Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.04.43 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.04.43

Irene Berti, Katharina Bolle, Fanny Opdenhoff, Fabian Stroth (ed.), Writing Matters: Presenting and Perceiving Monumental Inscriptions in Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Materiale Textkulturen, 14.   Berlin; Boston:  De Gruyter, 2017.  Pp. viii, 395.  ISBN 9783110529159.  €89,95.  

Reviewed by Alexandra Wilding, University of Manchester (

[The Table of Contents is listed below]

The present volume assesses the value of ancient and medieval texts, primarily those incised on hard surfaces such as stone, as artefacts with the potential to interact with and even re-shape their immediate surroundings.1 It is based on the conference ‘Writing Matters. Presenting and Perceiving Monumental Texts in Ancient Mediterranean Cultures’ held in Heidelberg from 10-12th October 2013, and consists of 13 contributions (three in German and 10 in English, all of which have brief synopses in the Introduction, pp. 5-9). They are arranged thematically under four headings: ‘Theoretical and Methodical Approaches Around and About Writing’, ‘Text Spaces’, ‘Inscribed Monuments and Memory’ and ‘Writing Practices: Seeing, Perceiving and Acting with Inscriptions’. Space unfortunately does not permit discussion of all the contributions in this review.

After a brief introduction by the editors, the first section deals with ‘Theoretical and Methodical Approaches Around and About Writing’. Of particular note here is the chapter by Ludger Lieb and Ricarda Wagner, which tackles the difficulty of assessing an inscription’s impact on human actions and emotions (its ‘affordance’).2 They suggest that surveying literature for literary references which mention or directly quote an inscribed text (‘fictional metatexts’) is a way to identify the functions of physically extant inscriptions and to gauging their broader importance. This study may encourage systematic collection of literary references to Greek and Latin inscriptions.3

In the section on ‘Text Spaces’, focus is on the influence that a setting could have on an inscribed document (a theme also important to the latter two sections). While scholars remain interested in the factors determining the location of a particular genre of text,4 this section considers how an inscription’s location could also create meaning. The chapter by Irene Berti and Péter Kató concerns the reception of Hellenistic lists of names at Athens and on Kos, places where list- makers were particularly prolific. The chapter focuses on records of actions such as lists of public donations (epidoseis) and lists men who served on the council. These lists commemorate the actions of the individuals concerned, but the authors suggest that their placement within major sanctuaries and civic centers important to the democratic image of their respective communities extended such commemoration to all citizens (a point made more explicit in the case of Athens): for example, the location of lists of prytaneis in front of the bouleuterion and later inside the prytanikon possibly represented the political involvement of all Athenians. While the social purpose of inscribed lists is well explored, it would be interesting to uncover more about their honorific capacity in relation to other Athenian honorific practices at this time.5

The chapter by Eeva-Maria Viitanen and Laura Nissin discusses the spatial contexts of the painted notices (programmata) that promoted candidates in local elections at Pompeii. By comparing reconstructions of their spatial distribution above and between doorways of public and private buildings with known ‘street activity’, they hypothesize a connection between the placement of the candidates’ notices and the doorway owners. The importance of exactly where a text was visible is brought to the fore, and the authors speculate on who determined an inscription’s placement and how they did so: although exact details are unknown, they suggest plausibly that negotiations between the candidates and doorway owners – who were possibly supporters and even neighbours – were integral to their location.

The section on ‘Inscribed Monuments and Memory’ examines the relationship between epigraphy and remembrance.6 The connection is drawn out particularly well by Julia Shear in her exploration of the Athenians’ posthumous honours for Demosthenes in 281/0 BC, which were displayed within the Agora. Shear’s chapter reflects on the fact that the reception of an honorific monument is shaped by historical circumstance: in this instance, she argues that Demosthenes’ reputation as a past defender of democracy made it possible for his honours to blend in with the Athenians’ contemporary efforts to re-establish their democracy.

Elizabeth Meyer’s chapter offers a different perspective on the mnemonic function of inscribed monuments: she argues that the choice of a document’s physical layout could harken back to the memory and importance of a society’s earlier inscribing habits. Meyer's focus is on the Athenians' development of writing in columnar format, which began in the early fifth century, and suggests that this habit was inspired by inscribed posts set up on the Acropolis from the late sixth century (whose content corresponded broadly to thesmoi). Although Meyer is faced with the obvious problem of patterns in survival,7 her hypothesis that the columnar format was used in texts whose content overlapped with the concerns of earlier thesmoi is broadly compelling (although it is not applied as forcefully to the casualty lists from the Kerameikos). This chapter may encourage further recognition of the physical presentation of inscriptions in order to unlock their mnemonic function.

The final section, ‘Writing Practices: Seeing, Perceiving and Acting with Inscriptions’, concerns both the performative effect of inscribed texts and also motivations for monumentalizing the written word. The chapter by Vincent Debiais focuses on writing above, and leading to, medieval doors and passageways of religious structures, particularly the representation of the Holy City on a column capital in the Cloister of Moissac. Debiais highlights how the physical presence of this capital’s text influenced the movements and even cognitive senses of its viewer: its position in front of the church door, for example, meant that its text signaled an entrance to sacred space. However, it was just one of the 80 capitals within the cloister and it would be useful to know more about how the Holy City capital fitted with the others, 80% of which were also inscribed (particularly as the influence that monuments could have on one another is a theme in several of this volume’s chapters).

