Archaic Italy : The Umbro-Oscans
by: M. Moravius Horatius Piscinus
There is very little known about the Umbrians prior to the Romans engaging them late in the fourth century. The archaeological evidence does not have much to add beyond the written sources. Livy’s account of the campaign against the Etruscans in 311 includes the celebrated episode where a brother of consul Fabius entered the Ciminian Forest to scout the Umbrian region. Prior to that, "no one, not even a trader, had approached it (9.36.1)." Each Umbrian community was described as a trifus, comparable to the Latin term for tribe, although the Umbrian term does not seem to mean quite the same thing. Some Umbrian communities were led by two magistrates called marones, and the Umbrian inscriptions at Iguvium give us a little more information on that city’s religious and political institutions. The related Oscans were organized into tribes, each called a touto and led by a meddiss (Latin: medix; Sabine maro). From Capestrano is a stone sculpture of a figure, either a meddiss or a deity posed as a meddiss, who is shown with a short tunic, wearing a cape and a very large brimmed hat. With the practice of transhumance many of the Oscan tribes had no permanent centers, but only temporary sites between which they traveled. Several such campsites would make up a subtribal area called a pagus. Oscan inscriptions from Agnone and Abella refer to open-air sanctuaries, much like the Roman fana, that were probably the religious centers of the various pagi.
The Umbrian material culture of the Iron Age only later developed a diversity that can, during the Archaic period, be distinguished from diverse Oscan-speaking tribes. It is better then to initially consider these people together. The material culture of the Umbro-Oscans is represented mainly from gravesites. Both cremation and inhumation were practiced. Picene and Villanovan influences are found, although not in any correlation that would place all cremations as Villanovan and all inhumation as Picene, since there is a mixture, and at times Umbrian gravesites are unlike either Picene or Villanovan. Peculiar to the Umbro-Oscans was the setting of stones in circles around individual graves. One site, that of the Oscan Vestini at Fossa, Abruzzia, has an arrangement of stone circles around individual graves, all the bodies oriented E-W, combined with rows of upright stone slabs (0.5m to 4m in height), oriented E-W and arranged in step patterns. Found in Umbro-Oscan graves is a mixture of pottery types, Picene bridge handles, Campanian binocular cup handles, Villanovan storied urns, Latian reticulate-cordoned jars, along with pottery forms found throughout Italy. Likewise with metalwork, what is found among the Umbro-Oscans are the short Iron Age sword and socketed spearhead, and both rectangular and lunar razors that are commonly found throughout Italy. Bronze fibulae are also a mixture of common types, although the disc fibulae is more common among the Umbro-Oscans than elsewhere in Italy, and some are distinctly Umbrian.
In the legendary founding of Rome on the Palatine there is already reference to people other than Latins living in nearby communities. Very early in Rome’s development there is the arrival of the Oscan-speaking Sabines on the Quirinal and Viminal hills. In the nineteenth century it was assumed that the cremation graves of the Forum, dating around 650 BCE, represented the Latins arising from the Villanovans, and the inhumation graves of the Forum and behind the Esquiline were those of Sabines. Later studies showed this assumption to have been erroneous, there is really nothing that can distinguish Latin from Sabine gravesites at Rome. Already in the Regal period, and then with the establishment of the Republic, there is a shift of Roman interest towards Cumae that soon afterwards was overtaken by Sabellians. The Archaic period of Rome and Latium concerns the intrusion of other Oscan and Umbrian tribes, with wars fought against the Sabines, Hernici, Aequi, and Volsci. At the beginning of the fifth century, near the end of the Archaic period, the Volsci moved into the Liris River Valley and southern Latium. At Velitrae a bronze inscription of four lines suggests the Volsci were linguistically related to, or may have been Umbrians. That assumption is based on accepting the tabula Veliterna as a Volscian inscription and not an Umbrian inscription brought to Volscian territory. The only other inscription known to be Volscian is too brief to determine its relationship with the tabula Veliterna. Further south expansion of the Oscans overtook Campania (c. 450-420), Lucania (c. 420-390), and Brutttania (c. 350), dominating the pre-Italic people of the regions, the Etruscans who entered Campania in the sixth century, and all but two of the Greek communities that had been established earlier.
By the time we first begin to hear of the Umbro-Oscan tribes in Greek and Latin sources we are beyond the Archaic period. The Sabines of early Rome was one of the northern Oscan-speaking tribes. Sabellians were found in Cumae and Capua. Other northern Oscan tribes were the Marsi, Paeligni, Marrucini, Praetutti, Vestini. The most important Oscan-speaking people were the Samnites, composed of the Pentiri, Caudini, and Hirpini tribes of the central Apennines. From the Samnites also came the Brutti and Lucani in southern Italy. By 290 BCE all of the Umbro-Oscan tribes had come under Roman hegemony. The Cippus Abellanus recording an arbitration between the two Oscan towns of Nola and Avellino, made by Q. Fabius Labeonus in 183 BCE (Cicero De Officiis 1) was written in Oscan. In the same period, early in the second century, Sabellian Cumae, the largest Oscan town, adopted Latin as its official language. Latin came to supplant Oscan as an official language, yet Oscan remained the common language used in central and southern Italy. Street signs at Pompeii, and much of the town’s graffiti, show Oscan was still being written in the first century of the common era. Other (primarily) Oscan towns of the Magna Graecia region – Tarentum, Rhegium, and Neapolis – held to Greek culture and language rather than Latin, while still retaining much that was Oscan. On the streets of Rome itself, the language commonly spoken, known as the Vulgar Latin, had words and forms taken more from Oscan than Latin. From the beginning of Rome there had been an Oscan element, the Sabines, and as Rome expanded its population grew primarily from Oscan regions. Among the many Romans who came from Umbro-Oscan origins, beginning with Titus Tatius and Pompilius Numa, were Plautus, Cato, Varro, and Ovid.