Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean

A critical guide to electronic resources


- first half of the 4th B.C. - first half of the 1st centuries B.C.

edited by: Alessia Ventriglia (translation revised by Melanie Rockenhaus)

  • Introduction
  • Index
  • Further information

Oscan writing, which, on the basis of present finds is documented from the first half of the 4th to the first half of the 1st century B.C., represents almost a unicum in the Italian peninsula and a real emblem of cultural integration and aggregation. This because it serves to disseminate a language, Oscan, which, like the alphabets involved, is the result of a phenomenon of koiné (of group) and born through progressive linguistic integration of various independent traditions of Central Southern Italy (excluding the area to the south of Foggia). Therefore, there are three different alphabets which have three different origins, Etruscan, Greek and, lastly, Latin, according to the geographical area of use and the chronology of occurrences which, because of this division into three parts, use a certain number of symbols, from a minimum of 19 to a maximum of 23.

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Online resources


Definition of Oscan and types of writing

In the Italian peninsula, Oscan is the only ancient language which is represented through the use of three different basic writing systems which are, respectively:

  1. 1. from Etruscan origin;
  2. 2. from Greek origin;
  3. 3. from Latin origin.

This unusual and unique solution of using three alphabets, applied to three different languages (Etruscan, Greek and Latin), to represent only one, Oscan, has its origin in the fact that the Oscan language is the derivation of a progressive linguistic integration of various independent traditions of Central Southern Italy (excluding the area to the south of Foggia). Therefore it is the result of an interregional koiné of a socially high standard bound to official communication, as it is not “the language of a single text, but that of a complex production of which we can suppose that the writers had a specific intertextual awareness” (cf. SILVESTRI 1989, p. 351). Furthermore, the choice (of koiné) of using two different alphabets, besides respecting the written traditions existing before, seems to reflect a strong desire for identification and ethnic self-representation which takes into account the different socio-cultural contexts with which it interacts and which seems to be the most appropriate solution to disseminate a language which in its turn is a product of koiné.

Areas of diffusion of the systems of Oscan writing

As regards the areas of the three writing systems of Oscan, the issue refers only to the Etruscan and the Greek alphabet because the Latin one comes later and is also used in an episodic and irregular way. That being stated, we must also say that the Osco-Etruscan and Osco-Greek alphabets are placed in two areas where, even before the spread of the Oscan language, there were two different written systems deriving from two different cultures: the Etruscan on one side and the Greek on the other. These two areas, separated by an ideal line which goes from the Gulf of Salerno, on the Tyrrhenian coast, to Gargano, on the Adriatic coast, were not distinctly separated. In fact, already between the 6th and 5th century B.C. there was an intermediate strip between the peninsula of Sorrento and the river Sele, where the two systems existed together. Evidence of such contact is supplied by the discovery of some documents written so that it is possible to read them both according to the Greek and the Etruscan alphabet, for example:

  1. 1. the inscription σπυ from Fratte of Salerno dated to the first half of the 5th century B.C.
  2. 2. the inscription vípineis (if read using the Etruscan alphabet) or Fíπινεις (if read according to the Greek alphabet), coming from Sorrento and dated between the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C.

A similar ambiguity, besides being the result of normal phenomena of linguistic interference, frequent in border areas, is probably to be connected also to the presence of Italic people living both within the Etruscan centre of Pontecagnano and in its neighbouring territories. In fact, the settlement of Italic people in these territories is proven at least by:

  1. 1. the presence of Italic inscriptions in Achaean alphabet from the necropolis of Fratte, a place whose history seems to be greatly influenced by the alternating events of its nearby territory of Pontecagnano;
  2. 2. the presence of an Italic enclave in Pontecagnano which wrote using the Etruscan alphabet.

Furthermore, this coexistence, within two border territories, of Italic inscriptions written both in Greek and in Etruscan, becomes important if seen as a sort of continuity with the alphabetic division which, in a second moment, will be crystallized and institutionalized with the Samnites, since it clearly shows some Italic people who were used to employing both the Greek and Etruscan alphabet to express an Italic language as early as the 5th century B.C. Therefore, on the basis of what has just been said, it becomes clear that the Samnites, when they used the Etruscan alphabet and the Greek alphabet to write Oscan, did no more than apply the new alphabetic system to an already existing division.

