The lapis niger (Latin for “black stone”) refers to what is likely the oldest extant Latin inscription. It was found on a four-sided stone slab, roughly shaped like an obelisk, buried sideways under black marble in the Roman Forum. The inscription was likely carved around 500 BCE. Reading its text presented to the ancients – and still presents to us – a number of difficulties: the text is incomplete, since the top of the slab is broken off, the Latin on it is very early, and the lettering used is more Greek than Latin. Most interpretations of the text center around the only four undisputed words (SAKROS, RECEI, KALATOREM, IOUXMEN), which have been argued to indicate a sacred legal context.
The text presented here is a “Varronian” translation of that inscription, in that I have exclusively used etymologies found in, or inspired by, Marcus Terentius Varro’s work, De Lingua Latina (“On the Latin Language”), composed in twenty-five books between the years 47-45 BCE and dedicated to Varro’s contemporary, the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero. Varro lived through the turbulent times of the demise of the Roman Republic. He was born in 116 BCE, five years after the death of Gaius Gracchus, the first Roman politician to openly challenge the authority of the Senate. Outliving his contemporaries Caesar, Cicero, and Pompeius, Varro lived until 27 BCE, the year Augustus transformed the Republic into the Roman Empire. Excluded from politics for a good part of the second half of his life, Varro used his time to engage in scholarship. Of his estimated seventy-four works, only one (On Agriculture) survives in its entirety. Of his De Lingua Latina, the text used here, only books 5-10 survive, with large gaps, along with some fragments from other sections.
Despite its incomplete survival, Varro’s De Lingua Latina has not only had an enormous influence on our knowledge of Latin, but was also considered a foremost source for ancient Latin speakers interested in the origin of their own language. It is this influence that inspires my “Varronian” translation of the lapis niger inscription: one that Varro himself might have written on the basis of his own etymologies, or else creative interpretations of my own which might reasonably be Varronian etymologies. The translation is experimental and does not purport to be an authoritative translation of the text found on the lapis niger. It merely aims to document that this stone slab’s mysteries can be read and interpreted in many different ways, and to imagine what Varro would have made of it. Varro the politician passed by the stone many times during his busy days on the Forum Romanum – why should not Varro the scholar have taken an interest?
What follows is a line-by-line commentary explaining each word in relation to the extant etymologies of M. Terentius Varro’s De Lingua Latina (with relevant book and section numbers given in parentheses).
Line 1. QUOI, dative case of quis (VIII,50). HOI, Greek ois = Latin ovis, sheep (V,96).
Line 2. SAKROS, consecrated, inviolable (VII,10); this is one of the commonly accepted four words. ES, aes = copper as in as, a Roman coin (V,169); per (V,180), the sacramentum or sacred deposit consists of five hundred asses.
Line 3. ED, edo, I eat (VI,84). SORA, sors, joining or union (V,183).
Line 4. IA, ea, rendered here as “hers” to combine with IAS, “these.” On the stone slab, this line is corrupt, inviting guesswork even on the part of the expert.
Line 5. RECEI, to/of the rex, high priest (VI,13); this is the second of the commonly accepted four words, although “high priest” rather than “king” for rex is rendered here following Varro’s Republican etymology. IC, hic, this (X,50).
Line 6. EVAM, aevam, Greek aion, always existing (VI,11).
Line 7. QUOS, whom or which (VIII,50). Reading R (7) and M (8) as one word.
Line 8. [RE]M, res, the matter. KALATO from kalo, I announce (VI,27); this is the third commonly accepted word, calatorem indicates the “herald or crier” whose task it was to “clear a path for the king in public.” Following Varro, I have rendered this rather less regal.
Line 9. REM, res, same as line 8. I have followed Warmington and others in rendering HA as haruspex and have connected it to Varro’s story on the opening of the Lacus Curtius (V,148).
Line 10. IOD, aiod, from aio, I say (Fragment 36). IOUXMEN is the fourth commonly accepted word, rendered by Warmington as “draught-cattle.” In a Varronian spirit, which simultaneously endorses the Greek influence on Latin and aims to keep the latter independent, I have rendered it as I (numeral), OVUM, egg (V,112), and OSMEN, omen (VI,76). After all, the Etruscan origin of Roman archaic rites is well attested, and so is their Greek influence. Why not Orphic overtures?
Line 11. TA, from Greek. KAPIA, cape, take (VII,90). I have split DOTAV and have rendered DO, duo, two (IX,87), combining TAV with IR in line 12.
Line 12 is hopelessly unreadable in the original. I have followed Warmington in reversing it and read TAV/VIR as a transition within the word, a metamorphosis from taurus, bull (V,96) to vir, man (VIII,80).
Line 13. QUOI, as line 1. HA, hae, these (VIII,46).
Line 14. VELOD, following Varro’s double etymology for velle, wish, and volare, fly (IX,103). NEQU, nequam, worthless (X,79).
Line 15. OD, following Varro’s double etymology for odor, smell, and audio, sound (VI,83). For IOVESTOD I follow Warmington and many others.
Line 16. DOIVO, divo/diovis (V,66), and rendering an interpretation accepting that this line is a palindrome.
 Gary Forsythe, A Critical History of Early Rome (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 73-74.
 Eric H. Warmington, Remains of Old Latin. Archaic Inscriptions (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 244.
 Forsythe, 74.
 Warmington, 243.
 Bruno Rochette, “Greek and Latin Bilingualism,” in Egbert Bakker (ed.), A Companion to the Ancient Greek Language (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 284.