BMCR 2007.12.16

Donner à voir, donner à lire: mémoire et communication dans la Rome ancienne

, Donner à voir, donner à lire : mémoire et communication dans la Rome ancienne. Paris: CNRS, 2006. 292 p. : ill. ISBN 9782271063823. €45.00.

‘Ce livre voudrait aider à rénover les ambitions d’une discipline, l’épigraphie, qui — comme la numismatique — s’est constituée comme science des inscriptions (établir le texte, le comprendre, le compléter, le dater, etc.), mais sans guère s’interroger sur les lecteurs, les modes de lecture, les lieux, ni, de façon plus générale, sur les contextes, et donc sur la finalité de l’affichage — sinon depuis peu, même si elle avait été invitée depuis longtemps à le faire’ (p.49).

Mireille Corbier’s long-awaited volume pulls no punches about its disciplinary stakes. This is a book that sets out to reinvigorate the study of Roman epigraphy, combining the sorts of detailed analysis traditionally associated with the subject with an array of much broader cultural historical questions. Corbier (henceforward C.) is uniquely placed to meet this challenge. A director of L’année épigraphique and a senior director at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, C. has an established reputation in the ‘science of inscriptions’. But she has also been nurtured on the same Francophone diet of antiquity-centred anthropology that gave rise to the likes of Detienne, Vidal-Naquet and Veyne (whose work arguably exerts the greatest influence on C.’s own). The result is a rich blend of macroscopic enquiry with rigorous microscopic scrutiny: a foray into the mechanics of the Roman mind that never loses sight of its exempla, supported by reams of footnoted parallels and an embarrassment of bibliographic riches.

The timing of the monograph could not have been better. C.’s emphasis on ‘readers, modes of reading and contexts’ follows hard on the heels of several related projects concerned with epigraphic display, public archiving and ideologies of ‘reading’ in the ancient world;1 the very title of the book also invites comparison with a number of conceptually related projects on what has now come to be called ‘art and text’.2 C.’s own work has itself played an important role in steering these developments. The archaeology of the present volume bears witness to this: with the exception of the introduction, each of these ten chapters revises or combines earlier articles that have been published separately over the last thirty years — a small selection from the 41 publications cited in the bibliography. For some, this will no doubt reflect the significance of C.’s various contributions in the fields of Roman political, social and economic history. Others, though, may find that these ‘collected papers’ lack an overarching structure: readers are frequently left to form their own conclusions about how the individual chapters relate to the book’s promised theme of ‘memory and communication’.

The book is divided into four sections and introduced by a substantial ‘presentation’ on ‘Le monument et la mémoire’, penned specially for this volume. C. summarises the mechanics of producing, ‘duplicating’ and displaying epigraphic texts in the Roman world, while setting up a number of the book’s other themes. She begins by stressing the ubiquity of writing in the Roman world, associating its cultural capital with the Roman rhetoric of the monumentum. The public display of official edicts, archives and commemorative inscriptions, C. argues, self-consciously embedded the visible word within a set of larger discourses about power, legitimacy and memory. While no other medium could rival the symbolic associations of bronze tablets with power and permanence (pp.25-26), Roman ‘social actors’ manifested an extraordinary sensitivity to the ways in which display context nuanced the meaning and significance of the inscribed object displayed — first in Rome, then in Italy, and finally (as Republic slid into Principate) in the provinces. C. ends the introduction by introducing two other themes: first written texts juxtaposed with images, and second the aesthetics of written words, intended first and foremost to function as viewed objects. Roman ‘jeux de lettres’ were of course an elitist phenomenon, as testified by the many statue bases, senatorial tablets, public temple inscriptions, and funerary monuments introduced and illustrated here; but C. is also keen to emphasise how this ideology of the visual-cum-textual filtered down pyramidal Roman social structures — from the writing on the tomb of Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces (the ‘Tomb of the Baker’) outside the Porta Maggiore in Rome, to the various uses and discussions of writing described by Petronius in the context of Trimalchio’s dinner party.3