Origins of Oscan writing systems

Before entering into the merits of the three writing systems that the Oscan language used, it is useful to consider the process of origin of the two original alphabetic systems of Oscan, that is, Etruscan and Greek, since the alphabet of Latin origin, more recent, was born for completely different reasons. The two original alphabetic systems, in fact, unlike Oscan of Latin origin, are the result of a progressive and necessary adaptation of the two respective models. For both of them, the above process of adaptation went forward on two levels:

  1. 1. the material nature of the alphabetic system regarding both the form and the introduction of new symbols;
  2. 2. the orthographic rules which fixed the use of the different symbols and the working of the alphabetic system.

Both took origin, as in the definition given by Michel Lejeune, starting from the synergy between “principal” alphabetic models and “subsidiary” alphabetic models. In the two areas in question, the relation between the two models is inverted. In practice, in the Etruscan area “the main” model for Oscan is represented by the Etruscan alphabet, while, among the “subsidiary” models, there are both the Greek and the Italic alphabet of the so-called “protocampane” or “paleoitaliche” inscriptions from Nocera, Vico Equense and, recently, also from Sorrento. These texts are, respectively:

  1. 1. // bruties // esum //, //, inscription of property (“they are of + name”, or “they are + name”) found on an oinochoe in bucchero and dated to the second half of the 6th century B.C.
  2. 2. // ievies // esum: p[a]ces : adaries, inscription of ownership (“they are of + name”, or “they are + name”) found on an oinochoe in bucchero and dated in the second half to the 6th century B.C.
  3. 3. rufieis pafieis or urufieis pafieis inscription of ownership (“of + name and no verb”, or “name of person and no verb”) found on a small cup in bucchero dated between the end of the 6th and the beginning of the 5th centuries B.C.

In these inscriptions, in fact, besides the presence of an Italic alphabet, called “Nucerian” from the place of discovery, there are already some elements which, later on, will also be found in the future Oscan alphabet of Etruscan origin such as:

  1. 1. the presence of symbols, like the upsilon without tang (found in the document of Nocera, Vico Equense and Sorrento), coming directly from Greek without passing through Etruscan mediation as is shown by the fact that its use will only later become common in the other Campania centers, even if typical of the Greek of Cuma as early as 7th century B.C.;
  2. 2. the tendency to use a square form for vowels like a and e which, in these documents, even if oriented differently from the direction of writing, already present the typical form which they will have in Oscan as can be seen in the a shown in the documents of Nocera and Vico or in the e present in all three inscriptions.

In the Greek area, instead, “the principal” model is represented by Greek, while the “subsidiary” one by the Etruscan or, more likely, by the Etruscan alphabet already modified by the Italic. Such relations between the two alphabetical system, “principal” and “subsidiary”, can be deduced by the different integrations and re-adaptations which Oscan made in the two areas in question. In fact, in the Etruscan alphabetic area, “the principal” model lacked:

  1. 1. the symbols for the occlusive sounds (b, d and g);
  2. 2. the symbol for the vowel o;
  3. 3. probably, a symbol for a palatal vowel supplementary to the normal i since later on Oscan would need to integrate the system with another palatal vowel, generally written like í with diacritics, already present in the South Picene alphabet and in some inscriptions coming from Campania. In this latter area, in fact, this symbol seems to be documented, even if in a rare way, as early as the 6th – 5th centuries B.C. in an inscription from Sorrento (arvl/íes/n) and, probably, in a text from Fratte (peiθrasíÌ£anaÌ£claíÌ£cÌ£( or kÌ£)aisiienunie.s. pe) in which it appears twice. After this, always in Campania, there are:
    • - in the 5th century B.C., an example from Stabiae (near today's Castellammare di Stabia);
    • - between the 5th and 4th centuries B.C., an example from Vico Equense in C+í (pape safví);
    • - in the 4th century B.C., two examples from Sorrento, of which one in sequence (irnthií) and the other in sequence C+í+C (vípineis), and an attestation from Saticula in sequence íi (spuríieis culcfnam). By the 3rd century B.C. this symbol is common, by now habitually, in all the Oscan inscriptions of Etruscan origin. This has induced the scholars to presume that, in the passage from the 4th to the 3rd centuries B.C., there was an orthographic reform that regularized and standardized the diacritic marks í and ú in Oscan.

