Connectivity and competition: multilingualism in Ancient Italy 800-200 BC

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Classics and Ancient History


Before Latin came to dominate the peninsula from c.200 BC onwards, Italy was a highly multilingual environment, where multiple languages, dialects and alphabets interacted over many centuries. This interdisciplinary project will explore multilingualism in ancient Italy using an innovative comparative approach to shed new light on what written language can tell us about connections between communities, cities and regions. Around 20 languages are attested in written form in ancient Italy, in stark contrast to the later dominance of Latin and Greek. This extent of multilingualism is not cross-culturally unusual (60-70% of the world's current population is multilingual), but the everyday impact of this is often forgotten by European and North American scholars living in monolingual societies. By looking at how languages were used across the regions of Italy from c.800 to c.200 BC at different kinds of sites, this project will raise the profile of multilingualism as a key element of connectivity in the ancient world.

Using methods from modern sociolinguistics, historical sociolinguistics, epigraphy, history and archaeology, this project will examine inscriptions in languages including Greek, Etruscan, Oscan, Venetic, Messapic and Latin. Unlike many studies, which treat these languages separately even when they occur at the same site, this project will look at inscriptions in their physical and cultural context. Building on the methodologies that the PI has already established for working with fragmentary corpora, inscriptions will be considered at multiple levels: they will be read individually for linguistic and epigraphic detail, but they will also be studied by text type within and across regions. By investigating evidence at archaeological sites and museums, the project will look at how language was used in a particular time and place, and will consider the inscriptions' purpose and audience, rather than dealing with language in the abstract.

The project's urban case studies - in Campania (the Bay of Naples conurbation), Veneto (Este, Padua, Spina) and Latium (Praeneste, Caere, Capena) - each highlight a different aspect of language and dialect contact, but the multilingualism of these sites has never previously been compared to build up a detailed picture of Italy as a whole. Naples emphasised its Greekness to distinguish itself from its nearest neighbours, despite a diverse population very similar to 'Oscan-speaking' Pompeii's. In Este and Padua, deliberate differences between the cities' alphabets show that written language was a key element of how the cities competed. The Veneto also participated in a highly interconnected Mediterranean, particularly through the nearby Etruscan port of Spina. In Latium, Praeneste and Capena sat between the Etruscan and Roman spheres of influence, and the sites' epigraphy gives us an opportunity to understand how writers reacted to this tension.

The rural case studies - Rossano di Vaglio, Pietrabbondante and Grotta della Poesia - are non-urban sanctuaries with inscriptions made by dedicants from across a wide area. At the maritime cult site of Grotta della Poesia, Messapic, Greek and Latin were all used at overlapping periods, resulting in a palimpsest built up using different languages and alphabets. At Rossano and Pietrabbondante, the language used (Oscan) is more stable over the life of the sanctuary, but the effects of contact with Greek are still visible.

By bringing together evidence from these different sites, this project will build up a picture of multilingualism in ancient Italy and reach new insights about how multilingual individuals used their languages in different contexts. This ground-breaking project will therefore represent a step-change in our understanding of language use across pre-Roman Italy, expanding not just our linguistic knowledge, but transforming our historical understanding of connectivity in Iron Age Italy and the context into which Rome emerged.

Planned Impact

Multilingualism and mobility are topics of perennial importance in the modern world. Around 60-70% of the world's population is bilingual or multilingual, and even in Europe, where historic ethnolinguistic nationalism has erased much of the previous linguistic diversity, monolinguals are in the minority at about 48% of the population. Migration (particularly migration in and around the Mediterranean) is a constant feature of political and social debate in European society, with increasingly polarised positions being taken in the wake of the UK referendum to leave the European Union. Multilingualism, often one of the most visible signs of multiculturalism, is still a controversial topic in the UK, particularly in educational contexts - see for example a contentious recent article on Welsh-medium education ('The storm over Welsh-only schools,' The Guardian, 20/06/2017) and the withdrawal of GCSEs and A-levels in languages primarily spoken by immigrant populations (including Bengali, Panjabi, Arabic and Polish). In the USA, the use of Spanish in public life is similarly controversial.

Anxieties around multilingualism or migration can, in part, be addressed by engagement which encourages awareness of the history of mobility, cultural change and diversity. The public's engagement with historical issues of diversity and multiculturalism often focuses on Europe's recent past, and it is rarer that researchers on other periods of history contribute to this debate. From the PI's previous experience participating in events such as the Cambridge Festival of Ideas, the RCUK 'Researchers in Residence' programme and engagement activities related to the 'Greek in Italy' project, all audiences - including schoolchildren, undergraduates and history enthusiasts - are surprised by the linguistic and cultural diversity of the ancient world. Students and pupils who speak a language other than English at home, or who are recent learners of English, often show particular interest in historical multilingualism, and they provide insights to the rest of the group which they otherwise would not have had the chance to express.

The research project will be targeted towards four groups of beneficiaries. Firstly, undergraduates interested in pre-Roman Italy, who will be targeted through the provision of a specialist sourcebook, 'Italy Before Rome'. This book will make this research accessible to a wider audience in and beyond academia by providing translations of key sources from Pre-Roman Italy, and will include teaching materials on an accompanying website. This book has already attracted interested from Routledge, and will be completed mainly before the start of the award. Secondly, talks and activity days linked to international events such as the European Day of Languages (September) and International Mother Language Day (March) will be provided to school students in the Devon area. Thirdly, local history and community groups interested in their local linguistic landscape will be targeted through epigraphy workshops teaching practical skills, giving them a chance to engage with inscriptions in local buildings. For example, workshops will discuss the use of Latin and English in gravestones, raising questions about literacy in Devon at different periods. Fourthly, the PI and RA will write monthly blog posts on subjects related to the project, targeting the geographically widespread readership of the PI's blog (, c. 2000 existing readers per month; top five countries: UK, USA, Canada, Italy, France), many of whom are non-professional ancient history enthusiasts. A dedicated page on the blog will also host online resources to allow other groups to set up their own language- and epigraphy-related events. The project's outputs will also include a short series of popular history features on ancient multilingualism in History Today (readership of over 50,000), which has already been commissioned.


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