Greek in Italy

Project Research Blog

Leave a comment

‘Greek in Italy’, the Lexicon of Liddell and Scott, and the ‘what’s-its-name, thingumbob’

Please scroll down for the lighter and less technical part of this post…, namely the ‘thingumbob’…

Recently, a colleague and friend asked me why it was that Liddell-Scott-Jones (from hereon ‘LSJ’ and, as available through the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, ‘TLG LSJ’) accented τριακντακις ‘thirty-times’ proparoxytone, not τριακοντκις paroxytone like all other adverbs in -κις, ‘-times’. The short answer is that LSJ doesn’t. The misaccentuation suggests that TLG LSJ was tripped up by the abbreviated headwords of the printed edition of LSJ. All that was printed of the headword was -κ̆ις, its accent inferred from τριακοντά-δραχμοι to give τριακοντάκις (rightly). The classic rant on the abbreviation of headwords is John Chadwick’s own in BICS 11 (1994) 1-11, at 2. Whether the accent was placed on TLG LSJ’s headword automatically or manually, I do not know.

It was then that the entry for τρῐᾱκοντάμερος came to my attention:

Dor. word, dub. sens. in IG14.256.27 (Phintias Geloorum); cf. Jahresh.4 Beibl.21.’.

This inscription is from Phintias of the people of Gela, which was the settlement that ‘replaced’ Gela, the Rhodo-Cretan colony where Aeschylus had his lethal encounter with a tortoise: something of a hotspot of Greek in Italy).

Entries that contain ‘dub.sens.’ are always intriguing, and this one is especially so in that its general meaning, if not its precise application and referent, are clear from the elements that form this compound: the two stems seen in τριάκοντα ‘thirty’ and ἁ̄μέρᾱ (or, as here, ἀ-) ‘day’ [Attic ἡμέρᾱ]. All this was put right in the 1996 Revised Supplement, which adapted a comment in the 1968 Supplement: (as a new word) ‘τριακοντά̄μεροι, οἱ, prob. a board of officials performing duties for thirty days,…; cf. πεντάμεροι’. The original entry is then signalled for deletion.

Of greater interest (and amusement) and of no less relevance is the entry for τραγέλαφος ‘goat-stag’. Apart from ‘a what’s-its-name, thingumbob‘ (s.v. I 3), there is also the quaint charm of the transition from (s.v. I 1) ‘a fantastic animal, represented on Eastern carpets and the like‘ to (s.v. II) ‘later, a real animal of Arabia, or on the Phasis, prob. a kind of wild goat or antelope, LXX Jb.39.1, D.S.2.51, Plin.HN8.120, etc.‘.

This word is thought by some to have appeared on the Nile Mosaic of Palaestrina (s.v. Wikipedia), whose captions were published as IG XIV 1302 (but see also SEG XLV 1452)  and feature other lexical and animal rarities, including the non-standard form ἄρκος, ‘bear’, known from the Zenon papyri, a Carthaginian curse tablet, and the Greek Bible. The mosaic has been dated either to 120-110 BCE or to the time of the Emperor Hadrian (117-138 CE). A large and high-resolution image of the mosaic is available through Wikimedia Commons.

In the detail below, the ‘lynx’, ΛΥΝΞ (not the standard spelling, λύγξ), is clear, as are the letters ΔΓΕΛΑΡΥ (underline for underdot to mark a letter as difficult to read). However, that label is not closely associated with a depiction of any animal.


Georg Kaibel, the editor of IG XIV 1302, conjectured [ΤΡ]<Α>ΓΕΛΑ<ΦΟ>[Σ], which requires a certain amount of charity from the viewer-reader and their acceptance of an invisible ‘thingumbob’.

The re-reading, <Α>ΓΕΛΑΡΧ[ΟΣ] (see SEG XLV 1452), the ‘leader of the pack’, makes better use of the letters that are visible. But, a pack of what, exactly? Perhaps, the leader (bottom left of the following detail) of the relatively-distant three hunters (bottom right).

leader of the pack

An amusing alternative is that this label continues that for the lynx, who, then, is the leader of the pack of monkeys depicted elsewhere.

For more on the mosaic itself as well as its captions, see P.G.P. Meyboom, The Nile Mosaic of Palaestrina: Early Evidence of Egyptian Religion in Italy (Leiden, New York, and Cologne: E.J. Brill, 1995). For the reading and re-reading, see Meyboom, The Nile Mosaic, 25 and 238-239.

Since the mosaic is thought (at some stage) to have depicted an elephant (Meyboom, the Nile Mosaic, 25), we may recall that some time ago, Katherine posted about words for ‘elephant’. I encountered those boves lucas while teaching Lucretius last term (DRN 5.1302) in relation to the remarkable compound anguimanus, ‘such that has a snake for a hand’: itself a lexical rarity (an accusative plural of a fourth-declension adjective to boot!) and once described, as one of my supervisors used to quote, as ‘an atavistic zoonym harking back to a protohabitat, proper to an animal with an prominent appendage of ophidian resemblance’.

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.