BMCR 2008.01.29

Art and Inscriptions in the Ancient World

, , Art and inscriptions in the ancient world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xvii, 303 pages : illustrations ; 26 cm. ISBN 0521868513 $120.00.

Table of Contents [Authors and titles are also listed at the end of the review.]

The pleasure of this collection of essays from scholars around the Anglophone world rests particularly in their focus on objects and their interest in working out the interactions of the textual and the material while keeping the object at the center of the discussion. Although several other important Art and Text volumes have appeared over the past decade, they have attended to a wider range of issues, some of which have been mainly textual, and in the process have allowed objects sometimes to fade from view.1 By framing the issue for the volume as the relationship of inscriptions to images rather than texts in general, the editors have permitted an interesting conversation to emerge among scholars concerned with diverse aspects of the relationship between the object and the writing on it.2 Looking at Greek and Roman materials (thus not in fact the ancient world but the classical), particularly painting on walls and pots, floor mosaics, and statues and relief sculpture (but not on architecture or metalwork or relief ceramics, all of which would benefit from similar interrogation), the authors go well beyond the old-fashioned search for a unitary explanation, the “correct” reading, the original. They explore the multiplicity of readings, sometimes in conflict as a result of the different roles played by text and image, and the way social practices and meanings are constructed through competing interpretations. A number of them explore the way changes in time and place reconfigure or emphasize particular readings. Further, unlike many anthologies, this one is very tightly knit, and the essays often speak to one another and expand each other’s range in productive and interesting ways. In what follows, I indicate the contents of the individual essays and then offer a few words about the methodological contributions made by the essays as a group.

Zahra Newby’s introduction sets out in a brief and clear historical summary the questions for the book and stresses the need for focus on the material objects. She then lets the reader know why the essays are grouped as they are. Part I: “Inscribing Images, Illustrating Texts: Juxtapositions of Text and Image,” suggests some of the ways in which texts can particularize images and images texts, and can as well authorize or challenge a reading of an object; the reciprocality or dislocation of the act of interpretation by the juxtaposition of a text with an image is demonstrated here. The second part: “Images and their Labels,” deals with the ability of texts to make images speak, to act as the speakers of images, and to create certain kinds of identifications for images that reveal the constructedness of interpretation. Finally, in the section entitled “Inscriptions and their Statues,” three very closely related papers discuss the interplay of inscriptions and sculpture on honorific statues in the Greek world. The essays have been extremely well-chosen and reveal a high level of sophistication in the way they think about the creation of cognitive as well as social relationships.

Alistair Blanshard’s opening essay, “The problems with honouring Samos: an Athenian document relief and its interpretation,” (19-37) looks at IG I 3, 127, and asks about the way the text reveals the political complexities buried within an apparently neutral and conventional image of Hera (?) and Athena clasping hands in accord. As is the case with most of the essays in this anthology, the author notes the absence of previous scholarly interest in thinking about the relationship of text to image within a tradition of disciplinary boundaries and specializations. The most important point of the paper is the productive nature of boundary-breaking, as is demonstrated when the author combines a discussion of the apparent conventionality and stability of the image with a consideration of the way the document text “meditates” on the possible and multiple meanings of the relief. He points out the use in the inscription of elements by which the Athenians say they honor the Samians but which had become obsolete or were erroneous when the relief was set up. The Samos referred to was at the time no longer a coherent group but rather a politically fragmented entity some of whose exiles and refugees were in fact receiving Athenian citizenship. Nevertheless the conjunction of the problematic text with the conventional image acted to stabilize a putative identity for Samos and the Samians. At the same time the relief sets up a framework in which Athens, post-Peloponnesian wars, appeared still to have the imperial authority it had lost. The inscription, then, works to “direct the superabundance of visual imagery” in a way that need not insist on a unitary reading of the whole but which does propose and direct interpretation. More on this later.

