Ancient texts and modern context: the ancient languages of Europe

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The ancient languages of Europe are absurdly diverse and endlessly fascinating. Here, we look at three Mediterranean varieties: Latin, Etruscan and Glagolitic.

ancient text, Latin, Etruscan, Glagolitic

Most readers are familiar with Latin, the mother of the Romance languages and lingua franca of the Roman Empire. (Though the phrase lingua franca is, itself, Italian.)

Latin inscriptions are ubiquitous among the ruins of Ancient Rome, and are therefore scattered across tons of countries in Europe and beyond. But how do we decipher these ancient inscriptions, without a degree in ancient history?

The task isn’t always easy, and it is made more difficult by the Roman propensity to delete whole words, or parts of words, in an effort to cut down on the amount of chiseling their stonemasons had to undertake.

But subject these inscriptions to a secret magnifying glass, and give yourself a snippet of translation, and you can unlock a huge amount of depth to the monuments on which these ancient messages are inscribed. Like giant graffiti memorials, the Latin text on buildings around Europe illuminates Roman culture, Roman bureaucracy, and later, the spread of Latin through the traditional Catholic Church.

We’ll start with Latin, since there are so many examples of the language, but before we leave you I want to touch on two other ancient languages of the Adriatic region.

Rident stolidi lingva Latina

 “Fools laugh at the Latin language.”

Leopard depiction in Roman style, at the Vatican in Rome.
Leopard depiction in Roman style, at the Vatican in Rome.

With that kind of motto, it’s a no brainer that the Latin language ended up everywhere the Romans ended up, often depicted in giant stone letters. But common people of course used the everyday vulgar Latin, the kind spoken in the trenches of plebe society. The ancient equivalent of spray painted graffiti can be seen scrawled across walls in the Colosseum, proclaiming such-and-such was the most kick ass gladiator ever to hit the sands of the Flavian Amphitheatre.

But I digress.

Latin, no matter where or how it’s written, can be deciphered with a few helpful clues. I will be the first to admit that I’m not an expert, and that I can’t translate every piece of Latin I see–especially if the stone inscription is broken or fragmented. Though, thanks to my Latin teacher from Burlington High School, Ms. Rita DeBellis, I developed a few key skills that make this awesome ancient language accessible to travelers and lifelong learners alike.

As we progress through our discussion of Latin inscriptions, keep in mind that there was no letter ‘U’ in Latin; ‘V’ was used instead. I have always found that fascinating, though the pronunciation is the same as the letter ‘U’ throughout this post. That means that even the letter ‘V’ is pronounced as a ‘U’ or a vague ‘W’. For example, Vesuvius (VESVVIVS) would have been pronounced “wes-OO’we-us”.

Street names

Because even if all roads lead to Rome, no one wants to end up getting lost along the way.

A region of the city of Pompeii.
A region of the city of Pompeii.

While the above is technically not a street name, it is a part of the major grid pattern of the archaeological site of Pompeii. The inscription is an abbreviation in Latin, which is translated to Regio 1, Insula (island) 6. There are 9 of these Regio, or Regions, and dozens of insulae within Pompeii; each Region and Island contains numerous houses and shops.

In reality we don’t know the real street names as the Romans would have known them, but the streets are designated in modern Italian. The main east-west road, or decumanum, is known in Italian as the Via dell’Abbondanza.

 

Regions meet in Pompeii.
Regions meet in Pompeii.

Public declarations

We’re here, we’re bigger than life, get over it!

One of the most famous examples of Roman inscription can be seen at the Pantheon in Rome. The inscription above this famous temple reads, in Latin:

M. AGRIPPA L. F. COS. TERTIVM FECIT. In full, it would have read, MARCVS AGRIPPA LVCII FILIVS CONSVL [ILLVD AEDIFICIVM] TERTIVM FECIT: Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, Third Consul, made this temple.

The verb FECIT simply means “he made [it]”.

A grand public statement, for sure! Agrippa likely had this building constructed as a part of his own personal administrative temple on his former property, though it has been in continuous use since its construction from 29-19 BCE. Today the Pantheon is a Catholic Church–how strange is that juxtaposition?

Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, in his third consulate, made this.
Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, in his third consulate, made this.
The breathtaking interior of the Pantheon and its domed roof, with the oculus opening to the sky.
The breathtaking interior of the Pantheon and its domed roof, with the oculus opening to the sky.

 

At the Colosseum in Rome, numerous inscriptions help us understand daily life as well as major reconstruction efforts that took place during Roman rule. The inscription tablet and its translation below offer a glimpse into the repair of the Colosseum after a terrible abominandus, or earthquake, in 484 CE.

It reads, in full:

Decius Marius Venantius Basilius, of a most glorious and illustrious rank, prefect of the City, patrician, consul, restored with his own wealth the arena and podium which an abominable earthquake threw to the ground in ruin.

