The Picene language of Italy holds a significant place in the rich tapestry of linguistic diversity within the Italian peninsula. It emerged in the ancient Picenum region on Italy’s eastern coast. Around the 7th century BC, the Picenes established trade relations with the Greeks. Subsequently, in the middle of the third century BC, they were incorporated into the Roman dominion through annexation.
Due to few written records, much about this language remains unclear. This article aims to illuminate the Picene language’s significance in shaping Italy’s linguistic history.
It is important to note that there is a difference between North and South Picene inscriptions. Some even believe that they are written in two different languages. North Picene is perhaps an isolate language, still undeciphered. South Picene, on the other hand, is a member of the Sabellic subfamily of the Italic branch of the Indo-European language family.
South Picene inscriptions
Every translation provided below adheres to the officially recognized Picene alphabet, as depicted in the next image. I made only minor adjustments where needed.
Example 1: Obelisk from Castignano
This famous stone slab dates back to the 6th or 7th century BC. It is currently located in the Archaeological Museum of Ascoli Piceno. Over time, numerous efforts have been made to interpret the inscription, which happens to be one of the longest preserved inscriptions from that period.
One positive aspect of this inscription is that it uses three dots to mark where words start and end, making it clear. However, even with this clarity, experts still don’t agree on how to read it, because none of the translations provided so far sound truly convincing.
The most common reading is:
MATEREÍH : PATEREÍH : QOLOFÍTÚR : QUPÍRÍH : ARÍTIH : ÍMIH : PUÍH :
PÚPÚNUM : ESTUFK : APAIÚS : ADSTAÍÚH : SÚAÍS : MANUS : MEITIMÚM
MATEREÍF : PATEREÍF : FU : ÍTÚD : FAPÍRÍH : ARÍTIF : ÍMIF : PUÍF :
PÚPÚNUM : ESTU: K : APAIÚS : ADSTAÍÚF : SÚAÍS : MANUS : MEITIMÚM
Observing these two readings, it’s evident that while the majority of letters are easily recognizable and widely agreed upon, a few present challenges. One particularly problematic character resembles a square shape. In the initial translation, it was rendered with the common “h” sound, whereas in the second translation, the author chose “f” instead.
However, I’m having a hard time picturing someone actually speaking in the way this was written down, even if it happened more than 2,500 years ago.
My Translation of the Obelisk from Castignano Inscription
In my interpretation, I assigned the sound “O” to the square character, drawing from its usage in the Venetic script, which was employed by the neighboring Venetic people. Source: Old Italic Scripts
In fact, I believe that similar to Greek, the ancient Picene language featured two variations of the letter “O” – a long one, depicted by a square (akin to Greek “omicron”), and a short one, denoted by a dot (similar to Greek “omicron breve”).
After closely studying the photo of the inscription, I concluded that the initial option mentioned is closer to the actual text. With the substitution of the “F” sound for “O,” the transcription would appear as follows:
MATEREÍO : PATEREÍO : QOLOFÍTÚR : QUPÍRÍO : ARÍTIO : ÍMIO : PUÍO :
PÚPÚNUM : ESTUFK : APAIÚS : ADSTAÍÚO : SÚAÍS : MANUS : MEITIMÚM
And here is my translation:
MATEREÍO : PATEREÍO – Oh Mother and Fother (Vocative)
QOLOFÍTÚR – Jupiter – In the actual image it says QOPOFITUR. I am not sure what the prefix kolo/kopo would mean. My guess would be that it is related to Greek kοπο – to strike, as Jupiter was a god of thunder and lightning.
QUPÍRÍO – Goddes Cupra, still in vocative – Cupra is a well-attested goddess of the Picenes. I will write a separate article on this intruiging deity. She is often compared to Greek Aphrodita. We can assume that these were the chief deities of the Picenes, hence the inscription starts with “Oh mother and father”. Compare with later Roman inscriptions, for example Altar of Dis Pater and Proserpina.
ARÍTIO – Most excellent, compare with Greek (/ærɪˈstiːəs/; Ἀρισταῖος Aristaios, Aristaîos). In Greek mythology, this was also an epithet of both Zeus and Aphrodite.
ÍMIO – with/and From Greek ἡμεῖς (imeis), meaning “with”.
PUÍO – Pacho – Bacchus. This is the most obscure part of the incription as the letters are worn out. In the actual image it looks like the second letter is actually A, not U. The letter transcribed as I is broken in half. Pacha is a well-attested Etruscan name for Bacchus, a chtonic deity.
PÚPÚNUM – PUPUNUM (a personal name) This word appears in several inscriptions, which led scolars to assume that this was another name for the tribe of Picenes, or a forgotten toponym. However, the explanations are lacking. I opted for a name of an individual, because of the meaning I obtained from the rest of the text.
ESTUFK – Is in here. “Estufar” is the verb form of “estuf” which means “was” in Portuguese, a Latin language. In ancient Greek, ἔστων (éston) is the 3e pl. impér. de εἰμί – I am, meaning “Be”.
Another alternative could be Old Church Slavonic: “ѣсть у в” – which means “is in here”, or “ѣс тув” – “is here”.
APAIÚS – APAIUS – Apaius is probably a version Appius, Appian, both well-attested names in other Old Italic inscriptions.
ADSTAÍÚO – PLACED – From Latin adstare, adsto – to stand.
MEITIMÚM – MY MEMORIAL
The Picene word meitimúm is generally translated as “memorial” or “tombstone”. This interpretation is based on the following evidence:
- The word meitimúm is found on two inscribed bronze plaques, one from Montefortino and one from Novilara. Both plaques are associated with burials, and the Novilara plaque specifically mentions a tomb.
