Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.06.35 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.06.35

Gareth Sears, Peter Keegan, Ray Laurence (ed.), Written Space in the Latin West, 200 BC to AD 300.   London; New York:  Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.  Pp. x, 293.  ISBN 9781441123046.  $120.00.  

Reviewed by Virginia L. Campbell, University of Oxford (


[The reviewer sincerely apologises for the lateness of this review.]

This volume, states Sears and Laurence in the introduction entitled, ‘Written Space’, was born out of a previous collaboration that yielded The City in the Roman West (2011) and the realization that public space and writing were linked to such a degree that the impact of the texts warranted its own study. One element they noticed was that the different kind of texts – whether large and permanent or small and temporary – might impact how texts were read, how people moved, and thus the development of spatial use within an urban centre. They then held a panel at the RAC in 2009, and this book of fifteen chapters is the result. Thus this work examines various aspects of writing – in all its forms – across Italy and the Western provinces. The editors challenged the authors to consider the inscriptions not just as texts or as part of an archaeological context, but to combine the two in order to think of written space, and how that in turn influences style, form, location, use of space, urbanization, and a number of other issues. In this aim, the book is divided into four thematic sections with an Introduction and Afterword, with two to four papers in each dealing with aspects of movement, time, space, social groups, buildings and regional variation.

The first section, ‘Writing, Reading, Movement, and Time’, contains four papers. Corbier (pp. 13-47) argues for the elimination of neat boundaries in typologies for texts in order to look more completely at all acts of public communication. She further suggests that Rome is unique in its proliferation of a ‘durable display’ of texts: thus, though it cannot be compared to other societies, they can be used to draw useful parallels. Social and cultural issues of writing are explored by Keegan (pp. 49-64) through the medium of funerary epitaphs, which place writing in a spatio-temporal context that allows the examination of both form and function. He argues for a combination of Woolf’s ‘epigraphic culture’ and Purcell’s ‘landscape of property’ that is evident in the funerary epigraphic environment of the Roman city wherein the tombs provide a ‘common place’ of the inscribed built environment where the ‘cultural practices of a diverse social community’ are expressed, defined, and reformulated (p. 60). Newsome (pp. 65-81) takes a spatial-temporal approach to subversive texts, looking at evidence in ancient literature, wall frescoes, and epigraphy, for the re- appropriation of official space for non-official texts, specifically of a political nature, thus rendering the act of writing and the use of space as dynamic across both space and time. The section concludes with an examination by Hannah (pp. 83-102) of time and lists, specifically the various fasti. He considers not only the differences in recording time – cyclical versus linear – but also how these records became politicized with the transition from Republic to Empire. He notes that under Augustus the office of consul was no longer of utmost importance as it was subsumed by the princeps, but that the concept of time that it represented became the significant aspect of its inclusion in the fasti.

The next section, ‘Written Space and Social Groups’, begins with Hillard’s (pp. 105-122) discussion of political graffiti in the late Republic. He uses a forensic approach to the texts in order to ‘contextualize parietal polemic and popular political texting’ in the belief that this will provide a better understanding of the impact of such non-official texts (p. 105). He specifically uses examples of graffiti contained by Plutarch’s lives of the brothers Gracchus to demonstrate not only the power such politically motivated texts may have had on their audience (whether the Gracchi themselves or the people of Rome more generally), but also the importance given the texts by their preservation in later literature. Quite succinctly, Hillard concludes how clear it is that ‘public space was contested’ through writing (p. 116). Laurence and Garraffoni (pp. 123-134) continue the section by attempting to determine if there are patterns to be found in types of graffiti in terms of subject matter, form (verbal v. visual texts), or another factor in their distribution across the urban landscape of Pompeii. Whilst the patterns (or lack thereof) are not always what might be expected, the authors determine that being able to read or write ‘was an action that allowed a person to have quite a different relationship with their city’, and that writing was an important aspect of urban life (p. 132). The presence of women in written space is the basis of the next chapter. Hemelrijk (pp. 135-152) considers three spaces – the monumental centre, sanctuary precincts, and necropoleis – where writing appears, and examines the frequency with which women are responsible for, or named in, texts. The evidence demonstrates a preponderance of dedications to family members and deities, and where women are named, emphasis on the rank of male family members and their piety. In the final paper in this section, children and slaves are the focus of discussion by Baldwin, Moulden and Laurence (pp. 153-166). They use the Villa of San Marco, buried by Vesuvius, as a case study for testing the use of spatial analysis and 3D modeling of graffiti to determine if who wrote a text can be determined by where it is located within a single domicile. In some areas, such as the kitchen, they are unsurprised by a large numbers of numerical texts, but in others, like the baths, the lack of verbal graffiti is unexpected. The authors do well to recognize some of the flaws inherent in using text height and other factors as determining authorship, but ultimately demonstrate that there is more work to be done in this area.

