The Oscan Epigraphic Habit

Last week’s announcement of the discovery of a Samnite tomb in Pompeii was a good indication of how much material (both pre- and post- Roman) there is still to find in the ancient city. Whilst many of us eagerly await further excavation and the scientific analysis of what has been unearthed thus far, there is one thing that will never be known about this woman: her name. The Samnites rarely, if ever, marked their graves, and certainly not with the kind of durable stone inscriptions that are found all over the Greek and Roman worlds. But this is not to say that the Samnites (or other Italic peoples) didn’t have written language, or an epigraphic habit. The survival of Oscan texts in Pompeii is actually quite significant considering that the last of the language and the people who used it were subsumed under the Roman umbrella in the first century BC.

Oscan was one of many Italic languages used in the Italian peninsula prior to the dominance of Latin. It first appears in written form on coins dated to the fifth century BC. An Indo-European language, it borrowed elements of both the Etruscan and Greek alphabets, forming a text that was written from right to left. The Pompeian inscriptions in Oscan were first published in Emil Vetter’s Handbuch der Italischen Dialekte (1953). More recently, a three volume collection edited by Michael Crawford et al, Imagines Italicae, comprehensively compiles the evidence for Italic languages from across the ancient world. Volume II contains the material from Pompeii; 147 texts in all. Some are too fragmentary to transcribe enough to translate or identify, but those that are complete include names on pots, terracotta moulds, tiles, stamps, amphora, and dolia, graffiti on exterior walls of houses, and monumental lapidary inscriptions, most often recording building works. Traditionally, these texts have been primarily used for two purposes: to understand the administration of the city in the periods before the Social War and between the fall of Pompeii and its official colonization nine years later, or to trace the involvement (or lack thereof) of indigenous families in politics through the Roman period. There have also been some attempts to use the Oscan inscriptions as evidence for a resurgence Italic nationalism in the first century AD, but this has largely been discredited by Crawford and McDonald.

There are, however, a series of texts that do seem to relate to the Sullan siege of Pompeii. Collectively known as ‘eituns’, they appear to be notices, usually painted on or near corners of insulae, that designate assembly points for members of the neighbourhood. The exact purpose of the assembly points is unknown, but the generally accepted speculation was that these were in use when the city was besieged, serving as emergency rallying points should the city walls be breached. Most of these were found under later layers of plaster, discovered only when the plaster began to flake and peel. A fairly clear example can be seen on a pilaster between the doorways of VI.6.3 and VI.6.4. This text (Pompei 3 = Ve 24) is nearly identical to one found on a pilaster between VI.2.1 and VI.2.2 near the House of Sallust, covered in antiquity with plaster:

Pompei 2 = Ve 23
Eksuk amvíanud eítuns / anter tiurrí XII íní(m) ver(u) / sarínu puf faamat / m(a)r(as) aadíriis v(ibieís)
‘The eítuns from this quarter, between the 12th tower and the Salt Gate [Porta di Ercolano], where Maras Adirius, son of Vibius, commands.’

Other mustering points and commanders named in these notices include a meeting point between the building of Ma. Castricius and Maras Spurius, where V. Sextembrius commands (Pompei 4 = Ve 25, found between VII.6.23 and VII.6.24), between tower 10 and 11 where T. Fisanius, commands (Pompei 5 = Ve 26, located between VI.12.8 and VI.12.1), and by the domus publica near the Temple of Minerva (Pompei 6 = Ve 27, on a doorpost between VIII.5.19 and VIII.5.20).

The majority of the Oscan texts that survive are dedications and commissionings of building works. The majority can be attributed to local magistrates, but one is, perhaps surprisingly, the result of the actions of one of the consuls of Rome. Despite being sixty some years prior to Roman colonisation, the consul Lucius Mummius, who presented gifts of looted booty to various cities after the sacking of Corinth in 146 BC, chose Pompeii as the recipients of one such award. A statue base in the Temple of Apollo, covered with plaster in antiquity, records the gift.


