century BCE Hippocratic commentator. Trismegistos People treats the father’s name as a spelling variant of Βάκιος, a name attested on a Roman-period ostracon , whose most recent editors instruct ‘l. Βάκχιος’. (Simplification of <κχ> to <χ> in βακχ- words is illustrated by Gignac (1976:100) and by Threatte (1980: 542f.) and the interchange of <χ> and <κ> between vowels by Gignac (1976: 92) and Threatte (1980: 453ff.). Mayser-Schmoll (1970: 186) provides comparable Βακχ-, Βαχχ-, and βαχ- data, but not βακ-. The simplification of <κχ> to <κ> is not illustrated. <κ> may have been written for <κκ> or Latin .)

Since Greek and Latin texts provide no supporting evidence for the father’s name and the alternative readings proposed in the databases both have weaknesses of their own, what are we to do? Nick drew my attention to the abbreviation BAK() at Pompeii in L BAK() inscribed right to left in Oscan script on a (small) black slip bowl (uasculum) after it had been fired. Whatever name was so abbreviated could give us a point of comparison with the father of our Maraeus and Southern Italy.

However, our knowledge of that inscription is very shaky because it depends entirely on H. Dressel’s drawing and description, which underlie CIL X (1883) 8055.67. On the basis of that drawing, some have read BAD with Oscan <R> for /d/ (Rix, ST Po 88), while others maintain that the final <K> cannot be an incomplete Oscan <R> (Crawford et al., Imagines Italicae, Pompei 86: L(ucius) Bac(culeius) is suggested there, with the Pompeian M. Bacculeius of CIL IV, Supp. 3 (1963) 9256 as a comparison).

Whatever is going on with ΒΑΚΕΙΟΥ, we have a Mamertine with an Oscan name buried in Hadra in Alexandria in the Ptolemaic period.

What about later Μαμερτῖνοι in Egypt? Connections with the Mamertine mercenaries faded and Μαμερτ(ε)ῖνος (LGPN and TM) remained in use only as a cognomen (and hence, from an agnomen, Μαμερτινιανός), Marcus Petronius Mamertinus, the second-century statesman, being its most well-known bearer.

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An unreadable Oscan inscription - complete with uninterested bystander

An unreadable Oscan inscription – complete with uninterested bystander

Back in September, I said I would write about my trip to Pompeii, which happened in June: and now, six months later, I’m finally getting up to date!

The last time I’d been to Pompeii was back in 2001: I’d just finished the first year of my BA. So I was pretty excited to be back. And I was lucky enough to be shown around by Michele Stefanile, of the University of Naples ‘L’Orientale’, who has done a lot of work at Pompeii, in addition to his main research as an underwater archaeologist. Apart from getting us in for free, he was also an incredibly knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide – despite taking time from the last-minute preparations for his upcoming wedding.

Apart from generally reacquainting myself with the town (I’d forgotten just how big it was!), I was naturally keen to look at inscriptions, especially the Oscan ones. Because, although Pompeii is generally seen as being a quintessentially Roman town, during the Social War of the 90s and 80s BC its inhabitants were Oscan-speakers, and it actually fought against the Romans. After the war, when the Romans made it a colony, the official language of the city changed to Latin. But a lot of Oscan incriptions remained, either because they were inscribed on stones that were part of the fabric of buildings (or stones which were later re-used in buildings), or because they were painted in relatively inaccessible places and remained on show until 79 AD, when the explosion of Vesuvius preserved the town.

But there are a number of difficulties involved in finding these inscriptions, even armed with a partial map and Michele’s help. For one thing, parts of the site were closed off the day we visited, so we couldn’t see anything there. And even when you find an inscription, it’s often hard to read: the painted inscriptions are high up, and (quite rightly) covered in plexiglass to prevent damage. Unfortunately, the plexiglass also tends to prevent easy reading, especially looking from below (see above).

But the need for plexiglass protection becomes clear when you look at the following picture (courtesy of Michele). We spent a happy 20 minutes or so looking for the inscription on the column below, which is supposed to say vaamunim, which may be a borrowing of Latin uadimonium ‘bail’. But we were completely unable to find it. Even in the picture, the eye of faith is required to see a letter or two in red paint.



