Greek in Italy

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Did what with Hannibal?

From Wikimedia Commons (

Hannibal Crossing the Alps, by Heinrich Leutemann. Note the unfortunate elephant.

As I write, the final stages of the Second Punic War have begun. It’s not looking good for Hannibal – he’s holed up in the toe of Italy, his brother’s been killed, the Romans have taken control of most of Spain, and they’re preparing to attack Carthage itself. It all looked so promising earlier on, as he climbed over the alps with his elephants and swept through Italy (although, unfortunately, all but one of the elephants was killed in his first battle against the Romans). As he went he picked up allies from the local peoples, who were not necessarily particularly enamoured of Roman power (despite being officially ‘allies’ of Rome). Eve McDonald gives a nice example of this on p.115 of ‘Hannibal, a Hellenistic Life’, from a gravestone of an Etruscan man, Larth Felsnas, who lived to be 106 (a mere stripling, compared to Ahvdio from Teanum Sidicinum) and who claimed to have fought with Hannibal.

Now, apart from the fact that anyone who says they are 106 may well be inclined to telling tall tales, is that really what he says? The appropriate part of the inscription reads murce capue tleχe hanipaluscle (it is number Ta 1.107 in Rix’s Etruskische Texte ). I’m no expert on Etruscan, but it seems as though no-one actually knows for certain what either of the verbs murce and tleχe means: the best that can be said is murce is an active past tense verb, and tleχe (probably) a passive past tense verb. So the most conservative translation is ‘Larth Felsna did something at Capua and was somethinged in (?) the something (?) of Hannibal’. Clearly – if we’re to trust the inscription at all – something happened to him in the Hannibalic war: but which side was he on?.

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Migrating to the Hay Festival


Last week I gave a talk relating to the Greek in Italy project as part of the Cambridge Series at the Hay Festival of Literature and Arts. The festival is set in the beautiful Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye and attracts around 100,000 visitors each year. Around three hundred of them braved the torrential rain on Friday morning to come to my talk, ‘Migration and Language: Ancient Perspectives’. In the talk I was comparing some of the modern and ancient anxieties about the consequences of population movement on language. Nigel Farage’s disquiet at hearing foreign languages spoken on a London train and David Starkey’s fears (expressed after the London riots in 2011) that British youth had been corrupted by Jamaican patois can be set aside ancient views, found for example in Pseudo-Xenophon Athenian Constitution and Cicero’s Brutus, that the language of incomers leads to linguistic corruption. These worries about the effects of migration on language can be countered by the findings of the national census (in the modern case) and by consideration of the long-term picture of language change in the ancient world. Despite the massive influx of non-native speakers of Latin (many of them Greeks) into Rome, Latin continued to be spoken in the Western Roman Empire. Indeed, it was the other languages, Oscan, Umbrian, Etruscan, Gaulish, Iberian etc. that died out. In the same way recent census findings have shown the dominance of English in the British Isles, and that this is at the expense of the minority language, Welsh. The 2011 UK Census also asked for the first time about competence in English amongst those who did not use it as their first language, and found that only a tiny fraction (0.3% roughly 138,000 people) of the population were unable to speak any English at all ( A recording of this talk  – although unfortunately without the accompanying slides – is available here.

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Wandering Myths and Changing Stories

How do myths and stories travel across space? And, perhaps more importantly, why do they change when they get there? Did the people hearing the stories misunderstand, and garble them in their own retellings, or did they deliberately adapt myths to fit better with their local beliefs, practices and institutions?

The Wandering Myths conference I attended at Somerville College, Oxford last week discussed all these issues and many more – but it was the issue of “misunderstanding” that particularly interested me. As many of the speakers discussed, this is often a key issue for how we understand contact between the Greek world and other cultures, especially in Italy. In the past, Etruscan and Southern Italian artists in particular have been criticised by modern art historians for misrepresenting or misinterpreting Greek myths in their work.

In her paper “From Mezentie to Mezentius”, Nancy de Grummond showed us a number of Etruscan mirrors. One showed a young man labelled as Alixentr (Alexander), facing three beautiful women. Immediately, this appears to be an image of the judgement of Paris – Paris (also called Alexander) was told to judge who was the most beautiful goddess, out of Hera, Athena and Aphrodite. But there’s a problem – the women depicted on the mirror are labelled too, with the names Ateleta (Etruscan for Atalanta), Helena and a third Etruscan name that doesn’t relate to any Greek goddess or woman. Did the artist misunderstand the story of the judgement of Paris, then? The picture on the mirror shown above is also said to show “the judgement of Paris”, but the figures aren’t labelled. Are they actually Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, or are they supposed to show another version of the story?