Imagines Italicae Vol. 2, p. 265. Pompei 1 = Ve 61
L(úvkis) mummis l(úvkeís) kúsúl.
‘Lucius Mummius, son of Lucius, consul.’

Another text was recovered from the Temple of Apollo, dated to circa 140 BC, which records the construction of flooring leading into the cella of the temple. This inscription is slightly unusual, as it is formed from the use of small stones laid directly into the flooring at the threshold.

Pompei 23 = Ve 18
Ú(vis) kamp[aniís 1-2 kva]ísstur kúmvbenni[e]í[s] [tanginud] appelluneís eítiuv[ad pavmentú(m) úps]annú(m) aaman[aff]ed
‘Ovius Campanius, [son of?], quaestor, [by decision] of the assembly, from the money of Apollo, had [the pavement] made.’

20150926_161608A similar medium, a pebble mosaic with text, was found on the ramp leading to the Temple of Dionysus.

Pompei 14
Ú(vis) epidiis ú(vieís) tr(ebis) meziis tr(ebieís) aídilis.
‘Ovius Epidius, son of Ovius, and Trebius Messius, son of Trebius, aediles.’

Located about one kilometer from the amphitheatre, the Doric temple at Sain’ Abbondio, dated to approximately 250-200 BC, also houses an inscribed altar with an identical Oscan text on both sides.

Pompei 16
M(a)r(as) atiniís m(a)r(aheís) aídíl suvad eítiuvad.
‘Maras Atinius, son of Maras, aedile, at his own expense.’

Other building works recorded epigraphically include road works beyond the Porta di Stabia  (Pompei 13 = Ve 8), a sundial in the Stabian Baths (Pompei 21 = Ve 12), a small tholos above a well in the Triangular Forum (Pompei 11 = Ve 15), a portico (Pompei 9 = Ve 13), honorific dedications of one sort or another (Pompei 18 = Ve 20, Pompei 24 = Ve 11 et al.) and a variety of building projects that cannot be identified. The biggest problem with the Oscan inscriptions is that many of them were re-used as building material in antiquity. Thus, the original location or structure indicated in the text is lost. An excellent example of this comes from the Porta di Nola.

20150926_150413This limetone slab, now housed in the British Museum, was used in the construction of the gate, and appears to have already been broken / damaged when it was inserted into the archway of the gate, near the keystone, and was covered with plaster. Its location renders it highly improbable that the inscription was still meant to be read, much less was actually legible in situ.

Pompei 8 = Ve 14
V(ibis) púpidiis v(ibieís) / med(dís) túv(tíks) / aamanaffed / ísídu / prúfatted
‘Vibius Popidius, son of Vibius, chief magistrate (meddix tuticus) had this built, the same person passed (it) as completed.’

The re-use of Oscan inscriptions demonstrates the fundamental fact that the language was more or less obliterated with the influx of Latin. That the Romans cared little to preserve the earlier texts is incredibly frustrating for someone like me, but understandable in the context of the ever-expanding empire of the first centuries BC and AD. Even when structures, such as the mensa ponderaria (Pompei 27 = Ve 22) which originated in the Oscan period, were maintained, alterations were made: both the measurement cavities and the text were re-formed to Latin standards in the Roman period. Regardless, the Oscan inscriptions that remain demonstrate that the epigraphic habit was hardly just a Roman one, or one that was introduced to Pompeii with colonisation. Despite the initial non-urbanised culture of the Samnite people, the evidence shows that city life, and recording its civic activities, was not limited to any one Italic population. Perhaps the best example of that comes in a final series of texts, graffiti, found around Pompeii. There are at least eight abecedaria (Pompei 74-81), which, if we view them as the Latin versions are interpreted, demonstrate children (or adults) busy learning their language. 

