Greek in Italy

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Greek literature in Italy

Last year, I taught the Classics Faculty’s Intensive Greek reading classes on Bacchylides 5 (as also in 2015-2016) and Aeschylus’ Persians. Just like Simonides (Bacchylides’ uncle) and Pindar, these two celebrated Greek poets were associated with the court of Hieron of Syracuse. Earlier, there was Stesichorus (late 7th – mid 6th c. BCE), who lived, composed, and died in Magna Graecia, and Ibycus (fl. mid. 6th c. BCE), who was from Rhegion, but was active at the court of the Samian tyrant Polycrates. (Guides to the ‘biography’ of Greek and Latin poets and Collections of sources in their original languages and in translation are freely available via Living Poets at Durham).

That was all by way of a pretext to share two of my favourite journal articles on Bacchylides and highlights from the history of journal publishing. The first compares Bacchylides fr. 20  B 6-16 with a Martini label and, for a similar purpose, the second quotes Callimachus, Aetia (fr. 1.32), Pindar fr. 124 ab 5-7, and Teiresias’ words from Odyssey X 495 in an oft-quoted form independent of their context.

Merkelbach, R. (1973). Zum Trinklied des Bakchylides. Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 10: 228-229.
— (1975). Der Triumph der Nüchternheit oder Die Widerlegung des Martini-Trinkers. Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 17: 97-100.

ZPE 10 1973 229

ZPE 10 1975 98

In those days, ZPE was prepared on typewriters and these (colour) Martini labels were glued in copy by copy…

Bacchylides was fond of compound adjectives involving colours. One of my favourites is κυανο-πλόκαμος: ‘(of Victory) with blue or dark braids (of hair)’. That is, Victory was ‘blue rinse’.

My real reason to mention colours, though, was to reference another article.
Gipper, Helmut (1964). Purpur. Glotta 42.1./2: 39-69.

Blue hair may not have been the key notion in κυανοπλόκαμος and the identity of the colour whose adjective is πορφύρεος  (whence, our ‘purple’) has been a subject for some debate, given its range of applications (LSJ s.v.).

Helmut Gipper concluded his study with a colour swatch, again individually glued into each copy of that issue of the journal.

Gipper Purpur


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Sicily in Oxford and London

Last week I visited exhibitions on Sicily at the Ashmolean in Oxford (Storms, War and Shipwrecks), and at the British Museum (Sicily: Culture and Conquest). Both were a lot of fun, but perhaps unsurprisingly, I felt the British Museum came out on top. This was largely because the Ashmolean’s exhibition was focussed on underwater finds, and there are only so many anchors and amphoras that I can see before my eyes start to glaze over. Of great interest for me, though, were three of the rams from the sea battle near the Egadi Islands that I mentioned in an earlier post and which Katherine has also discussed over at her blog. Two had Latin inscriptions and the other one was the one with a Carthaginian inscription. I was very excited to see them in the flesh, although I have a bit of a gripe: as is very common, museums often seem to think that any writing on an object is of minor importance, and position it so that it is hard to see. In this case, one of the rams was placed so that the inscription was upside down relative to anyone looking at it, and quite far away, so hard to get a close look at – since the inscription was incised rather than in relief, and the metal was somewhat degraded, it was hard to make out anything at all.

The British Museum exhibition was far better than the last couple I’ve been to there. Not least because, in the main, I could actually see the objects on display. Recently, in the Museum’s exhibitions, the general lighting has been practically non-existent, with the objects being lit by very small spotlights. The effect has been to cast weird shadows over much of the stuff, and, occasionally, to make the information boards impossible to read. Although some of the lighting was somewhat eccentric at the Sicily exhibition, in the main it was far better. And there are some lovely objects: a fourth ram, and beautiful decorations from the island’s Norman period. The thing that struck me most, however, was a bilingual inscription, in Greek and Latin, which read (you can see a picture here):

ΣΤΗΛΑΙ                    | TITVLI

ΕΝΘΑΔΕ                  | HEIC






Which means: ‘signs are arranged and carved here for sacred temples along with public works’

According to the Museum, this came from Palermo, and is to be dated between 100 BC and 50 AD. The information suggested that, as there were mistakes in both the Greek and Latin, and Palermo was originally a Punic settlement, the person who wrote it may have had Punic as their native language. Personally, I’m not so sure: while the use of cum plus the genitive in the Latin is clearly ungrammatical, I can’t see any mistakes in the Greek (apart from the use of Doric ναός ‘temple’ rather than Attic νεώς, which is not really a ‘mistake’). But I’d be delighted to have them drawn to my attention.

