Angela Donati’s introduction to Roman epigraphy is the second volume in a new Itinerari series by Mulino published in Bologna. This series seeks to present readers with up-to-date and easy-to-read introductions to a variety of fields including history, economics, and sociology. Donati’s volume fits the profile of the series perfectly: it is a concise and very readable introduction to Roman epigraphy that is geared towards undergraduate students with no prior knowledge of how or why to study inscriptional evidence. Inscriptions are seen primarily as a means of communication and the emphasis of this volume is on the question of what historical information can be gleaned from inscriptions rather than on the more technical aspects of studying inscriptions.
Most of the chapters in this book are short, some even very short. Each chapter addresses a single theme, the significance of which is discussed on the basis of one or more characteristic inscriptions. Inscriptions are always given in the Latin original, but translations are provided throughout. In a limited number of cases, illustrations are provided as well.
In Chapter 1, the author stresses the public function of inscriptions and discusses questions of literacy and patronage, citing a delightful epigram composed by Ausonius to illustrate that already in antiquity readers had trouble identifying abbreviations in inscriptions.
In Chapter 2, Donati illustrates the pervasiveness of bilingualism in the Roman world by discussing selected inscriptions from a variety of localities. Citing both a passage in Livy and a bronze votive inscription from Sardinia as evidence, Donati stresses once again that inscriptions were meant as a means of communication: it was the intended audience that determined whether someone opted for a bilingual or even for a multilingual inscription.
Chapter 3 is an all too concise chapter that deals with “the language of the sacred” and consists primarily of a brief discussion of several short votive inscriptions.
Chapter 4 is more substantial and focusses on “the language of politics.” It deals with inscriptions erected by the emperor and by state officials, with milestones as means of political propaganda, with the issue of damnatio memoriae, and with military diplomas.
In another concise chapter, chapter 5, the author pays attention to the archival function of inscriptions and introduces the reader briefly to the Fasti and other such documents, as well as to the Acts of the Arval Brethren.
Chapter 6, which regards inscriptions as “instruments for the preservation of memory,” deals with funerary inscriptions. It discusses all those aspects one would usually expect in such a chapter: patronage, afterlife, onomastics, age at death, the use of epithets, and so forth.
Chapter 7, the concluding chapter, is devoted to a special class of inscriptions, namely those that were painted, incised into, or stamped onto the objects that carry them. Inscriptions discussed in this chapter include: brick stamps, amphora handles, several painted and incised inscriptions from Pompei, as well as an inscription belonging to the class of tabellae defixiones.
An epigraphical appendix rounds of the book. It contains 11 entries in which different types of inscriptions are presented to the reader. Each inscription has been transcribed, translated, and illustrated by means of a black and white photograph.
At the end of the book a list of abbreviations used in inscriptions has also been included, as well as a “bibliographical note.” The fact that this note is particularly incomplete is the book’s only real flaw. References to standard works such as the Guide de l’épigraphiste or the SEG are altogether absent, nor does this bibliographical note provide inexperienced readers with much help in determining to which books they ought to turn if they want to pursue their newly-won interest. For such readers, a more systematically arranged bibliography and short summaries would have been helpful.
As is evident from the above summary, this is a very short introduction to Roman epigraphy. Easy to read and with inscriptional examples that are well chosen, there can be little doubt that this book accomplishes its purpose well, namely to elicit interest in epigraphy on the part of readers who are unfamiliar with either the nature or the importance of this particular field of scholarly research. Readers interested in the more technical aspects of the epigrapher’s craft will need to supplement this introduction with other books. Yet readers interested in the question of why epigraphy is important in the first place will do well to read this book. It will most definitely give them a taste for more.