Pompei 78 = Ve 69, a
Pompei 78 = Ve 69, a

To my mind, there is little else that can illustrate the importance of Oscan in pre-Roman Pompeii so well.

a.d. III Nones Iulius

Whilst other Americans are preparing to spend the day celebrating our nation’s independence with barbeques, beer, and fireworks, I started thinking about a slightly different colonial experience. Pompeii, like many other towns in southern Italy, rose up in rebellion against Rome during the Social War (90-88 BC). This was a war fought between many Italian territories who had previously been allies of Rome. Much like the American colonialists, they had become fed up with paying taxes, providing soldiers, and supporting the expansion of Rome without receiving benefits like citizenship and voting rights. Indeed, the Italians also had a problem of taxation without representation. The alliance between Pompeii and Rome prior to the outbreak of the war is largely unknown – there is no clear evidence – but Pompeii was, by 90 BC, more or less surrounded by cities that were beholden to Rome, and had been Romanised (at the very least in terms of the adoption of Latin). Regardless, Pompeii did join other Campanian cities in the fight against Rome. In essence, what the Italian people wanted was either full access to the rights and benefits of being a Roman citizen, or a cessation of ties and alliances all together.

Besieged by Sullan troops in 89 BC, the city eventually fell to Rome. Evidence of the siege can still be seen in the city wall running between the Porta de Ercolano and the Porta del Vesuvio, and it is not uncommon for excavation in the northern sector of the city to turn up ballista and other projectiles used by the Roman soldiers.

image017The war was over soon thereafter. Despite being ostensibly won by Rome, the Italian allies got what they wanted: full Roman citizenship was granted to the entire population of Italy. There is a fair amount of debate as to what happened in the intervening years particularly as to how the city was governed, but in 80 BC, Pompeii officially became a Roman colony. The foundation of the colony was granted to Sulla, not only because he conquered the city, but as the general responsible for Roman troops in this and many other wars, he had a large number of veterans to provide for. It is from inscriptions such as this that we know the full name of the colony, which included reference to the founding patron:

CIL X 787
M(arcus) Holconius Rufus d(uum)v(ir) i(ure) d(icundo) tert(ium) / C(aius) Egnatius Postumus d(uum)v(ir) i(ure) d(icundo) iter(um) / ex d(ecreto) d(ecurionum) ius luminum / opstruendorum(!) HS |(mille) |(mille) |(mille) / redemerunt parietemque / privatum col(onia) Ven(eria) Cor(nelia) / usque at(!) tegulas / faciundum coera(ve)runt.
‘Marcus Holconius Rufus, duumvir with judicial power for the third time, and Gaius Egnatius Postumus, duumvir with judicial power for the second time, by decree of the decurions, paid 3,000 sesterces for the right to block off light, and say to the building of a private wall belonging to the colonia Veneria Cornelia.’

It is via Sulla that Venus becomes the patron goddess of the city, as she was also his family’s chosen deity. His moniker as ‘lucky’, a cognomen awarded to him (his full name was Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix) can also be found in the name of one of the districts around Pompeii, as attested in a number of inscriptions of its magister’s:

CIL X 1042
M(arcus) Arrius | (mulieris) l(ibertus) Diomedes / sibi suis memoriae / magister pag(i) Aug(usti) felic(is) suburb(ani).
‘Marcus Arrius Diomedes, freedman of a woman [Arria], for himself and his, in memory. Magister of the pagus Augustus Felix suburbanus.’

Roman colonies were typically founded with veteran settlement, and as far as anyone is aware, Pompeii was no different. This likely meant the arrival of approximately two thousand veterans of Sulla’s wars, with families if they had them, into the territory of Pompeii around 80 BC. Unlike places like Praenestae where soldiers were placed into towns abandoned by the previous inhabitants, it appears that the colonists and natives were integrated, at least physically. Pompeii was, in fact, the only colony of Sullan veterans that didn’t completely breakdown – there are examples of completely seperate cities, relocation of the native population, and at the worst, a significant amount of bloodshed. But that doesn’t mean that all went smoothly.

