Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean

A critical guide to electronic resources


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

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

  • Introduction
  • Index
  • Further information

On the basis of current findings, Umbrian writing systems are documented between the 4th century B.C. and the first half of the 1st century B.C., and are the oldest writing systems used in ancient Umbria, extending both east and west of the Tiber, to the border of the Sabina region. Although there is no lack of other minor documents written in Umbrian, these systems are known for the most part thanks to the Iguvine Tablets, bronze tablets found near Gubbio. These tablets not only represent the longest and most articulated evidence of these writing systems, but also have the peculiarity of having been written in the Umbrian language using two different alphabets: one based on the Etruscan alphabet and another based on the Latin alphabet. From the analysis of these findings it is clear that the number of signs used to convey Umbrian varies from a minimum of 20 for the writing system of Latin origin to a maximum of 21 for the writing system of Etruscan origin.

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Definition of Umbrian and type of writing

In the Italian peninsula, Umbrian, together with Oscan, are among the few languages to have been written using two different writing systems that are, respectively:

  1. 1. of Etruscan origin;
  2. 2. of Latin origin.

This solution is unusual but not a unicum among the languages of ancient Italy; Oscan was written using not two but three different systems, the Etruscan alphabet, Greek and Latin. The Umbrian and the Oscan writing systems also have in common the fact that they were adapted from the Etruscan alphabet, and in fact, Oscan and Umbrian are often combined under the label of “Osco-Umbrian” to denote a group of languages that have remarkable similarities between them, the main representatives of which are precisely Oscan and Umbrian. This term is however now little-used as it does not account for variations between the two languages, some of which can be found in the Umbrian writing system which:

  1. 1. is attested in an area completely different from that in which Oscan is found;
  2. 2. adapts and modifies the Etruscan alphabet in complete autonomy from Oscan to the point of creating completely new and innovative writing solutions;
  3. 3. does not seem to be a phenomenon of koinè;
  4. 4. introduces new signs to express consonant sounds, while Oscan introduces signs to express vowel sounds;
  5. 5. employs the writing system of Latin origin perhaps as early as the first half of the 2nd century B.C., a period slightly earlier than that in which Oscan also uses the writing system of Latin origin. It would also seem, but the issue is still open, that the Latin alphabet may have been used even in co-occurrence with that based on the Etruscan alphabet, as tablet 5 of the Iguvine Tablets would seem to show. One of the two sides of this tablet features a text using the Etruscan alphabet and a text written using the Latin alphabet, the contents of which are linked together.


Area of the writing systems of Umbrian

With regard to the areas where the two systems of Umbrian writing were found, it should be said that while Oscan employed the Latin-based writing system patchily and probably with clear political purposes, with Umbrian there were no temporal or geographic differences in the distribution of the two writing systems. Examples of this can be found in Assisi from which have come as many texts in Etruscan-based script as in Latin script, or in Gubbio, where the two writing systems co-exist even in the same document. Therefore it can be said that both the Etruscan and the Latin alphabets can be found throughout ancient Umbria, which extended both east and west of the Tiber to the border of the Sabina region (corresponding roughly to the modern province of Rieti besides small areas in the provinces of Viterbo and Rieti). This difference with Oscan, however, may not be a distinctive, relevant feature considering that ancient Umbria had a territorial extension considerably smaller than the territory in which Oscan handwriting appears, and also that the construction of the Via Flaminia (desired by Gaius Flaminius in 232 B.C. even though a number of sources including Strabo assumed that the construction started in 223 B.C. and ended in 219 B.C.), running through all of ancient Umbria, may have contributed to promoting the diffusion of the Latin alphabet. Furthermore, although Oscan documents have been found outside Italy (in Provence), for Umbrian the only known documents are in the ancient land of the Umbrians. A fair number of documents come from Terni and from Spoleto, Assisi and Gubbio. The famous Iguvine Tablets were found in this last city, along with other documents. These Tablets represent the most significant and longest document of the language and of the writing of Umbrian and feature both the Etruscan and the Latin alphabets, as mentioned above.

