BMCR 2002.10.39

Epigraphic Evidence: Ancient History from Inscriptions

John P. Bodel, Epigraphic evidence : ancient history from inscriptions. Approaching the ancient world. London: Routledge, 2001. xxvi, 246 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm.. ISBN 0415116236 $24.95.

Designed for the non-specialist reader, the Routledge series “Approaching the Ancient World” has treated topics ranging from Greek and Roman historiography, archaeology and myth to papyri, cuneiform, and coins. The current volume, the tenth in the series, sets its sights on the role of epigraphy in six areas, each written by an authority in the field: ancient history; cultural diversity; onomastics and prosopography; the family and society; civic and religious life; and inscribed instrumentum. Throughout, the objective is not only to offer an introduction to ancient epigraphy and some of its sub-specialties but also to do so in a way that emphasizes the value and limitations of inscriptional evidence.

In the first chapter, “Epigraphy and the Ancient Historian,” J. Bodel offers a straightforward overview of the issues and complexities accompanying the use of epigraphic evidence for historical purposes. Here, the reader will find a lucid discussion of the single most defining feature of the ancient epigraphic corpus — its essential lack of unity. B. reminds us that this is the inevitable result of a collection that is spread so widely across time and place and whose boundaries are often difficult to distinguish from those of other disciplines. Additional topics of interest include the relationship of epigraphy to literacy and orality, as well as the highly symbolic nature of inscriptions. B. also lays out the essentials relating to Roman epitaphs, a much-studied area in recent years. He concludes his essay with a section on the pitfalls (bias, fakes, dating) often lurking in epigraphic evidence. B.’s essay is the longest and most comprehensive in the collection and, while it tips more toward Latin than Greek, it provides a clear-sighted survey of the epigraphic landscape and sets the tone for the rest of the volume.

Consistent with current scholarly interests in the construction of cultural identity, M. Parca provides a highly selective overview in the volume’s second essay of some of the ways in which inscriptions offer insight into “multiculturalism” in the Graeco-Roman world. Among the Greek evidence she cites, the most interesting comes from Egypt, where Greek typically persists as the linguistic medium in documents like council decrees and proskynemata, although an Egyptian context is never far below the surface. Roman evidence from the military outposts at Vindolanda and at Bu Njem in Tripolitania reveals a similar phenomenon, in this case, the persistence of Latin but with signs of common colloquial usage, etc. Thus do we gain insight into the complex and not always smooth process of linguistic acculturation among locals. It should be noted that P. does not always rely on strictly epigraphic evidence (note the Vindolanda writing tablets, e.g.) to make her points, and her choice of source material (Sparta over the much better documented Athens, Delphi or Delos in her discussion of the dialectical diversity of pre-Hellenistic Greece) is sometimes curious. Even so, there is much that will be useful for the uninitiated reader.

What’s in a name? Quite a bit when it comes to ancient inscriptions. This is the thrust of O. Salomies’ chapter,”Names and Identities: Onomastics and Prosopography,” a highly readable essay that never loses sight of its intended audience. Relying almost exclusively on Roman evidence, S. takes his reader through the basic distinction between prosopography and onomastics and further emphasizes that both specialties have broader applications which, while sometimes overlapping, can still reveal much about Roman politics, administration, and military matters. Next, by illustrating the careers of select individuals (among them Pliny the Younger), he provides helpful sections on the characteristic features of Greek and Roman names and highlights the importance of inscriptions in preserving onomastic and other details not known from the literary sources. S. concludes by focusing on the Roman governor of Syria and rival of Trajan, M. Cornelius Nigrinus Curiatius Maternus in order to emphasize the ways in which inscriptions and literary sources have combined in recent years to rewrite a particular page in Roman history of the late first century. R. Saller’s essay, “The Family and Society,” shifts the focus in Chapter Four to those who occupied the margins of the Roman world. S. relies primarily on short, formulaic funerary commemorations from the Latin-speaking regions of the Roman Empire, both for what they can reveal (ancient attitudes toward personal virtue, slave vs. free relationships, the importance of legitimate marriage) and what they are unable to reveal (specifics of dating or possible variations in the evidence by region over time) about ancient life. These same inscriptions also provide insight into social status, mobility, and labor, although S. rightly emphasizes that the absence of an accurate cross-section of the population allows us to make only circumscribed generalizations at best. The reader will especially benefit from the author’s distinguished work as a Roman social historian and will come away with a deeper understanding of the value and limitations of epigraphic evidence as a tool for illuminating some of the broader features of Roman social life.

In the volume’s fifth essay, “Civic and Religious Life,” J. Rives offers a glimpse of the daily texture of ancient life as preserved in inscriptions from a broad spectrum of municipal institutions. Here, town charters from Roman Spain, lists of magistrates, and graffiti from Pompeii reveal the vibrancy of local political life; calendars, religious festivals, and inscriptions relating to the imperial cult and priesthoods do much the same for religion. Associations in all of their hues, from groups of ambitious seviri Augustales of the western Roman empire to cultores and collegia of lower-class men, who banded together to provide for the funerals of their fellow members, also receive attention. R. rightly focuses on the well-defined administrative organization of these latter groups, but more might perhaps have been said about their social aspect as well, evident, for example, in the festal calendars preserved among the likes of the collegium of Aesculapius and Hygia in Rome. Indeed, much of this collegial activity seemed to be directed toward simply having a good time. R. closes by pointing to the significance of personal prestige and public recognition as motives in so many of the honorary inscriptions preserved throughout the Graeco-Roman world. Especially important in this regard are women as beneficiaries of public recognition based on their civic munificence. R. cites several of the best known exempla from the Greek world, but it would be useful to add that women from the West also took up this initiative, especially in places like Roman Spain. These minor points notwithstanding, R. does a fine job of presenting a wide array of inscriptional evidence in order to present the richness of civic life in the Graeco-Roman world, and his essay is the most successful of the lot in providing a mix of both Greek and Roman evidence.

In the final essay, G. Pucci considers inscriptions as they appear on portable objects of daily life in the ancient world in “Inscribed Instrumentum and the Ancient Economy.” Although they can serve as a rich source of information on ancient economic history, the inscriptions found on instrumentum domesticum are often difficult to interpret, a point that P. clearly stresses throughout his essay. Here the reader will learn about the distinction between inscriptions applied during the distribution process and at the time of production, as well as some of the most important instrumenta, including barrels, glassware, and brickworks. In general, P. capably summarizes the major scholarly controversies surrounding these objects and in the process provides a serviceable introduction to a very important field of ancient epigraphy.

An appendix, written by the editor, summarizes the state of the field, especially in relation to recent advances in electronic publishing. It also provides a brief guide to a dozen of the most important standard epigraphic collections, a feature that will prove particularly useful to the reader intent upon further exploration. In addition, there are twenty-two figures and four larger reproductions of selected illustrations. A generous bibliography of more than 600 entries completes the volume.

This work is everything that it claims to be — a selective but solid introduction to the world of inscriptions and what they can reveal about specific aspects of ancient life. In less than 250 pages Epigraphic Evidence offers a useful and highly readable account of the remarkable diversity of our inscriptional patrimony from the Graeco-Roman world and the challenges confronting the modern investigator who must rely on such evidence.