BMCR 2021.04.18

Migration, mobility and language contact in and around the ancient Mediterranean

, , , , , Migration, mobility and language contact in and around the ancient Mediterranean. Cambridge classical studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. 374. ISBN 9781108488440 $120.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Migration and the contacts that stem from migratory movements have proven an exciting, as well as fruitful, topic in recent scholarly discussions of the ancient world. Migration, mobility and language contact in and around the ancient Mediterranean represents a most welcome contribution to this field of study offering ten chapters on aspects of migration, movement, and integration covering a broad geographic and chronological span. The editors’ aim is to integrate linguistic approaches with other studies of ancient migration to move beyond the emphasis of linguistics as a metaphor for cultural interaction and towards a consideration of how broader linguistic data can contribute to our understanding of ancient mobility.

Daniele F. Maras (Ch.2) discusses the formation and historical development of Etruscan nomenclature in central Italy. Divided into two halves, the chapter first offers a review of Etruscan naming conventions in order to pinpoint names and conventions that deviate from these regular patterns. The second half explores the various means by which foreigners could integrate into Etruscan societies through a series of case studies involving themes such as immigration and offspring, mercenaries, trade and business as well as the presence of foreign components in name formulae.

Remaining in Italy, Elena Isayev (Ch.3) sets out to demonstrate the mobile nature of Italo-Romano society and illustrate that, although challenging to uncover, migration was a deeply embedded, indeed normal, feature. The chapter begins with a review of epigraphic evidence for the presence of Italians abroad, a body of material that becomes more plentiful from the second century BCE. The discussion is centred on an analysis of the corpus of Plautus where Isayev demonstrates that the cosmopolitan nature of Plautus’ works – their setting, characters, plot devices, and language – shows that movement and migration were ubiquitous in the Italo-Romano context. A particular theme of interest is in the suggestion that migrants are defined by their relationship to their host community, a point that resonates with the themes in the contributions by Rovai and Elder later in this volume.

Broadening our horizons to the western Mediterranean more generally, Katherine McDonald and James Clackson (Ch.4) explore the question of mobility through the language choices of craftsmen. The chapter is chiefly concerned with dialectal and onomastic choices, with a warning about assuming ethnicity on the basis of a name alone. McDonald and Clackson argue that Greek was ‘the default language of the artisan’ (p. 97), utilised by non-Greek users because it offered the greatest opportunity for export given the prominence of Greek across the Mediterranean prior to the rise of Rome, and hence Latin. Particular emphasis is placed on understanding the various means by which craftsmen sought to present themselves in order to appeal to a wider (export) market.

The next two chapters handle matters relating to the development of the Oscan alphabet. Karin W. Tikkanen (Ch.5) is concerned with the external and internal influences that led to its creation. The chapter starts with a review of the scripts utilised prior to the development of the Oscan alphabet that were used to write varieties of Campanian Sabellic, and then moves to a more thorough investigation of when and where Etruscan and Euboean scripts were first used in the Oscan alphabet. She argues that the Oscan alphabet was the product of a bilingual continuity in Campania that was the result of regular contact with groups who had migrated from both within and outside the Italian peninsula. The chapter considers changes in the social and political climate that prompted the introduction and maturation of the Oscan alphabet, brought on, in part, through migration. The prolonged language contact gained from interaction with these groups eventually led to a more settled orthography.

Livia Tagliapietra (Ch.6) follows Tikkanen with an investigation into the effects that contact with local Greek-speaking groups could have upon the orthography of Oscan populations. The chapter builds upon the work of Nicholas Zair’s Oscan in the Greek Alphabet (Cambridge 2016), with particular focus on the spelling of Oscan vocalic phonemes and the contextualisation of individual choices in spelling. She argues that the appearance of new spellings in Oscan words, such as <ει> and <ου> for /e/ and /u/, were the result of a need for disambiguation and represent the clear result of increased proximity between Oscan and Greek speakers in the late fourth and early third centuries. The persistence of older, ambiguous spellings may be put down to conservatism and new spellings’ lack of official ratification or promotion.

Nicholas Zair (Ch.7) explores the extent to which the migration of the Mamertini to Sicily had an effect upon their language choices. Following a detailed analysis of the limited body of epigraphic material for the Mamertini at Messina, Zair concludes that there is little in the texts that can be claimed to be illustrative of Greek influence. Instead, he argues that a number of texts include features that are characteristic of Oscan spelling, i.e. the alphabet found in use in Campania and Samnium. Thus, there is no evidence for linguistic changes to their use of Oscan resulting from contact with Greek speakers, as opposed to the rapid adoption of the Greek alphabet by the end of the third century BCE prompted by the settlement of the Mamertini in Messina.