Similarly, the Minotaur is always killed by Hercules, not Theseus, when the story is depicted in Etruscan art. Is this just a mistake? Possibly, but quite a large number of people, many of whom knew a great deal about Greek culture, would consistently have to make the same “mistake” for these kinds of changes to be possible.

Even though a number of scholars still seem to use “mistakes” in transmission as a big factor in how these stories change, there are a number of other possibilities. People could be giving a local flavour to imported stories, making them match up to characters they already knew. But, more convincingly perhaps, there may have been many versions of these stories in common currency, and the “official” Greek version known to us may be just one of many competing versions that happened to be written down or made into a play. It might in fact be wrong to think of the written Greek (or Latin) text as the correct version, or even the main version, of a story, even if it is the most familiar.

This point doesn’t just apply to myths, but to anything that might be transmitted across cultures – law codes, magical formulae, and even alphabets themselves. There may be mistakes as they get passed from person to person, and there may be deliberate adaptations to local needs. But we also need to keep in mind that there may also be many versions that are completely invisible to us, because they don’t survive. When we study the influence of Greek culture on other groups, there are always a huge number of missing links.

If you want to see for yourself how the myth of Herakles/Hercules wandered across Greece, Italy, Northern Europe, the Middle East and South Asia, you can use the “Wandering Myths” gallery trail at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. This was put together by the conference organisers, and shows perfectly how one hero’s stories can adapt and change as they are represented by different artists. The trail took me about 30 minutes to complete, so it makes a good lunchtime break if you happen to be in Oxford soon – you should be able to ask for the leaflet at the museum.

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Multilingual Mirrors Part 2

Katherine wasn’t the only person thinking about Etruscan around Christmas (see her post below). On Boxing Day I went to the Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia in Rome to see their fantastic collection of Etruscan finds. They’ve got some spectacular stuff including the sarcophagus of the spouses (of which there’s a picture in Katherine’s post), and three gold tablets from Pyrgi which are written in Etruscan and Punic (pictured below). In real life they’re surprisingly small, but just as golden as they look here (Etruscan on the right and left, Punic in the middle). It’s thanks to these tablets – which aren’t direct translations of each other, but contain similar material – that we know the Etruscan word for ‘three’, which is ci. The museum has a particularly good section on writing and the alphabet.


What, you may be asking, does all this have to do with mirrors? Well, in addition to lots of lovely Etruscan inscriptions, the museum also has quite a good selection of early Latin inscriptions, several of which are captions to the scenes on the backs of mirrors. One of them shows two dancing figures, who it identifies as marsuas (Marsyas, a satyr) and painiscos ‘little Pan’. In addition, along one of Marsyas’s legs we have a signature: uibis pilipus cailauit ‘Vibius Philippus engraved it’. Although he’s writing in Latin, Vibius’s names give a hint of the complex linguistic situation in third century BC Praeneste, where the mirror is from*: the missing final vowel in uibis is characteristic of a Sabellic language (Oscan?), while pilipus is the Latinised version of the Greek name Philippos (it would be a hundred years before Greek ph, ch, th were written with an h in Latin). Vibis Pilipus may have been a Greek slave or freedman belonging to an Oscan-speaking family, writing in Latin. But why does he Latinise only one of his names? Why does he give pilipus a Latin ending, but keep the Greek ending in painiscos (not painiscus) and marsuas (not marsua)? This is the kind of thing that keeps us awake at night…

*Praeneste is modern-day Palestrina, in Lazio, about 25 miles from Rome. It’s built into a hill-side, with great views, and another excellent museum.


Multilingual Mirrors part 1

The Fitzwilliam Museum has a lovely Etruscan mirror on show in its Greece and Rome gallery (Gallery 21), which has a picture of the judgement of Paris. We know this partly because of the picture itself (which you can see here), in which a dashing young man is standing in front of three women, one of whom is wearing the aegis, while another is wearing nothing but a veil as a rather half-hearted sop to modesty. But we also know who the characters are because, around the outside of the mirror, we are given the dramatis personae. And this short – four-word – inscription provides us with a fantastic example of the kind of language contact that was going on in Italy in the first millennium BC. Although the language of the inscription is clearly Etruscan, only one of the names is Etruscan: this is Turan, the name for Aphrodite/Venus. The other two goddesses are Uni and Menrva; the first of these is the equivalent of Latin Iuno (Greek Hera), borrowed from an Italic language in which Iuno was called Iuni, and the second is clearly Minerva (Greek Athene), borrowed either from Latin or from another Italic language. Paris is called by his alternative Greek name Alexandros, which, having gone through the Etruscan sound-change wringer, turns up as Elψsuntre. Four words, three (or perhaps four) languages – surely that’s a record?


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.