Greek in Italy

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The epigraphic gallery of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples is now open!

This is wildly exciting: when I went there in 2007, it was opened only on special application, and when I went in 2013 there was no electric light, and I had to examine the inscription I was interested in by the light of my own torch and a lamp obligingly held by a member of the Museum’s staff: there was certainly no possibility of looking at any of the other objects, as I had hoped. I’m extremely grateful to the Museum for kindly allowing and facilitating both my previous visits, but it must be said that it is much better now that one can just swan in and revel in all the epigraphy. I’ll post a few things from my latest visit in the coming weeks.

This time, I’ll focus on one inscription in particular, which is the rather nice column supporting a water basin (basin supplied separately) with an Oscan inscription which is published in Imagines Italicae as ma.heíínim. me x.ekak.flit<e>am.emmens (Cumae 3/Cm 5) and translated as ‘Ma(is) Heiis, son of De(kis), meddix of the vereiia, and the X meddix (or the 10 medices) bought this flitea‘. A meddix is a type of magistrate. Apart from the fact that it’s not clear exactly what a me x is, especially as X is not a regular letter of the Oscan alphabet, the main problem is flit<e>am, which clearly has to be the name of the object on which the inscription is written. So far, the only semi-plausible suggestion is that it is somehow a borrowing of the Greek word πλινθεῖον /plintheion/ ‘brickwork’. There are a number of problems with this idea, though: a) it’s unlikely that Greek pl- would be borrowed into Oscan as fl-, which otherwise has no problem with the sequence pl-; b) we would probably expect the Greek sequence -εῖ- to be borrowed as Oscan –ei– or –í-; c) the Greek word is neuter, the Oscan one is feminine.


And, actually, there is a further problem, which is that, according to Imagines, the fifth letter of flit<e>am is actually v on the stone (hence the pointy brackets). Now, as emendations go, e for v is really pretty reasonable: in the Oscan alphabet is written E, while v is just an E without the middle horizontal stroke. You can see the (other) instance of v, fourth letter from the right, in this inscription below (note that Oscan is written right to left). But, given the many problems we already have in connecting flit<e>am to πλινθεῖον, perhaps we should just give up the connection, and accept that we have a word flitvam whose origin is obscure, and at any rate is nothing like πλινθεῖον.

So, is it really a flitvam? Well, I’m not sure. Rix, in his edition Sabellische Texte, prints an e with a dot under it. Unfortunately, in his edition, this dot means two different things: a damaged letter, or a letter conjectured from a broken or mistakenly written letter on the object. So it is not clear whether he sees a damaged e, or, like Imagines, a mistaken v which he replaces with e. There is definitely some kind of horizontal-ish stroke in the middle of the letter. It’s more or less visible in the photos below; in person, with a raking light, it looks deeper, firmer and more intentional. On the other hand, the object has clearly been damaged, and the stroke is less well-made than the other es in the inscription (you can see one as the second letter from the right in the picture above): it is not precisely parallel to the upper and lower horizontals, beginning rather low on the vertical and straggling diagonally upwards. At the moment I’m leaning towards seeing it as an e, but it just shows how much difficulty can be involved in reading even a clearly-written inscription.


fliteam or flitvam?







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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Lingue dello Stretto

It’s been a couple of months since I trailed mine and Livia’s upcoming trip to Messina to take part in ‘Lingue dello Stretto nella Documentazione Materiale dall’Ellenismo alla Tarda Antichità‘ (Languages of the Strait in Documentary Material from Hellenic Times to Late Antiquity), and I’ve been remiss in reporting back (it’s been a busy time! We had the Laurence Seminar in Cambridge the next week, on which James has already blogged).

There were far too many interesting papers, taking a wide range of approaches to the languages spoken around the Strait of Messina for me to talk about all of them (you can see the whole programme here – it opens as a .pdf). Particular highlights for me were Paolo Poccetti giving a tour-de-force analysis of the way linguistic, onomastic, literary and numismatic evidence could be combined to demonstrate how peoples in the area created a self-image; and Jonathan Prag’s demonstration of his amazing online corpus of inscriptions from Sicily (to go live soon. Follow updates at the project blog here), which is clearly going to redefine the state of the art (our very own Katherine McDonald has been involved in editing the entries on the Oscan inscriptions, which you can read about on her blog). And Livia’s talk on ‘Contact and linguistic prestige in the Hellentistic Doric of Sicily’ – but I’ll spare her blushes.

Apart from the brilliance of the talks, and the friendly and collegial atmosphere, the conference was one of the best organised I’ve ever been to: accommodation booked on our behalf, a bus laid on to take us to and from, and superlative food at lunch, dinner (and granita con panna e brioche in the coffee breaks!). We’re very grateful to Giuseppe Ucciardello, Alessandro De Angelis, Annamaria Chilà and Silvia Cutuli, who were the perfect hosts.

After the conference finished I popped across the strait to Reggio Calabria, but I’ll say more about that in my next post. I’ll finish here with an inscription I spotted in my wanderings in Messina: it’s a great example of how the spelling conventions used to write a text need not necessarily match up with thelanguage the text is written in.


Free wi-fi




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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).









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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.