BMCR 2001.10.17

The Epigraphy of Death: Studies in the History and Society of Greece and Rome

, The epigraphy of death : studies in the history and society of Greece and Rome. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2000. 1 online resource (xiv, 225 pages) : illustrations, maps. ISBN 9781846313042 £16.95.

George Eliot concluded Middlemarch (1872) on an oddly somber note, contemplating the place of Dorothea Brooke’s struggles and sufferings within the wider surge of world events: “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistorical acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” Nonetheless, one may wonder whether Dorothea’s tomb, if visited, would have told the full story (if such can ever be told) of her life. The very placement of a corpse may only reveal a portion of the truth, as was the case with Edgar Lee Masters’ “Chase Henry” (of the Spoon River Anthology (1915)). The parish priest denied Mr. Henry, the town drunkard, burial; the Protestants, for their own purposes, purchased a plot for the man and laid him just beside the grave of a respectable banker and his wife. Accordingly, Mr. Henry wryly observes, “Take note, ye prudent and pious souls,/ Of the cross-currents in life/ Which bring honor to the dead, who lived in shame.”

G. J. Oliver’s collection addresses, among other relevant matters, both of the phenomena suggested by these quotations. As a group, together with the particularly thought-provoking introduction by their editor, they advocate “visiting” entire ancient tomb sites, rather than merely reading dislocated inscriptional texts, and they suggest means of stepping behind those texts to assess the complex motives of the living people who chose to commemorate the dead. These six studies cover an impressive range of regions and time periods (Classical Athens, Hellenistic and Roman Athens and Miletus, Imperial Rome, Roman Mainz, and even the eighteenth-century “antiquities” community in Europe), but they still manage to develop a few common themes that will be of interest to anyone who uses epigraphy in his/her research.

Taken individually, each paper effectively raises and answers a specific question about a group of tombstone texts and/or monuments, but some could, perhaps, be improved with reference to similar instances in other times and places. In her “The Times They Are A’Changing: Developments in Fifth-Century Funerary Sculpture,” K. Stears makes a compelling argument for analyzing entire funerary monuments, i.e. inscriptions and sculptural elements, and not merely the former (p. 41). Noting the declining numbers of private, aristocratic family monuments in the early fifth century at Athens, and the reappearance of stone stelai around 450, she suggests that political developments shaped the parameters of burial and commemoration. In fact, “the growing egalitarianism of the first decades of the century,” among other factors, pressured elites “to conform to the new ideology to which the majority of the population adhered” (p. 53). However, as one of the key supports to her case is Cicero’s De legibus (2.64-5), it would seem advisable to comment, at greater length, on the Roman aristocratic context in which this observation was made and deem whether Cicero is deliberately refashioning Athenian history for his own purposes.1

Oliver’s own contribution to these papers is a reassessment of how affordable burial would have been for the “ordinary” Athenian. He challenges the reading, by T. H. Nielsen et al.,2 of an inscription that seems to record the cost of a burial, observing that it is unclear exactly which expenditure(s) are entailed in this figure. We are given frustratingly little information in ancient texts generally about the cost of individual elements in this process, such as the price of a burial plot, components of a burial service (provided one took place), the stone itself, the inscription upon it, care and maintenance of the site, arrangements for burial of dependents and other family members, etc. To argue for a general cost for sepulture, and to determine, on that figure’s basis, its “affordability,” is misguided, in O.’s estimation, and we will have to concede that some, perhaps very many, Athenians could have afforded none of the basic elements of a funeral (pp. 76-7). The piece asks a number of important, but probably insoluble, questions, but it might also be enhanced with Roman parallels, especially with reference to the “associations” that occasionally contribute to members’ burials (p. 65). O. notes that burial by these organizations reminds us “that not everyone could have afforded proper and full burial in antiquity,” and he cites Onno van Nijf’s superb discussion of these matters in The Civic World of Professional Associations in the Roman East (Amsterdam, 1997). However, unlike a similar passage in his introduction to the papers (p. 10), O. does not draw here the conclusion that van Nijf does, namely that individual choice and group identity may have been the determining factors in such corporate burials, and not merely, or even primarily, cost and affordability.3

