Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean

A critical guide to electronic resources


- 6th-2nd century BC

edited by: Simona Marchesini (translation revised by Melanie Rockenhaus)

  • Introduction
  • Index
  • Further information

Block of “leccese stone” from Ceglie (3rd century BC)

Introduction and definition
The word “Messapic” refers to the language and alphabet of the pre-Roman Augustan II region Apulia et Calabria, corresponding to modern Puglia. The epigraphs range chronologically from the middle of the 6th century to the end of the 2nd century B.C. In a narrow sense, the term refers only to the language and alphabet attested in the southern part of Apulia, beneath the line which goes from Taranto to Brindisi: the so-called Salentine peninsula. It is not yet clear if the spoken language was the same in the whole of Puglia, from the Gargano in the north to Leuca in the South, because of the scarcity of the inscriptions from the northern Daunia (moreover from a later period, i.e. the 4th century B.C. on). The incomplete alphabet coming from the Daunia also presents some variance in the letter sets compared to the Salentine alphabet, and are actually more similar to Hellenistic alphabetic types.

The whole collection of Messapic inscriptions (Monumenta Linguae Messapicae= MLM), published in 2002, registered 545 epigraphic items. Very few texts have been discovered since then. Two new public inscriptions coming from Athenaion of Castrum Minervae (in the southern part of Salento), dating to the 4th Century B.C. (D’Andria-Lombardo 2009) are of interest here.

Forty eight other texts in the MLM have been considered as doubtful (dubiae vel alienae), written in a mixed or scarcely recognizable/identifiable writing. In these cases the analysis of the letters did not lead to a punctual attribution. There is also a group of about 30 coins.

Most of the inscriptions come from the area around Lecce (ancient Lupiae), followed by Aletium (Alezio), Uria (Oria) and Mesagne (near Brindisi). A smaller group comes from Caelia (Ceglie, BR), Rudiae (LC) and Balesium (Valesio, BR).


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Online resources



The chronology of Messapic epigraphy has been confirmed by a re-analysis of all alphabetic types, their revision and attribution to distinct phases, by means of computer processing (MLM 2002). A first result is the definition of the lower chronological limit of epigraphic data, not later than the 2nd century B.C. The end of the production of written texts seems to be linked to the wars against Hannibal, which brought profound cultural and political transformations in the region. We assist after this time to a progressive blending of the Italiote scenario, which finds its climax in the lex Iulia Municipalis of 45 B.C., with a complete Romanization of Apulia.

Seven epigraphic phases have been identified, inclusive of two transition periods. In each phase the vanishing or the strong reduction of several types is to be found, along with the contemporary introduction of new letter types, which become common in the later phase. With regard to the modifications of the alphabet set, some boundaries can be set between the phases, and then each phase can be dated thanks to some chronological markers, i.e., inscriptions which can be dated with certainty, independent from the epigraphic information itself and in a more objective way, thanks to archaeological elements.

Alphabetical models

The nearest and most direct model for the Messapic Alphabet is the Laconic from Taranto. Nevertheless, in the first epigraphic phase (Phase I), represented by the most ancient inscriptions from Veretum (Patù, near Lecce), Oria (near Brindisi) and Cavallino (also near Lecce), some letters seem to be suggested from other models such as the Corinthian or the Euboic ones. In many cases it is not possible here to distinguish the local from the Greek inscriptions.

Some inscribed fragments from the Monte Papalucio sanctuary near Oria, or some from Grotta Porcinara by Veretum, which seem to have been produced locally, show Greek letters. This fact can probably be explained by the presence of resident Greek artisans, who lived and worked together with the local population and adopted some epichoric cultural aspects. Among the Greek alphabets found here there are also Corinthian and Euboic models.

The Messapic alphabet is innovative when compared to its models, adopting and introducing in the original set new graphemes to represent lacking phonemes of the original Greek alphabet. The trident with a square basis, the trident with an angular basis and its further variants and the X grapheme are all therefore introduced. For all these signs the exact phonological correspondence still remains uncertain; for this reason the transcription of Messapic texts is in some case a mixed one: some uncertain graphemes are transcribed with the original signs (see the examples).

With respect to the model alphabet set the following adjustments are to be observed/recorded:

- Loss of the phi sign, replaced in most cases with < p >

- Introduction of a trident with an angular basis and of its variants, probably to represent a phoneme /h/

- Use of a sign theta for the palatalized dental plosive

- Introduction of the cross sign (also in the variant of S. Andrew’s cross) to realize a palatal sibilant /š/

- Addition of a trident with a square basis, probably for the realization of /th/

- Use of a grapheme , alternating with <+>, in contact with /t/.

Text classes

Most of the Messapic epigraphic corpus belongs to a funerary context, as often is the case in the epigraphic tradition of Pre-Roman Italy. A second, smaller group belongs to the public sphere. The inscribed stones from public buildings are the most important elements of this group: even if numerically very scarce, these architectonic elements offer the longest texts. Among the public inscriptions there are also some cippi, stelae or columns with the names of the remembered or praised people. Coins are considered as a text class in itself.

Ductus e divisio verborum

The Messapic inscriptions are generally written from left to right. Some archaic cases show a 'boustrophedon' script: the text is written without interruption, thus changing the direction of the script only in the new line. Cases of "false boustrophedon" are also known, where each new line is written after turning the stone by 180 degrees: in this way the writing always runs in the same direction.

The Messapic script is continuous (scriptio continua), without interruption between the words. In some cases, however, a blank space is left between words. Many inscriptions show the trend to let a word end coincide with the end of the line.