In the Greek alphabetic area, instead, in the main alphabetic model there was no f mark , but there were many marks for o and for e. Therefore, it is obvious that the solutions adopted by Oscan in order to fill the above lacuna were different in the two areas. In fact, in the Etruscan area, Oscan, for the lacking consonant, draws from the “subsidiary” models represented by Greek and/or from the Paleo-Italic or “Nucerian”, but creates variation of the mark for R, perhaps because of the fact that, in Etruscan, the mark D was already used to indicate the sound [r]. For the lacking vowels (that is o and that palatal written í), it introduces new marks (written, respectively, ú and í) either creating them ex-novo with the hypothetical orthographic forms of the 4th - 3rd centuries B.C., or, much more probably, drawing from the Paleo-Italic alphabet in Campania, of which there are only some traces. In the Greek area, instead, since it had only to add the mark for f, Oscan, more than the introduction of new marks, prefers to create new orthographic rules that allow the use, in a different way, of the marks existing in Greek. Therefore, at first, both for the vowels written, with í and ú, and for the mark for f, Greek Oscan used some marks already present, creating different combinations. Later, for the mark for f it also used marks different from “the principal” model, and the origin and/or formation of these are still being discussed, while for the vowels, it used orthographic rules which underwent further changes between the 4th and the 3rd centuries B.C., and created some various and complex combinations, at least as regards front or palatal vowels and back or uvular vowels .

Alphabet of Etruscan origin (first half of the 4th - first half of 1st centuries B.C.)

The alphabet of Etruscan derivation, also called “encorio” not only because it is the one used in the more ancient Oscan inscriptions, but also because it is more widely used, was found:

  • - in Sannio (today’s Molise and Province of Benevento);
  • - in Irpinia (today’s Province of Avellino);
  • - in Ancient Campania (which included the present Provinces of Naples-Caserta and a part of Salerno, more or less near the rivers Sele and Paestum) where the southernmost limit of the extent of Etruscan Oscan writing is represented by the inscription coming from the Athenaion of Punta Campanella, today placed in the province of Naples.

The most ancient inscriptions written in this alphabetic base come from ancient Capua (today's S. Maria Capua Vetere) and are represented by the so-called Iovile (iuvilas), that are the most original and important documents of the Etruscan Oscan language, and which, like the Etruscan Tabula Capuana (also said Tegola di Capua for its provenance), form an unicum useful to provide a complete example of the Oscan-Etruscan alphabet of the town and its linguistic peculiarities, together with additional varied information.
Consequently, thanks to these documents, we can have a clear idea not only of the Etruscan-Oscan alphabet, but also of the language expressed in these inscriptions. Therefore, the Oscan-Etruscan alphabet, unlike the Etruscan one on which it is based, does not have the marks for the aspirated φ = phi, χ = chi and θ = theta, but has:

  1. 1. the marks for the sounds b, g and d
  2. 2. seven marks to represent the vowels: a, e, i, o, u to which, probably in a second moment, were added the diacritic marks í and ú. The phonetic value of these last two is not yet clear. For some scholars these two marks could indicate a difference of opening respect to i and u (for example, like the difference in Italian between the e of pèsca = the fruit and the e of pésca = sport fishing), while, for others, they could also indicate a tone difference, that is two other sounds that, perhaps, we do not know.

Instead, in common with Etruscan, even if with phonetic differences due to the diversity of the two languages, it has:

  1. 1. the mark for f with the form of 8, but it is difficult to say if the sound was like ours or the one for Etruscan, while it is sure that this is a typical Italic sound since it was used also by other Italic people like, for example, the Sabines and Piceni;
  2. 2. a semivowel, usually written with v, the sound of which perhaps, like the Etruscan sound, was very similar to the sound uo in the word “,em>uomo”.