[Decius] Marius Vena[n]/tius Basilius, v(ir) c(larissimus) et inl(ustris), pra[e]/fectus urb(i), patricius, / consul ordinarius, are/nam et podium quae /(6) abominandi ter/rae motus ruin(a) p[ros]/travit sumptu / proprio restituit.

Source – University of Oxford Last States of Antiquity Database

Translation of the repair inscription.
Translation of the repair inscription.
Inscription of repairs at the Colosseum in Rome.
Inscription of repairs at the Colosseum in Rome.

 

Public declarations were also made to support politicians, just like today. For example, in Pompeii, this striking red graffito is an example of support of a political figure.

Whoever Cornelius is, he must have been popular!
Whoever Cornelius is, he must have been popular!

Public buildings were labeled in their own right, such as this fragment of the front entrance of a public building where business could be conducted.

This fragment once adorned the entrance to a public building.
This fragment once adorned the entrance to a public building.

The fragment once read, Chalcidicvm cryptam

It would have been the entrance to a broad public meeting place or plaza with a stone covering.

 

A section in Pompeii describing a public priestess.
A section in Pompeii describing a public priestess.

This fragment once read that someone, L. F. (you got it–Son or Daughter of Lucius), was a  sacerdos pvblica–in this case, we know it’s a woman, because sacerdos were priestesses elected annually by the town councils. These were women of super great importance to the town’s religious and political health.

Church Latin

Imagine listening to a church service in Latin.

It goes without saying that the Catholic Church has grown up with Latin, and there are so many striking examples of Latin adorning churches all over the world.

Here are just a few examples from Italy and Slovenia.

The beautiful dome inside St. Peter's Basilica.
The beautiful dome inside St. Peter’s Basilica.

The full text around the interior dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome reads:

Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam et tibi dabo claves regni caelorum.

You are Peter, and on this rock I build my church, and I give to you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.

Another view of the Vatican dome interior.
Another view of the Vatican dome interior.
The very top of the dome at the Vatican.
The very top of the dome at the Vatican.

The very top of the gorgeous dome reads:

S. PETRI GLORIAE SIXTUS PP. V.A. MDXC PONTIF. V

“To the glory of St. Peter, Pope Sixtus V in the year 1590, the fifth of his pontificate.”

M is 1000, D is 500, and XC represents C (100) minus X (10)–or 90.

The Franciscan Church in Ljubljana has a little Latin flair!
The Franciscan Church in Ljubljana has a little Latin flair!

This pink church is iconic to the center of beautiful Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. The Franciskanska Cerkev, or Franciscan Church, proclaims the Virgin Mary through the words:

Ave, gratia plena!

Hail [Mary], full of grace.

From here, we move on to two even more ancient texts and Mediterranean languages: Etruscan and Glagolitic.

 

Etruscan

Language of mummies and pre-Roman tribes

I only have one good example of Etruscan, but it has a fascinating story. And we here at Outbound Adventurer love fascinating stories!

A Ptolemaic mummy in Egypt, harking back to the days of Ptolemy in the 2nd and 3rd centuries BCE, was discovered by a Croatian gentleman in the 1800s. This gentleman noticed that this particular mummy was covered in linen that was inscribed with an unreadable text.

But the text wasn’t Egyptian hieroglyphs. It wasn’t the common Egyptian script called demotic. It wasn’t Latin.

It was Etruscan, the language of the tribal people who inhabited Rome before Roman kings or Emperors.

Image (c) Wikimedia Commons.
Image (c) Wikimedia Commons.

The Liber Linteus Zagrebiensis, or literally, Linen Book of Zagreb, remains one of the finest examples of this ancient and still largely indecipherable text in existence. From what little linguists know about ancient Etruscan, the linens appear to be marking a ritual calendar.

Since the linens ended up in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, the linen book (liber linteus) is titled as being from Zagreb (Zagrebiensis). That -ensis ending is also common in many animal species names, including dinosaur names.

Glagolitic

Ancient Croatians and their Slavonic squiggles

 

Image (c) LikeCroatia.com
Image (c) LikeCroatia.com

Invented in the 9th century CE, glagolitic is the third script used historically by Croats–the other two being the Cyrillic and the Latin alphabets. In Croatia, across the Adriatic Sea from Italy, the Slavic people used this alphabet to facilitate the Christian conversion of Bulgarian and Moravian peoples within the Balkan peninsula.

Today, glagolitic can be seen not only in ancient texts, but on everything from Croatian souvenirs to green highway signs designating historical sites.

Image Source – LikeCroatia.com

This is a whirlwind tour of three unique and ancient scripts. We’d love to hear your comments, questions and translation tips in the comments below!

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  • I love languages! I actually took a Latin class in grade 10 just for the hell of it. I don’t remember much but I did find it fascinating at the time! 🙂

    • I loved it too even if my memory of the details is quickly fading!