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An article from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, now in the public domain.
Any color photos are mine, © William P. Thayer.


Volsci, an ancient Italian people, well known in the history of the first century of the Roman Republic. They then inhabited the partly hilly, partly marshy district of the S of Latium, bounded by the Aurunci and Samnites on the S, the Hernici on the E, and stretching roughly from Norba and Cora in the N to Antium in the S. They were among the most dangerous enemies of Rome, and frequently allied with the Aequi, whereas the Hernici from 486 B.C. onwards were the allies of Rome. In the Volscian territory lay the little town of Velitrae (Velletri), the birthplace of Augustus. From this town we have a very interesting though brief inscription dating probably from early in the 3rd century B.C.; it is cut upon a small bronze plate (now in the Naples Museum), which must have once been fixed to some votive object, dedicated to the god Declunus (or the goddess Decluna).

The language of this inscription is clear enough to show the very marked peculiarities that rank it close to the language of the Iguvine Tables (see Iguvium). It shows on the one hand the labialization of the original velar q (Volscian pis = Latin quis), and on the other hand it palatalizes the guttural c before a following i (Volscian façia = Latin faciat). Like Umbrian also, but unlike Latin and Oscan, it has degraded all the diphthongs into simple vowels (Volscian se parallel to Oscan svai; Volscian deue, Old Latin and Oscan deiuai or deiuoi). This phenomenon of what might have been taken for a piece of Umbrian text appearing in a district remote from Umbria and hemmed in by Latins on the north and Oscan-speaking Samnites on the south is a most curious feature in the geographical distribution of the Italic dialects, and is clearly the result of some complex historical movements.

In seeking for an explanation we may perhaps trust, at least in part, the evidence of the Ethnicon itself: the name Volsci belongs to what may be called the ‑co‑ group of tribal names in the centre, and mainly on the west coast, of Italy, all of whom were subdued by the Romani before the end of the 4th century B.C.; and many of whom were conquered by the Samnites about a century or more earlier. They are, from south to north, Osci, Aurunci, Hernici, Marruci, Falisci; with these were no doubt associated the original inhabitants of Aricia and of Sidici‑num, of Vescia among the Aurunci, and of Labici close to Hernican territory. The same formative element appears in the adjective Mons Massicus, and the names Glanica and Marica belonging to the Auruncan district, with Graviscae in south Etruria, and a few other names in central Italy (see "I due strati nella popolazione Indo-Europea dell' Italia Antica," in the Atti del Congresso Internazionale di Scienze Storiche, Rome, 1903, p17). With these names must clearly be judged the forms Tusci and Etrusci, although these forms must not be regarded as anything but the names given to the Etruscans by the folk among whom they settled. Now the historical fortune of these tribes is reflected in several of their names (see Sabini). The Samnite and Roman conquerors tended to impose the form of their own Ethnicon, namely the suffix ‑no‑, upon  p198 the tribes they conquered; hence the Marruci became the Marrucini, the *Arici became Aricini, and it seems at least probable that the forms Sidicini, Carecini, and others of this shape are the results of this same process. The conclusion suggested is that these ‑co‑ tribes occupied the centre and west coast of Italy at the time of the Etruscan invasion (see Etruria: Language); whereas the ‑no‑ tribes only reached this part of Italy, or at least only became dominant there, long after the Etruscans had settled in the Peninsula.

It remains, therefore, to ask whether any information can be had about the language of this primitive ‑co‑ folk, and whether they can be identified as the authors of any of the various archaeological strata now recognized on Italian soil. If the conclusions suggested under Sabini may be accepted as sound we should expect to find the Volsci speaking a language similar to that of the Ligures, whose fondness for the suffix ‑sco‑ has been noticed (see Ligures), and identical with that spoken by the plebeians of Rome, and that this branch of Indo-European was among those that preserved the original Indo-European Velars from the labialization that befell them in the speech of the Samnites. The language of the inscription of Velitrae offers at first sight a difficulty from this point of view, in the conversion it shows of q to p, but it is to be observed that the Ethnicon of Velitrae is Veliternus, and the people are called on the inscription itself Velestrom (genitive plural); so that there is nothing to prevent our assuming that we have here a settlement of Sabines among the Volscian hills, with their language, to some extent (e.g. in the matter of the diphthongs and palatals) corrupted by that of the people around them, just as we have reason to suppose was the case with the Safine​a language of the Iguvini, whose very name was later converted into Iguvinates, the suffix ‑ti‑ being much more frequent among the ‑co‑ tribes than among the Safines (see Sabini).

The name Volsci itself is significant not merely in its suffix; the older form Volusci clearly contains the word meaning "marsh" identical with Gr. ἕλος, since the change of *velos‑ to *volus‑ is phonetically regular in Latin. The name Marīca ("goddess of the salt-marshes") among the Aurunci appears also both on the coast of Picenum and among the Ligurians; and Stephanus of Byzantium identified the Osci with the Siculi, whom there is reason to suspect were kinsmen of the Ligures. It is remarkable in how many marshy places this ‑co‑ or ‑ca‑ suffix is used. Besides the Aurunci and the dea Marica and the intempestaeque Graviscae (Virg. Aen. X.184), we have the Ustica cubans of Horace (Odes I.17.1), the Hernici in the Trerus Valley, Satricum and Glanica in the Pomptine marshes.

For the text and fuller account of the Volscian inscription, and for other records of the dialect, see R. S. Conway, The Italic Dialects, pp267 sqq.

[R. S. C.]

Thayer's Note:

a A 'correction' widely seen on the Web (to "Sabine") is misguided. "Safine" is one of several names given today to a language group also variously and more commonly called "Sabellic" (by Mommsen), "Osco-Umbrian", "Sabellian", etc.; the nomenclature remains unsettled. The group includes Sabine and several other languages. To quote the Cambridge Ancient History, IV.730 (2008):

The term Italic, however, is frequently used as a label for the Osco-Umbrian languages only, through association with the ancient Italici (although this designation in Roman sources is by no means confined to one linguistic group) and the use of the name of Italy as a rallying call in the Social War. A more appropriate designation might rather be sought in the group of etymologically related names that includes Sabini, Sabelli, Samnium, Osc. safinim, etc., were it only possible to find a term that did not already have too particular a reference. It seems clear that the name underlying this group of derivatives was that used by the Osco-Umbrian peoples to refer to themselves; a further attestation now comes from three recently discovered mid-fifth‑century inscriptions from Penna Sant' Andrea (Teramo), two of which even mention a safina t(o)úta 'Safine people'. The wide occurrence of these names, together with the traditions of the 'Sabine' origins of the Umbrians and the Picentes, reflects an expansion of the Osco-Umbrian peoples from the central Apennines; the well-attested movements of the fifth century may be seen as a continuation of this process.

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