BMCR 2024.03.19

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.



Christian readers of late antiquity were frequently bedeviled by the question of how to handle ancient pagan texts. In developing one of the more famous solutions to this problem, Augustine turned to Exodus (12:36) and the “spoiling of the Egyptians,” as the King James Version has it. As the story goes, just prior to their escape from Egypt, God allowed for the Israelites to receive silver and gold vessels from the Egyptians, who gave the parting gifts eagerly to encourage their departure. Here Augustine saw an instructive metaphor. Not everything from the pagan world needed to be rejected. Certain jewels of the old culture—for Augustine, those philosophies and moral teachings that Christians could understand as true—might be safely and profitably spoliated, preserved, and repurposed within Christian environments.[1]

Anna Sitz’s new monograph—a study of the late antique reception of ancient pagan inscriptions in the eastern Mediterranean—points us, in a way, to the extensive material reality of the problem Augustine addressed through allegory. Her work, carried out through dozens of illuminating epigraphic, architectural, and archaeological case studies, shows that, across the late Roman east, the question of how to negotiate with pagan writing was as concrete as it was conceptual. Christians confronted pagan texts all the time, not only in poetry and philosophy books, but also—and perhaps more often—in inscribed writings preserved in pavement stones, along statue bases, and on the walls of ancient civic architecture that their communities had maintained and rebuilt over centuries. The specific conditions and (re)situations of these epigraphic survivals, Sitz convincingly demonstrates, tended to hinge on a delicate “interplay of reuse, destruction, and tolerance,” peculiar to local contexts (136). In some cases, Christians continued even to “spoil the Egyptians,” so to speak, as they redeployed material with hieroglyphic writing in the construction of new churches and monasteries (134-139).

Sitz’s book provides us with a significant first study of the afterlives of ancient inscriptions in late antiquity and the Christian habits of engagement that reshaped the meanings and functions of inscribed stones (4-6). Her focus is on epigraphic reception at former pagan sacred sites, presented as “especially charged spaces for negotiating the upheaval of power relations between the subscribers of the traditional cults and those of the new religion” (7). But these specific parameters hardly result in a narrow scope—the study covers an impressive array of material from Greece, Asia Minor, Egypt, and the Levant—nor do they diminish the impact of the book’s intervention. Pagan Inscriptions, Christian Viewers constitutes an important contribution to the history of late Roman Christianization, one that should help scholars to see more clearly through some of the distorting, polemical rhetoric of triumphalist Christians as they redescribed the ancient sanctuaries that remained in their worlds. “It is these text-monuments,” Sitz argues, that can fit “into the gap as a steppingstone between [the] rhetoric and reality” of temples in late antiquity (14).

Before I proceed with assessments of each chapter: caveat lector. I am neither an archaeologist nor an architectural historian, but rather a scholar of late antique literature. This means that I cannot expertly evaluate certain facets of Sitz’s study, especially the more technical aspects of her readings of archaeological data. However, I can confirm that Sitz has made complex inscriptional material, related modes of analysis, and intramural debate within the field of late ancient archaeology all surprisingly legible to a non-specialist. Rather than slip into jargon, she is careful throughout the book to define terms of analysis (e.g., 148: on the contentious language of spolia; 217: on erasure versus destruction), and to explain quirks in the data that constrain interpretation (e.g., 154: on “the dreaded ‘late wall’” descriptor in excavation reports that obscures findspots). This book thus delivers a specialized history of late antique epigraphy, literacy, building and reading cultures, but one that most scholars who wish to investigate these topics will find both accessible and edifying, even those more or less uninitiated in archaeology.

The book begins with an effective introduction, which outlines the central premises of the study (reviewed above), and cogently situates its claims within scholarship on late Roman temples, Greek epigraphy, and literacy. Chapter 2 (“The Use of Real or Imagined Inscriptions in Late Antique Literature”) continues to lay groundwork for the book’s subsequent interpretations of inscribed material by aggregating literary evidence for how ancient inscriptions were read by late antique viewers. Here Sitz is concerned not simply to document quotations from, or allusions to, inscriptions in literary texts, but to derive a more complex—what she calls “transtextual” (29-30)—understanding of how late Roman authors recorded, instrumentalized, and argued with ancient epigraphy. Two major trends across genres emerge. First, the sources indicate an increasing sense of the “numinous energy” of ancient inscribed stones and a correlated tendency to read them as communicating prophetic messages to the present (52). Intriguingly, Sitz posits that more restrictive Christian policing against human agents of divination in this period may have provoked a search for new paths of inquiry into the future, leading to an intensified curiosity in the oracular potential of inscriptions. Second, and relatedly, epigraphic material retained strong evidentiary value for historians and hagiographers. Epitaphic, civic, and other inscriptions were repeatedly put to use by late Roman writers to instill realist features within their texts and authenticate their historical and biographical narratives.

Equipped with a robust understanding of how late antique readers and writers engaged with older inscriptions in literature, Chapters 3-5 turn to consider the archaeological record. The focus is on the physical afterlives of ancient inscribed stones in, from, and around pagan sanctuaries. Each chapter is devoted to one of three main modes of epigraphic reception as Sitz models it: preservation, spoliation for new construction, and erasure.

