Historic vogue to set life in stone

Epigraphic Evidence
January 3, 2003

"Now let your majesty issue the edict and have it put in writing so that it becomes unalterable." (Daniel 6:8) The ancient Greeks and Romans, as the Persian king is above urged to do, consigned numerous matters to writing on durable surfaces. It is very lucky that they did, for without these inscriptions we would now languish in ignorance of many fascinating aspects of their worlds.

We might have guessed, but might not have known, that there were professional amphora and wineskin carriers in ancient Athens. We would not have guessed that some Roman women owned businesses that manufactured lead water conduits. Nor would we know the full name or political career of the Roman historian Tacitus.

These few examples immediately reveal the potential attractions of studying Greek and Latin inscriptions, but they also highlight the vast range of what might be gained from such texts. Moreover, inscribed documents are published in a daunting variety of places. What, then, can be sought from inscriptions and where exactly is one to seek it? John Bodel and his co-authors provide answers to these and other questions.

Bodel himself writes an outstanding introductory chapter. Having quickly defined the science of epigraphy, he turns to several questions that have occupied scholars in recent years and which are essential to the reading and understanding of Graeco-Roman epigraphic texts.

This includes the so-called "epigraphic habit" among the Romans. Why does the making of stone inscriptions come into vogue towards the end of the 1st century BC, grow in popularity over the first two centuries AD, then suddenly collapse in the early 3rd century? In the Greek world, there are questions regarding the will to inscribe, both over the course of time and in geographical space. And why did people preserve words epigraphically at all? Many texts were produced to be all but illegible (inscribed high on walls, in very small letters, with no separation of words); moreover, a large sector of the ancient public was illiterate.

The present state of such questions is excellently illuminated by Bodel. His own thoughts on these matters are presented briefly but deserve careful attention. The chapter closes with some cautionary remarks on pitfalls that threaten the would-be epigrapher: problems of dating stones, later fakes and false confidence placed in conjecturally restored texts. Bodel also concludes the book with a brief guide to the main collections of ancient inscriptions - the best such introduction available.

The book includes five chapters on local languages and native cultures; onomastics and prosopography; family and society; civic and religious life; and inscribed household objects and the ancient economy. Each chapter sets out to demonstrate the things potentially learnt about each topic from inscriptions, and then to illustrate, via a few exemplary texts, the current state of our knowledge. In particular, all the authors make excellent comments on the dangers of overgeneralising conclusions drawn from individual inscriptions, and are careful to point out those things that inscriptions cannot tell us. In short, for the topics at hand we have wonderful demonstrations of the extent and the likely limits of our epigraphic knowledge.

As Bodel says plainly in his preface, this book is selective. It does not deal with the Roman army or the administrative structures of Rome's empire, both of which are known very largely from epigraphic texts. Nonetheless, for those matters that are treated, this book is now essential. The beginner will gain a quick introduction, and the specialist will profit measurably from the thought given these topics by the authors. The world of Greek and Latin epigraphy gains much with the publication of this book.

Michael Peachin is professor of classics, New York University, US.

Epigraphic Evidence: Ancient History from Inscriptions

Editor - John Bodel
ISBN - 0 415 11623 6 and 11624 4
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £50.00 and £14.99
Pages - 246

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