Taking up the relationship of images of “funerary banquets” to their inscriptions on the ash chests, cinerary altars, and kline monuments of the first and early second centuries C.E. in the city of Rome, Glenys Davies (“Idem ego sum discumbens, ut me videtis: inscription and image on Roman ash chests,” pp. 38-59) approaches a different kind of problem in which neither the image nor the text reveals clearly what motivated a person to make a particular choice. Although the text and the image may provide specificity for one another, as when an occupation is mentioned and also depicted, or may offer challenges to comprehension, as when three people are named and four appear on a monument, the most problematic part of reading these objects comes from their resistance to interpretation. The lovely example of the altar of T. Flavius Abascantus (pp. 45-46) reveals the issues with a nice bit of historiographic comment. The inscription CIL VI, 8628 tells us that a wife made the monument for her husband, an imperial freedman. The monument however offers one relief with a funerary banquet of a male holding a wreath in hand above a second relief with a charioteer depicted. The lower relief has labels naming the charioteer and his horses, and the names are unrelated to those in the main inscription. Whereas Franz Cumont read all of the imagery as concerning the afterlife and the eschatological beliefs of the deceased, Davies suggests, in line with more recent ways of reading, that Abascantus may have been a patron or fan of this charioteer, and that M. Roller may be correct in seeing the banquet as a way for the deceased to assert higher social status, or even that the altar was bought off the rack and inscribed by someone who simply liked the look of it.3 The conclusion is, ultimately, that the conjunction of image and text requires us to ask why particular objects were bought and why there often seems to be no relationship between the two; the transparency of text, the conventionality of images, the singularity of reading are all revealed as thoroughly problematic at the very moment when the author proposes the potential in the monuments for evading “our” comprehension.

The third paper in this section, by Bettina Bergmann (“A painted garland: weaving words and images in the House of the Epigrams in Pompeii,” pp. 60-101) asks in what ways Roman viewers might have understood the messages produced by seeing frescoes together with epigrams in a house. Opting, as do all the authors, for multiple readings that depend on who the viewer was, Bergmann adds other variables, such as the way a room is lighted and entered, the way a given viewer is positioned in a room, the ensemble of decoration in the room, and (especially useful) the fact that some viewers returned to the room and thus had an opportunity to change readings or develop them. Bergmann has drawn our attention to these aspects of viewer involvement with space and over time before, and is indeed an originator of this enormously productive way of thinking about Roman painting, but here she focuses on the interaction of image and word to show how a taste for riddles and puns makes clear the way room decoration engaged viewers’ interest over time. The very multiplicity of readings is far more than a simple matter of individual choice, because the images and epigrams are full of complicated references to other works of art and to other parts of the room decoration, so the room becomes an active participant, with the viewer and his or her fellow-occupants, in directing and specifying possible interpretations. The multiplicity becomes part of the room’s work in entertaining viewers as they return to it and continue their conversations and meditations over the years.

The essay by Michael Squire, “The motto in the grotto: inscribing illustration and illustrating inscription at Sperlonga” (102-27), continues to direct our attention to the way multiple readings functioned within the context of sophisticated discussion and competitive conversation, but it points us more emphatically toward the question of how readings change over time and the ways in which an inscription can reconfigure readings. Concentrating on the fourth century inscription’s relationship to the first century statue groups in the Sperlonga grotto, Squire casts doubt on the theory that the program was from the beginning shaped by references to Vergil, and instead suggests that the late text is what directs us to read the program in Vergilian terms. The grammar of the inscription, with its emphasis on past events registered in present time, conspires to remove the sculpture from a specific moment of production and to relocate it into a world of textuality which permits multiple moments in a narrative to coexist within a statue group. The inscription provides the terms for possible interpretations. The author may be right in this, although proof remains out of reach, but the essay’s interest comes from its willingness to take on Vernant’s challenge that we imagine a late antiquity in which phantasia triumphs over mimesis. Whether we accept Squire’s readings, or even Vernant’s version of late antique cognitive processes remains an open question, but the essay, especially in relation to the others in this first section, is stimulating and introduces a necessary attention to late antiquity as more than an afterthought.

