Developmental Literacy Case-Study 3: North West Italy



The Region

The final case study of the Developmental Literacy project focuses on the  inscriptions of North West Italy and the Ticino area of Switzerland.  The region is an extremely complex one in Antiquity, with little consensus about its ethnic character and the ethnic boundaries within it.  The ancient sources refer to a number of peoples, defined externally by the criteria of Greek and Roman observers - e.g. the Ligures, Leponti, Salassi, Boii, Cenomani, Insubres etc - but there is little consensus about where the boundaries between these groups were and how far (if at all) these labels corresponded to the self-perceptions of the peoples of ancient Lombardy, Piedmont, Liguria and S. Swizerland themselves.  The principal archaeological cultures of the region in the Iron Age are known as the Golasecca culture and  the La T่ne culture, which persisted until the Roman conquest of the region in the 2nd century BC.  Recent research has stressed continuity and an underlying common Celtic identity for the entire region rather than a division between an earlier Golasecca and a later Celtic period.  The region was primarily one of small settlements, possibly organised into chiefdoms, in the 5th and 4th centuries BC.  From the 3rd century onwards, however, there are signs of increasing nucleation of settlements and the emergence of states based on a common identity (expressed in items such as coinage, inscriptions and particular types of pottery and metalwork), rather than domination by a warrior elite.  After the Roman conquest in the early 2nd century BC, there was an ambitious programme of colonisation in the region, and  Bergamo, Brescia, Como, Milan, Novara, Vercelli and Verona were all fundamentally transformed into Roman coloniae.

The Inscriptions

The inscriptions of the region are written in a script derived from that of the Etruscans and fall into three main groups - stone inscriptions (mainly but not exclusively funerary in nature); graffiti on pottery (also mainly from funerary contexts); and inscriptions on coins.  The earliest inscriptions date to the end of the 6th century BC, but are very few in number.  The majority (around 70% of the total) are short inscriptions on pottery, almost all from a funerary context, coinage, or inscriptions on stone, dating to the 2nd-1st centuries BC.  The remaining c.30% of inscriptions (a mixture of inscriptions on grave goods and stone grave markers) date to the 5th-4th centuries BC.  The language(s) represented are a matter of debate.  The early inscriptions are traditionally designated as Lepontic and the later ones as Celtic or Gallo-Lepontic, but recent research has moved towards identifying them all as a form of early Celtic.


R.S. Conway, J. Whatmough and S. Johnson (1933), The Prae-Italic Dialects of Italy. 3 vols.
M. Lejeune (1971), Lepontica.
M. Lejeune (1988), Receuil des Inscriptions Gauloises. Vol. II: Textes gallo-truscques; textes gallo-latin.
J.H.C. Williams (2001), Beyond the Rubicon. Romans and Gauls in Republican Italy.