The Duenos Inscription Revisited

The Duenos Inscription is one of the earliest known examples of the Latin language. Discovered in Rome, this inscription dates back to the 6th century BCE, making it a critical artifact for linguists and historians studying the development of Latin and its script.

The inscription is written in the Old Latin alphabet, which slightly predates the Classical Latin alphabet most are familiar with today. The text of the Duenos Inscription is inscribed on a small pottery vessel, known as a kernos, which was often used in religious rituals.

The exact meaning of the inscription has been a subject of debate among scholars, partly because the language it uses is archaic and not fully understood. However, it is generally agreed that the text is of a ritualistic or votive nature.

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My transcription the Duenos Inscription

The Wikipedia article offers some good examples of the previous attempts to translate this text. I find them quite imaginative and outdated, and I will not waste time on them here.

The inscription is usually transcribed as:

Line 1: IOVESATDEIVOSQOIMEDMITATNEITEDENDOCOSMISVIRCOSIED
Line 2: ASTEDNOISIOPETOITESIAIPAKARIVOIS
Line 3: DVENOSMEDFECEDENMANOMEINOMDVENOINEMEDMALOSTATOD

In the version I transcribed, there are only three discrepancies. For each of these, I interpreted what appears to be the letter ‘D’ as ‘R’. I made this choice for two reasons: firstly, the letters ‘D’ and ‘R’ bear a close resemblance to each other (‘D-P’). Secondly, using ‘D’ in these instances results in words that are nonsensical, whereas substituting them with ‘R’ produces coherent words.

Line 1: IOVESATDEIVOSQOIMEDMITATNEITERENDOCOSMISVIRCOSIED
Line 2: ASTERNOISIOPETOITESIAIPAKARIVOIS
Line 3: DVENOSMEDFECEDENMANOMEINOMDVENOINEMEDMALOSTATOR

My Translation of the Duenos Inscription

Now, with my spacings, the translated text looks like this:

IOVE SAT DEI
To gods Jupiter (and) Saturn, 
VOSQOI MED MITATNE ITER 
for you, I was placed on this road,
ENDO COSMIS VIRCOSIED
and for the cosmic virgins… 

ASTERNOISI OPE
…Astraea and Ops,
TOITESIAI PAKARIVOIS
by the Pacarius clan.

DVENOS MED FECEDEN MANOME
Duenos made me with his own hands
INOM DVENOI NE MED MALOSTATOR
In the name of Duenos, don’t harm me.

Each line of the text explained

IOVE SAT DEI
To gods Jupiter and Saturn,

Comment: This is a concise and clear invocation of the two main gods of the ancient Roman pantheon. “Iove” for Jupiter is good. “Sat” as an abbreviation for Saturn works, and “Dei” appropriately denotes “gods.”

VOSQOI MED MITATNE ITER
for you, I was placed on this road

Comment: “VOSQOI” for “for you” is a unique choice; traditionally, “vobis” would be used. However, in archaic Latin, “vosco” meant “and you”. “MED” (me) is clear, and most scholars agree on it. “MITATNE” is a non-classical but understandable version of “missus sum”. “ITER” (instead of “ITED”) for “road” is perfect and well-placed.

ENDO COSMIS VIRCOSIED… ASTERNOISI OPE
And for the Cosmic virgins… Astraea and Ops

Comment: “ENDO” meaning “and” appears in some other inscriptions of the period. “COSMIS” would mean “cosmic” and “VIRCOSIED” is a plural of the word “virgins” (“virginibus” would be the traditional word). Most scholars agree that VIRCO means “virgin”. However, the text breaks after the the suffix “sied” which on its own doesn’t have a meaning, therefore it probably designates plural.

The text continues in the Line 2 and the names “ASTERNOISI” and “OPE” are well-placed, and allign well with the meaning of the previous line of the text. Astraea was a COSMIC VIRGIN worshiped as a goddess of justice by the Greeks and Romans. She was identified with the Virgo constellation. Ope is Ops, the Etruscan goddess of fertility and the wife of Saturn. (Was Asternoa seen as the wife of Jupiter?)

TOITESIAI PAKARIVOIS
From the Pacarius clan

Comment: The ancient Roman family name Pacarius is well-attested. The word “TOITESIAI” is more enigmatic, but I am certain that it should be read as such, because I have seen it already in another, Rhaetic inscription. This word doesn’t have any Latin parallels, but it does appear in the Illyrian langauge. See for example, the name of the famous Illyrian queen Teuta (Illyrian: *Teutana, ‘mistress of the people, queen’; It descends from the Proto-IndoEuropean (PIE) stem *teutéh₁- (‘the people’, perhaps ‘the people under arms’). However, I believe that the word “clan”, “tribe” is a better translation. Interestingly, “clan” is precisely the meaning of the Native American Ojibwe word “totem”.

DVENOS MED FECEDEN MANOME
Duenos made me with his own hands

Comment: “DVENOS” could be a personal name, as it is usually translated, but it could also mean “lord” – see dueño (from Latin “domnus, don”). “MED” (me) works well here. “FECEDEN” as “made” is understandable; “fecit” would be the classical term. “MANOME” for “with his hands” is a creative attempt; “manibus” or “suis manibus” would align more closely with classical Latin.

INOM DVENOI NE MED MALOSTATOR
In the lord’s name, don’t harm me

Comment: “INOM” (in nomine) is apt. “DVENOI” (domini) fits well. “NE MED” (not me) is clear, though “ne” (lest) might be better suited as “non” for a direct negation. “MALOSTATOR” as “harm me”, “break me” would come from the word “malos” – “bad” and “stator” – “to stand”, although this would be just and educated guess based on the context.

Conclusion

Having reviewed numerous academic interpretations of this text, I’m confident that my translation most accurately reflects the item’s initial ceremonial intent. Unlike other translations that concentrate on the term “virgin” and construct elaborate stories around it, I propose that the text is a straightforward homage to the primary deities of the pantheon, gods and goddesses, offered by a family clan. The item was likely placed in a communal area, possibly at an intersection, which accounts for the inscription’s plea to preserve its integrity and prevent its misuse.

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