Foundations of Umbrian writing systems

Before considering the merits of the two different alphabet systems relied upon by Umbrian, it should be said that the Etruscan one features more originality and adaptation. In fact, in the writing based on the Latin alphabet the changes appear to be limited to the following:

1) the introduction of some diacritical mark (for example the diacritic on S ( = [ç]) to represent the phonetic equivalent of the sign [ç] in the Umbrian-Etruscan handwriting);

2) the creation of some digraph combining signs already found in the alphabet model (for example, the use of transcribing the Umbrian sign , phonetically equivalent to [ɖ] a sound absent in the Latin language, with the digraph ). In the Etruscan-based script, instead, the greatest originality and the implementation of complex processes of readjustment of the handwriting can be found. These long-term processes took place at two levels:

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

In fact, since the reference model from which a writing system is created may have either an excess or a lack of signs, or both, creating a new alphabetic system and writing necessarily reflects on the phonological system of the language to be transcribed and an awareness of the differences between the target language and the original language. At this point, to remedy any deficiencies of the system, possible solutions may be the following:

  • - inventing new signs
  • - changing the value of signs not functional in the target language but present in the original one
  • - using an accessory model from which to draw signs that can bridge the gaps
  • - using all three of these solutions at the same time.

At the end of this process, signs which are unnecessary and / or redundant are generally eliminated. Since Umbrian is an Indo-European language, it is not surprising that greater writing changes and innovations are found in the Etruscan-based Umbrian alphabet rather than in the Latin-based one. In fact, the Latin alphabet was adopted in full, without making any changes despite the fact that the Latin alphabet did not always fully meet the expressive needs of the Umbrian language. However, beyond merely linguistic explanations, perhaps the Umbrians did not readapt the Latin alphabet to their needs because an already advanced process of Latinization had aligned not only the two cultures but perhaps also the two languages. It is also possible that the Umbrians held the Latin language and handwriting in high prestige, and it is conceivable that both motivations impacted simultaneously.

Etruscan-based alphabet (4th century - the first half of 1st century BC)

The most ancient Umbrian inscriptions known today were derived from the Etruscan alphabet. In fact, it is the first writing system of the Umbrians, used as early as the fourth century BC by adapting the Etruscan alphabet commonly used in the northern Etruscan area neighboring the Umbrian territory. For this reason, the Etruscan-based alphabet can be said to be the indigenous alphabet par excellence, meriting the adjective “Umbrian”. Judging from the texts and in particular from the Iguvine Tablets representing the longest and most articulated example of handwriting and the Umbrian language, it seems that the Etruscan-based Umbrian alphabet used as its main reference model the alphabet in use in the northern area of Etruria. Some experts consider this alphabet that of Perugia, others the alphabet from Cortona that differs from the southern one mainly because it uses:

  • - exclusively the K () sign to express the sound [k] where, on the contrary, the Etruscan alphabet of the southern area uses three different signs ( = g,  = k,  = q) to express the same sound [k], depending on the tone of voice that follows, and
  • - the Greek san () to express the sibilant [s].

The oldest inscriptions written in this alphabet generally consist of a few lines containing, for the most part, dedications and/or names (for example dedications to the so-called “Mars of Todi”). Therefore, an extensive and precise idea of what the Umbrian alphabet was and how it was adapted from Etruscan can be found only through the Tablets from Gubbio. These tablets are not only the longest articulate and valuable document of the language and simultaneously of the two Umbrian writing systems, but also constitute an almost complete example of the Umbrian-Etruscan alphabet, of its special language and of the writing system choices made by Umbrian compared to Etruscan.
Consequently, thanks to these documents, it can be seen that the Etruscan-based Umbrian alphabet, unlike the Etruscan alphabet from which it was borrowed, had the following characteristics:

