20 Nov 2007

Those Mysterious Sovanians

I decided to title this entry in mocking tribute of those formulaic book titles such as Those Mysterious Etruscans by Agnes Carr Vaughn, The Mystery of the Tuscan Hills: A Travel Guide in Search of the Ancient Etruscans by Morris Weiss, Zacharie Mayani's La fin du mystère etrusque and all the numerous other books out there that quite purposely use the keyword "mystery" to earn a cheap buck or ratings. Even the New York Times is in on this subtle marketing scheme: Exploring the Etruscan Mystery. And of course I'm joining along by using "mystery" in this article to earn cheap blog ratings, hahahaha. We are all slaves to irony, aren't we?

Anyways, when drowning in the large ocean of passive entertainment and mystery, a lot of us are forgetting how refreshing it can be to seek out knowledgeable answers and to actively engage in learning and questioning. So as always, I want to bring up some questions I think are important that no one seems to be asking online yet.

I have an issue with this "mystery" of Sovana and its Etruscan origins. I'm still trying to track down any possible information on this, but there isn't much to go on from what I read. You see, if we take a cold, hard look at the city name *Sveama that is hypothesized to be the Etruscan version of Latin Suana (which in Italian is now known as Sovana), this name is in fact based on the attested personal name Pesna Arcmsnas Sveamaχ in the mural inscription TLE 298 of the Tomb of François (Vulci). Since Rumaχ and Velznaχ which are also mentioned in this tomb's inscriptions seem to mean "Roman" and "Volsinian" respectively, it seems reasonably secure that Sveamaχ is also based on an urbonym *Sveama.

But this is the thing. I'm trying to figure out exactly why Sovana is assumed as well as other problems. Is this the only possibility available? Or was it something that was assumed to be true in ad hoc fashion way back in the 19th century when linguistics was still a budding science? And how on earth do we explain the phonetics here? The pronunciation of a name like *Sveama should be something like /'swejəma/ (/j/ is regularly introduced within vowel sequences like ea because of what can be observed in spelling variations in other similar words). So how do we go from /'swejəma/ to Suana and how does an /m/ just interchange with /n/ like that? Do we really know who Pesna even was and what his significance is[1]?

So far it's suspect and vague, although I'm not completely disbelieving of the claim... yet. However, there is little information on early Suana because, lo and behold, it's yet another convenient "mystery" according to experts in the field. I thought I would let you all in on that and maybe one of you might have an idea to share that I haven't considered.

When experts place question marks next to the name and its connection to Sovana, I personally get uneasy about believing the claim blindly. (e.g. Halloway, The Archaeology of Early Rome and Latium (1994), p.6)

(Nov 22 2007) See Sovana, the town of Historical Fluff, apparently.


  1. This is only just an idea that might explain the odd m in Sveama. Though I'm not sure if it holds up.

    Is a word final /m/ contrastive with /n/ in Etruscan? If not I might suggest this.

    There's a small possibility that in a Vulgar Latin dialect, the place name Suana may have been pronounced Suan, or maybe with a small, reduced a at the end.

    If the Etruscans would interpret this as a word final n. Then the phoneme could be either /m/ or /n/. Later then if the Etruscans were to 'fix' the placename with a 'correct' a, the nasal might go wrong.

    But this is of course a completely ad-hoc explanation. The point I'm trying to make is that word final /m/ and /n/ are not often contrasting, and a word final a is not always a very strong 'word closer'. Whether this is actually possible is for you to decide, because you know an infinity more about Etruscan than I do ;)

  2. Damn! You're good :)

    While all Etruscologists seem to maintain *Sveama (e.g. Pallottino, Saggi di antichità, p.724), apparently one Roman historian agrees with you and reconstructs *Sveam (see Bringmann, A History of the Roman Republic (2007), p.10)!

    And if I were to advocate your position, a lack or erosion of m/n contrast in word-final position may be substantiated by qutum (TLE 63) and qutun (TLE 28) (see cutum in my pdf). The application of a filler vowel -a- between the derivational suffix and the noun stem is also within reason. If connected with the personal name Sveia (CIE 2251: Sveasla), a secure Etruscan etymology for this name could be established provided we can understand the meaning of a morpheme **-m.

    Ergo, your idea has serious potential. Good job!

    There are still problems to solve however. An appeal to Vulgar Latin seems anachronistic considering that the Tomb of François where the name Sveamaχ is written is said to date to around 330 BCE, so a borrowing from Latin to Etruscan appears to be ruled out. In what way then can the additional -a in Suana be explained in Latin, particularly if the name is ultimately Etruscan in origin instead?

  3. Hmm, it seems that in Helmut Rix's Etruskische Texte under inscription ET Vc 7.28 (which equals TLE 298 of Pallottino's system), it is claimed that it reads sveitmaχ, not sveamaχ (see here). As the plot thickens, I wonder if I've been fooled once again by Pallottino and his gang.