BMCR 2024.03.18

Pagan inscriptions, Christian viewers: the afterlives of temples and their texts in the late antique Eastern Mediterranean

, Pagan inscriptions, Christian viewers: the afterlives of temples and their texts in the late antique Eastern Mediterranean. Cultures of reading in the ancient Mediterranean. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2023. Pp. xxv, 321. ISBN 9780197666432.



The Christianization of cities, the fate(s) of antique material culture in those (supposedly) newly-Christian cities, the lived reality of paganism (with or without scare quotes) during the fourth and fifth centuries CE: each of these themes has created its own academic discussions, disputes, and its own, much-welcomed, deluge of publications. Anna Sitz’s Pagan Inscriptions, Christian Viewers is an invaluable contribution to these topics. Religious literature (both Christian and pagan) and the use and reuse of ‘classical’ statues and architectural marbles have been the subject of many monographs. The same is true for the gargantuan corpus of Greek inscriptions. Sitz does not present new evidence, but she offers new perspectives by proposing to study how inscriptions were read in late antiquity (that is, she moves from text to reception). Her greatest innovation, in my view, is to use repurposed inscribed temple material as a source.

The book is divided into six chapters. Chapter 1, “Afterlives of Inscriptions”, serves as tan introduction. It begins by presenting the fascinating case of a fourth-or-fifth-century inscription from Megara (IG VII.53). In it, the city honours the fallen citizen-soldiers who died fighting Xerxes, a mere thousand years before the inscription. It contains a Classical epigram by (supposedly) Simonides of Kleos and mentions a bull sacrifice to the dead. This bull sacrifice is crucial, as both Angelos Chaniotis and Sitz state that it was a practice revived during the fourth century in the face of continuous hostile legislation by Christian emperors. Sitz argues that this (and the other cases she deals with in the book) is a case of engagement with the past via inscriptions, and further posits that this created a vision of a civic past, a period that was not to be repudiated. This vision stood, so Sitz argues, against the rhetorical Christian polemical position – that of a complete victory over, and subsequent destruction of, pagan sites in general and temples in particular.

The destruction was nowhere complete, however, and scholars from Alison Frantz to Rebecca Sweetman have problematized the triumphal rhetoric of hardcore Christians.[1] Sitz enriches our discussion by asking what late antique viewers (whether Christians, Jews, or pagans) saw in these non-destroyed spaces, and further notes that temples probably concentrated more inscriptions than any other civic building in a late antique city. They included local legislation listing correct sacrificial orthopraxy, lists of priests, war memorials, imperial decrees, whichever documents the local boule or the city’s demos deemed important to preserve in such a space, and – last but not least – public inscribed copies of a slave’s manumission. The last case is especially meaningful; Sitz’s research allows one to imagine a fourth-century slave following their master to a temple, for whatever business, seeing an inscribed manumission, and thinking of better days ahead.

Sitz then deals with the question of literacy. She presents cogent arguments on this point (such as that our concept of literacy – as reading and writing – serves past periods poorly), but the point itself seems to me less important than it seems. Sitz’s case rests on how people interacted with inscriptions, not how many people, or how much interaction there was. The slave I imagined above would not need to be literate to place meaning in an inscribed manumission. They simply needed to have heard that the inscription served that purpose.

It is important to note, briefly, that at the end of the introduction Sitz notes that she uses the word “pagan” to describe the “adherents of the traditional cults of the Greco-Roman world” (p. 26). I understand the need for such caution – The Atlantic recently published a lamentable piece decrying “modern paganism” – but I take issue with the use of “traditional” (Sitz is evidently following customary modern academic practice). Traditions, as Eric Hobsbawm showed long ago, are invented (the bull sacrifice in Megara might be one of them!), and considerably fluid (Julian, “restorer” of “traditional” paganism, loathed the smell of incense!). I wonder if other words, such as “customary” or “conventional”, might do a better job here.

Chapter 2, “The Use of Real or Imagined Inscriptions in Late Antique Literature”, uses an impressive amount of literary evidence to show that inscriptions were often read by people in late antiquity. More importantly, it shows how inscriptions were read differently, and put to varied uses by people from diverse origins. We meet Ammianus giving a Greek translation (done by a certain Hermapion) of the hieroglyphs on Augustus’s obelisk. We see Agathias reproducing the tale of a rustic farmer, Chaeremon of Tralles, who saved his city by meeting Augustus in Cantabria, and using an inscription (which survives to this day) to give credence to his account (alas, the real Chaeremon was an euergetes, possibly even a Roman citizen; oral tradition turned him into a farmer). Cosmas Indicopleustes gives a minutely precise description of a pedimented stele, and even draws it (the manuscripts have fortunately preserved the drawing). Inscriptions were used to see the future: Valens’s doom is predicted, both in Ammianus and Socrates, by an inscription found in reused Chalcedonian stone, and among the many omens faced by Julian before his ill-starred invasion of Persia was an epigraphic one. Julian’s full titulature in inscriptions was “Flavius Claudius Iulianus Pius Felix Augustus”. Given that Felix and Julianus, high figures of the emperor’s regime, had recently died, the Augustus himself was next on the chopping block. Most interesting to me, however, the Life of St. Makarios of Rome, wherein three monks, trying to reach the ends of the earth, find an inscription on an arch erected by Alexander, which gives them directions. The arch, and its inscription, are fictional, but still: the ancient inscription as a travelling guide!