  1. 1. the sign for the sound [b], but not for the sound [g] and [d] where it uses, respectively, the sign to indicate both the sound [k] and [g] and the sign to indicate both the sound [t] and [d]; in Etruscan these signs expressed only the sounds [k] and [t] , respectively;
  2. 2. the absence of all signs for the aspirates (φ = phi, χ = chi) with the exception of θ = theta whose phonetic value seems to be that of [t] or of [d], although if [t], it is unclear why there were two different signs (theta and the sign for t) ) to express a unique sound when, however, a dedicated sound to express the sound [d] is lacking. Moreover, at least in one case it seems that the sign of the theta was used to express the result of a secondary dental originating from a group consisting of nasal consonant + dental for which θ = nt > nd > d;
  3. 3. the presence of two new signs, and , which in order not to alter the mnemonic alphabet are placed at the bottom and correspond, respectively, to [ɖ] and [ç], sounds not found in the Etruscan language;
  4. 4. the use of the sign to indicate h h where the model Etruscan had, instead, the sign ;
  5. 5. the use of the sign for V to indicate, next to the vowel [u] already present in Etruscan, also the vowel [o] that instead is not present in Etruscan.

In contrast, the Etruscan-based Umbrian alphabet had the following features in common with Etruscan, though with differences due to the phonetic difference between the two languages:

  1. 1. the sign f in the form of 8, but it is hard to say if the sound was similar to the Italian f or that hypothesized for the Etruscan, while it is certain that it is a typically Italic sound that is also used by other Italic populations such as, for example, the Sabines, the Picenes and the Oscans;
  2. 2. the V sign to indicate the sound [u] although, unlike in Etruscan, in Umbrian the sign serves to transcribe the sound [o];
  3. 3. the preservation of san to indicate a sibilant although it is not entirely clear to which sibilant it corresponds in Umbrian since there is already a sign s to indicate the sound [s].Therefore, the presence of another sign belonging to the series of sibilants leads to the hypothesis that the san may have been used to express an hissing or other sound the phonetic value of which could be [ss] or [ʃ], or, more simply, a variant of sigma.

Furthermore, compared to the northern Etruscan alphabet from which the Etruscan-based Umbrian is believed to derive, in Etruscan-based Umbrian the following differences can be noted:

  1. 1. the number of symbols used, 21 compared to 20 in the Northern Etruscan alphabet; moreover, in the transition from Etruscan to Umbrian a further curtailment takes place, with only 18 of the original symbols remaining;
  2. 2. the elimination of only two symbols for the aspirates, that is of φ = phi and χ = chi chi and not of all three as would be more plausible since Umbrian, like Oscan, had no aspirated sounds;
  3. 3. the use of only 4 characters to express a system composed of at least 5 vowel sounds ([a], [e], [i], [o], [u]);
  4. 4. the addition, for phonetic reasons, of letters absent in Etruscan:
  • - the reintroduction of the symbol for B to indicate the sound [b] which is reinstated to its original place, having been already used in other alphabetic sequences or having been handed down in theoretical alphabetic sequences ( for example in the theoretical alphabet of Marsiliana Albegna);
  • - the introduction of the new sign that, transcribed with or ř, , is phonetically equivalent to [ɖ] and originated, as in Oscan, as a variant of the sign for R (perhaps due to the fact that in the model Etruscan alphabet the D-shaped sign was already used to indicate the sound [r] since Etruscan had no voiced stops consonants); it is placed next to the sign , at the end of the alphabetic sequence as foreign to the previous formal heritage;
  • - the introduction of the new sign transcribed as ç and phonetically equivalent to [ṭ] or [ç]) or [ʃ], and inserted, like , at the end of the alphabetic sequence as foreign to the previous formal heritage.

Finally, it must be said that the writing moves from right to left, as with the Etruscan alphabet, while the shape of the letters tended to be regularized in time. This means that if in the 4th century B.C. the Umbrian writing system was very similar to the letters of Etruscan, with no separation between words, from the 3rd century B.C. on the appearance of the letters tended to assume a squarer and more regular form and words were separated with the use of one or two points.