The second section, on labels, opens with a paper about archaic vases and the use of real and nonsense painted words in conjunction with images. Robin Osborne and Alexandra Pappas, working with material initially researched by each one separately, make of “Writing on archaic Greek pottery” (131-55) a delightfully seamless whole. Their interest is first in including non-Attic material in their study and even in giving it priority, and second in thinking about local practices within a notion of writing both as decoration (in a material sense and not just a legible sense) and as performance in a world of reading aloud and interacting physically with vases. Tracing a brief history of vase dipinti and graffiti, they offer tables to show the incidence of certain local practices such as the use of dipinti on particular vase types in Corinth, Boeotia and Athens or the preference for labels rather than dedications or signatures versus nonsense phrases. As problematic as such statistical attempts always are for ancient artifacts, the authors allow us a visual sense of local preferences and possible inter-polis influences. Along with discussion of how specific examples work, something which each essay in the collection does splendidly, the authors put forward a stimulating suggestion that “the move from text to image is arguably even more substantial than the move from oral to written text,” so “perhaps images had to learn the possibilities of directionality from writing before the temporal element, which is such an unavoidable feature of texts, could acquire its visual analogue in the spatial element which is the unavoidable feature of pictures” (139). Not only is this an interesting proposition for the Greek world, it can be considered in a post-Giedion era of studies of art and text in the Ancient Near East. This paper, like that of Bergmann, is particularly rich in theoretical questions and provides useful models for thinking through other kinds of interpretive problems and other locations and periods.

Zahra Newby’s essay, “Reading the allegory of the Archelaos relief” (156-78), joins with the other papers in the collection in emphasizing the need for acknowledgment of the viewer’s active role in making meanings out of the interactions between images and inscriptions. She takes up the so-called Apotheosis of Homer, that Hellenistic standby of Greek art textbooks, in a way that she suggests has rarely been done. She asks what the lowest register of the relief, the one with Homer saluted by the personifications named on the inscribed bottom edge, has to do with both the upper registers with their divinities and the statue of a poet and with the interaction of the figures from one register to another. Reading from the top down and proposing a visual and interpretive connection among the registers, she sees the passage of poetic inspiration down from Zeus through Apollo to the poet and then a kind of reiteration in the lowest register where Homer becomes an avatar of that inspiration in which the poet partakes. The author considers the possibility that the figures of Chronos and Oikumene may be portraits of Hellenistic rulers and that they may indicate a date for the relief which she suggests was made to celebrate the victory of a poet and set up at a sanctuary before being taken to Italy where it was found. Her use of literary parallels allows her to propose the kind of erudite conversation and pleasurable unpacking of meanings by the audience that Bettina Bergmann described in her paper. She concludes that the relief is “positioned somewhere between a votive dedication and an allegorical reflection” which “combines the visual and the verbal in a complex and self-reflexive way” (178).

The last paper in Part II is by Ruth Leader-Newby and deals with “Inscribed mosaics in the late Roman Empire: perspectives from east and west” (179-99). Again, I particularly like the fact that this collection keeps late antique material integral to its agenda and thus insists on the historical nature of the relationship between inscriptions and images. Here too the curiosity about the role of regional factors, as in Osborne and Pappas’s paper, is fundamental to the paper’s empirical project. Looking at mosaics from both public and private contexts in 3rd- through 5th-century North Africa, Britain, and Antioch on the Orontes, the author points out a number of interesting regional differences. For example, whereas in Asia Minor patrons of mosaics preferred mythological subjects and used name labels frequently, not least because of the local and late increase in new or obscure personifications, North African patrons seem especially fond of animal scenes of hunting, the amphitheater, and races. Here labels are used for the animals rather than humans and deities, and one is more likely to find the charioteer’s horses named than the charioteer himself. Whereas there is plentiful evidence from the period in Africa and Asia Minor, the author uses only a small number of mosaics from Britain, so one would love to have further discussion and a richer “data-set” in this area. Nevertheless, her comparisons make clear the way in which, even when local preferences and practices are at work, the texts can provide a kind of personalization of the images, making a venatio specific to a patron, insisting on the cosmopolitan sophistication of a provincial viewer, permitting the guests at dinner their pleasurable debates about myths.