The next three chapters deal with archaeological evidence, and each chapter focuses on a specific way of dealing with pagan inscriptions. Chapter 3, “Preservation: Tolerating Temples and Their Texts”, uses extensive archaeological data to demonstrate that tolerating a pagan inscription was not the same as ignoring it: surviving inscriptions were given meaning by, and gave meaning to, local inhabitants. Nowhere is this more evident, I believe, than in Sitz’s discussion of the bilingual Res Gestae divi Augusti in Ankara, wherein the Temple of Augustus containing the inscription (in Latin and in Greek) was likely transformed into a church – and the inscription, and Augustus himself, were seen through Christian lenses.

Chapter 4, “Spoliation: Integrating and Scrambling tions-Inscrip” (sic), deals largely with spolia. Sitz is careful not to ascribe a priori motivations to this practice. The chapter moves away from the duality of practical versus ideological architectural reuse; evaluation around spolia has to be done on a case-by-case basis, and the chapter deals with eight case studies at length (Gaza, the Korykian Cave, Sagalassos, Aphrodisias, Baalbek, Klaros, Sardis and Labraunda), while other cases of spoliation (such as those at Gerasa) are dealt with more briefly. Each of these cases are different, so generalization is perilous, but Sitz does assert that spoliation was always the result of a series of decisions, not the necessary and inevitable consequence of an economic or physical demand. I found the individual arguments in this chapter to be persuasive and the questions raised to be interesting (most especially in the case of Sardis, where the spoliation occurred during the construction of an impressive synagogue). Yet I would posit that this chapter, more than the others, begs for more research. It is less an endpoint and more of a starting point. Further case studies are needed, and their sheer complexity might require an interpretative model, if only as an Idealtypus.

Chapter 5, “Erasure: [[Damnatio Memoriae]] or Conscious Uncoupling?”, deals with intentional erasures of inscriptional text. If certain pagan objects could be reread, or misread, as Christian (Marcus Aurelius’ equestrian statue was taken to be Constantine’s by the tenth century at the latest, which probably saved it from destruction), others were less fortunate. Statues of pagan gods (even pagan figures, such as Alexander) fell easy prey to enthusiastic Christians; from decapitation to the etching of crosses over mutilated faces, their fates were ghastly. So far so expected, but the chapter goes into detail about inscriptional erasure. The case of Aphrodisias in Caria is instructive. When the city was rebaptized as Stauropolis, “City of the Cross” – thus shedding its pagan name – an inscription mentioning the “metropolis of the Aphrodisians” was partially erased and replaced with other letters, thus forming “metropolis of the Stauropolitans”. Other inscriptions containing the name Aphrodite also suffered damage. However, the purge was not complete. Cultic statues of Aphrodite were much more at risk than her name (or statues that could be interpreted as mythological). Other violent interventions are much more mysterious. The sorry state of the Res Gestae Divi Augusti at Pisidian Antioch (it lay in more than two hundred fragments) can only be weakly blamed on Christian fury (as the survival of the copy at Ankara makes clear; perhaps the fact that the Antiochene Res Gestae had only a Latin version made it less comprehensible, and thus less valuable, to the populace at large, or the text was damaged). Sitz expertly deals with the question of intention, given the disparate fates of our material evidence, answering it in the chapter heading as “conscious uncoupling”, at least in the case of inscriptions: an amicable parting of ways between the Christian present and pagan past that still preserved the civic skein of the local community.

The brief conclusion sums up and reiterates the arguments presented previously and makes an incisive plea for Latin and Greek epigraphers to be more mindful of archaeological, contextual approaches to their sources.

One issue ends up appearing again and again throughout the book: Sitz is rather stingy with full quotations of the inscriptions she works with. The book opens, as noted above, with a fourth-or-fifth-century Megaran inscription (IG VII.53). It is reproduced in the book, but only its heading is translated and transcribed. One must read the rest of the transcription – the Classical epigram, the statement on bull sacrifice – in the picture, in its original form, a rather tedious labour that Sitz might have spared the reader. She usually gives indirect summaries of the inscription’s content: thus, “The text concludes by stating that the city continued to sacrifice a bull on behalf of the dead up until the present” (p. 1). This is not ideal. In many other cases we only have Sitz’s summary of its contents (in the very next page, this happens with another Megaran inscription – IG VII.52). Sitz’s criteria for quotation elimination are also strange: the decision, for example, to present a part of Pomponius Mela’s description of the Cennet sinkhole only in English translation is confusing. Sitz could have provided more extensive quotations. I found that, to read and use this book with the respect it deserves, I had to have (at the absolute minimum) the CIL and the IG open on my laptop.

Yet even this criticism is a compliment, for one would not go to such lengths if the book was uninteresting, if its research idea was faulty, if its conclusions were superficial, unpersuasive, or superfluous. Sitz’s book illuminates not only the ultimate fates of inscriptions in late antiquity, but opens one’s eyes to their “continued lives” (p. 273). There is much to be learned from this book, and I heartily recommend it.



[1] A. Frantz, “From Paganism to Christianity in the Temples of Athens”, DOP 19, 185-205; R. J. Sweetman, “The Christianization of the Peloponnese: The Topography and Function of Late Antique Churches”, Journal of Late Antiquity 3, 203-261.