In conclusion, as regards the Etruscan alphabet in Campania from which the Oscan-Etruscan alphabet comes, in Oscan-Etruscan some differences can be noted regarding:

  1. 1. the number of the marks used in Oscan-Etruscan is 21 versus the 19 presumed in the Etruscan Tabula Capuana;
  2. 2. the elimination of some marks like Etruscan theta etrusco ( ), as the Oscan language does not have the equivalent aspirate sound;
  3. 3. the replacement of some marks with others due to phonetic necessities:
  • - the mark for D in the appropriate place, but replaced in practice with a probable variation of the mark R, perhaps due to the fact that in Etruscan, the mark D was already used to indicate the sound for [r], because in Etruscan there were no plosive consonants;
  • - the mark C used to indicate the sound [g], not the sound [k] for which the mark K was recovered.
  • - a formal replacement of one mark with another, but also the conservation of the position previously given within the alphabetic sequence, as the phonic substance does not change, as in the case of the sound [w], written with v, which in Etruscan is indicated with and in Oscan-Etruscan with ;

      4.  4. the addition, always for phonetic reasons, of marks not present in Etruscan:

  • - the new introduction of the mark B to indicate the sound [b] and that, as already used in other alphabetic sequences, including Greek, is again put in its previous place;
  • - the introduction (completely new) of the two marks written with í and ú, placed at the end of the alphabetic sequence since they are extraneous to the previous alphabets.

Finally, besides the fact that some scripts have been produced only in this alphabet , like spartax or the name of a quattuovir indicated with the Oscan “IIIIner”, all coming from Pompei, the chronology of which could be after the social war, it must be said that the writing is from right to left, like in the Etruscan alphabet.

Alphabet of Greek origin (first half of the 4th - first half of the 1st centuries B.C.)

The second system of writing used in Oscan is that of Greek origin. Although it may be rather difficult to state the border between the area where Greek writing was used and the area where Etruscan writing was used, evidence of Greek writing is generally placed:

  • - in Bruzio (today’s Calabria);
  • - in Lucania (today’s Basilicata and the southern part of the province of Salerno, since Paestum has been the northernmost place where Oscan inscriptions in Greek writing have been found)
  • - in Sicily, in the areas occupied by the Mamertini (that is part of today’s province of Messina).

Regarding its chronology of use, it must be said that the Oscan inscriptions in Greek writing, as shown by some Oscan coin legends in Greek letters, are almost of the same period as those in Etruscan writing, although the latter are a little more ancient.
As regards the alphabet, it uses 23 marks. Unlike the one deriving from Etruscan, rather than including new marks, it uses pre-existing marks, changing the working rules in relation to the phonetic necessities for which, for example, the diacritic í is usually expressed with ει, while the diphthong ei with ηι, but these writing conventions may change according to the date of the writing. This is true also for the diacritic ú of the Etruscan writing in Greek, which presents a large variety of possible realizations depending also on the uncertainty of stating its exact phonetic value. Finally, differences are found also for the choice to write the Oscan-Etruscan equivalent of the mark for f since a sort of S (a sigma with three lines) or a circle cut by line that recalls a theta is used, which represents a sound not present in Oscan, so the mark may be reused with a function different from the original. Finally, the writing, unlike Oscan-Etruscan, but like Latin-Oscan, is from left to right.

Alphabet of Latin origin (mid - 2nd to first half of the 1st centuries B.C.)

The third system of writing used in the Oscan language is formed by the Latin alphabet even if there are some differences with regard to the Latin language in the use of the letters Z, C and X. The letter Z was reintroduced due to relations with Magno-Greek towns, as can be proven by common Greekisms present in Oscan. As is evident in the Tabula Bantina, the most important, long and articulated legal Oscan script in this writing, in Oscan of Latin origin the letter Z is used to indicate at least two different phonetic values:

  1. 1. a sibilant consonant sound ([z] - /s/) /) correspondent to an intervocalic “s” like that in the Italian word “casa”;
  2. 2. an affricate, like the Italian /z/, the sound of which seems to be the same, in the most ancient period of Oscan Etruscan, as that expressed by the group dj-. In this case, the use of the letter Z might have been influenced by Greek (for example, there is a correspondence between the Greek Zeus and Oscan Dioveís - Diovei, in genitive and dative)

The mark for C, which indicates a voiceless guttural consonant ([k]), is instead replaced by that expressed with K, indicating a preference to maintain the well-known K which was more ancient.

The mark for X probably indicates a voiceless palatal affricate [t∫].