The star inscription of Chapter 3 (“Preservation”) is Augustus’ Res Gestae, carved on the walls of the Temple of Roma and Augustus in Ankara, which remained intact and in situ until modern excavation. Sitz’s detailed, yet wide-ranging analysis here is exemplary of her method and style of presentation across almost all of her case studies. Interpretation begins with careful epigraphic and archaeological descriptions of both the inscription and the temple to which it belonged. The “biographies” of these monuments, as Sitz sometimes calls them, cover both late antique evidence for their construction, as well as painstaking reviews of excavation reports and judicious examinations of current scholarly debates. In the case of Ankara’s Temple of Roma and Augustus, questions persist as to whether the building was ever converted to Christian use in Late Antiquity; consensus is that it was not Christianized until the middle Byzantine period. Sitz challenges that view, arguing on topographical, architectural, and cultural grounds for a late antique ecclesiastical takeover. The problem then becomes fitting the visible Res Gestae—a record of imperial history full of pagan language—into this world. Here Sitz picks up the tools of analysis she wielded well in the previous chapter to examine how the Res Gestae was read by Christians in this period, and more specifically, within the temple itself. She finds that neither imperial subject matter nor references to pagan gods were uniformly verboten in Christian contexts relevant to Ankara; that Augustus in particular was often read by late Roman Christians as a key figure in ecclesiastical history and early Christianity; and that middle Byzantine Christian funerary texts within the temple itself reverently imitated the font of the ancient inscription. Sitz assembles all of this evidence to persuasively argue that we might imagine the city’s sixth-century Christians worshipping in a transformed Temple of Roma and Augustus and tolerating (a keyword in this chapter) the Res Gestae there as testimony to the ancient imperial importance of Ankara, and as a witness to a Roman figure tightly interwoven into the history of Christianity. Even in cities as Christianized as Ankara, preservation of pagan text-monuments remained a viable strategy of engagement.

A sensitivity to the multifaceted practicalities and cultural programmatics of building with inscribed material routinely emerges from Sitz’s case studies (148). Chapter 4 (“Spoliation”) brings this especially to the fore. Sitz calls into question here whether the reuse of older inscriptions in late antique construction was a simple matter of economic decision making, an idea generally accepted in the mainstream scholarly literature. While never closing the door on pragmatic explanations for why certain inscriptions were spoliated, she investigates the potential (often discounted by archaeologists) for the repositioning of ancient inscribed texts to have conveyed important meanings for late antique builders and readers. Final verdicts about the polemical valences (or lack thereof) in individual spoliated inscriptions vary. Sitz does locate across multiple sites a notable affinity for reusing inscribed stones that touted local civic benefactors. However, her ultimate conclusion is that the difficulties in identifying clear fashions or common messages in the redeployment of inscriptions are significant features in themselves. “Late antique attitudes toward inscriptions must have varied” (195).

Sitz’s restraint here and elsewhere is no doubt rooted in a keen sense of the limitations of the evidence. Nevertheless, it sometimes leaves one wanting a bit more. The author’s admirable interpretive caution and meticulous analysis of particular sites occasionally impede the making of strong, overarching claims about trends of engagement with ancient inscriptions, whether aesthetic, practical, or ideological. We find Sitz content with having brought “greater precision to a number of individual case studies,” asserting that there was “no single way of interpreting” this material in late antiquity (195), or that individual readers “could come to different conclusions about inscribed texts based on their background beliefs and individual process of reasoning” (47). These are refrains that Sitz herself describes as “trite” (195), and I also found them somewhat unsatisfying. If, in these Christianizing contexts, the spoliation of inscriptions exhibits no regular patterns, and does not provide evidence for a pervasive cultural program, and seems only haphazardly to convey arguments, what does that mean for the value of some of Sitz’s key categories of analysis? What makes the spoliation of an inscription especially “Christian”? What does “late antique” spoliation really mean? Can myriad idiosyncratic (re)uses of inscriptions and an overwhelming diversity of spoliating practices constitute a type or period of epigraphic reception? Or do these features resist and weaken such categorization? What additional information, alternative hermeneutic, or aesthetic theorizing might help us settle these questions?

Sitz transcends these critiques with fascinating evidence and provocative argumentation in the excellent final two chapters of the book. Chapter 5 (“Erasure”) presents perhaps the book’s most compelling history of late antique interaction with ancient inscriptions, one that will be stimulating to all interested in the complicated negotiations that preoccupied so many late Roman Christians over how exactly to read pagan texts. This is the chapter, as Sitz puts it, that “proves” that epigraphic material was read by late antique viewers (203). We learn that it could elicit strong responses from them as well. After setting the problem of inscriptional manipulation in the context of violence against statues and the Roman practice of “damnatio memoriae,” Sitz moves on to outline her subtle method of close reading erasures—a way of “paying attention to the physical process of erasure and the precise letters removed versus those left still legible or even untouched” (223). In one instance, Sitz examines a modified inscription celebrating a former priest of Aphrodite, situated within a temple-church in Aphrodisias that had been constructed of spoliated blocks. Through a careful autopsy of the altered inscription—measuring the words allowed to stand against those erased, and noticing how precisely certain names and titles were chiseled away—Sitz shows us how a stone could be “transformed…into a metatextual commentary on itself: the value of the older text was acknowledged and at the same time subverted by damaging the names of goddess and euergete” (231). In this chapter, Sitz leads us to appreciate inscriptional erasures as uniquely powerful evidence for emergent habits of censorship in late antiquity, more subtle than the forms of violence inflicted against pagan statuary, and capable of producing self-reflexive cultural commentary on ancient stones (257-61).

Sitz’s epilogue concludes the monograph with a flourish of scholarly activism: urgent calls for archaeologists to pay greater attention to inscriptions, to consider the cultural meaning of preserved stones as much as spolia, to rethink standard classifications of material based on “period of origin…without considering its diachronic nature” (271). Most pointedly, Sitz presses epigraphers to move beyond traditional concerns with “the original text” of a given inscription by adopting a “living text” approach, and thereby to understand strategies of reception—preservation, spoliation, erasure—as crucially constitutive of the force, meaning, and function of inscribed stones (276). If students of late antique epigraphy and literature were unsure of how to proceed along these lines, this book shows us how—and why it is worth it.



[1] Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana 2.40.