The Osci: the ancient people of Massa Lubrense

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The Osci: the ancient people of Massa Lubrense

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by Rosario Sisto

More than one ancient civilization has made Massa Lubrense its home over the centuries, just like in the rest of Italy: the ancient Romans, the Greeks, the Longobards and many others. The history of our land is rich indeed.

However, among the many people who have set foot on these lands there’s one that preceeds them all. We have proof of their past presence here thanks to an inscription found in Punta Campanella: the Osci (or Oscans).

The ancient italic people of the Osci

The Osci were an ancient italic ethnic group, essentially one of those people who were already present in Italy long before the arrival of the Greeks or the roman conquests. Unfortunately, their origins are still uncertain even today, due to the relative lack of archeological discoveries related to them. Various authors have each given their own hypothesis on the matter.

According to some historians, these people were born from the assimilation of the Opici by some samnitic people. The Opici were another italic people situated in Opicia, an ancient territory which included a large part of modern day Campania.

According to others the name “Osci” is just a second name the Opici ended up getting known by.

What we know with enough certainty is that these people, in actuality divided in various tribes as was often the case of many italic civilizations, probably came into contact with the ancient Greeks and, obviously, with the Romans. The latter ended up “romanizing” this civilization, as was their custom, destroying its cultural characteristics and replacing them with elements of roman culture.

Oscan: a special language

The Osci, ancient people of Massa Lubrense
Oscan alphabet complete with transliteration

Perhaps the most distinguishing element of the Osci was their language: the Oscan language.

The language has indo-european origins and belongs to the Osco-Umbran strain. Its geographical extension throughout the peninsula was particularily large, covering basically all of its southern half.

This language was spoken from the sixth/fifth century BC up until the romanization of the people in the first century BC. This, as a consecuence, saw Oscan being replaced by Latin.

What makes Oscan a rather special language among other ancient Italic languages is that it used to be written in at least three different alphabets. It naturally had one of its own, containing between 19 and 23 letters, according to scholars. But some Oscan records written in the Latin and Greek alphabets have also been found.

Culture and society of the Osci

Judging by what we can discern from the few discoveries we have, the Osci were people who based their own sustenance mainly on agriculture and cattle, especially buffalos. From here probably derives the modern custom of raising these animals in Campania.

Family was the key element of their social structure, which was generally patriarchal. For centuries, the Oscan society did not see the existence of slavery, but it was later introduced after the Osci came into contact with the Greeks.

As for their religion, it seems that the Osci worshipped deities linked to natural elements, such as the Sun and the Earth, like many other pre-Roman civilizations. It also seems that the worship of Mater Matuta was quite common among them.

It was precisely the Oscan culture that created an important theatrical genre: the Atellan farce. This genre owes its name to the city of Atella, one of the Osci’s ancient cities. It mainly consisted of the usually improvised representation of scenes that had a comedic tone and that focused on characters that belonged to low class social contexts. Said characters were all typical, meaning they generally represented a specific type of person and were distinguished by a singular personality trait. Some of these types were the servant, the master, the old fool, the glutton. Each of these was characterized by a specific grotesque looking mask. This genre was very popular in ancient times, even among the Romans, and it is still today the main and greatest piece of Oscan culture that we know of.

Admiring the history of the ancient people of Massa Lubrense

Unfortunately we still know relatively little about the Osci as we can only depend on the few archeological findings scattered throughout the land of Campania. Massa Lubrense, with its own findings belonging to this ancient civilization, could then be quite an interesting spot for anyone who might wish to learn more about the history of the Osci, not to mention that of other Italic civilizations whose traces are still present in these lands. Therefore, we encourage all of you, wether you are tried and true ancient history scholars or are simply curious to know the past history of our lands, to come here to admire with your own eyes what remains of our ancient origins!