Compared to the writing systems of Etruscan and Greek origin, the system of writing of Latin origin is also marked by:

  1. 1. a late appearance; the first Oscan texts in Latin writing can be placed after mid 2nd century B.C., while the other two systems of writing had been used from mid 4th century B.C.;
  2. 2. an irregular area of presence, occasionally spotty, in a rather varied territory that also includes the areas of the Etruscan and Greek alphabetic systems.

A similar distribution is determined either by phenomena of Romanization for which the writing system represents an exact ideological and/or political choice, or by the presence of nearby Latin colonies, as can be seen in Lucania, and in fact the Tabula Bantina comes just from this area. Besides this juridical script, other Oscan-Latin documents concern religion and can be found in both main alphabetic areas, including

  • - votive inscriptions, generally come from Greek areas, over all Lucania;
  • - tabellae defixionis (or defixiones), inscriptions with a function of curse towards enemies or guilty people, generally coming from Etruscan areas, in particular from Cuma.

Besides the Lucan and Cuman areas, there are inscriptions in Oscan using the Latin alphabet also in Casacalenda (CB), in the middle of Frentania (a part of Sannio presently in that part of Molise and Abruzzo going towards the Adriatic Sea). In this case, the presence of this script is due to the influence of the nearby Latin colony of Luceria, which favoured an early diffusion of this writing in the area, as appears evident also by the coins found in Larino (CB), only a few kilometers away from Casacalenda.
As regards the chronology of texts in Latin writing, unlike Etruscan writing, but like Greek writing, there are no documents dated during the “social war” of 90-89 B.C.

Lastly, the writing is from left to right, unlike Oscan-Etruscan but like Oscan-Greek.

Supports, contents, ways and instruments of writing

As regards the supports for writing, granted the possibility but not the certainty of the use of materials (and/or objects) which have not survived because of their perishability, like wood or cloth, the main supports for writing for which there is certain evidence of use are:

  • - ceramic;
  • - stone and marble;
  • - metals (lead, bronze, silver, gold).

Among them, the most common supports are surely the first two, not only because they were easily found, but also because it was easy to use them. Ceramic, in fact, as it could be transported easily, was generally used to affix scripts of dedications and/or ownership and even seals, when it was used to contain merchandise. The main techniques used for this support went from carving to graffiti to imprinting. The stone, instead, as it was more solid and durable, was generally used to affix votive, sacred, funerary dedicatory and institutional inscriptions, while marble was used for reasons linked to important events or deeds, for official political-institutional inscriptions and votive and sacred inscription. In some cases, the inscriptions on tombstones were not carved, but painted. Painting was used to communicate a less solemn message or when it was not necessary to perpetuate the message, for example in an inscription of political propaganda of which there are traces on the walls of Pompeii. Writing on precious metals was more infrequent because of the nature of the support. Consequently, it was used only to write particular texts, institutional or religious, or to make more precious products of certain value. For the first function, among the metals, bronze was preferred, and used for normative, religious and juridical texts, as well as votive dedications. For the second function, besides bronze, gold was also used, in particular in manufacturing, like golden rings with Oscan writing from ancient Capua and from Isernia. Metal was used also for coins. Silver and bronze, to a greater extent, and gold, to a lesser extent, were the ideal supports for coin legends written in the various alphabets of Oscan. Lastly, lead was used for the defixiones, because its flexibility well suits carving and a type of informal writing, and it is possible, even though undocumented, that lead was also used for other means of communication (i.e. letters, etc.), as happened for Greek

Oscan outside Italy

There are examples of texts in the Oscan alphabet even outside Italy because Oscan-speaking people moved across the Mediterranean Sea bringing their language. However, the texts found do not prove that Oscan was spoken outside Italy, because they were texts of export. There are two examples, one using the Greek and the other the Etruscan alphabet. The first one is represented by a kantharos in silver, found in Alesia, with a signature of manufacturer (μεδα(τιες) αραγε(τασις)) and coming from a place in southern Italy (Lucania for some and Sicily for others) where Oscan was written using the Greek alphabet. The second, instead, is a seal, affixed on the lid of an amphora found in the sea in front of the coasts of Anthéor in Provence, which gives an idea of the relations between Italy and Provence, since on it can be read the name of the gens Lassia, common in Campania. Beyond these texts, however, usually when Oscan people travelled they wrote either in Greek or in Latin, as is shown by some dedications found in Delo.