Grave Language: The Epitaph of Lucius Cornelius Scipio

Tombs can make linguists very happy. In the effort to commemorate and praise the deceased, many places of interment include written text, known as epitaphs (from Greek epí ‘on’ and táphos ‘tomb’). Being inscribed in stone, these samples of language survive very well and can offer a much-appreciated window into an era of a language that may be otherwise poorly documented. We owe a lot of our knowledge of the period of ‘Old Latin’ (prior to c. 80 BC and Classical Latin) to such inscriptions. This article will focus on one such epitaph from that era, set up to the memory of Lucius Cornelius Scipio and dating to the later half of the third century BC. Its goal specifically is to discuss three linguistic features that are typical to Old Latin, and which consequently can be puzzling for both Latin lovers and Latin loathers alike.

Lucius Cornelius Scipio was a Roman aristocrat, the son of Lucius Cornelius Scipio Barbatus (‘the bearded’). His name wasn’t the only thing he had in common with his father; he similarly served in the military and then as a censor and a consul (in 259 BC), two of the highest political positions of the Roman Republic. He was later buried alongside his father in the common tomb for the family – a family that would go on to beget Scipio Africanus and Scipio Aemilianus, two successful leaders in the Punic Wars. After the tomb was rediscovered in the modern era, what remained of Lucius’s memorial was moved to the Vatican Museums.

Here’s how the first and older part of the epitaph, which is just a simple description, reads:


“Cornelius L Scipio. Aedile, Consul, Censor”

The second part eulogizes the dead man in more detail:


“Most agree that this one man, Lucius Scipio, was the best of good men in Rome. The son of Barbatus, he was consul, censor, aedile […]. He captured Corsica and the city of Aleria. He deservedly gave a temple to the storm goddesses.”

Even to experienced Latinists, this text may come as a bit of a shock. Much will be unfamiliar or unclear, including the obvious question of what the remainder of Rome therefore thought of our man Lucius. To appreciate the linguistic differences better, a fun first step is to set the words of the Old Latin beside their equivalents in the Classical. This gives us the following:

O: Cornelio L Scipio / aidiles cosol cesor / honc oino ploirume cosentiont R /
C: Cornēlius L Scīpiō / aedīlēs cōnsul cēnsor / hunc ūnum plūrimī cōnsentiunt R /

O: duonoro optumo fuise viro / Luciom Scipione filios Barbati / consol censor aidilis
C: bonōrum optimum fuisse virum / Lūcium Scīpiōnem fīlius Barbātī / cōnsul cēnsor aedīlis

O: hic fuet […] / hec cepit Corsica Aleriaque urbe / dedet tempestatebus aide mereto.
C: hic fuit […] / hic cēpit Corsicam Aleriamque urbem / dedit tempestātibus aedem meritō

Aside from the macron-marked long vowels in the Classical Latin (my own addition), this juxtaposition illuminates many significant differences in the two types of Latin with only a quick glance. We definitely aren’t in the classical Latin of Cicero anymore; although only two centuries away from the era of Augustus, Old Latin like this can feel very alien. So, let’s unpack the text and learn a little about what makes Old Latin tick, by means of three features in the epitaph that I would like to highlight.

First off, the length of text alone tells us that the Classical Latin words are longer than their older counterparts. There is a letter that is consistently missing from the original text: M. Where Cicero would write optimum ‘best’, virum ‘man’ and urbem ‘city’, the writer of the epigraph had no problem with the m-less spellings optumo, viro and urbe. There is the temptation to wonder therefore if these spellings represent different forms of the words, forms in other grammatical cases that do not require a final -m, but the use of duonoro for bonorum goes against this.

This is something phonological instead. We must presume that the consonant -m is absent from the written words because it was at this time absent from speech. It seems that -m, especially the -m ending that denotes accusative and singular nouns, was not commonly pronounced at the end of words. This is not to say that it was completely lost from the language, as the ending of Luciom will attest to. It is likely that in its absence the preceding vowel in the word took on the nasal quality of -m, thereby continuing to distinguish the accusative singular form of the noun. This is a fascinating thing to observe, because the absence of -m is of great importance for Latin on the other side of the classical period (that is, Late Latin), when a lack of distinctions between case endings would eventually lead to grammatical collapse and the case-less nouns of the Romance languages (which you can read more about here). It looks like the loss of -m began very early.

But if word-final -m had already been dropped by the third century, why do we learn about it in Latin lessons today? We must remember that spelling and speech are siblings but not twins. Writing has its own modi operandi and the near-universal presence of -m in written Classical Latin can be attributed to both conservative preferences and a desire to somehow denote nasalised vowels in spelling. We can in fact see an example of this emerging conservatism in the epitaph; the first part (the older) names his political offices as cosol and cesor, which the later elogium spells consol and censor. Once again, a nasal consonant, lost from speech, has been restored in writing.

The second feature concerns not an absent letter, but a surprisingly present one: O. Several words include an O where their classical equivalents have U. I’m referring in particular to Luciom, filios, viro and optumo. In my opinion, this is a great change to know about.

What these words all have in common is that they belong to the second declension of Latin nouns and adjectives. The Classical Latin that we might learn in the classroom tells us that most second-declension nouns end in -us or -um in their dictionary forms, as in dominus ‘master’, fīlius ‘son’ and dōnum ‘gift’. This was not always the case though. In Old Latin, we would instead find -os and -om for such words. Indeed, the second declension was characterised by the vowel -o-.

This vowel used to be consistently present across the endings for the second declension, giving us nominative singulars like filios and plurals like filioi. Only short vowels were affected by the later shift from -o- to -u-, which is why the second declension in Classical Latin has the short endings -us and -um, but also the long ōs and -ōrum. Because of this ancestry, nouns of the declension are referred to theoretically as o-stems, and this evidence from Old Latin helpfully brings the Latin second declension into line with its Ancient Greek counterpart, in which the -o- vowel is much more visible.

Last is the wonderful adjective duonoro in the epitaph. How, you may be wondering, can Old Latin duonoro correspond to Classical Latin bonōrum? Can du- really change into b-?

In brief, yes! This is a delightful sound change, for which we have good evidence of its before- and after-stages. It may seem bizarre at first, but du- and b- do share features; they both include voiced consonants, and both have a labial quality, since the [w] sound of du– and the [b] of b- are produced with the lips.

The adjective in question is in fact found with its initial du- elsewhere, namely in the older Duenos Inscription, so named after the word duenos (nominative singular), meaning ‘good’ or ‘a good man’, that begins the line “DVENOS MED FECED…” (‘a good man made me…’).

The Duenos Inscription. 6th-century Latin inscription on an Etruscan triplet vessel. Altes Museum, Berlin. Taken from here.

Old Latin duenos was not the only word to undergo this change from du- into b-. It’s the reason why English has the warrish words belligerent, bellicose and duel. While the first two come from classical bellum, its older form duellum was preserved in the literary register as an archaism and eventually gave us the word duel. It is also the cause behind the different Latinate words and prefixes that express a sense of ‘two’; English has duet, duplicate and the prefix dis-, and yet also the prefix bi-, as in binoculars and bisexual. Although obscured by this sound change, which only operated according to certain conditions, all of these are nonetheless related members of a big family of two-words.

I think I should stop here. There is more linguistic wonderfulness to talk about in the epitaph, but this is more than enough for a single article. What remains will have to wait until further articles or tweets, or until someone asks me! Once again, I love seeing how much linguistic discussion can be drawn from a single source, and this text in particular is a real personal delight. Can you tell I like it quite a lot?


For references, follow this link for inscriptions CIL_12.8 and CIL_12.9.

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