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.

Duos Annos


It is now two years since I began my Leverhulme Trust funded project looking at social networks in Pompeii. Over the past year, my research has taken me off into a slightly different direction, particularly looking at some very specific aspects of political life in the ancient city, for which the way names are used is a fundamental component. Looking back at what I wrote to commemorate the first anniversary, I am pleasantly surprised by the increase in traffic, comments, and followers for this blog. To date, the site has been visited more than 18,000 times (more than twice the number of the first year), which is, frankly, astounding. I am sure this is in no small part due to the support of Blogging Pompeii and Napoli Unplugged, amongst others, who have frequently shared my posts, for which I am most grateful. I hope that the many people who come here continue to find my work interesting, as I certainly enjoy writing these posts.

And as such, as before, the five most popular posts published in the last year:

5. Losing my Religion (249)

4. Fools & Fakes (275)

3. Samnites in Pompeii (290)

2. Alma Tadema’s Imagined Connections (425)

1. Pompeii & Rome (441)

Samnites in Pompeii

155837163-9171ee50-2b8f-422d-b732-d49f1073699dYesterday came a rather exciting announcement that a Samnite grave has been discovered in Pompeii. The details revealed thus far include that a skeleton, belonging to a woman approximately forty to fifty years old, complete with grave goods including numerous jars still containing traces of their original contents, has been excavated in an area beyond the Porta di Ercolano.

The Samnites were a native Italic people (much like the Latins who founded Rome), whose culture was similarly tribal, consisting of a loose federation of a number of groups who inhabited parts of central and southern Italy. They tended to live in some of the more mountainous regions of Italy, were sheep herders, and famed wool workers. They leave no written record of their own, but survive in the history of Rome written by Livy. His material, however, is heavily biased, as he was largely writing about the Samnites and their part in a series of wars fought against Rome in the fourth and early third centuries BC. Known collectively as the Samnite Wars, this conflict is largely characterised as a struggle for control of the Italian peninsula, in which Rome was the ultimate victor. It should thus come as no surprise that Livy views the Samnites as warlike, uncivilised, and generally inferior.

So how did a Samnite woman end up in Pompeii? Whilst my current work is focused entirely on the Roman period of Pompeii (89 BC to AD 79), the city existed for many hundreds of years before that. The settlement’s history is long and complicated: at a minimum, five separate cultural groups, including the Romans, are thought to have contributed to the town’s development during its six hundred years of existence. There are archaeological remains in Pompeii for Greeks, Etruscans, Samnites, and an unnamed indigenous Italic population in addition to the Romans. The foundation of the city, and the exact phases (if exclusive, which they probably were not) of each cultural group are a bit murky. However, it is clear from the archaeological record in Pompeii and in other towns of southern Italy, that sometime in the fourth century BC, the people of Samnium moved down from the mountains and into some of the more urban areas. Just in Campania, there is evidence of Samnite populations in Capua and Nola in addition to Pompeii.

One of the most comprehensive works published on the Samnites comes from E.T. Salmon. According to him, Samnites practiced inhumation, not cremation, and the archaeological evidence from excavations various necropoleis, such as the one at Aufidena, shows the same burial rite continuously used over centuries. The graves were lined, initially with wooden planks, later progressing to stones, and, eventually, to tiles. Many of the graves were also lined with gravel to facilitate drainage. The body of the deceased was fully dressed and laid out at full length in a supine position. The head was usually propped up on some object serving as a pillow. Grave goods always contained a number of rough impasto jars and a bowl, presumably used in a funeral feast (many recovered were found to contain traces of food). Stones or tiles were used to cover the graves, but they remained unmarked. Amongst the grave goods for women, spindles and loom weights were often found. As these items have been found in abundance in many of the native sites excavated in southern Italy, working wool was clearly a large part of the daily life of Samnite women. Schneider-Herrmann has suggested the importance of wool working was such that the women had great skill in weaving intricate patterns, basing this on the clothing depicted on Campanian vases of the fourth century. Though made under Greek influence throughout the fourth century BC, vases found in Campania and Apulia can be identified as depicting Samnites based on the native costumes worn by the figures.

As to Samnite burial in Pompeii, there are, in fact, a number of pre-Roman graves that have been found around the city. The dominant practice at the time was inhumation, as is expected, and they mostly consisted of simple burials of the corpse in stone or tile-lined cists, or occasionally even unlined burials. Some of these rather basic burials include grave goods such as bronze bracelets, terracotta bowls, jars and lamps, including Greek forms such as lekythoi, kylixes, and skyphoi. There are two areas around Pompeii were Samnite (or at the very least, pre-Roman) burials have been discovered. The largest of these consists of a group of approximately 160 graves, includes both pre- and post-colonial burials. Found five hundred metres beyond the Porta di Stabia in a four-hundred-square-metre area known as Fondo Azzolini, it has been identified as belonging to one family, the Epidii, who continued to use this one specific area outside the Porta di Stabia from pre-Roman times until the end of the city’s life, demonstrating a multigenerational adherence to one spot that is considered atypical. The earliest graves (just over forty in number) are inhumations similar to those attested by the Samnites, but there is alteration in the postcolonial period with a change to cremation, the addition of terracotta tubes for libations, and a greater inclination towards marking the burial locations with columellae.

A few pre-Roman graves have also been identified beyond the Porta di Ercolano, and this is part of what makes yesterday’s announcement so exciting. The original identification probably originated with Mau who notes the existence of a small Oscan cemetery that contains skeletons on the north-west side of the city. This reference is repeated by J.M.C.Toynbee in Death and Burial in the Roman World, who notes a series of four Samnite graves on the north side of the road leading away from the Porta di Ercolano on her plan of the cemetery.

ph plan
Section of Toynbee’s plan: Samnite graves are numbers 31-32.

But Toynbee failed to elaborate any further on the nature of the burials, or if they had ever even been excavated. This was slightly problematic, as later studies refer back to her when they mention ‘Samnite graves.’ Kockel included a brief description of the graves; his discussion, however, was confused by including a number of pre- and post-Roman burials, and artifacts that could be dated from the late Republican to early Flavian periods. All that was really clear about the area was that it had been used for burial continuously since before colonisation.

But this area, on the northwest side of the road, is exactly where the new grave has been found. From the photos (the best released so far are in the La Repubblica article), it is apparent that the tomb consists of a stone lined, inhumed, skeleton, fully extended in a supine position, with various pots, including red-figure vases of the type that were produced locally in Campania as well as imported from Greece. At first glance, it looks like a text-book example of a Samnite burial. I am sure I am not the only person who is eagerly anticipating further analysis of the bones, the jars and their contents, and hopefully, more excavation in the surrounding area.

The earliest graves in Pompeii resemble the Samnite burials of central and southern Italy dating from the ninth to the fourth centuries BC, which I have always felt indicates there was a stronger Samnite presence in the city than has previously been attested. The limited remains of Oscan (the language of the Samnites, which I intend to get to on another day) has been used by some to argue that Pompeii was thoroughly Romanised already at the time of colonisation, and the changes in burial that took place fairly rapidly after 80 BC may be indicative of that. Still, the pre-Roman graves thus far discovered, including this new one, are all located in the extra-mural environment, which shows that although the Roman directive to bury beyond the city walls was not a change from pre-existing practice, the change in form to cremation and large, above-ground tombs, more or less obliterated the earlier burials from the archaeological record, subject only to accidental discovery. I, for one, am extremely grateful for such a beautiful accident.