Of the four sections that follow, the first (‘L’écriture exposée: usages publics, usages privés’) deals with the different public and private functions of writing, bringing together three of C.’s most renowned essays. Chapter one surveys the different uses of writing in the Roman city, or rather the city of Rome (‘L’écriture dans l’espace public romain’). Beginning with a helpful inventory of writing types, from administrative documents to humble graffiti, C. teases out a number of observations — about production, ‘copying’, arenas of display, the practicalities of writing, associations of political power, communicative function, and written puns and games (much of this repeated from the introduction). The first chapter ends where the second begins, namely with the question of literacy (‘L’écriture en quête de lecteurs’). Responding to William Harris’ pessimistic estimation of literacy levels (below 15% in Roman Italy, and below 5-10% in the provinces), C. demonstrates the problems that inhere in frequently implied models of evolutionary development: the evidence of inscriptions, she argues, suggests ‘une alphabétisation pauvre mais largement répandue’ (p.89). The third chapter acts as a counterpart to the first, surveying the juxtaposition of writing with images, especially in the domestic sphere (‘L’écriture dans l’image’). But the question of private epigraphic texts (analysed in three parts — writing within a reserved epigraphic field in the image, writing in the field of the image itself, and inscribed images as described in texts) also speaks to the essentially ‘qualitative’ approach to Roman literacy advocated in the second chapter.

The book’s second section (‘Affichage et espace public: la référence spatiale’) turns to the spaces where epigraphic texts were displayed in Imperial Rome. C. is keen to demonstrate epigraphy’s contribution to the (predominantly text-based) study of Roman history, especially in reconstructing the topography of Rome. The general argument — that ‘le lieu exact où a été fixé l’exemplaire de référence … est indiqué avec le plus grand soin’ (p.130) — is here supported with three case studies, constituting chapters four to six. The first uses the Liccaius ‘military diploma’ of AD 65 as evidence that Imperial veteran decrees were displayed behind the Capitoline temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus and in front of the aerarium militare; the aerarium militare was therefore a separate building, not one of the temples on the Capitoline as some historians have claimed on the basis of surviving literary sources alone (‘ In Capitolio : l’affichage des constitutions impériales en faveur des vétérans’). The second case study argues that the senatorial decision to place a decree honouring Pallas in AD 52 ad statuam loricatam diui Iulii was a topographical instruction, and that such display, in Julius Caesar’s forum, likewise offered a carefully considered and symbolic site for exhibiting this particular text ( ‘Ad statuam loricatum divi Iulii : Pallas et la statue de César’). The third looks to the so-called Tabula Hebana and Tabula Siarensis as evidence that the Senatorial homages to Germanicus in AD 16 and 19 were set up in the Latin library on the Palatine; although the new conclusion on pp.178-179, added to the original 1992 article, relates the analysis to the theme of epigraphic display, the chapter is really concerned with the library’s function as a make-shift Senate house (‘ In Palatio : la “curie” du Palatin, lieu de mémoire’).

This interest in the contexts of epigraphic display leads C., in the third section (‘Affichage et communication: informer et commémorer’), beyond Rome and into the provinces. Chapter seven investigates the changing rhetoric of the phrase domus Augusta following the death of Germanicus in AD 19, on the grounds of the Tabula Siarensis and the senatus consultum de Gnaeo Pisone patre from Andalucia (‘Germanicus “qui n’aurait jamais dû mourir”: le partage d’une connaissance commune’). Chapter eight is an important commentary on the language and ideology of Imperial indulgentia, as constructed in the Caracallan bronze tablet from Banasa in Morocco (‘Le discours du prince, d’après une inscription de Banasa‘).

The fourth and final section (‘Stratégies d’affichage: les dossiers administratifs’), also made up of two chapters, arguably has the least relevance to the themes of the book as initially defined. First comes chapter nine, which looks to the use of inscriptions in directing herding routes, especially those attached to the north gate at Saepinum in Abruzzo (‘Écritures affichées sur les chemins de la transhumance’). Finally there is chapter ten, an exploration of the uses of inscriptions in controlling weights and measures around the empire: C. focuses on the famous early third-century bronze inscription from Arles, but found in Lebanon (‘Les mesures et les hommes: les naviculaires d’Arles et leurs “règles de fer”‘).