- The Picene language is closely related to the Umbrian language, and the Umbrian word meitu means “tomb”.
- The Latin word mementum means “memorial” or “reminder”, and it is possible that the Picene word meitimúm is related to this word.
In addition to the evidence from the inscriptions, there is also some linguistic evidence that supports the translation of meitimúm as “memorial”. The Picene word timúm is related to the Latin word temo meaning “I remember“. This suggests that meitimúm may be a compound word meaning “thing of memory” or “memorial”. Similarly, in Slavic languages, the word “pametnik” – “momument”, has the same meaning.
Example 2: Guerrio di Capistrano
The Guerriero di Capestrano inscription is a 98-centimeter-long inscription in the South Picene language that is found on the right-hand pillar of the Guerriero di Capestrano statue. The statue is a life-size representation of a warrior, and it is thought to be a funerary monument.
The dating of the Guerriero di Capestrano statue and inscription is a matter of debate among scholars. Some scholars believe that the statue and inscription date to the 7th or 6th centuries BC, while others believe that they date to the 5th or 4th centuries BC.
Most scolars read this inscription from right to left as: makupríkoramopsút[an]inisrakinevíi[p]om[p ]i.
My Translation of the Guerrio di Capistrano Inscription
MA – Manes We already saw in the previous inscription that goddess Cupra was identified as the great mother, so MA could be a short form of Matereio. However, this could also be an abbreviation for Manes, in the style of later Roman inscriptions that often begin with letters D.M – Dis Manibus). The Manes are Roman deities of the underworld, sometimes thought to be the souls of deceased loved ones.
CUPRI – To Goddess Cupra
KORAM – To Kora Kora (maiden) was an epithet of Persephone, a chtonic deity.
OPSU – To Ops Ops was an Earth Goddess, worshiped by the neighbouring Sabines and Etruscans.
TIANININS – To Tinia Scolars believe that Tinia was the supreme god of the Etruscan pantheon, an equivalent of Roman Jupiter and Greek Zeus. However, I believe that he was probably an eqivalent of Greek Dyonisus/Bacchus, as Tianinis could also be read as Dianinis – Dyonisus – another chtonic deity.
RAKI – monument/shrine/grave I am not completely sure about the meaning of this word. It seems that there are no Greek and Etrsucan equivalents. The closest Indo-European words I could find was Slavic “raka” – “monument, shrine, a dug out hole, grave”.
NEVII – of Neva (a personal name)
POPMPI – POMPILUS Pompilus is a well-attested family name of Sabine origin. See Numa Pompilus
North Picene inscriptions
The corpus of the North Picene inscriptions is significantly smaller, with only a handful partial texts. For this reason, the alphabet is still not clearly outlined, and it is anyone’s best guess.
Example 1: Stele di Noviliara
The only transcription that I found sounds like this: tiperašθe . raiup . bav ….. ipš ……
There is no explanation, as this hardly sounds like a language.
My translation of the Noviliara stele
…TILERANO – Antilerano (Anatolian, adj.) The name of Anatolia is derrived from poetic ancient Greek ἀντολή (antolḗ), meaning “the direction of sunrise, the East”. Antilerano would therefore be a person from Anatolia, or East. The letters AN are missing, but a small part of N is clearly visible before T.
ERAIU – Hero/Heros (vocative) This word can mean both “hero” or a “Thracian horeseman”, a common motif in Thracian art, whose epithet was “heros”. In modern Slavic languages this would sound like “heroiu”.
LVA – Lion (accusative) In Slavic languages, accusative of “lv” (lion) is “lva”.
F… (the text continues)
A possible interpretation
If my translation is is correct, who is the Anatolian hero depicted in this image? I might have an answer to that question as well.
The motif of a horseman hunting a lion was indeed very popular in the east, especially in the region of Anatolia. From the renowned Lion Hunt of Ashurbanipal, in Syria, to Iran and even the most famous Macedonian, Alexander the Great. The examples are too numerous to list.
However, there is one character that better fits our description than any other.
In Greek mythology, Bellerophon was known as a “divine hero”, skilled rider and a great warrior. One of Bellerophon’s most famous exploits was his slaying of the Chimera, a fire-breathing monster with the head of a lion, the body of a goat, and the tail of a snake.
The image of this chimera was very popular in Etruscan art. See Chimera of Arezzo. Moreover, if we return to the Noviliara stele, the beast depicted there could also have been a chimera, but its other heads are now unrecognisable, and only the head of the lion remains.
Finally, Bellerophon is the only horseman hero who slaid a lion-headed monster in Anatolia. According to the Greek myth, Bellerophon was in Anatolia because he was exiled from Corinth after being falsely accused of rape by the queen of Argos. He traveled to Lycia, a kingdom in Anatolia, in search of a new home. The king of Lycia, Iobates, was suspicious of Bellerophon and gave him a series of impossible tasks to complete. Bellerophon was able to complete all of the tasks, including slaying the Chimera.
For this reason, I believe that the inscription on Noviliara stelele refers to to him.
As for the use of Slavic words in my interpretation, I should add that even the name of the Bellerophon’s horse Pegasus does not have a clear Greek etymology. In Slavic, this name would mean spotted – from the word “pega”, meaning “freckle, mark, spot”.
In other words, perhaps this story was imported to Greek mythology from the Balkans, where Thracians and Illyrian had a strong cult of the hero horseman. At the same time, scolars officialy consider the Illyrian coast of Adriatic as the strongest candidate for the language of the North Picene inscriptions. The renowned Liburni were skilled sailours long before the Romans, and perhaps even before the Greeks. But this will be the topic of another article.
I will keep updating this text with new translations, so make sure to boomark the page if you enjoyed it.