BMCR 2002.03.25

Revitalizing Ancient Inscriptions (BICS Supplement 75)

, The afterlife of inscriptions : reusing, rediscovering, reinventing & revitalizing ancient inscriptions. Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies. Supplement ; 75. London: Institute of Classical Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London, 2000. xiii, 203 pages : illustrations, map, facsimiles ; 25 cm.. ISBN 0900587865. L 45.

The eleven papers in this volume are the product of a conference held in 1998 at Oxford University on the subject of how inscriptions were treated as artistic and historical sources from ancient times until the 1940’s. Not included here are at least two of the papers given at the conference, and, as a sign that the conference has been a spur to further research, at least one paper deals with new material not discussed at the conference.1 Latin inscriptions figure more prominently here than those in other languages, but at least two of the articles focus primarily on Greek inscriptions, and all of the articles raise issues relevant to those who work on Greek inscriptions, or for that matter, inscriptions in any language.

In the introduction (“The Life-Cycle of Inscriptions”) Alison Cooley lays out the principle that underlies all the articles in the volume: inscriptions hold an anomalous position in that they represent both text and object. As objects inscriptions can be of interest long after their erection, especially in situations where no one is able or cares to read the text anymore. The relief accompanying an inscription or the simple fact that the object carries a written text may hold more appeal than what the text says. On the other hand, as archaeological objects and thus appearing to be free of some of the biases that affect literary texts, inscriptions have often held a privileged status as evidence. So at various times during an inscription’s life, the fact that a text was literally written in stone may give it an authority denied other evidence, even if this authority should be questioned.

This volume is eminently readable, especially given that so much of the material will be unfamiliar to most readers, even those who regularly work with ancient inscriptions. All the articles provide extensive background, and terminology is always well explained. The copious illustrations are clear and are placed in the text, not at the back of the volume, for easy reference. Except for a few short Italian quotes in Benton’s article, all non-English inscriptions and references are translated in the text or at the bottom of the page. The authors and the editor are to be commended for creating a work that is a pleasure to read and provides much to think about concerning the role of inscriptions in antiquity and later periods.

Now for a more detailed treatment with an eye to helping scholars decide which articles might have a bearing on their own research. While the volume is arranged chronologically according to the period of reception, I shall deal with the contributions in terms of the themes they share: (A) the five papers that have immediate practical consequences for those who work on epigraphy or whose research depends heavily on the evidence provided by Greek or Roman inscriptions, (B) the three that essentially constitute chapters in the history of epigraphy as a discipline, and (C) the three that deal with the direct influence of ancient inscriptions on artistic and epigraphic endeavors in the modern period.

The first of the articles of practical import is the editor’s contribution, “Inscribing History at Rome.” Cooley uses the Capitoline as a case study for how inscriptions functioned in Roman society during the late Republic and early Empire. In an odd twist of fate for a volume on inscriptions, she is forced to rely nearly exclusively on literary sources since the destruction of the Capitoline in modern times has left little epigraphic material for the archaeologist to recover. Those literary references do make it clear that Romans (as well as Greeks interested in Roman history) read and commented on the inscriptions set up on the Capitoline. Moreover, as far as inscriptions were concerned, the Capitoline represented a location with a special status in Roman society. Treaties with foreign peoples and records of special privileges were displayed here for all to see. In addition, in the late Republic Romans expected aristocrats to display their family history in honorary inscriptions on the Capitoline. However, the Capitoline lost much of its special status when Augustus cleared the hill of the many statues that had accumulated there. This remodeling of the Capitoline was connected with his desire to control how the tale of Rome’s greatness would be told. No longer would aristocratic families be able to construct history as they wanted. Rather, he would tell it in his own way because henceforth the significant records were the ones he set up in his Forum, not on the Capitoline. Clearly, inscriptions were not neutral objects for the Romans, and the general conclusion to be drawn from Cooley’s study is one that occurs throughout this work. We should not take what we read on inscriptions at face value simply because they are written on stone. Inscriptions, along with any ancient historical account based on them, may be as biased as any literary source.