Latin-based alphabet (First half of the 2nd - first half of the 1st century B.C.)

The second writing system which the Umbrian language uses is based on Latin, seemingly in a chronological period following that in which the Etruscan-based Umbrian writing appeared, even if these two scripts can be found in the whole territory of ancient Umbria and in several cases in co-occurrence. However, although it is virtually certain that in Umbrian inscriptions the Latin alphabet was introduced after the Etruscan one, the simultaneous use of two alphabetic systems and any rules that would have regulated their use is more complex and difficult to understand, for two reasons:

  1. 1. the disproportion of quality of the documentary corpus of Umbrian that is constituted on one hand by the Iguvine Tablets representing the most important document, the longest and richest in all ancient Italy and in which both the Etruscan- and the Latin-based writing systems coexist, and on the other hand by a few minor inscriptions whose extent varies from one word to a maximum of about 3 lines;
  2. 2. the difficulty of dating the inscriptions on archaeological, linguistic and epigraphic grounds concerns not only the Iguvine Tablets, but also the minor inscriptions.

Analyzing the Iguvine Tablets, and in particular no. 5, the two alphabetic systems, Etruscan- and Latin-based, seemed to co-exist, and since the Etruscan-based text was written before the Latin-based one, it is certain that the Latin alphabetic system was used later in Umbria, although it is not possible to define how much later. But analyzing tablets 1 and 2, prepared using the Etruscan alphabet, and tablets 6 and 7, written in a Latin-based alphabet, complicates the matter.
In fact, if the presence of the two writing systems in tablet 5 would seem to imply that all the tablets written in Umbrian spelling, such as no. 1 and 2, were written before all those in Latin, in reality, the situation is more complex because tablet no. 5, which seems to mark the chronological watershed between the two spellings, is not related substantively to the others. It contains decrees of an organizational and financial character, while the others have a religious content and, therefore, a style completely different from that used in tablet 5. From the above, it is clear that tablet 5 cannot be used to settle the issue of timing of the use of two writing systems not only because its content is not comparable with that of other tablets, but also because the text based on the Latin alphabet may have been added to the writing in Umbrian long after the first, and for entirely different reasons from those that could have led the Umbrian people to use writing with a Latinate alphabet for drafting their own texts. In addition, further evidencing the complexity and problematic nature of the question, there is also the comparison between the tablets written with an Umbrian alphabet (Tablets 1 and 2) and those written with a Latin alphabet (Tablets 6 and 7). In fact, from a content point of view, tablets 6 and 7 seem to be a transcription in Latin spelling of the ritual written in Umbrian in tablets 1 and 2, except that not only does the transcription not faithfully reproduce the contents of tablets 1 and 2, but it also introduces significant variations and more details than the two texts in Umbrian, so that even today these texts cannot be not fully and unambiguously explained. Finally, to further complicate the issue of timing based on the use of Latin-based writing there were:

  1. 1. the presence of some influence of Latin in the minor Umbrian inscriptions that would seem to prove that Umbrian as a language and as a writing system continued to be used even after the spread of the Latin language. Moreover, if Latin influenced the Umbrian language, as can be seen in a text based on Etruscan writing from Assisi that F. Coarelli dates as posterior to an Umbrian document likewise from Assisi but written using a Latin alphabet, the Latinization in this region must have occurred before the Social War (90-89 BC.) and ended probably already during the diffusion of Latin-based writing, i.e., towards the end of the 2nd century B.C.;
  2. 2. the adoption of the Latin alphabet, unlike that of the Etruscan, without any modification or readjustment. This leads scholars to hypothesize that the Latin-based alphabet could have been considered as national by the Umbrians, but also that the prestige of the Latin language and writing was so high and the use so customary not to require any readjustment. This situation could thus also explain some anomalies or uneconomic solutions that seem to occur in the Latin-based writing.