Apart from this nice example of Greek and Latin being used in tandem in ancient Sicily, what I also find interesting about this inscription is the use of ‘archaic’ spellings in the Latin, which the museum’s sign also drew attention to. From the point of view of ‘Classical’ spelling, the use of Q instead of C before V to represent [k], EI for long [i:] and AI for the diphthong [ae] all look pretty old fashioned. But I’ve just started to have a look at these kind of spellings, and quite a lot of them seem to have carried on well into the first few centuries AD, at least among certain writers. So I’m not sure that these spellings would necessarily have been particularly old fashioned at the time this sign was written.


James Clackson has kindly advised me of an article by our friend Olga Tribulato on this inscription. The article is called ‘The stone-cutter’s bilingual inscription from Palermo (IG XIV 297 = CIL X 7296): a new interpretation’ and was published in Zeitschrift für Payrologie und Epigraphik, 177 (2011) 131–140. It’s available online free here (NB opens as a .pdf). The mistakes in the Greek which I didn’t recognise, and which Olga discusses, are the use of ἐνέργειαι rather than ἔργα in the sense of ‘works’, and the use of σύν ‘with’ as a conjunction – which is not unheard of, but is uncommon. This use of σύν could be influenced by the Latin use of cum as a connective, but the person who wrote the Latin clearly wasn’t a native speaker either! Olga suggests that the writer was a Punic-speaker, in whose language the preposition ‘et ‘with’ could also be used as a conjunctive. She has various other ingenious suggestions of how the other oddities can be explained by being written by a non-native speaker –  you can read the article yourself if you want the details.


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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





Violent language contact near Sicily

Carrying on the theme of my last post: the final battle of the First Punic War took place near the Aegates (now Egadi) Islands west of Sicily in 241 BC. A Roman fleet caught a Carthaginian fleet sailing to Eryx (now Erice) by surprise and sank or captured many of the Carthaginian ships. Amazingly, in recent years eleven bronze rams have been found on the seabed from this area, of which most or all probably come from ships sunk during the engagement.
Seven of the rams bear Latin inscriptions, and one bears a Punic inscription, and they reveal quite different contents. A representative example in Latin reads L. QVINCTIO. C. F. QVAISTOR. PROBAVET ‘Lucius Quinctius, son of Gaius, Quaestor, approved (this ram)’. A quaestor is a Roman magistrate. While the language is a great example of mid-third century Latin, and there is much to interest the historian as well, it must be admitted that the actual message conveyed is on the dry side. Compare the Punic inscription, of which two translations of the visible part have so far been suggested: either ‘We pray to Baal that this ram will go into the enemy ship and make a big hole’ or ‘… Tanit, for in it are its officers. Blow, gales of Reshep! and build the surge under… ‘. The differences between the translations do not fill one with confidence, but both suggest a rather more direct relationship on the part of the Carthaginians between the function of a ram and its inscription.
Since the battle was such a heavy victory for the Romans, it might seem surprising that it is primarily Roman rams (and hence Roman ships) that ended up on the sea floor. It’s been suggested that actually the Roman ships may have been manned by Carthaginians, who had captured them in an earlier battle.
If you’re interested, you can find out more about the rams in two recent articles, both in the Journal of Roman Archaeology: ‘The landscape of the naval battle at the Egadi Islands (241 B.C.)’ by Sebastiano Tusa and Jeffrey Royal in JRA 25 (2012), which is freely accessible here. And ‘Bronze rostra from the Egadi Islands off NW Sicily: the Latin inscriptions’ by Jonathan Prag in JRA 27 (2014), for which a subscription is necessary. You can see a picture of the Carthaginian ram on the Wikipedia page about the battle here: and a cool video about how they found the rams here.

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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).