‘Written Space and Building Types’ is the focus of the next two papers provided by Trifilò (pp. 169-184) and Cooley (pp. 185-198). Trifilò looks at the use of the term platea in inscriptions as part of the ‘collective experiences of urban space’ (p. 169). The examination of such texts across Italy and the provinces demonstrates that its use, the majority of which use platea to refer to a broad street, are cities or towns that are in the process of expanding. This can then be tied to elements of spatial definition within the urban landscape, in terms of text, experience, and organization. Inscriptions found in the baths of Italy and the provinces of North Africa are used by Cooley to examine the different types of texts that may appear in one very specific location. She has found that these go beyond the usual means of demonstrating status and identity as is expected in public spaces, but also ‘performed functions distinctive to bath buildings’ that ranged from advertising amenities or special features of a particular bath house, but also demonstrated an appreciation of the surroundings or served an apotropaic purpose (p. 185).

The ultimate section of the book poses the question: ‘Regional Written Spaces?’ Three papers follow that attempt to provide an answer. In the first, Sears (pp. 201-216) explores the interrelationship of urban space and texts in Severan Africa. He notes that not only are there a greater number of inscriptions put up under the Severan emperors, but also that due to the lack of installations by subsequent rulers they continued to dominate until Late Antiquity, and thus had a significant impact on the shaping of the urban landscape. This is particularly true in the placement of milestones at transition points between the old and new fora of Cuicul. Next, Cleary (pp. 217-230) focuses on Aquitania in order to determine the role of inscriptions in provincial cities. One intriguing aspect of this chapter is the methods of survival of Roman epigraphy, specifically that cities that did not build walls re-using Roman-era stones in later periods have a much lower recovery rate, or that a city with proximity to a marble quarry (such as Convenae) had a higher rate. He also notes the survival in one instance of a painted inscription, suggesting that there is far more evidence of a temporary nature that is overlooked in the analysis of ancient writing. Cleary also looks at the synchronic nature of texts, and discusses the display of texts as an expression of power that was more dependent on their existence than on legibility or comprehension of the words themselves. Finally, Revell (pp. 231-246) examines political inscriptions located in Baetica. This study focuses on texts recovered from the forum in order to assess how social norms influenced the display of texts, and the interplay between political and social authority evident in the inscriptions. She argues, I think correctly, that ‘We tend to concentrate on the immediate message of these inscriptions, but they also embodied deeper values, and the ongoing act of reading the text and acknowledging these values formed one of the repeated acts which maintained the ideology of urbanism’ (p. 243).

One aspect that could have been addressed more comprehensively throughout the volume is literacy, as it remains a hotly contested issue in the scholarship of texts and writing. The majority of the contributions never mention the ability to read, or how this might otherwise affect the evidence or the overall argument presented. Hannah demonstrates some awareness of the issues in a comment about the abbreviated nature of lists such as the fasti, whilst Garraffoni and Laurence discuss it in terms of the ability to learn or practice writing in a public space, whether this is limited to no more than a name or consists of something more complex (Hannah p. 87, Garraffoni & Laurence pp. 123-124). Corbier and Revell are the only authors who address literacy in a more substantial manner, both presenting a similar concept regarding different levels of literacy, and how this relates to the public texts present in the urban centres of Roman antiquity. What Corbier refers to as ‘weak literacy’ is more or less akin to the argument made by Revell, who states that reading an inscription ‘relies on different literacy or interpretation skills’ than reading literature (Corbier p. 38, Revell p. 233). For a volume that focuses entirely on the written word, a greater inclusion of this kind of discussion would have elucidated the overall impression of the importance of text in the visual and cultural landscape.

The greatest success of this volume is its attempt to force the reader to think of writing as a concept in toto, not dividing practice based on official or monumental inscriptions versus non-official, sometimes subversive, or vulgar texts (in both senses) associated with graffiti in conjunction with how these texts appear in space. This is summed up well in the Afterword provided by Keegan (pp. 247-256) when he states that no matter the type of inscription ‘studying the discursive interdependencies of written space has demonstrated the possibilities available for modern eyes to reconceptualize how those who worked in and passed through these spaces perceived the nature of their particular urban environment and how the discourse which surrounded them shaped their perceptions – of themselves, their place in the world, their city, and their society’ (p. 248). The authors all go beyond the concept of the epigraphic habit itself, pushing both traditional urban studies and textual studies in a new, and necessary, direction. Whilst each individual chapter has a clear merit for the study of that particular place or type of writing, it is the work as a whole that should be viewed as an important contribution to furthering the scholarly discourse on the significance and prevalence of writing in Rome and the West.

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