Approximately twenty years after the foundation of the colony at Pompeii, Cicero was called upon to defend Publius Cornelius Sulla, nephew, and at the time patron of Pompeii, against charges of conspiracy and incitement. The younger Sulla had previously had a spot of legal bother when he was elected consul and quickly removed from office for bribery, but in 62 BC was facing charges as a result of his supposed involvement in the Catiline Conspiracy. The passage of Cicero’s defense which relates to Pompeii is brief, and somewhat ambiguous:

Pro Sulla 60-62
‘Furthermore, I cannot understand what is the nature of this charge that the inhabitants of Pompeii were instigated by Sulla to join that conspiracy and set their hand to this nefarious crime. Do you think that they did join the conspiracy? Who ever said this, or was there even a hint of a suspicion of it? “Sulla,” he says “set them at odds with the new settlers in hope to use the division and dissension he had caused to get control of the town with the aid of the inhabitants of Pompeii.” In the first place, the whole quarrel between the inhabitants and the new settlers was reported to the patrons when it had grown chronic and had been pursued for many years. Secondly, in an inquiry conducted by the patrons, Sulla’s views were in complete agreement with those of the others. Finally, the new settlers themselves realize that Sulla was defending their interests no less than those of the inhabitants of Pompeii. This, gentlemen, you can infer from the large crowd of the settlers in court, men of the highest standing who are supporting and showing their solitude for their patron here in the dock, the defender and guardian of that colony. Even if they had not been able to preserve him in the possession of all his fortune and of every office, it is their urgent wish that at least in misfortune which now prostrates him he should through you be helped and kept from harm. The inhabitants of Pompeii who have been included in the charge by the prosecution have come to court to support him with no less enthusiasm. Although they quarrelled with the new settlers about promenades (ambulatione) and elections, they were of one mind about their joint safety. And I do not think that even this is an achievement of Publius Sulla that I should pass over in silence: that although he founded the colony and although political circumstances caused the privileged position of the new settlers to clash with the interests of the inhabitants of Pompeii, he is held in such affection and is so popular with both parties that he is felt not to have dispossessed the one but to have established the prosperity of both.’

Much has been made by modern scholars as to the levels of discord that must have existed between the colonists and the native Pompeians. The reality is that little information is provided by Cicero other than the fact that there was a disagreement over voting rights and a public walkway (this has never been fully understood but I have always liked the idea put forward by T.P. Wiseman and Dominic Berry that this refers to the quadraporticus behind the small theatre), and that in his role as patron Sulla mediated a settlement between the two groups. As proof of this Cicero points out that both Pompeians and colonists are present at the trial supporting him. Others have floated the theory that the small theatre was built specifically to serve as a meeting place for the colonists. Whilst it was constructed, as we know from the dedicatory inscription, by two of the earliest magistrates of the colony, there is no evidence to suggest this purpose was intended or indeed realised. The only actual mention of the colonists that survives epigraphically comes from the amphitheatre, which was constructed by the same two politicians.

CIL X 852
C(aius) Quinctius C(ai) f(ilius) Valgus / M(arcus) Porcius M(arci) f(ilius) duovir(i) / quinq(uennales) colonia<e> honoris / caus{s}a spectacula de sua / pe<c>(unia) fac(iunda) coer(averunt) et colon{e}is / locum in perpetu<u=O>m deder(unt).
‘Gaius Quinctius Valgus, son of Gaius, and Marcus Porcius, son of Marcus, quinquennial duovirs, for the honour of the colony, saw to the construction of the amphitheatre at their own expense and gave the area to the colonists in perpetuity.’

The size of the amphitheatre (unlike the small theatre), in no way relates to the number of colonists, and could never be claimed to be solely for their use regardless of how the inscription is interpreted. The fact remains that if the colonists wanted to present a clear and long lasting physical imprint on the city in order to visually assert their dominance over the native population, they failed miserably. Indeed, not even a funerary monument remains that names a colonist of the Sullan settlement. As to the issue over voting rights, the little evidence there is of longevity amongst politically active families in the pre- and post-colonial periods suggests any impact of a change in regime does not withstand the first generation after colonisation.

The evidence, in all its forms, suggests a true and relatively peaceful integration of veteran colonists and the indigenous population, even though colonisation was a result of war. This was unusual for the time, and as today’s American holiday suggests, unusual even two hundred and fifty years ago.