Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean

A critical guide to electronic resources

South Picene

edited by:

  • Introduction
  • Index
  • Ancient Writing Systems

A classification problem (one name, several names)

South Picene is one of several names used to refer to the pre-Roman language and alphabet attested in twenty-three inscriptions dating from the 6th to 3rd centuries B.C. which have been found in the modern Marche and Abruzzo regions.
In defining these inscriptions and the language they show, scholars express different points of views: A. Morandi uses the name ‘Mid-Adriatic inscriptions (in A. Morandi, Le iscrizioni medio-adriatiche, Firenze 1974), A. Marinetti labels them as ‘South Picene inscriptions’ (in A. Marinetti, Le iscrizioni sudpicene, Firenze 1985 and in other works) and recently A. La Regina identifies them as ‘Paleo-Sabellic inscriptions’ (A. La Regina, Il guerriero di Capestrano e le iscrizioni paleo sabelliche, in Pinna Vestinorum e il popolo dei Vestini, ed. L. Franchi dell’Orto, Roma 2010).
While it is necessary to consider different nomenclatures in order to access modern studies of these inscriptions, all these labels fail to describe the complex social and ethnic context shown in the epigraphic documents. For these reasons, in this text the term ‘South Picene’ will be used as it has generally been accepted by scholars since the publication of H. Rix's essay Sabellische Texte: die Texte des Oskischen, Umbrischen und Südpikenischen (Heidelberg 2002).


Epigraphic corpus, classification of the language, understanding the texts

South Picene inscriptions, dating from the 6th to 3rd centuries B.C., indicate an Indo-European language belonging to the group of the Italic dialects and showing considerable affinity with the Umbrian dialect (a language of a later chronological context).
The area in which the epigraphs have been found is spread among the modern cities of Teramo, L’ Aquila, Ascoli Piceno, Fermo and Macerata. South-Picene writing and language is also attested by a single inscription found in the ancient city of Cures (modern Fara Sabina, near Rieti).
Two inscribed helmets found at Bologna and at Canosa di Puglia (Bari) must also be included in the South-Picene epigraphic corpus. However, while useful for the study of the language, they are not valuable in determining the geographic area in which this language had spread. They are two movable objects for which it is very hard to identify the origin.
Beginning from the 3rd century B.C., South Picene’s epigraphic and linguistic unity was replaced in this geographic area by documents written with a Latin alphabet in a ‘minor dialect’ known as Sabellic.
Despite the sure identification of the South-Picene as an Italic language, the epigraphic texts (especially of the longer inscriptions) present numerous difficulties of interpretation due to the syntactic complexity of the texts and in most cases to the absence of recurring elements and forms. The destination and purpose of the text is known for only a few South-Picene documents. For example, the Campovalano inscription has been interpreted as a possession text: ‘I am of A[]p/nie’ (individual name in the genitive case + the verb in the 1st person singular). For the inscription found at Servigliano, scholars postulated a funerary function, as the inscription contains only the anthroponymic designation Nounis Petieronio/Pelteronio efidans (onomastic formula with two elements and what is probably an ethnic appositive).

Inscription from Campovalano:
(reading by A. Marinetti 1985)

Inscription from Servigliano:
(reading by A. Marinetti 1985)
noúínis ⁝ petie/ronios ⁝ efidans oppure noúínis ⁝ pelte/ronios ⁝ efidans


Longer inscriptions, typical of the South-Picene corpus, present a further difficulty of classification, since the texts do not seem related to any standard formula used in these cases. In fact, categories such as funeral ~ votive and public ~ private, used traditionally to indicate the nature of an inscribed text in other areas of ancient Italy, do not seem useful, appropriate or relevant to describe the function of these texts.
Another inscription found at Loro Piceno is an example of the difficulties in proposing a classification. It most likely has a funeral function (as shown by the verb qupat), but in the sequence there are also lexical terms such as apaes or nir suggesting a public nature for the text. For these longer inscriptions A. Marinetti proposed the presence of a memorial-laudatory intent (elogia) that exceeds mere funeral function.

Inscription from Loro Piceno:
(reading by A. Marinetti 1985)
apaes qupat[⁝ e]sm/ín ⁝ púpúnis ⁝ n/ír ⁝ mefiín ⁝ veia/t  ⁝ vepetí

Deixis and alliteration in South Picene texts

The interpretation of the South Picene inscriptions is made more difficult by the syntax of these texts. The most evident example is the use of deixis, frequently used to refer to the pragmatic context of the texts and to indicate the entities involved in the action.

The inscriptions present a deictically complex organization: ego (I) sometimes refers to the monument, i.e. the support, in the traditional pattern of the speaking-inscription; sometimes instead it refers to the author of text. This ambivalence is shown also in other cases: you sometimes refers to the reader who approaches the written message and sometimes appears to refer to the receiver of the inscription. From the formal point of view the use of the deictic system is confirmed especially in long texts by the presence of relative pronouns which take the form of cohesive and intra-textual connective elements. One of the inscriptions of Penna Sant’Andrea presents an example of the tibi cui type, referring to the you-character, which identifies the person honored by the monument.

Inscription from Penna Sant'Andrea:
(readibg by A. Marinetti 1985)
brímeidinais ⁝ epe[                  ]psúq ⁝ qoras ⁝
]rtúr ⁝ brímeqlúí  ⁝ alí/ntiom ⁝ okreí ⁝ safina[/
]nips ⁝ toúta ⁝ tefeí ⁝ p/osmúi ⁝ praistaínt ⁝ a[

These inscriptions also show also the pursuit of rhythmicity in the text, obtained with the alliteration of sounds or through the repetition of the same sounds at the start of two or more words. In these cases as well, it is reasonable to think that the syntax and text structure are in general affected by this artificial desire with repercussions on the natural distribution of words in the speech.

Inscription from da Bellante:
(reading by A. Marinetti 1985)
postin ⁝ viam ⁝ videtas ⁝ /tetis ⁝ tokam ⁝ alies ⁝ e/smen ⁝ /vepses ⁝ vepelen

Interpretation by nuclei of evidence

For the difficulties in the interpretation, it is necessary to proceed in the analysis of the longer inscriptions using ‘nuclei of evidence’ to identify those features of grammar and vocabulary considered as acquired data. With some degree of certainty the following forms have been identified:
- nouns indicating the monuments: kora ‘carved stone’, meitimo- / praistakla ‘tomb’, uepet- ‘sepolcro?’;
-  lexical elements verifiable in other Italic languages: for example  pater- / mater-, elements referred to the institutional lexicon, for example: ner- ‘princeps’, toúta ‘civitas’, ‘okre’ ‘arx’; 
- adjectives: kupri- ‘good’, mefio- ‘medium’, safino- ‘sabine’;
- deictic elements;
- verbs relating to the meaning of ‘to give’ kduíú,‘to do’ opsút, ‘to stay’ adsta-,  praista- (referring to the monument).

Ancient Writing Systems

  1. South Picene