Another unanticipated difficulty was the sheer number of people on site – while there were surprisingly few people spending entire minutes staring intently at columns (and trying to work out which was the fourth from the north), probably the biggest draw at Pompeii these days is the brothel, which Mary Beard has written about on her blog. This has arguably one of the last Oscan inscriptions scratched into the wall, but there was no chance of getting in: the queue filled the street some distance from the building itself.

Despite these issues, which served to remind me just how difficult it can be to find and read inscriptions, let alone interpret them (a recurring theme on this blog!), I had a great time in Pompeii, and am looking forward to my next visit.

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Carthaginians, Romans – and Oscan

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?


Messina. Messana 7

(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).









An interesting Greek inscription from Cumae

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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!)

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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.

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From Teano to Bacoli

After Geoff, Livia and Katherine went home, James and I stayed in Naples for another week, to attend the 22nd International Conference of Historical Linguistics. Apart from going to lots of interesting papers, we also took the chance to do a bit more exploring, this time of places closer to Naples. Our first stop was Teano, which is a lovely hillside town: while I suspect Sunday midday is not the time to see it at its bustling best, the museum, much to our relief, was open. It’s just one floor, but it crams an amazing amount of fascinating material into the space. There’s some nice Greek-looking statuary and grave goods, but for me of course the highlight was the large number of Oscan inscriptions. Funerary inscriptions are relatively uncommon in Oscan, but there are quite a number of examples in Teano, including one of the few cases of a woman’s name (for more info on these see my post Name Games), pictured below. The inscription says Ep(pio?) Loukio daughter of Min(is).

Ep. Loukio

Teano in the late 4th century BC was also home to a family firm making plates and bowls: helpfully they were in the habit of writing variations on the information you can see in the picture below on their pots. It says: Minis Berriis. They (the pots) were made at the workshop (?) in Teanum. Note that Minis was clearly a popular name in Teano.

Minis Beriis

Next stop was the – really large – museum in Capua, which has an entire room devoted to epigraphy (bliss!) as well as lots of inscriptions scattered elsewhere about the place. For those who are slightly less one-track-minded than us, probably the most striking thing is the amazing collection of Matres Matutae: these are scores of – presumably religious – statues of seated women holding babies. The early ones (6th century BC) start off being only vaguely female and holding a couple of babies in swaddling: by the end (2nd century BC) they are distinctly beefy and unimpressed-looking matrons clutching up to twelve of the things. Very weird, especially in large numbers. Finally, via a detour to the lovely hill-side church at Sant’ Angelo in Formis, formerly a Roman temple, to Santa Maria Capua Vetere, for a few more inscriptions, and a great tomb-painting of a Samnite warrior.

Our next adventure, later in the week, was to Bacoli (ancent Baiae) where we saw the Piscina Mirabilis, which is aptly named, since it is indeed amazing. It is not a cathedral, as you might think from the picture, nor a swimming pool, but an underground reservoir which was used to collect and distribute water from the aqueducts going into Baiae. It’s a bit difficult to get into, since you have to pre-arrange an appointment with the woman who holds the keys. Fortunately we had the services of Ludovica, our superlative guide, who organised everything. Pictured are me and James pretending to say wise things about Roman brickwork, while Ludovica looks sceptical.

Piscina Mirabilis 1

Piscina Mirabilis 2

From there we went to the Museo Archeologico dei Campi Flegrei. Like so many of the museums we’ve been to in Italy it’s brilliantly presented and full of fantastic stuff – and in an old Aragonese castle with a wonderful view over the Bay of Naples. Cumae, just around the corner, was the earliest mainland Greek colony in Italy, and the museum has a number of early Greek inscriptions, several with features which are more or less unique – it’s amazing that even in a language which we know as well as Greek, a single inscription can make a big difference to what we think we know. The inscription below is a nice example of boustrophedon writing, where the lines are written alternately left-to-right and right-to-left.


As we were leaving the museum the exhaust fell off our car, so that was the end of the ancient part of our adventures that day!

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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.