The final section of the book contains three essays on statues with inscriptions, and all three think seriously about the problem of historical specificity and the ways in which honorific statues and their inscriptions became interdependent within a political setting. John Ma’s paper, “Hellenistic honorific statues and their inscriptions” (203-20), concentrates on civic identity and elite visibility in the Hellenistic world through an investigation of the language of honorific and dedicatory formulas for statue bases. By the later fourth and third centuries, both formulas share a significant grammatical feature: they routinely obscure the materiality of the statue as a presence and the agency of the honoree in having done something good for the city. Instead, they now use the nominative for the body which grants the honor and the accusative for the honoree; in addition, they seldom name the honor as THIS statue, the one you are looking at. Inserting these perceptions into the larger framework of Hellenistic politics, with its ideal civic culture of public literacy and collective identity, Ma shows how honors and decrees participate in civic “social reproduction through exemplarity” made visual, legible, even audible when statues seem to speak. The society which the honorific statues bring into being is one where the collectivity, signified through civic virtue, trumps the individual, no matter how important his actions were. A lovely example of the fact that, as Ma says, the subject of the monument (text and image together) is a relationship in which the demos is the active party and the honoree the acted upon, is a statue group of the personified demos with the honoree beside it. That this kind of evidence of community power could come under debate, in other words, that the phenomenon was one to be agreed to rather than being seen as “natural”, emerges in Ma’s reference to literary evidence of elite anxiety about the fragility of civic honors. The same issues will reappear in the next two essays, with both Shear and Platt keenly aware of the ambivalence of certain members of the Greek elite about honorific statues and honors themselves.

Julia Shear’s paper, “Reusing statues, rewriting inscriptions and bestowing honours in Roman Athens” (221-46), is one of those deceptively straightforward essays that provides clear and informative analysis of examples with no jargon and yet allows the reader a sense of the richness of the topic. Dealing with the honorific statues erected in the Augustan and Julio-Claudian period on the Acropolis in Athens, the author asks why, when there was clearly no need for cost-cutting, certain statues were reused with reinscribed bases specifically for high-status Roman officials. Whether the original inscriptions were erased and new ones cut into their places or words were added to unerased inscriptions, it seems clear from Shear’s examples that the goal of reuse and reinscription was to incorporate, literally, the Roman honoree into a particularly Greek and Athenian historical narrative. The statue, as a rare and old representation of an honored and exemplary figure, confers additional honor on the Roman whose name appears on the base; if the original honoree remains in the inscription, then the honors are further compounded. By obscuring the loss of Athenian autonomy in the early Empire, this form of honoring Roman officials allows Athens to “bestow her culture on others…” (244). As the author shows, the process of reinscribing the statues makes Greeks into Romans in order to make Romans into Greeks. One might argue that the making of Greeks into Romans goes further than simply giving the statue a new or an added name, however; to some extent, the new use of the statue must always be understood as occurring in an imperializing context and thus as making the honoring body complicitous in its own civic abasement.

The rhetorical texts which Verity Platt examines in “‘Honour takes wing’: unstable images and anxious orators in the Greek tradition” (247-71) get at some of this ambivalence implicit in the problematic relationship between Greek culture and Roman imperial power. As John Ma indicated in his citation of Apuleius’ anxiety about honors (215), and as Shear pointed out in her mention of Dio and Favorinus (224), there was an ongoing debate, at least among Greek-speaking sophists during the imperial period, about the reinscription and reuse of statues and the honorees’ fears, as in the case of Favorinus, that the portraits statue which honored someone could be torn down, moved, reused and thus rendered either useless to the honoree or shameful. The paper echoes and reinforces much of the argument set out in Shear’s paper but does so through examination of the words of Dio’s oration 31, his report of Favorinus’ speech in oration 37, and Themistius’ later encomium of Constantius, given in 355. Where the paper differs is not only in the way it allows us to read debate and anxiety in another medium but also in its confrontation with the changes that take place in the debate in late antiquity. Platt points out Themistius’ convoluted language and odd choice of examples, as when he compares himself to Parhassius who painted his self-portrait but called it a picture of Hermes in order to avoid arrogance. The compliment is to the emperor to whom Themistius is speaking and who becomes a parallel therefore to Hermes. Clearly the distance between pagan god and Christian ruler was not yet significant enough to topple the house of cards which is so evident in Themistius’ choice of Parrhasius, master of slippery illusions. Renaming in an era when spolia and recut portraits were frequent and when the relationship between elite paideia and new cultural and religious ideas was uneasy is thus revealed as still under debate but in changed circumstances and with different stakes. The process which could be seen in Blanshard’s paper on the document relief honoring the Samians is still at work in late antiquity. Greek civic hegemony, lost already in the 4th century B.C.E., continues to be mourned, re-presented, and personalized through the fraught relationship of inscription and image.