Francesco Rovai (Ch.8) directs us to Delos in order to examine the social, cultural, and linguistic development of the island during the period 166-69 BCE. The chapter examines the simultaneous existence of a broader multi-linguistic society on the island and the presence of smaller, close-knit, social networks at intergroup, interpersonal, and individual levels grounded in shared cultural backgrounds. The cosmopolitan nature of Delos during this period is demonstrated with a variety of evidence including most notably a large body of clay cachets imprinted with seals from the ‘Maison des Sceaux’ (p. 175).

Leaping forward in time, Rachel Mairs (Ch.9) unpacks the roles of negotiatores and interpretes in the Roman army, uniquely attested epigraphically on the Danubian frontier between the late first and third centuries CE. The perspective offered in this chapter constitutes something of a reversal when compared with earlier contributions in this volume because the discussion, grounded chiefly in the careers and backgrounds of several individuals, revolves less around their mobility and focuses more on their fixity: it is the relative immobility of the individual, and their agency, while operating within a traditionally mobile structure, i.e. the army, that makes these individuals epigraphically visible. While they are by no means the only negotiatores or interpretes to be found in the empire, their circumstances demonstrate that mobility functioned quite differently on micro and macro levels.

Patrick James returns to the Republican period through a discussion of the identification and contextualisation of Italians (and others) in Ptolemaic Egypt, beginning with a thorough discourse of the challenges of the available evidence, not least the problem of identifying the origins of an individual on the basis of language use or name. The majority of the chapter is subdivided according to the different contexts in which evidence of individuals bearing Italian names and ethnics can be found – sacred, military, administrative, and commercial. While James acknowledges the challenge of demonstrating that such individuals were Italian, he finds evidence of mobility and migration during this period in the existence of Italian names with non-Italian ethnics, and bearers of Italian names with bearers of Egyptian, Semitic, Iranian, and Greek names.

Our journey ends in a return to Italy in which Olivia Elder (Ch.11) approaches the apparent paradox of Rome’s monolingual epigraphic history with the seemingly multilingual society evident in our literary sources, most notably Umbricius in Juvenal’s Third Satire (p. 270). Comparison between Rome and modern cities helps identify areas and reasons for the presence, or indeed absence, of different languages. The key, Elder concludes, is to look beyond migration alone as a means of understanding the place and significance of multilingualism in any given city in order to account for the dual existence of both a multilingual and monolingual Rome.

While the editors situate the volume quite comfortably within the current research interests of ancient linguistics in their Introduction (p. 21), the ten thematic chapters offer varied methodologies and original insights into the applicability of multilingualism for the broader discussion of movement and travel. One of the great strengths of this volume is that it gathers in one place a range of material and scholarship that an individual or scholar might otherwise not encounter; and for this reason alone, the volume is to be highly recommended.  The contributors not only demonstrate an awareness of the pitfalls inherent in utilising small bodies of material, but also clearly signpost them for the reader.

A final point. The volume covers a broad geographic and temporal range, from the seventh century BCE through to the Roman imperial period but the focus is largely on Italy and Italians. This could have led to cross-examination and collaborative extrapolation. As noted above, Isayev’s suggestion that the identity of a migrant was defined through their relationship with their host community is a theme also found in both Rovai’s analysis of identity on Delos, and Elder’s discussion of the absence of non-Latin epigraphy in Rome. Similarly, Tikkanen and Tagliapietra both comment on influences on the Oscan alphabet from Greek-speaking peoples but there is no constructive dialogue between these chapters.

Nevertheless, this is a minor blemish compared to what this volume offers by pushing beyond the standard remit of ancient linguistics, moving our perception of the potential for linguistics, and the analysis of epigraphic material, beyond simple language contact towards contextualising this contact and the impact it has.

Authors and Titles

James Clackson, Patrick James, Katherine McDonald, Livia Tagliapietra and Nicholas Zair: Introduction
Daniele F. Maras: Interethnic Mobility and Integration in Pre-Roman Etruria: The Contribution of Onomastics
Elena Isayev: Elusive Migrants of Ancient Italy
Katherine McDonald and James Clackson: The Language of Mobile Craftsmen in the Western Mediterranean
Karin W. Tikkanen: Lost – and Found – in Transmission: The Creation of the Oscan Alphabet
Livia Tagliapietra: Mobility and Orthography: A Contextualisation of Variant Spellings in the Oscan Inscriptions in the Greek Alphabet
Nicholas Zair: The Mamertini in Messina: Mobility, Migration and Mercenaries
Francesco Rovai: Migration, Identity, and Multilingualism in Late Hellenistic Delos
Rachel Mairs: Interpretes, Negotiatores and the Roman Army: Mobile Professionals and Their Languages
Patrick James: HOC PRIMVS VENIT: Italians and Others in Egypt before the Caesars
Olivia Elder: Population, Migration and Language in the City of Rome