In fact, the characters of the Latin alphabet used to transcribe the Umbrian language seem to have as a model the Latin alphabet used between the 4th and 2nd centuries B.C. An example is the character for Z () present and functional in Etruscan-based Umbrian, but absent in the Latin-based alphabet, which appears to be devoid of some signs such as precisely the Z and Y, which were introduced (or re-introduced) in the Latin alphabet only starting from around the 2nd century B.C. However, the absence of Z in the Latin-Umbrian writing appears to be anomalous. In fact, the sound [ts], which in Etruscan-based Umbrian is indicated by the above sign , is indicated in Latin-based Umbrian via the sign for S (). However this creates a homograph and a needless reduplication of a sign that already had a well-defined phonetic value. This is curious considering the late use of writing based on Latin, and it would perhaps have been more logical and convenient to retrieve the sign or other writing traditions such as that of Oscan written with a Latin-based alphabet, where the Latin sign Z is found, or even from the same Latin alphabet. In fact the chronological attribution suggests that the Umbrian inscriptions in Latin-based writing appear in a period in which it is possible that in Latin the sign for Z was beginning to be reintroduced.
Based on the above, not only is the anomaly clear but it is understandable that the absence of this sign contributes greatly to raise doubts about the period in which the Latin alphabet spread, and certainly does not help in dating the surviving texts more accurately.
But the differences between the two writing systems do not end here. In fact, besides the absence of Z, in the Latin-based writing system there is:

  1. 1. the replacement of the sign for K with that for C to indicate the voiceless occlusive guttural [k];
  2. 2. the character G, derived probably by the use of a diacritic affixed to the sign for C to indicate the voiced occlusive guttural [g] where the Etruscan-based Umbrian uses the K exclusively and without distinction for both the voiceless and voiced occlusive guttural;
  3. 3. the addition of the symbol for D to denote the voiced dental [d] where Etruscan-based Umbrian indiscriminately and exclusively used the sign for T for both the voiceless and voiced dental, although the presence of theta leads scholars to believe that the articulation of dentals could be more complex than what has been deduced to date;
  4. 4. the use of the V sign to indicate both the sound [w] and [u] and the sign O for the sound [o], where the Etruscan-based writing uses the V sign to indicate the sound [u] and [o] and the digamma () to indicate the [w] sound;
  5. 5. the absence of one or more signs to indicate what in the Etruscan-based writing system is expressed through the use of the theta () and san ();
  6. 6. the use of a diacritic on S () to express the sign found in the Etruscan-based writing system, which could match a phonetic [tʃ] or a [ç] or a [ʃ];
  7. 7. the use of the digraph RS to express the sign in the Etruscan-based system, which seems to correspond to a phonetic retroflex [ɖ]
  8. 8. the addition of the sign Q, absent in Etruscan-based Umbrian, to indicate the sound [kw].

With regard to the area of diffusion and a chronology of the inscriptions in Latin handwriting, it should be noted that, on the basis of current findings, although confined to ancient Umbria, most were located in Terni, mostly in the 2nd century B.C.
Finally, contrary to the Etruscan-based writing, the Latin-based writing system reads from left to right, and the letters have a somewhat regular pattern.

Media, content, tools and ways of writing

While it is clear that material (and / or objects) possibly or bettere probably used as media such as wood or cloth may not have lasted because of their perishable nature, the main media for writing for which there is some proof of use were stone  and metal (bronze and, probably, silver and gold).

Stone, having more consistency and durability, was generally used for affixing votive, sacred or funerary inscriptions, for dedication or of an institutional nature;
The writing on precious metals was obviously rarer because of the nature of the support. Consequently, it was used only for special texts, both institutional and religious, or to further enhance the value of manufactured goods. Among the metals, bronze was particularly preferred and used for religious and legal texts, as well as for votive dedications. Metal was also used to mint coins; up to now only bronze coins have been found (e.g. the coins from Gubbio and Todi bearing respectively the ethnic references ikuvini and tutere) though the existence of silver coins, also attested in Oscan, cannot be ruled out, and  even gold ones.