Rebecca Benefiel’s chapter moves indoors in her exploration of wall inscriptions within domestic spaces at Pompeii, at the villa of San Marco at Stabiae, and at the villa of Poppaea at Oplontis. Although larger urban and rural domestic spaces display similar numbers of wall inscriptions, Benefiel observes a difference in their performative nature. At Pompeii, she suggests that wall inscriptions represent social interaction between residents and visitors: their placement in clusters within larger rooms and entrance halls suggest the inscriptions are communicating with one another. At the two rural villas, however, Benefiel notes a stronger presence of non-textual inscriptions such as drawings and numerical graffiti and a less- clustered spatial distribution and argues plausibly that this reflects a more ornamental than social function. One wonders if the type of person incising the text within urban and rural domestic spaces influenced its purpose.

Overall, this volume’s loosely thematic approach succeeds in highlighting key similarities in the function of ancient and medieval incised texts, but the themes in each section are quite fluid. The editors note explicitly (p. 5) that several of the chapters could usefully contribute to more than one of the volume’s subsections; inevitably, this does blur their focus. Nevertheless, this volume offers an important contribution to understanding incised texts and will be of value to students and scholars of various disciplines.

Table of Contents

Irene Berti, Katharina Bolle, Fanny Opdenhoff, Fabian Stroth. Introduction - 1
Theoretical and Methodical Approaches Around and About Writing
Ludger Lieb and Ricarda Wagner. Dead Writing Matters? Materiality and Presence in Medieval German Narrations of Epitaphs - 15
Alexander Starre. Social Texts: How to Account for the Cultural Work of Carrier Media - 27
Francisca Feraudi-Gruénais. Das synaktive Potential von Beischriften - 43
Text Spaces
Irene Berti und Péter Kató. Listen im öffentlichen Raum hellenistischer Städte - 79
Eeva-Maria Viitanen and Laura Nissin. Campaigning for Votes in Ancient Pompeii: Contextualizing Electoral Programmata - 117
Georgios Pallis. Messages from a Sacred Space: The Function of the Byzantine Sanctuary Barrier Inscriptions (9th-14th centuries) - 145
Inscribed Monuments and Memory
Julia L. Shear. Writing Past and Present in Hellenistic Athens: The Honours for Demosthenes - 161
Milena Melfi. The Stele of Polybios: Art, Text and Context in Second-Century BC Greece – 191
Elizabeth A. Meyer. Inscribing in Columns in Fifth-Century Athens - 205
Writing Practices: Seeing, Perceiving and Acting with Inscriptions
Andreas Rhoby. Text as Art? Byzantine Inscriptions and Their Display - 265
Vincent Debiais. Writing on Medieval Doors: The Surveyor Angel on the Moissac Capital (ca. 1100) - 285
Wilfried E. Keil. Von sichtbaren und verborgenen Signaturen an mittelalterlichen Kirchen - 309
Rebecca R. Benefiel. Urban and Suburban Attitudes to Writing on Walls? Pompeii and Environs - 353


1.   Recent publications assessing the inscribed word beyond its immediate textual content include: Zahra Newby and Ruth Leader-Newby (eds.), Art and Inscriptions in the Ancient World. Cambridge, 2007; Julia L. Shear, Polis and Revolution: Responding to Oligarchy in Classical Athens, Cambridge, 2011.
2.   This chapter is related to the subproject led by Ludger Lieb, ‘Inscriptionality. Reflections of the Material Text Culture in the Literature of the 12th to 17th Centuries’, which is part of the Collaborative Research Center 933, ‘Materiality and Presence of Writing in Non-Typographic Societies’ at the University of Heidelberg.
3.   See now Peter Liddel and Polly Low (eds.), Inscriptions and Their Uses in Greek and Latin Literature. Oxford, 2013, a collection of essays focussed on Greek and Latin literary attitudes to fictional and non-fictional epigraphical texts. For discussion of assembling a collection of inscriptions preserved in literary testimonia see pp. 4-6.
4.   For example: Robin G. Osborne, ‘Inscribing Democracy’ in R.G. Osborne and S. Goldhill (eds.), Performance Culture in Athenian Democracy, Cambridge, 1999: 341-58, Peter Liddel, ‘The Places of Publication of Athenian State Decrees from the Fifth Century BC to the Third Century AD’, ZPE 134 (2003): 79-93, Stephen D. Lambert Inscribed Athenian Laws and Decrees in the Age of Demosthenes. Historical Essays. Leiden, 2018: Chapter 1.
5.   For example, William Mack, Proxeny and Polis. Institutional Networks in the Ancient Greek World. Oxford, 2015 p. 240 (with Fig. 5.5, p. 241) observes that while the Athenians’ inscription of honorific decrees declined from the late fourth century, inscribed decrees for citizens from this time were more common than those for non-citizens.
6.   The bibliography is extensive, but recent studies include Julia L. Shear, Polis and Revolution: Responding to Oligarchy in Classical Athens. Cambridge, 2011; Julia L. Shear, ‘The Politics of the Past: Remembering Revolution at Athens’, in J. Marincola, L. Llewellyn-Jones and C. Maciver (eds.), Greek Notions of the Past in the Archaic and Classical Eras. Edinburgh, 2012: 276-300; Polly Low, ‘Remembering and Forgetting: The Creation and Destruction of Inscribed Monuments in Classical Athens’, in J. Tumblety (ed.) Memory and History: Understanding Memory as Source and Subject. London and New York, 2013: 71-87; Stephen D. Lambert Inscribed Athenian Laws and Decrees in the Age of Demosthenes. Historical Essays. Leiden, 2018: Chapters 5 and 6.
7.   For extant inscribed stone posts from the Acropolis (and elsewhere within Athens and Attica) see Elizabeth A. Meyer, ‘Posts, Kurbeis, Metopes: The Origins of the Athenian “Documentary” Stele’, Hesperia 85 (2016): 323-383 (pp. 359-360, Table 1).

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010