BMCR 2023.04.11

Dynamic epigraphy: new approaches to inscriptions

, Dynamic epigraphy: new approaches to inscriptions. Oxford; Havertown: Oxbow, 2022. Pp. ix, 221. ISBN 9781789257892


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


The past decade has seen an increase in epigraphic scholarship dedicated to exploring the different modes of contemporary reception of inscribed monuments, as opposed to the traditional practice of analyzing only the textual content as evidence for historical enquiries.[1] The papers in the present volume explore this trend along various axes. They are the result of a panel at the 11th Celtic Conference in Classics, held at St. Andrews University in July 2018, and so unsurprisingly the northwestern provinces of the Roman Empire feature heavily in the volume. Most of the inscriptions discussed are in Latin, together with a few Gallic, Greek and even modern Scottish examples, and although the implicit focus is clearly on Roman epigraphy, the discussions and results are relevant to other fields of epigraphic study, and in fact much will be of interest to scholars working on inscriptions from other areas and periods as well.

In her introduction, Eleri Cousins states that the aim of the volume is to push the boundaries of epigraphy as a discipline by integrating new methods and approaches from neighboring disciplines and thereby linking archaeological, anthropological and literary studies with a historic and epigraphic perspective. She stresses the polyvalent nature of epigraphic monuments and the necessity for a phenomenological approach to capture this complicated nature.

Kelsey J. Williams uses his analysis of two funerary monuments from 16th and 17th century Scotland as the starting point for an exploration of the concept of an ‘epigraphic landscape’. By uniting a close reading of both content (on the visual, symbolic and textual levels) and context (the monument, its immediate surroundings and the wider landscape with which it interacts), he is able to show the potential of a deep analysis for understanding the various layers and webs of meaning that entangle a monument and its landscape.

The subject of Alex Mullen’s paper is a group of Roman spindle whorls from eastern Gaul that feature short inscriptions in Latin, Gallic and a mixture of the two languages. The concept of translingualism is employed to better understand the interactions between Latin and local languages beyond the dichotomic frameworks of bilingualism and code-switching. The traditional interpretation of these whorls as gifts by male suitors to their love interests is challenged in favor of authorship by the (mostly female) weavers, thus bringing into focus a social group and its ways of epigraphic expression that are often left out of historical analysis.

Cristina de la Escosura Balbás, Elena Duce Pastor and David Serrano Lozano address the perennial and vexing problem of illiteracy or semi-literacy by analyzing epigraphic texts as visual phenomena. Treating epigraphic language as a semiotic system with a code that is different from literary or spoken language shows how text and image, two analytical categories that we often separate too strictly, can intersect in various semantically charged ways. Abbreviations such as h(ic) s(itus) e(st) or D(is) M(anibus) can turn into symbols (‘HSE’, ‘DM’) that are meaningful without having to be decoded, enabling illiterate people to understand them. The analogy with modern emoticons, such as ‘XD’, is illuminating. Again, the importance of the epigraphic landscape in which the codes are situated is stressed.

The relationship between text and image is at the center of Fabio Luci’s contribution as well. The inscriptions discussed are from a series of dedications of spoils by Roman Republican consuls such as M. Fulvius Nobilior from the conquest of Ambracia in 189 B.C. By connecting the omitted accusative object in these inscriptions with the spoils that originally stood on the inscribed supports, Luci shows how text and monument are linked by an integrative syntax, with the statues—lost today—taking the role of a ‘visual accusative’. This is linked to the representative strategies pursued by members of the Roman elite during the Middle Republic, for whom the public displays of these spoils were important tools of political propaganda.

Hanneke Salisbury discusses a set of inscribed funerary monuments from Roman Britain that also feature relief portraits of the deceased, foregrounding their visual aspect. In analyzing the interaction between text and image, she demonstrates how frames—often found as decorative or ordering elements—can restrict our interpretations by narrowing our focus on the fields bordered by them. Instead, she argues, the potential of frames as visual bridging elements that unite the components of a monument into a meaningful whole should be explored. Also, text and relief elements can have a framing function by themselves.

The most aggressively phenomenological approach is found in the paper by Chiara Cenati, Victoria González Berdús and Peter Kruschwitz. Structured by our five senses—sight, sound, touch, smell and taste—, the way in which verse inscriptions allude to or mention the sensual impact of their text when read aloud, of their own materiality, or of their surroundings (such as a lush pine forest) is analyzed. It becomes clear how far removed our modern modes of reception, filtered through the anemic pages of a corpus, the database entry on a screen or the sterile display environment of a museum, are from the multisensorial ancient reality and how important it is to try to reintegrate these sensorial impacts in our analyses.

Alessandra Tafaro brings together the corpus of Martial’s epigrams and the topos of the lasse viator, the tired traveller, found in funerary inscriptions from various locations. The exploration of the intertextual relationship demonstrates how the ironically self-deprecating remarks by Martial, anticipating and thereby subverting the boredom of the reader, find their models in verse epigrams. At the same time, a new appreciation can be found for the sarcastic nature of such epigrams which—while asking for the traveler to rest—often mock them with a reminder of their own mortality.