In “Milesian Immigrants in Late Hellenistic and Roman Athens,” T. Vestergaard sifts through a limited body of inscriptional evidence (attesting Milesians resident in Attica c. 100 BCE-200 CE) to analyze shifting civic loyalties and immigration patterns. However, this study is hampered by two deficiencies. First, beyond a brief comment on the Milesian ephebate (p. 101), no comparison of epigraphic or commemorative practice at Miletus in the same period is included, even though this would certainly shed light on the “epigraphic habits” of transplanted Milesians. Furthermore, the astonishingly high proportion of women named in the evidence and, more importantly, their propensity to marry Athenian men, are not adequately explained. V. observes that in this sample 44 women are listed as having Athenian spouses while only two Milesian men have Athenian wives, but he contends that Athenian women may simply “have been reluctant to include their husband’s name on their own tombstones” (p. 103). However, the more obvious explanation may be derived from the example of that most famous of Milesian exports, Aspasia, who is only mentioned in a short note in the article (p. 90, n. 30). Many of the Milesians named in the texts bear metronymics, interpreted by V. as being “the illegitimate children of prostitutes” (p. 92), but one wonders whether this suggestion could be applied more generally. The high rate of Milesian female to Athenian male intermarriage could very easily have been a self-conscious evocation of the Aspasia-Pericles relationship, and such women may, understandably, have chosen to shape their own posthumous identity.

Margaret King’s “Commemoration of Infants on Roman Funerary Inscriptions” is a perceptive and provocative reconsideration of common assumptions about epitaphs offered to children. While stating the obvious—that children are not adequately represented in the epigraphic record, especially given extremely high rates of child mortality—she insists that such deaths could, nevertheless, have constituted real emotional losses to the bereft parents. K.’s statistical tables, drawn from CIL 6, reveal that the ‘value’ of an individual child (measured in terms of gender, servile status, and class) is not necessarily an accurate indicator of his/her chances of being buried and commemorated with an inscription (pp. 121-9). Much of this is familiar territory in recent studies,4 but it is well worth remarking, again, that the decisions to bury (and commemorate, which was often another matter) were by no means simple material calculations. Nor should we infer from formulaic language that the commemorator was not emotionally affected by the loss of the child. Drawing on cogent and appropriate comparisons to modern cemeteries (and even greeting cards), K. contends that the use of conventional phrases does not reveal a lack of feeling (p. 131). In fact, given the trauma we experience upon the death of a loved one, it is only natural to turn to standard, even cliché, statements of grief in the quest for psychological comfort (p. 133).

As in her various studies of “group identity” among gladiators,5 Valerie Hope attempts to reconstruct the lives of soldiers, especially in auxiliary units, stationed in Mainz in the imperial period. She makes a series of interesting suggestions concerning the reconstitution of military hierarchies in death by means of burial arrangement and commemoration and insists upon viewing sculpted elements and inscribed texts as single objects, where these are available. However, this approach, at least to my mind, leads to possibly erroneous conclusions. For example, the caption to the inscribed image on p. 170 states, on the basis of the image alone, that the deceased was a ‘signifer,’ despite the fact that the text does not name him as such, as she concedes (p. 173). This seems a dangerous inference; a man merely stands with the insignia of a military unit, just above the inscribed epitaph, and this may not, in any way, be intended to be a portrait of the deceased. One may compare monuments to contemporary veterans, which often include stylized soldiers or sailors who look nothing like a specific deceased individual. Even if the legion’s standard is actually pictured here exactly as it appeared in reality, this may be nothing more than a symbolic reference to the unit (and, significantly, to the unnamed “heirs” who often paid for such monuments), and not to the deceased soldier himself. I would also caution against using what appear to be images of cavalrymen as direct portraits of the deceased as there are a series of “horsemen” in the Danubian provinces that are exclusively religious in nature.6

The final essay in this set is a cautionary tale by Glenys Davies on the brisk antiquities market of the eighteenth century, which resulted in the Blundell Collection of 82 ash chests. The sobering conclusions are that “slightly less than half of these are [definitely] genuine” (p. 210), and that not all of the fakes were labelled as such by the editors of CIL (p. 199). (One example is CIL 6.20567.) A further avenue for study, as D. suggests, might be a consideration of the world of the Italian forger in the Settecento; how did he (or she?) learn this dodgy craft, and did its practitioners fear exposure by an unusually perceptive collector?7

Editors of collected papers are often bedeviled by the challenge of organizing disparate studies around common themes and of making smaller-scale analyses speak with a common voice. O. has ably fulfilled this task in these papers, repeatedly stressing the importance of placing tombstones in their wider physical context. While the publication of inscriptions in enormous and moldering volumes has tended to encourage viewing them as “texts,” O. insists that their physical surroundings must be considered as well (pp. 3-5).