The variety of subjects covered, and the diversity of sources employed, make it impossible to review each chapter individually here. Suffice it to say that the dizzyingly wide frame of reference is both the book’s virtue and its vice. C. covers a vast chronological and geographical span, jumping not only between the first century BC and the third century AD, but also, like the Arles-Beirut disk explored in the final chapter, from the remotest western provinces to the furthest eastern fringes of the Roman empire. Indeed, the book is at its most provocative when it reaches beyond the confines of Classical antiquity altogether, comparing various aspects of the Roman evidence with modern France (pp.9-12), Europe in the middle ages (chapter two), or post-medieval Puglia (chapter nine); C. ends her introduction by extolling the virtues of comparative history (pp.49-50), a method borne out by the way in which individual chapters are framed as responses to more diachronic studies (by Petrucci, Goody, Kula, etc.). But it is really only the first section of the book that explicitly takes up the opening gambit that ‘si Rome donnait à lire, elle donnait surtout… à voir’ (p.59). The one-page summaries that introduce each discrete section, and the frequently gnomic conclusions about the workings of ancient history with which many chapters end (e.g. p.213), do not quite carry the argumentative, methodological or demonstrative weight placed upon them in the introduction. The lack of any epilogue, together with the absence of an index (still standard practice in French publications), hardly helps matters. C. is well aware of the strategy, and the dangers that inhere in it: as she says in the introduction, she prefers to ‘laisser au lecteur le loisir de suivre les étapes de ma démarche et la construction progressive d’une réflexion d’ensemble’ (p.49). Even allowing for this laissez-faire approach, however, the book never quite delivers on its promise of adding up to more than the sum of its parts.

This is by no means to underestimate the individual significance of each of the book’s separate chapters. There certainly are a variety of subsidiary connections between the case studies discussed: the appropriation of sacred spaces for epigraphic display in chapters four and five; the Tabula Siarensis in chapters five, six and seven; the death of Germanicus in chapters six and seven (to name just a few). Some of the otherwise unrelated insights gained along the way also arguably justify this sort of book of ‘collected papers’ in their own right: one thinks in particular of C.’s analysis of the elasticity of the term templum in chapter four, her study of the shifting constituency of the domus Augusta in chapter seven, and especially chapter eight’s sensitive reading of the multifaceted rhetoric of indulgentia. Many will relish the opportunity to have so many of C.’s ‘classic’ essays brought together in one convenient volume, complete with responses to earlier criticisms and references to subsequent discussions. There certainly are aspects of the book, moreover, that lend it to inclusion in advanced undergraduate and graduate courses (especially the introduction and first section); the very handsome illustrations (136 of them, many in colour), interspersed amid the two columns of text, likewise make this a handy sourcebook for students and teachers alike. Ultimately, though, I suspect that the book’s cumulative achievement will prove to be a demonstrative one: to have exemplified a certain mode of ‘doing’ Roman epigraphy that puts Roman readers firmly and squarely back into the cultural-historical equation.

It is surely right that a retrospective like this gives the author pause for reflection about the past and future of the discipline. One of the most scintillating aspects of the book is its explicit signalling of future studies that might extend the scope of the one at hand: about the uses of writing in ritual (cf. pp.42-43), for example, the Greek heritage (cf. pp.90-91), and the impact of Christianity (pp.88-89). But for all C.’s reinvigoration of the discipline, the scope of the book nonetheless bears witness to two particular challenges that remain: first, the need to bring together the study of Roman attitudes to the written word with that of Roman ‘literary’ production more generally; and second, the need to explore in more developed terms the intersection between Roman visual and written cultures. For all the disciplinary isolation of ‘Latin epigraphy’ from ‘Latin literature’, it still remains an open question as to whether the two existed as separate entities in the mind of Roman readers. Writing might ‘legitimate’, as C. suggests (p.65), but the playful games of Roman poets suggest a much more complex set of attitudes towards the written word — not least with regards to what have now come to be called its various ‘performative’ functions. Nor does C. reference the much more mischievous Roman tradition of monumental inscribed epigram, inherited from Hellenistic Greece. If epigrammatic jeux d’esprit demonstrate the fluidity between what we call ‘literature’ and ‘epigraphy’, the frequent pairing of monumental poetic flourish with elaborate visual display also shows how, in the Roman world, images could ‘legitimate’ texts as much as texts could ‘legitimate’ images.4