In the final chapter, Deborah Kamen and Sarah Levin-Richardson apply the method of ‘critical fabulation’, first elaborated by Saidiya Hartmann,[2] on a set of inscriptions from Pompeii and Delphi. This method attempts to fill in the voids of historical archives that structurally erased the perspectives of subaltern persons, such as slaves, by imaginative conjecture. The points of departure are a short graffito from a Pompeii brothel and two manumission decrees from Delphi. The authors delve into the possible pasts, presents and futures of persons involved in the creation of these inscriptions. In this way, the authors can explore some often-ignored factors in the interpretation of inscriptions and the persons behind them.

Taken as a whole, this volume is an important and accessible contribution to our understanding of the various ways inscriptions can be (and were) perceived and interpreted, and it achieves its aim of pushing disciplinary boundaries. The phenomenologically oriented approach that is visible throughout the volume is a welcome and necessary addition to our usual way of viewing inscriptions through narrow disciplinary lenses. Many of the papers here consequently de-center the text and its author, instead evaluating the emotions of and impact on ancient readers and viewers. This increased focus on the perception of inscribed monuments has considerable potential in all areas of epigraphical studies. Another aspect that becomes clear in several of the contributions is the necessity for a highly regional approach that enables us to understand the epigraphic landscape that gives meaning to inscribed monuments, i.e their ‘natural habitat’.

The high-quality (black/white) images are indispensable to the holistic approach envisaged here. That being said, some of them are too small or washed-out for discerning details, especially of the inscriptions and relief décor (e. g. fig. 4.5, 4.9, 4.11, 6.1, 6.4, 6.6), and some chapters would have benefitted from more illustration. The negligible number of grammatical errors does not distract from the otherwise high production values and level of editing. Some erroneous references and oversights could have been prevented by careful proofreading.[3]

Some of the contributions take the boundary-pushing approach very seriously and make far-reaching claims from a very small corpus of artefacts or from exceptional cases. This is problematic, since what is missing from most contributions is a discussion of the reasons why these monuments were created, the epigraphic habit, which has significant implications for the interpretation of our evidence—especially concerning the representativeness of the data and the trends becoming apparent in it. The last chapter is very provocative, something of which the authors are conscious (p. 202f.). I agree that we have a strong “ethical obligation to tell the stories of those who are marginalized and oppressed”, but our sources often do not give us the historical license. The authors’ conjectures are, due to their highly personal and subjective nature, neither verifiable nor falsifiable. They are, contrary to what is claimed, quite different from conjectures relying on identifiable and well-established patterns. While this approach forces us to confront the subjective and uncertain nature of historical enquiry, I am not convinced that it has more to offer than methods more firmly grounded in the sources. This does not distract from the fact that this volume demonstrates the possibilities and the fruitfulness of interdisciplinary approaches in epigraphy. The contributions here will certainly spark further discussion, and they offer useful points of departure for further, fruitful enquiry. They are of interest to all scholars interested in how a multifaceted exploration of inscribed monuments can enhance our understanding of the ancient world in new and creative ways.


Authors and Titles

Eleri H. Cousins, Introduction: thoughts on the nature of inscriptions.

Kelsey Jackson Williams, Towards a theoretical model of the epigraphic landscape.

Alex Mullen, Materializing epigraphy: archaeological and sociolingustic approaches to Roman inscribed spindle whorls.

M. Cristina de la Escosura Balbás/Elena Duce Pastor/David Serrano Lozano, Written to be (un)read, written to be seen: beyond Latin codes in Latin epigraphy.

Fabio Luci, Epigraphic strategies of communication: the visual accusative of Roman Republican dedications of spoils.

Hanneke Salisbury, Inscribing the artistic space: blurred boundaries on Romano-British tombstones.

Chiara Cenati/Victoria González Berdús/Peter Kruschwitz, When poetry comes to its senses: inscribed Roman verse and the human sensorium.

Alessandra Tafaro, Lassi viatores: poetic consumption between Martial’s Epigrams and the Carmina Latina Epigraphica.

Deborah Kamen/Sarah Levin-Richardson, Epigraphy and critical fabulation: imagining narratives of Greco-Roman sexual slavery.



[1] For a summary, see A. Cooley, “New Approaches to the Epigraphy of the Roman World”, Journal of Epigraphic Studies 1, 2018, pp. 27–46.

[2] S. Hartmann, “Venus in Two Acts”, Small Axe 26, 2008, pp. 1–14.

[3] On p. 40, for “Pausanius” read “Pausanias”; p. 80, the stele is not for An(n)i(a) Buturra, but for An̂t(onia) Buturra; on p. 81, fig. 4.8 the caption should be in the nominative; on p. 138, “CSIR I.7, 141” refers to CSIR I.7, no. 141 (as would be expected), while on p. 139, “CSIR I.6, 90” refers to CSIR I.6, p. 90, no. 219. On p. 135, for “CSIR I.7” read “CSIR I.9”; on p. 159 for “Maeviae” read “Meviae”; on p. 214: for “CIL IV 2201” read “CIL IV 2200”. Where the reading “Fortunata XI XV XI” for CIL IV 2259 (recte: “Fortunata fellat”) on the same page comes from, I have no idea.