A few last words about methodological contributions. Not every author here is interested in rendering explicit his or her methodological assumptions, and that does nothing to diminish their value, particularly since all of them share the implicit belief in the historical specificity of cultural practices and social behavior. Further, they all share in the rejection of the “master narrative” approach to interpretation and value the possibility of multiple readings as well as readings which put cultural debate into the foreground. Several authors do, however, offer some interesting theoretical and methodological suggestions which deserve to step to the footlights for a moment. One of these is Alistair Blanshard’s awareness of the fact that, as I noted earlier, the document reliefs don’t actually illustrate the text but rather meditate on it and “direct the superabundance of visual imagery” (29). What I like about this and about similar concerns in Michael Squire’s discussion of ekphrasis too (102-103), is the way it hints at the Lacanian idea of excess, where representation can never fully contain meaning and therefore the interpreter always must engage with what cannot be contained. A second point concerns performativity in both its sense as orality and in its sense as active bodily engagement with the object. Both Osborne and Pappas (esp. 138-39) and Leader-Newby (186-88) make use of the concept in order to reveal the way the speaking and acting viewer can be enjoined to physical participation as a way to generate interpretation. And finally, Bettina Bergmann’s citation of a literary theory of “pragmatics” leads us back once more, like the old “reader response” theory, to the notion that the reader/viewer engages actively with a monument rather than simply accepting it as if it contained some a priori meanings. Although it is never made explicit in the essays, this focus on reception makes it clear that this group of authors represents a change in the fields of classical studies. Where once the historical tendency was to privilege the moment of production and to desire knowledge of intentions even as one engaged in acts of reception, in this collection the reader makes the meanings in relationship with the monument through the image and the text, through their relationship to one another, and through the active bodily interaction of the viewer/reader with a material object. The multiple moments of reception are now in the spotlight and are understood as sometimes at a conceptual as well as historical distance from production, and they place attention on the materiality of both text and image. This insistence on the materiality of the matter under consideration seems to me, regardless of what we call it, the central theoretical contribution of this collection.

Authors and Titles:

Zahra Newby, Introduction.

Part I. Inscribing Images, Illustrating Texts: Juxtapositions of Text and Image

1. Alastair Blanshard, The problems with honouring Samos: an Athenian document relief and its interpretation.

2. Glenys Davies, Idem ego sum discumbens, ut me videtis: inscription and image on Roman ash chests.

3. Bettina Bergmann, A painted garland: weaving words and images in the House of the Epigrams at Pompeii.

4. Michael Squire, The motto in the grotto: inscribing illustration and illustrating inscription at Sperlonga.

Part II. Images and their Labels

5. Robin Osborne and Alexandra Pappas, Writing on archaic Greek pottery.

6. Zahra Newby, Reading the allegory of the Archesilaos relief.

7. Ruth Leader-Newby, Inscribed mosaics in the Late Roman Empire: perspectives from East and West.

Part III. Inscriptions and their Statues

8. John Ma, Hellenistic honorific statues and their inscriptions.

9. Julia L. Shear, Reusing statues, rewriting inscriptions and bestowing honours in Roman Athens.

10. Verity Platt, ‘Honour takes wing’: unstable images and anxious orators in the Greek tradition.


1. For example, recent English language work: S. Goldhill and R. Osborne, eds. Art and Text in Ancient Greek Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); J. Elsner, ed., Art and Text in Roman Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); N. K. Rutter and B. A. Sparkes, Word and Image in Ancient Greece (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000); and Jocelyn Penny Small, The Parallel Worlds of Classical Art and Text (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

2. Recently on inscriptions, see M. Corbier, Donner à voir, donner à lire: memoire et communication dans la Rome ancienne (Paris: CNRS, 2006).

3. M. B. Roller, Dining Posture in Ancient Rome: bodies, values and status (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006).