BMCR 2020.02.28

The Language of Ruins: Greek and Latin Inscriptions on the Memnon Colossus

, The Language of Ruins: Greek and Latin Inscriptions on the Memnon Colossus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. xix, 262. ISBN 9780190626310. $90.00.


Enta geweorc is an Old English poetic collocation used to describe the traces of dilapidated monumental architecture in the landscape of Early Medieval England. Those words—which mean “work of giants”—offer a glimpse into how the material remains of Roman Britain (perhaps specifically the ruins of a monumental bath) were understood by some of the inhabitants of the island long after the fall of the Roman Empire.1 They also provide a distant analog to the types of evidence and themes Patricia A. Rosenmeyer examines in this rich and rewarding book. The Language of Ruins will be of interest to classicists studying topics as diverse as Roman antiquarianism, ancient pilgrimage and elite tourism, and the reception of Homer and Sappho in the first few centuries AD. The book also has much to offer those working on Egyptomania, the cross-cultural understanding of ruins, and the entanglement of vernacular and learned as well as ancient and modern discourses about antiquities.2

Monumental ruins around the world have often provoked wonder among later generations of interpreters. Occasionally, those ruins have incited awestruck visitors to carve textual records of their presence on them. The inscribed ruin with which this book is concerned is one of a pair of colossal anthropomorphic statues in a necropolis of Egyptian Thebes (modern Luxor), originally erected in the fourteenth century BC to commemorate Amenhotep III. From at least the first century BC, that statue was understood by Greeks and Romans as a memorial not to an Egyptian pharaoh, but rather to the Homeric hero Memnon, a mythical king of the Ethiopians who was killed by Achilles in Troy. The so-called “Colossus of Memnon” bears an archive of ancient interpretations of the statue’s significance in the form of 107 Greek and Latin inscriptions, carved in the first three centuries AD. Evidently, that statue attracted as much attention in Roman antiquity as it has since European explorers, antiquarians, and scholars began to write about it and illustrate it in the early eighteenth century AD.

In Chapter 1, Rosenmeyer describes the statues in Thebes, the ancient literary sources that mention them (including those dealing with the origins of the speaking ruin), and the ancient inscriptions carved on that statue’s legs.3 As both the inscriptions and the literary sources attest, many different people traveled far specifically to visit the Colossus. Visitors were there also to audit, as it were: to examine with their ears as much as with their eyes. In 27 or 26 BC, an earthquake seems to have damaged one of the colossal statues, somehow generating the physical conditions under which it produced a howl or shriek when heated by the sun’s rays. The sound ceased at some point in the late second or third century AD, perhaps as a result of imperial intervention.4

In Chapter 2, Rosenmeyer considers the motivations of the various foreign visitors who left their mark on the colossus. Most of those people were military and administrative officers (including eight prefects of Egypt). A few of them registered the presence of their wives and children; some of those wives (including Hadrian’s spouse Sabina) left inscriptions of their own. So did sophists and poets (including women who wrote in different archaizing styles). Rosenmeyer teases differences between intellectual and religious, or secular and sacred motivations, but clear-cut distinctions are anachronistic. She also probes the visitors’ yearning to be present in all their individual specificity by calling attention to the insistence with which many of them recorded the time of day at which they heard Memnon’s wondrous voice (pp. 27-33).

In Chapter 3, Rosenmeyer ponders “How to converse with a statue”. The common, yet contradictory drive to experience what others had already experienced (i.e., Memnon’s voice), and to do so in a way that was at the same time intensely personal is repeatedly attested in the inscriptions. This chapter demonstrates that Memnon and his visitors were mutually constitutive. In Thebes, dialogue with the past occurred viva voce. Successive performative visits by a diverse array of people animated broken rock; the sound of that rock made the visit worthwhile for foreign travelers. Memnon’s voice turned those travelers into witnesses of the divine—or at least of the vividness of the traces of the Homeric (or Egyptian) past. Rosenmeyer marshals the inscriptions that attest to the challenge and the excitement of dialogue with the ruin. This chapter will be of particular interest to scholars thinking about the unstable ontological status of certain statues in classical antiquity. The author’s discussion of the various ways ancient visitors engaged in conversation with Memnon deserves readers beyond classics. The evidence is remarkably explicit and abundant. It is easy to imagine embarking on comparative exploration with cultural traditions elsewhere in the world in which matter was—and sometimes still is—alive. 5