Otto van Nijf (“Inscriptions and Civic Memory in the Roman East”) considers much the same question as Cooley but from the perspective of how inscriptions functioned in a Greek city during the Roman Empire. The epigraphic record for Termessos is sufficiently complete and compact that van Nijf has been able to establish that the inscriptions erected in the city were intended solely to represent the interests of the elite and that other social classes were only mentioned when they had negotiated with the elite to a share in the right to set up an inscription. Moreover, the elite’s control extended to determining where inscriptions were to be set up, with the result that certain types of inscriptions were often set up in particular places. For example, honorary inscriptions for the members of one family were often placed together so as to be read as a unit since the intent was to honor the family as a whole, not just the honorand. Determining where a particular inscription was to be set up and how that inscription was to be phrased would have kept the boule of a city like a Termessos quite busy, with the result that being a bouletes was not just an empty title. Van Nijf also reiterates a point made in some of his other articles (cited in his paper), namely that claims of euergetism on the part of the elite should not be taken at face value and often served to cloak the fact that the real power was in the hands of the elite. If he had included some parallels from other well-documented eastern cities (Ephesos and Aphrodisias come to mind) he could have argued that the elite of Termessos were not unique in their desire to have each and every inscription read in their favor.

In “The Afterlife of Some Inscriptions from Noricum: Modifications and Falsifications,” Wolfgang Hameter unearths several examples of forged texts. In only one case was the forgery motivated by a hope of financial gain. This is a bronze plaque which was not discussed at the conference and which is a modern copy of a genuine marble Christian funerary monument. More interesting are the two examples where the desire to have concrete evidence for a historical event, not a financial motive, inspired the forgery. Thus the desire to prove that the boundaries of Noricum reached as far as Bavaria led to the false report of an inscription referring to a tax station in Bavaria. Hameter also demonstrates that CIL III 5567 was altered in modern times to create what would be a unique document, namely the only reference on stone to the great plague under Marcus Aurelius. In rooting out these forgeries, Hameter displays the sort of careful detective work that an epigrapher must use in dealing with any inscription that lacks a secure provenance.

Forgeries also comprise the subject of Glenys Davies’ “Enhancing by Inscription in the Late Eighteenth Century: The Case of Henry Blundell’s Roman Ash Chests.”2 She has located a group of at least ten inscriptions on chests purchased in Italy by Henry Blundell that should be considered suspicious because their lettering and layout are very similar or because a new inscription was clearly added in modern times over an earlier inscription. Many of the chests in question are shown without inscriptions in the catalogue of the Mattei collection published in 1776-1779. Davies suggests that a single restorer added inscriptions to the ten chests from the Mattei collection just before Blundell purchased them. Another possibility she does not consider is that a forger created entirely new chests using the ones in the Mattei collection as models and then added inscriptions to disguise the forgery. In either case, the restorer probably did not compose the inscriptions himself but seems to have borrowed them from other funerary monuments. Although it would have fit in well with the subject of the conference, Davies does not explore the question of why the restorer thought an inscription would make a chest more attractive to a buyer. None of these inscriptions has any great historical significance, and one wonders if the people who viewed Blundell’s collection actually read them. Rather, there seems to have been an expectation that a chest of this type would carry the name of the deceased, and the addition of any suitable text gave the object the required look. Inscriptions constituted just one of the decorative techniques with which a restorer of this period needed to be familiar, and this should alert us to the fact that other seemingly innocuous inscriptions on objects exported from Italy in this period may also have been the products of the restorer’s art.

The practical lesson to be gained from Mark Handley’s “Epitaphs, Models, and Texts: A Carolingian Collection of Late Antique Inscriptions from Burgundy” is that many of the syllogai of inscriptions from the Middle Ages may have begun life as model books for the production of epitaphs. He reconstructs the very detailed history of one such sylloge from Paris (BN Lat 2832), which includes various examples of poetry, including a section of epitaphs. Some of the epitaphs derive from extant examples in Gaul, and he argues that the entries in the epigraphic section were collected to serve as a model book for the actual production of tombstones.3 His argument would be stronger if he could in fact find an example of an epitaph modeled on this particular sylloge. Yet he turns this fact to his advantage by arguing that this sylloge was put together just at the time when the ‘epigraphic habit’ was disappearing in Gaul and that the sylloge survived because it took on a new life as a florilegium when additional types of poetry were added. In its new life as a purely literary construct with no connection to the practice of composing inscriptions, it may even have served as a school text to present students with outstanding examples of many verse genres, including verse epitaphs.

