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Italic Inscriptions before the Roman Conquest


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Topics: Inscriptions   Religion   Forms of Government 


(The page “Literary Sources” expands on all the classical references in the account below)

(Numbers in square brackets in the headings refer to the entries in the catalogue of the exhibition

“Screhto Est”, edited by L. Agostiniani et al., referenced below)

Italic Languages

It is clear from surviving inscriptions that, with the notable exception of the Etruscans, most of the ancient people of central and southern Italy spoke languages or dialects from the Italic branch of the Indo-European family.  Inscriptions in Italic languages survive from the 6th century BC, using alphabets derived (in many cases via the Etruscans) from the Greek settlers of the peninsular.  They are usually written from right to left.  These languages probably derived from a single root that gave rise to two variants in prehistoric times:

  1. Latin, which was spoken in Latium (Lazio); and

  2. another Italic language known as Sabellic, which in turn split into:

  3. -Umbrian, which was spoken in a large part of central Italy;

  4. -Oscan, which was spoken by the Samnites; and

  5. -South Picene, which was spoken in an area along the Adriatic coast.  

These languages varied from region to region and changed over time.  Relatively few examples of them survive, and most of these (with the important exception of the Iguvine Tables) are quite short.  Thus the “Umbrian language” generally means the language used in the Iguvine Tables (see below): it is very unlikely that a homogenous tribe called “the Umbrians” used precisely the same language, or that it remained static, even in Iguvium, from the dawn of literacy until its replacement by Latin (probably in the 1st century BC).

Oscan

Livy reports that, in 295 BC, during the Third Samnite War, the Roman general, Volumnius,:

  1. “... sent persons who understood the Oscan language [into Campania] to discover how [the Samnite forces there] were employed”.  

Modern scholars still follow Livy in applying the term “Oscan” to the language of the Samnites.

South Picene Inscriptions relevant to Umbria

The language referred to as ‘South Picene’ is known from about 20 inscriptions found in the Marches, south of Ancona.  Two of these are important for Umbria: one provides an early reference to the region, and another for the settlement that became the Roman colony of Spoletium.

Bracelet from Valle del Pescara (5th century BC) [83]

This bronze bracelet, which was discovered in 1979 in the Valle del Pescara near Chieti (some 200 km east of Umbria, near the Adriatic coast), is now in the Museo Archeologico, Chieti.   This was a sporadic find of an object that seems to have been “restored” in antiquity, causing the obliteration of part of the text.  The 12 surviving words, which are in the South Picene language, cannot yet be translated, but they seem to form part of a votive dedication.  They include the phrase:

ombriín acren posticnam

which certainly refers to Umbria and may mean “in the land of the Umbri”.  (The full inscription is given on the site “Antiqui”: search on “bracciale” (bracelet).

Inscription from Benacci-Caprara Necropolis (3rd century BC)  [84]

 

A display in the Museo Archeologico, Spoleto describes this inscription, which is on a bronze helmet that was discovered in a tomb in the Benacci-Caprara necropolis, Bologna.  The helmet is now in the Museo Civico Archeologico, Bologna. The inscription, which is written in the South Picene language, reads:

erimínú spolítiú

The precise meaning is unclear, but the second word must refer to the settlement that the Romans called Spoletium.  This is the only known reference to the pre-Roman settlement: the inscription must pre-date the formation of the colony of Spoletium in 241 BC and might also predate the Roman conquest of Umbria some 50 years before.

The site “Antiqui” puts this inscription in its “South Picene” context: search on “Bologna”.

Greek Inscriptions relevant to Umbria

Two Greek inscriptions (6th century BC) on vases found in Etruscan cities relate to an ethnic identity that can be called “Umbrian”:

  1. An inscription (ca, 600 BC) from a sanctuary in the the Greek port of Gravisca, near Etruscan Tarquinia, commemorates “Hrhi Ombrikos”, who might have been a Hellenised Umbrian.

  2. Another broadly contemporary inscription on a Corinthian krater from from Caere, which identifies a figure that seems to be a slave, reads “Omriros”.  Again, it is possible that this signifies “Umbrian”.

Umbrian Inscriptions

“Umbrian” inscriptions are those inscriptions in an Italic language that are found in Umbria or that relate to the region. 

Mars of Todi (late 5th century BC) [18]


This image and the detail below are

courtesy of Dr Rozmeri Basic

This bronze nearly life-sized figure of a warrior (which weighs about 90 kg) was found in 1835  in a travertine-lined grave at Montesanto outside Todi.  This was the site of an ancient sanctuary that was apparently dedicated to an Umbrian deity based on the Greek Ares (Roman Mars).   The statue was probably ritually buried after it had been struck by lightening.  The figure in the state, which probably represented Ahal Trutitis himself, once leaned on a lance and seems to have been pouring a libation, presumably before going to war.  The Commune of Todi sold the statue to the Papal Governor in 1836, and it is now in the Museo Gregoriano, Vatican, Rome.