Homer was a lens through which to interpret the material remains of the past for travelers throughout the Greek and Roman worlds. In Chapter 4, Rosenmeyer explores how different people used the Homeric texts to make sense of the colossus. Especially valuable is her emphasis on the social range of Homeric interpreters. She surveys the many inscribers who wrote or commissioned inscriptions that engaged with Homer and also the various ways in which those engagements happened. Many people invoked Homer through lexical archaisms or the use of short epic phrases. But one of them, the poet Arius, borrowed four Homeric lines whole-cloth and rearranged them in an epigraphic cento. The heterogeneous intertexts allow Rosenmeyer to shed light on the inscribers’ self-positioning with respect to both the ruin and Greek literary tradition. As she shows, Arius purloined Homeric lines to animate the speaking statue of an epic hero, and also to present himself as a living Homeric poet.

In Chapter 5, “Sapphic Memnon”, Rosenmeyer deals mostly with the poems of Julia Balbilla, who visited Thebes as part of Hadrian’s retinue in November 130 AD. Balbilla’s poems are famous because they are written in an artificial Aeolic dialect, using Sappho, rather than Homer, as a literary compass. Those inscriptions have received more attention than any others on the colossus. Much energy has been spent opining about their aesthetic value. Whatever twentieth and twenty-first century scholars may think about Balbilla’s verses, the poems are fascinating cultural artifacts. Her inscriptions, along with those of the poet Claudia Damo and a handful of other inscriptions on the colossus, provide valuable insight into how Roman women interacted with ruins, with Greek and Roman literary culture, and with conflicting historical traditions. Although Rosenmeyer is right in claiming that most of the inscriptions are concerned only with the Greek interpretation of the colossus, Balbilla’s texts furnish incontrovertible evidence that multiple memory horizons coincided and clashed at the site. Balbilla herself records conflicting traditions about the honorand of the statue, some of which she learned from “[Egyptian] priests who knew stories of old” (poem 29 line 4).

In Chapter 6 Rosenmeyer turns to texts written by seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth-century European travelers and intellectuals. She draws connections and contrasts between ancient and modern interpreters and interpretations and detects a major shift in the attitude of early modern visitors towards the colossus with respect to that of their predecessors. Europeans wanted to appropriate antiquities and, paradoxically, to abduct those antiquities from Egypt so as to “literally bring them ‘home’” (p. 203). This chapter also extends into more recent periods several themes treated in earlier chapters. The debate about the implications of a once vocal—indeed animated—statue gains new relevance in the early modern period when different intellectuals were themselves preoccupied with the existence of sophisticated, and potentially deceitful automata.

The Language of Ruins ’s principal contribution is subjecting the entire inscriptional corpus on the colossus—and not just choice portions of that corpus—to critical analysis. For a study of inscriptions carved directly on an archaeological ruin in Egypt, however, the book is unapologetically philological and centered almost exclusively on foreign (i.e., Roman and later European) understandings of that ruin. Egyptians of any period are almost totally absent. But as Balbilla’s poem 29 shows, Egyptian perspectives were available to ancient visitors as they are to anyone who visits the site now. A few ancient commentators explicitly note that the noise the statue emitted may have been due to local priests who intentionally manufactured a miracle (pp. 10-11). Rosenmeyer’s reliance on texts is in some ways unobjectionable. She is, after all, a philologist. But the colossus has existed in many media. The early modern desire to collect can only be very partially explored through the written record. Key manifestations of that desire are missed by focusing exclusively on words; the instruments whereby European travelers captured their archaeological prey were very often drawings, photographs, and rubbings.6