Amanda Collins (“Renaissance Epigraphy and Its Legitimating Potential: Annius of Viterbo, Etruscan Inscriptions, and the Origins of Civilization”) documents what now seems to be a somewhat bizarre chapter in the history of epigraphy. In the fifteenth century, the Dominican scholar Annius essentially tried to rewrite the history of Western Civilization relying on forged tablets written in what he claimed were a variety of languages, including Etruscan and Egyptian hieroglyphics. Some of these tablets supposedly showed that Viterbo had been founded by Janus, whose descendants then founded Troy long before the Greeks were ever a significant feature of Western Civilization, or that Noah settled the area around the Tiber after the flood. That Annius’ audience were taken in by these theories was largely due to the fact that Annius stood at the point in the history of scholarship when epigraphical evidence had gained an exceptionally privileged position and when ‘things Etruscan’ had come very much into vogue. Collins is a little too easy on Annius for being the likely forger of these tablets. Comparing Annius to Gisela Richter is rather unfair since Richter did not herself forge the Etruscan warriors in order to further her own career. Collins might have been better off exploring in greater depth how Annius’ creative interpretations were related to other attempts during this period to restore, amend, and improve artistic and literary works.

William Stenhouse (“Classical Inscriptions and Antiquarian Scholarship in Italy, 1600-1650”) and Jeremy Knight (“Welsh Stones and Oxford Scholars: Three Rediscoveries”) are concerned with documenting how epigraphy as we know it developed. Stenhouse discusses the various types of epigraphic publications current in the seventeenth century, which included every type of epigraphic publication currently in use, such as corpora divided by type of inscription and in-depth studies of particular inscriptions. Given the theme of the conference, particularly interesting is the evidence he has collected for the increasing recognition that inscriptions were not just disembodied texts but were physical objects whose dimensions and decoration can be used as keys to restoring and understanding the text. Knight provides short biographies of the scholars who made significant contributions to the study of the Roman and medieval inscriptions found in Wales from the sixteenth until the end of the nineteenth centuries. He also relates the work of these scholars to other intellectual movements of the late nineteenth century, such as the split that occurred in British archaeology based on social class and the growing interest in science, including the study of fossils.

Graham Oliver (“Images of Death: Inscribed Funerary Monuments from Fourth-Century Athens to Neo-Classical England”) deals with a case where the influence of inscriptions on later periods was exclusively artistic; the content of the original inscriptions was of little importance. Oliver takes as his starting point the tombstone created in 1830 by John Gibson for Mrs. Emily Robinson. Gibson’s work shows the increased influence of Greek art on British culture during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Specifically it was modeled on the Athenian funerary monuments that were imported into England during this time. But the model was altered to match English tastes. Where an Athenian tombstone would have used a generic image of a wife, Gibson’s portrait of Emily Robinson is very lifelike. In addition, although Oliver does not note this, Emily Robinson is not shown holding the child or the spindle that an Athenian wife might, but a book, presumably to show her support of culture. Gibson also did not follow his model in using Greek for the inscription placed under the relief, a fact that Oliver rightly does not find surprising. But Oliver should have commented on the fact that the inscription was in English, not in Latin, which would have given the monument a classical tone. Was this because Gibson did not know Latin or was it part of some wider trend in the epigraphy of English tombstones?

Colin Cunningham (“The Rise of Topography and the Decline of Epigraphy? Architectural Inscriptions in the Nineteenth Century”) explores why in the nineteenth century the English, in spite of their general admiration for all things classical, did not wholeheartedly adopt the Roman practice of placing inscriptions on buildings and other public works. Essentially, the type faces and building materials (e.g. terracotta) that were coming into use during this period did not lend themselves to the placement of inscriptions on buildings. Cunningham’s explanation is persuasive, although the inclusion of a chart illustrating the changes in typography during this time would have been helpful. This is not to say that classically inspired inscriptions were never put on buildings in this period. In fact, Cunningham gives several examples, including one in Greek with Pindar’s “water is best.” But even these inscriptions were generally not intended to be read. They functioned as decorative elements, and, like the ash chests discussed by Davies, they were added to a building because that this was what the viewer expected to see.