The inscription on the edge of the warrior's cuirass is one of the earliest to survive in the Umbrian language.  It uses an Etruscan alphabet from Volsinii (Orvieto), where the statue itself was almost certainly made.  It reads:

ahal trutitis dunum dede

This records the donation of some kind, probably to a God, by a man called Ahal Trutitis, who (judging by his name) was probably of Gallic descent.  (It is interesting to note that a bilingual Latin/Gallic inscription (late 2nd century BC) was found at nearby Vicus Martis Tudertium (Massa Martana)). 


Bronze plaques (4th century BC)  [19-22]

  

cupr]as, matres pletinas sacru esu

Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Umbria (MANU), Perugia

 
              

                                                       cupr [                                                 cupr]as, matresp[letinas            

                                            MANU, Perugia                                                 MAC, Colfiorito

  

cupras, matres pletinas sacru

Museo Archeologico di Colfiorito (MAC), Colfiorito

These four fragmentary bronze plaques from a sanctuary near Santa Maria di Plestia, Colfiorito carry inscriptions relating to the presiding deity of the sanctuary, Cupra:

  1. two of them are exhibited in the Museo Archeologico, Perugia; and

  2. the other two are in the Museo Archeologico Colfiorito.

The inscriptions are in the Umbrian language, using an Etruscan alphabet that shows the influence of Volsinii (Orvieto).  None of the inscriptions is complete, but they can be reconstructed to read:

cupras, matres pletinas, sacru esu

I am a sacred to Cupra, mother of the Plestini 

All four are illustrated on the site of the Associazione Culturale Istituto di Ricerche e Documentazione sugli Antichi Umbri, Gubbio.   The inscriptions are also discussed  in the page on Umbrian Religion.

Inscribed shin guards from Perusia (4th century BC) [53-4]

This display case in the Museo Archeologico, Perugia contains a pair of shin guards (replaced by a picture here because they were in restoration in 2008) that was found in 1840 in a warrior tomb in the (Etruscan) Frontone necropolis there.  Each shin guard (somewhat unexpectedly) has an Umbrian inscription along its right edge.  The inscriptions read “tutas”, (of the community).  It is possible that an Umbrian community had provided the shin guards for one of its soldiers, and that an Etruscan soldier had acquired them as booty during a battle.


Cippus (4th century BC) [37]

Part of an originally rectangular limestone cippus was discovered in 1996 on the slopes of Colle I Mori, near Gualdo Tadino.  It is now in the Museo Civico there.  It is inscribed:

tarina/ ei tuce st...

According to Tiziana Capriotti (in entry 37 of the catalogue edited by L. Agostiniani , referenced below):

  1. “In all probability, it functioned as a boundary marker for the Umbrian settlement named Tarsino- that occupied the summit of Colle I Mori” (my translation).

Alberto Calderini (in entry 37 of the catalogue edited by L. Agostiniani , referenced below) observed that:

  1. “This inscription is of exceptional importance for a number of reasons.  First and foremost, it testifies to the [name of ] the Umbrian settlement on Colle I Mori in the 4th century BC ..., and offers a direct confirmation of of the mention of [this community] in Table 1 [of the Iguvine Tables (late 3rd - early 1st century BC)]” (my translation). 

In fact, both Table I and Table VIIa describe how Serfus Martius and his associate deities were invoked against the enemies of the Iguvines during the ritual purification of the army.  These enemies included:

totar tarsinater trifor tarsinater

(the Tadinate town, the Tadinate territory).

Inscribed plates from Todi (4th century BC) [55-6]

     
  
     

These two plates, which were found in Tomb 1 of the Peschiera necropolis, were probably made in Volsinii (Orvieto).  They depict (respectively) Charun and Vanth.  The plates are now in Museo Villa Giulia, Rome.  The almost identical inscriptions on their under-sides, which use an Etruscan alphabet, read:

viscamerens


This is probably the name of the potter.   The Museo Archeologico, Amelia, which is the source of the illustrations above, transcribes the name as Viscus Amerinus, and the associated commentary remarks that: “Though this craftsman worked in [Volsinii], he proudly asserted his provenance by combining his name with that of his birthplace, Ameria”

Votive inscription from Amelia (late 4th century BC) [24]

This double-sided inscription came from the temple at Santa Maria di Canale, which was monumentalised in ca. 200 BC and is now incorporated into a farmhouse at Santa Maria in Canale (near the ruined 15th century Rocca di Canale outside Montecastrilli, north of Amelia).   It was discovered in the 18th century and sold to Cardinal Stefano Borgia.  After his death in 1804, it passed to the what is now the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples.  There is a replica of it in the Museo Archeologico, Amelia.

These five-line inscriptions, which use an Etruscan alphabet from Volsinii (Orvieto), are similar but not identical, and their fragmentary nature makes them difficult to understand.  The first line of each seems to record the dedication of a gift (“dunu”) to a deity (“duvie”), perhaps Jove or another deity associated with him.   The other lines probably record the family names of the donors. 


Read more:

L. Agostiniani et al. (Eds), “Screhto Est: Lingua e Scrittura degli Antichi Umbri”, (2011) Città di Castello

G. Bradley, "Ancient Umbria", (2000) Oxford, particularly Appendix II

G. Rocca, "Iscrizioni Umbre Minori", (1996) Florence 


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