Tile Stamps


‘Linguists just aren’t interested in tile stamps.’ I remember making that point years ago to Michael Crawford when collaborating on the Imagines Italicae project, and now my words come back to haunt me. It turns out that tile stamps, imprinted on wet clay during the manufacture of roof-tiles, can be more interesting —linguistically, epigraphically, and for social history—than I had imagined. On our recent trip to Calabria, the Greek in Italy project members spent quite a lot of time looking at tile stamps, most memorably in the deposito of the Museo Regionale Interdisciplinare di Messina (thanks to the extraordinary kindness of Dottore Agostino Giuliano and his colleagues, who gave up their Saturday morning to let us in and to show us around). The Messina collection includes Greek, Oscan and Latin tile stamps alongside each other, but most publications separate out the material into different languages. Seeing all the stamps together, it is not always easy at first glance to be sure which language they are in, particularly if the stamp is well-worn or broken. We spent an excited 15 minutes thinking that we had found a new tile stamp with Oscan written in the Greek alphabet, since it ended in the letter M. Greek words don’t end in M, but Oscan genitive plurals do, and one way of saying that the tile is the property of a particular community is to use a genitive plural—the name of the Mamertini, the mercenaries who captured the port of Messina at the beginning of the third century BCE, appear on tile stamps in the genitive plural, both in Greek (Μαμερτίνων), and in Oscan written in Greek (Μαμερτινουμ). But then Nick pointed out that we were reading the text upside down, and it was a familiar Greek text after all. Jpeg

Some of the other Greek tile stamps were also puzzling. One clearly reads ΡΗΠΙΝΟΝ ΟΡΘΟΝ – the first word can be corrected on the basis of other stamps to ΡΗΓΙΝΟΝ, i.e. Ῥηγίνων ‘of the Rhegians’, showing that someone had got a tile from Rhegium (modern Reggio Calabria) on the other side of the straits of Messina, but what of the second word? At first sight this appears to mean the ‘true’ Rhegians, as opposed to outsiders or imposters, but the Greek word ὀρθός isn’t used of people without further specification like this, and it is probably better to think that this is the name, Orthon, of the tile manufacturer.

What were tile stamps for, and who read them? It seems that stamps could have different audiences and functions. Latin tile stamps from Veleia and Oscan tile stamps from Bouianum, for example, include the name of magistrates, and Crawford argues that this is so that the purchaser of a tile would know its age, since a tile that had lasted over winter was more valuable. In other areas of the ancient world, stamps indicated that the tiles belong to a sanctuary or a public building. The marking of tiles with the genitive plural, as in ‘of the Rhegians’ or ‘of the Mamertini’ is limited (in Italy) to Greek texts from the south, and the only peoples of Italy who adopted this practice are the Mamertini and the Tauriani (whose bricks and tiles have been found in several areas just north of Reggio). So did the Mamertini abandon Oscan as they became Greek speakers, or did they start stamping in Greek and then switch to Oscan? Or was no one that much bothered about which language to use? Going to the trouble of making a stamp and marking tiles is unlikely to have been a trivial matter, and it seems to me that adopting the Greek alphabet and using the Greek style genitive plural shows that the Mamertini took a conscious decision to make the Greek practice their own. There is more to tile stamps than you might think.

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Calabria and Sicily

As those of you who follow us on Twitter will know, the project has been in Italy this last week. Not because we fancied a holiday just before term starts again (although the weather was very nice indeed, and we did manage to have lunch on the beach at Nicotera Marina), but because part of the point of our project is to see the inscriptions we rely on for our work for ourselves. Even when an inscription is fully published, with good pictures and information about provenance, context and problems in the reading, it’s astounding what a difference it can make to see the object itself. All of a sudden you can discover that an apparently obvious stroke is caused by accidental damage rather than an intentional chisel, or that if you turn the object to catch the light differently an otherwise invisible indentation appears.

Messina. At work 5

On the other hand, it’s easy to get carried away when you see an inscription ‘in the flesh’. Here’s a picture of the team hard at work over an exciting new Oscan inscription. Shortly afterwards we realised we had it upside down and it was really Greek. On this trip we were predominantly looking at Oscan inscriptions, as both mine and Katherine’s books on Oscan are in the final stages. We found some pretty exciting new readings, which we’ll have to take account of (watch this space). Among the museums we visited were the Musei Nazionali Archeologici of Crotone, Vibo Valentia and Reggio Calabria in Calabria, and the Museo Regionale Interdisciplinare in Messina, Sicily. We were overwhelmed by – and very grateful for – the helpfulness of the staff at all the museums, especially in finding things that we didn’t have inventory numbers for, letting us into the museum deposits, and giving up their time to help us out. Our limited edition project keyrings were but little recompense for their kindness. Planning for the next trip starts soon!