This leads to the second challenge — the intersection between Roman epigraphy and Roman visual culture. C. makes some considerable headway here, especially in her third chapter on ‘l’écriture dans l’image’. But the chapter, first delivered as a paper in 1991, already looks rather dated. We might think of the explosion of interest in the field of ancient ecphrasis in particular — reduced here to just one reference (on p.122: the re-issue in 1991 of A. Bougot’s 1881 translation of Philostratus’ Imagines). Although nowhere stated, the semantic range of the Latin verb legere, as both ‘to read’ and ‘to see’, is now well understood.5 But need C.’s assumption necessarily follow — that writing always ‘completes, inflects or clarifies’ an image (p.92)? The central, and very welcome, claim of the book is that the oculocentricity of Roman culture bestowed its written monuments with a peculiarly visual capacity. And yet the primacy that Roman culture accorded the visual surely also affected a much more playful and engaged set of relations between the visual and textual realms than this unidirectional model implies. C. begins the third chapter with Foucault’s celebrated 1973 essay on Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe. But the full force of Foucault’s argument — that the relation of language to painting is an infinite one, and that images do things to texts just as much as texts do things to images — remains fully to be explored, both in the context of the Roman world, and indeed in the context of Classical antiquity at large.


1. Many of the most important Francophone contributions are referenced and discussed here (e.g. F. Lissarrague, ‘Paroles d’images: remarques sur le fonctionnement de l’écriture dans l’imagerie attique’, in A.-M. Christin (ed.), Ecritures II, pp.71-95, Paris 1985; M. Detienne (ed.), Les savoirs de l’écriture en Grèce ancienne, Lille 1988; F. Desbordes, Idées romaines sur l’écriture, Lille 1990). Other interventions are not (e.g. J. Svenbro, Phrasikleia: anthropologie de la lecture en Grèce ancienne, Paris 1988; R. G. Khoury (ed.), Urkunden und Urkundenformulare im klassischen Altertum und in den orientalischen Kulturen, Heidelberg 1999; W. A. Johnson, ‘Toward a sociology of reading in classical antiquity’, AJPh 121: 593-627 (2000); M. Brosius (ed.), Ancient Archives and Archival Traditions. Concepts of Record-Keeping in the Ancient World, Oxford 2003. More recently, see also Z. Newby and R. Leader-Newby (eds.), Art and Inscriptions in the Ancient World, Cambridge 2006.

2. Cf. S. Goldhill and R. Osborne (eds.), Art and Text in Ancient Greek Culture, Cambridge 1994; J. Elsner (ed.), Art and Text in Roman Culture, Cambridge 1996. Both volumes go unreferenced here.

3. Trimalchio’s literacy and use of writing is a leitmotif throughout the book (cf. e.g. pp.42, 47, 79, 89, 122-124, 126): here as elsewhere C. would have benefited from N. Horsfall’s two important articles on ‘”The uses of literacy” and the Cena Trimalchionis‘, G & R 36: 74-89, 194-209 (1989). The specific uses of writing in the Roman house is the subject of a separate study by C. ( Écriture dans la maison romaine), co-edited with J.-P. Guilhembet, and due to appear early next year.

4. For one recent demonstration of the point, see B. Bergmann, ‘A painted garland: weaving words and image in the House of the Epigrams in Pompeii’, in Z. Newby and R. Leader-Newby, op. cit., pp.60-101.

5. Servius explicitly comments on the two meanings in the context of Aen. 6.34. A mosaic from Pèbre, near Vinon, in Roman Gaul nicely demonstrates the point, although it is not referenced here. Below three pictorial tableaux is displayed an inscribed epigram of Martial (1.40): qui ducis uultus et non legis ista libenter/ omnibus inuideas liuide nemo tibi. As Janine Lancha has most recently suggested, the verb legis playfully refers both to the activity of reading the inscription (appropriated from the reading-in-sequence model Martial originally implies) and of viewing the scenes above: see J. Lancha, Mosaïque et culture dans l’Occident romain (I er -IV e s.), pp.113-115, no. 58, Rome 1997.