While I, and virtually every other epigrapher, would certainly concur in this statement, it must also be admitted that the contexts of inscriptions are very often unrecoverable and, in a disturbing number of cases, misleading. On balance, reading archaeological reports has been of signal importance in my research, fleshing out stark inscriptional evidence with vivid survivals of the deceased. For example, a stone reading “LOC COL(legii) MULIONUM” would be of little inherent interest without a consideration of the layout of this cemetery (which included at least eight distinct graveplots) and the objects found in it, including a flagellum fashioned from iron, leather, and rope.8 However, the plot just below a marker to “T. Flavius Jucundus” at Otranto was found to contain a female skeleton, to the astonishment of its excavators.9 Perhaps here we have an echo of the kind of secret Chase Henry took to his grave, but the more likely explanation, of course, is that the physical context of an inscription may have been lost, quite hopelessly, and that the publication and arrangement of dislocated inscriptional texts may actually be more a benefit than an impediment to historical research. Short of a searchable CD-ROM collection of all the inscriptions printed in any source anywhere in the world, those moldering volumes may be the best, and certainly one of the most remarkable, legacies of our predecessors’ prodigious labors that we possess.


1. Compare, especially, Harriet Flower’s Ancestor Masks and Aristocratic Power in Roman Culture (Oxford, 1996), for the complex interplay of Late Republican politics and funeral custom, as well as I. Morris’ cautions concerning such “Athenocentrism,” in “Everyman’s Grave,” in Athenian Identity and Civic Ideology, ed. A. Boegehold [misspelled in the book under review] and A. Scafuro (Baltimore, 1994), pp. 67-101.

2. T. H. Nielsen, L. Bjertrup, M. H. Hansen, L. Rubenstein, and T. Vestergaard, “Athenian Grave Monuments and Social Class,” GRBS 30 (1989) 411-20.

3. In his first chapter, “Funerary Activities of Professional Associations in the Roman East,” van Nijf forcefully argues: “It seems, then, that being buried by a collegium was less a necessity than a conscious choice. If we want to be able to explain why people chose to be buried by a collegium, and why they emphasized their membership of collegia at death, we must open up the discussion” (p. 33).

4. See, especially, Mark Golden, “Did the Ancients Care When Their Children Died?,” Greece and Rome 35 (1988) 152-63, as well as I. Morris, Death-Ritual and Social Structure in Classical Antiquity, Cambridge, 1992, and H. S. Nielsen, “Interpreting Epithets in Roman Epitaphs,” in The Roman Family in Italy, ed. B. Rawson, Canberra/Oxford, 1997, pp. 169-204. Among other interesting examples, I have encountered a tombstone erected to “Logisma,” who was female, enslaved, and under two years old when she died but was, nonetheless, remembered by a pair of grieving (and enslaved) parents. ( CIL 9.3526) Such exceptions may prove the rule, of course, but it would seem unwise—and callous—to ignore data like this, when it is available.

5. V. M. Hope, “Negotiating Identity: The Gladiators of Roman Nîmes,” Cultural Identity in the Roman Empire, ed. J. Berry and R. Laurence, London, 1998, pp. 176-95, and “Fighting for Identity: The Funerary Commemoration of Italian Gladiators,” The Epigraphic Landscape of Roman Italy, ed. A. Cooley, London, 2000, pp. 93-113.

6. Examples of sculptures very like the ones included here, and interpreted in a religious context, may be found in M. Mackintosh, The Divine Rider in the Art of the Western Roman Empire, Oxford (βαρ 1995, esp. Figures 67, 85, and 86.

7. Upon reading this, I was reminded of a similar collection I was privileged to view at New York University, whose inscriptional contents are now being published, with proper considerations of provenance, under Michael Peachin’s editorship.

8. See J. Ortalli, “La stele sarsinate dei muliones,” Epigraphica 44 (1982) 201-7; ibid., “La via dei sepolcri di Sarsina,” Abhandlungen der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Ph.-Hist. Kl. 96 (1987) 155-82; and N. Finamore, “Mausolei a cuspide delle necropoli sarsinate,” in Sarsina, Studi di antichità, ed. G. Susini, Bologna, 1987, pp. 93-108.

9. Excavations at Otranto, ed. D. Michaelides and D. Wilkinson, Lecce, 1992, I: 90-2.