(in Greek always Ὄπικοι
: the. original form of the name was OPSCUS, which was still used by Ennius, ap. Fest. s. v. p. 198), a nation of Central Italy, who at a very early period appear to have been spread over a considerable part of the peninsula. So far as we can ascertain they were the original occupants, at the earliest time of which we have anything like a definite account, of the central part of Italy, from Campania and the borders of Latium to the Adriatic; while on the S. they adjoined the Oenotrians, whom there is good reason to regard as a Pelasgic tribe. Throughout this extent they were subsequently conquered and reduced to subjection by tribes called Sabines or Sabellians, who issued from the lofty mountain tracts of the Apennines N. of the territory then occupied by the Oscans.
The relation between the Sabellians and the Oscans is very obscure ; but it is probable that the former were comparatively few in number, and adopted the language of the conquered people, as we know that the language. both of the Campanians and Samnites in later times, was Oscan. (Liv. 10.20
.) Whether it remained unmixed, or had been modified in any degree by the language of the Sabellians, which was probably a cognate dialect, we have no means of determining, as all our existing monuments of the language are of a date long subsequent to the, Sabellian conquest.
The ethnical affinities of the. Oscans, and their relations to the Sabellian and other races of Central Italy, have been already considered under the article ITALIA; it only remains to add a few words concerning what is known of the Oscan: language.
Niebuhr has justly remarked that “the Oscan language is by no means an inexplicable mystery, like the Etruscan. Had a single book in it been preserved, we should be perfectly able to decipher it out of itself.” (Nieb. vol. i. p. 68.) Even with the limited means actually at our command we are able in great part to translate the extant inscriptions in this language, few and mostly brief as they are; and though the meaning of many words remains uncertain or unknown, we are able to arrive at distinct conclusions concerning the general character and affinities of the language. The Oscan was closely connected with the Latin ; not merely as. the Latin was with the Greek and other branches of the great Indo-Teutonic family, as offshoots from the same original stock, but as cognate and nearly allied dialects.
This affinity may be traced throughout the grammatical forms and inflections of the language not less than in the vocabulary of single words. The Latin was, however, in, all probability a composite language, derived from a combination of this Oscan element with one more closely akin to the Greek, or of Pelasgic origin [LATIUM
p. 137]; while the Oscan doubtless represents the language of Central Italy in its more unmixed form.
In many cases the older and ruder specimens of the Latin retain Oscan forms, which. were laid aside in the more refined stages of the language: such is the termination of the ablative in d,
which is found in the Duilian and other old Latin inscriptions, and appears to have been universal in Oscan.
The few notices of Oscan words which, have been preserved to us by Latin writers, as: Varro, Festus, &c., are of comparatively little importance. Our chief knowledge of the language is derived, from extant inscriptions; of which the three most important are: 1. the Tabula Bantina, a bronze tablet found in the [p. 2.499]
neighbourhood of Bantia, on the borders of Apulia and Lucania, and which refers to the municipal affairs of that town; 2. the Cippus Abellanus, so called from its having been found at Abella in Campania, and containing a treaty or agreement between the two neighbouring cities of Nola and Abella; and 3. a bronze tablet recently discovered in the neighbourhood of Agnone
in; northern Samnium, containing a dedication of various sacred offerings.
It is remarkable that these three monuments have been found in nearly the most distant quarters of the Oscan territory.
By the assistance of the numerous minor inscriptions, we may fix pretty clearly the limits within which the language was spoken. They include, besides Campania and Samnium Proper, the land of the Hirpini and Frentani, and the northern part of Apulia. No inscriptions in Oscan have been found in Lucania (except immediately on its borders) or Bruttium, though it is probable that in both of these countries the Sabellian conquerors introduced the Oscan language, or one closely connected with it; and we are distinctly told by Festus that the Bruttians spoke Greek and Oscan.
(Fest. p. 35, M.) We learn also with certainty that not only the vernacular, but even the official, use of the Oscan language continued in Central Italy long after the Roman conquest. Indeed few, if any, of the extant inscriptions date from. an earlier period.
The comic poet Titinius alludes to it as a dialect still in common use in his time, about B.C. 170. (Fest. s.v. Opscum,
The coins struck by the Samnites and their allies during the Social War (B.C. 90-88) have Oscan inscriptions; but it is probable that, after the close of that contest and the general admission of the Italians to the Roman franchise, Latin became universal as the official language of Italy. Oscan, however, must have continued to be spoken, not only in the more secluded mountain districts, but even in the towns, in Campania at least, until a much later period ; as we find at Pompeii inscriptions rudely scratched or painted on the walls, which from their hasty execution and temporary character cannot be supposed to have existed long before the destruction of the city in A.D. 79.
(Concerning the remains of the Oscan language see Mommsen, Unter-Italischen Dialekte,
4to. Leipzig, 1850; Klenze, Philologische Abhandlungen,
8vo. Berlin, 1839 ; and Donaldson, Varromianus,
We have no evidence of the Oscans having any literature, properly so called ; but it was, certainly from them that the Romans derived the dramatic entertainments called Atellanae, a kind. of rude farces, probably bearing considerable resemblance to the performances of Pulcinello, still sot popular at Naples and in its neighbourhood. When these were transplanted to Rome they were naturally rendered into Latin; but though Strabo is probably mistaken in speaking of the Fabulae Atellanae of his day as still performed at Rome
in Oscan, it is very natural to suppose that they were still so exhibited in Campania as long as the Oscan language continued in common use in that country. (Strab. v. p.233
; concerning the Fabulae Atellanae see Mommsen, l.c.
p. 118; Bernhardy, Römische Literatur,
p. 378, &c.; Munk, de Fabulis Atellanis,