This reform evidently arose among the western Etruscans, and while it did not find reception beyond the Apennines, became naturalized among all the Sabellian tribes, and especially among the Umbrians. In its further course the alphabet experienced various fortunes in connection with the several stocks, the Etruscans on the Arno and around Capua, the Umbrians and the Samnites; frequently the mediae were entirely or partially lost, while elsewhere again new vowels and consonants were developed. But that West-Etruscan reform of the alphabet was not merely as old as the oldest tombs found in Etruria; it was considerably older, for the syllabarium just mentioned as found probably in one of these tombs already presents the reformed alphabet in an essentially modified and modernized shape; and, as the reformed alphabet itself is relatively recent as compared with the primitive one, the mind almost fails in the effort to reach back to the time when that alphabet came to Italy. While the Etruscans thus appear as the instruments in diffusing the alphabet in the north, east, and south of the peninsula, the Latin alphabet on the other hand was confined to Latium, and maintained its ground, upon the whole, there with but few alterations; only the letters -"id:gamma" -"id:kappa" and -"id:zeta" -"id:sigma" gradually became coincident in sound, the consequence of which was, that in each case one of the homophonous signs (-"id:kappa" -"id:zeta") disappeared from writing. In Rome it can be shown that these were already laid aside before the end of the fourth century of the city,(15) and the whole monumental and literary tradition that has reached us knows nothing of them, with a single exception.(16) Now when we consider that in the oldest abbreviations the distinction between -"id:gamma" -"id:c" and -"id:kappa" -"id:k" is still regularly maintained;(17) that the period, accordingly, when the sounds became in pronunciation coincident, and before that again the period during which the abbreviations became fixed, lies beyond the beginning of the Samnite wars; and lastly, that a considerable interval must necessarily have elapsed between the introduction of writing and the establishment of a conventional system of abbreviation; we must, both as regards Etruria and Latium, carry back the commencement of the art of writing to an epoch which more closely approximates to the first incidence of the Egyptian Sirius-period within historical times, the year 1321 B.C., than to the year 776, with which the chronology of the Olympiads began in Greece.(18) The high antiquity of the art of writing in Rome is evinced otherwise by numerous and plain indications. The existence of documents of the regal period is sufficiently attested; such was the special treaty between Rome and Gabii, which was concluded by a king Tarquinius and probably not by the last of that name, and which, written on the skin of the bullock sacrificed on the occasion, was preserved in the temple of Sancus on the Quirinal, which was rich in antiquities and probably escaped the conflagration of the Gauls; and such was the alliance which king Servius Tullius concluded with Latium, and which Dionysius saw on a copper tablet in the temple of Diana on the Aventine. What he saw, however, was probably a copy restored after the fire with the help of a Latin exemplar, for it was not likely that engraving on metal was practised as early as the time of the kings. The charters of foundation of the imperial period still refer to the charter founding this temple as the oldest document of the kind in Rome and the common model for all. But even then they scratched (-exarare-, -scribere-, akin to -scrobes- (19)) or painted (-linere-, thence -littera-) on leaves (-folium-), inner bark (-liber-), or wooden tablets (-tabula-, -album-), afterwards also on leather and linen. The sacred records of the Samnites as well as of the priesthood of Anagnia were inscribed on linen rolls, and so were the oldest lists of the Roman magistrates preserved in the temple of the goddess of recollection (-Iuno moneta-) on the Capitol. It is scarcely necessary to recall further proofs in the primitive marking of the pastured cattle (-scriptura-), in the mode of addressing the senate, "fathers and enrolled" (-patres conscripti-), and in the great antiquity of the books of oracles, the clan-registers, and the Alban and Roman calendars. When Roman tradition speaks of halls in the Forum, where the boys and girls of quality were taught to read and write, already in the earliest times of the republic, the statement may be, but is not necessarily to be deemed, an invention. We have been deprived of information as to the early Roman history, not in consequence of the want of a knowledge of writing, or even perhaps of the lack of documents, but in consequence of the incapacity of the historians of the succeeding age, which was called to investigate the history, to work out the materials furnished by the archives, and of the perversity which led them to desire for the earliest epoch a delineation of motives and of characters, accounts of battles and narratives of revolutions, and while engaged in inventing these, to neglect what the extant written tradition would not have refused to yield to the serious and self-denying inquirer.


The history of Italian writing thus furnishes in the first place a confirmation of the weak and indirect influence exercised by the Hellenic character over the Sabellians as compared with the more western peoples. The fact that the former received their alphabet from the Etruscans and not from the Romans is probably to be explained by supposing that they already possessed it before they entered upon their migration along the ridge of the Apennines, and that therefore the Sabines as well as Samnites carried it along with them from the mother-land to their new abodes. On the other hand this history of writing contains a salutary warning against the adoption of the hypothesis, originated by the later Roman culture in its devotedness to Etruscan mysticism and antiquarian trifling, and patiently repeated by modern and even very recent inquirers, that Roman civilization derived its germ and its pith from Etruria. If this were the truth, some trace of it ought to be more especially apparent in this field; but on the contrary the germ of the Latin art of writing was Greek, and its development was so national, that it did not even adopt the very desirable Etruscan sign for -"id:f".(20) Indeed, where there is an appearance of borrowing, as in the numeral signs, it is on the part of the Etruscans, who took over from the Romans at least the sign for 50.

Italian Books
Theodor Mommsen
Classic Literature Library

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