According to Tim Benton (“Epigraphy and Fascism”), the inscriptions set up by the Italian Fascists were unusual in that they exhibit the tension that existed between the Fascists’ desire to be seen as the promoters of modernity and their conception of themselves as the heirs to the values and empire of the ancient Romans. In contrast to the German Fascists, who were opposed to sans-serif fonts, the Italians’ quest for modernity led them to adopt a very stark type face, the bastone (“the stick”), as the more or less official architectural font of the regime. Initially, this type face was used on modernistic buildings, and so type face and architectural style went hand in hand. No such harmony existed in the 1937 exhibition that was designed to display the Roman roots of the regime. Central to the exhibition was the inclusion of long passages from Augustus and other sources that glorified the greatness of the Roman Empire and by extension the greatness of Mussolini’s regime. Except for the quotes from Aristides, which were translated into Italian, the other passages were left in Latin, and it would be interesting to know how many Italians could have understood the basic sense. In terms of their display, these passages were mounted on the walls as if they were inscriptions on buildings, and the Fascists, aware that the look of these inscriptions should be consonant with their origin, chose a font for this part of the exhibition that mimicked the style of ancient Roman inscriptions. This contrasted sharply with the general use of bastone in the exhibition and with other modernistic aspects of the exhibition. This dissonance would appear more striking if Benton had made it clear that the design of the whole exhibition was under the control of one director (or one central committee), who was in effect trying to maintain two conflicting views of Italian Fascism. Otherwise, one could argue that the dissonance arose simply because the various artistic directors had different visions for their respective parts of the exhibition. Even so, Benton has established that the Italian Fascists knew how to exploit the power that a text had when it was written in stone.

I was hoping that one or more of the articles would treat the present-day reception of inscriptions (I do not count Mussolini as a contemporary). In particular, a discussion by a museum professional on the display of inscriptions at archaeological sites would have rounded out the volume nicely. As I was reminded on a recent research trip to Turkey, inscriptions are often treated today in much the same way as they have been in the past. Often they are displayed simply for their visual appeal, especially when long lines of bases are set up to recreate some of the splendor of colonnades or grave stones are displayed mainly for their reliefs. Yet when properly displayed, inscriptions can exhibit an amazing power over the passerby. On one of the rare occasions when the ‘epigraphic museum’ under the temple of Domitian at Ephesos was open, the tourists who happened to wander in were amazed at the types of information provided by inscriptions and came up with questions that would do justice to this volume: “Did/Could the Greeks read these?” “Why the difference between this inscription [a stoichedon decree] and that one [an inscription with the larger and clearer letters of the Roman period]?” It would have been helpful if one of the contributors to this volume had considered how a museum or an archaeological site can display inscriptions so that they provoke these sorts of reactions, reactions that indicate that ancient inscriptions can still have great significance for the nonspecialist.


1. As noted by the editor (p. 3 n. 4, 6), the volume does not include R. Coates-Stephens’ contribution on the reuse of inscriptions as building materials in the medieval period (to be published elsewhere) and C. V. Crowther’s paper on the magical properties attributed to Greek inscriptions in the nineteenth century. The absence of these papers is unfortunate given that many articles in the collection make reference to the use of inscriptions as building materials (e.g. pp. 81 and 95) or to the way in which Greek inscriptions were treated differently than Latin ones because Latin was a far more familiar language (e.g. pp. 62 n. 18, 134, 149, 175 n. 30). The material not discussed at the conference consists of a forgery discussed by Hameter (see below).

2. This paper overlaps with her contribution, “The Inscriptions on the Ash Chests of the Ince Blundell Hall Collection: Ancient and Modern,” in G. J. Oliver (ed.), The Epigraphy of Death (Liverpool 2000), 187-216.

3. To his evidence for epitaphs that derived from model books can be added the inscription discussed on p. 45, which includes the notation that the deceased lived “plus-minus years.” The stonecutter appears to have failed to alter the standard formula of the model book to fit the actual age of the deceased.