Rosenmeyer largely subscribes to the trope of oblivion and rediscovery of the statue. The end of classical antiquity results in cultural amnesia (p. 176) followed by sudden anamnesis with the advent of the “intrepid European explorers” (p.169). Oblivion and rescue are at best myopic tropes, even if they are foundational to the disciplines of classics and archaeology. Absolute indifference for the colossus or other material remains of the past must be demonstrated. What did people think of the statue in the many intervening centuries? How did locals explain its origins and meaning? If vernacular discourses about antiquities in countries such as Greece and Italy have often been ignored by classicists, neglect has been more extreme in Muslim lands and it deserves redress. The statues in Thebes were never lost or forgotten (except by the authors in whom classicists are usually interested). The people who lived and continue to live by those statues have always known of their existence and have had not only their own explanations of the meaning and significance of those monuments, but also their own manners of interaction with them and their own strategies of interpretation. What’s more, local and foreign traditions are rarely fully separate—perhaps they cannot be. When in the mid-nineteenth century the American Arabist Edward Joy Morris visited the monument, he noted the following: “There are no modern inscriptions, but there is a kind of traditionary record of the former vocality of this statue still lingering among the Arabs, for they call it Salamaat, or the statue that bids good morning.”7

Rosenmeyer concludes with a suggestion that the inscriptions on the statue continue to speak “the universal language of ruins”. And yet, as this very book shows, there is no such thing, but rather a babel of tongues about the traces of the past. Not all speakers recognize each other as interlocutors. Indeed not all of them recognize “ruins” as valid indices of the past 8. Rosenmeyer should be commended for breathing life into all the Greek and Latin inscriptions on the colossus. I hope her book also inspires her readers to resuscitate other Memnons, both in Thebes and beyond.


1. The words are part of an eighth or ninth-century poem known as “The Ruin”. A scholarly edition of that poem can be found in Philip Krapp and Elliot Van Kirk Dobbie (eds.), The Exeter Book, New York: Columbia University Press, 1936, pp. 227-229.

2. See, for instance, Alain Schnapp et al. eds. World Antiquarianism: Comparative Perspectives, Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2013, and Alain Schnapp, Ruines: essai de perspective comparée. Collection, Lyon: Presses universitaires de Lyon, 2015.

3. The inscriptions have been available since they were edited by André and Étienne Bernard, Les inscriptions grecques et latines du colosse de Memnon Paris: Institut français d’archéologie orientale, 1960.

4. Since the nineteenth century, Septimius Severus has been associated with restoration efforts that either silenced the statue or were prompted by its sudden muteness. In “The Miracle of Memnon,” Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 21, no. 1 (1984): 21–32, Glen Bowersock raised the intriguing possibility that the restorer may have been the Palmyrene empress Zenobia.

5. See, for example, Stephen D. Houston, The Life within: Classic Maya and the Matter of Permanence. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014.

6. Visual documentation extends the life of the statue well beyond the academic realm. See, e.g., Clipper ship Memnon.

7. Morris, Edward Joy. Notes of a Tour through Turkey, Greece, Egypt, Arabia Petræa, to the Holy Land: Including a Visit to Athens, Sparta, Delphi, Cairo, Thebes, Mt. Sinai, Petra, & c.: By E. Joy Morris. Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1843, quote on p. 90.

8. For ruins (or the lack thereof) in China and among the Inca, see Hung Wu, A Story of Ruins: Presence and Absence in Chinese Art and Visual Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012, and Steve Kosiba, “Ancient Artifice: The Production of Antiquity and the Social Roles of Ruins in the Heartland of the Inca Empire.” In Benjamin Anderson and Felipe Rojas (eds.), Antiquarianisms: Contact, Conflict, Comparison, Oxford: Oxbow, 2017, pp. 72–108 (on which see BMCR 2018.06.04).