THE OXFORD HANDBOOK OF ROMAN EPIGRAPHY

Christer Bruun and Jonathan Edmondson (eds.)

OUP (2018) p/b 888pp £35.99 (ISBN 9780190860301

This is a scholarly work with contributions by 27 experts in the field.  It reviews every aspect of Roman epigraphy, as well as the broader picture which emerges from inscriptions.

The early chapters are essentially narrative and repay reading straight through.  It begins with an account of how epigraphers set about their work.  They usually take a ‘squeeze’ of the inscription.  This means covering the surface with a sheet of dampened squeeze-paper, then pressing it into the grooves.  The underside provides an exact impression of the text.  The next stage is to examine the squeeze in different lighting conditions and take photographs.  Then, perhaps inevitably, technology takes centre-stage.  Reflective Transformation Imaging (‘RTI’) captures multiple views of the surface from different angles.  Computers generate a textured composite image, which reveals traces too faint to see with the naked eye.  The epigrapher then must fill in the gaps, using a variety of techniques.  For example, good quality Roman inscriptions were laid out in a symmetrical fashion.  So, one can often estimate the number of characters missing.  The final stage is to decipher and, if possible, date the text.  Occasionally, the consular year appears.  More often, it is necessary to look for other clues.  For example, if an ordinary Roman has no cognomen, the text dates to before AD 50.

Many significant Roman inscriptions are now lost.  For these we rely upon the transcripts made by antiquarians of earlier centuries.  Sadly, those learned men had never heard of RTI.  They didn’t even do any squeezing.  Despite those shortcomings, they have produced some helpful codices setting out the inscriptions available in their time.  This valuable work started in the ninth and tenth centuries, stopped for three hundred years, then continued during the Renaissance.

In the 19th C Theodor Mommsen came onto the scene.  He set about producing a single comprehensive collection of all known Latin inscriptions.  He and his colleagues across Europe worked prodigiously, ignoring the tiresome fact that their respective countries were often at war.  They examined surviving inscriptions, as well as all available manuscript copies of any inscription which had been lost.  That is not everyone’s idea of a lifetime of fun.  The product of their labours was the magisterial work known as CIL (Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum).  Volume I contains inscriptions from the republican period.  Subsequent volumes are organised geographically.  Each volume has grown or been supplemented in later years.  A new development in the twentieth century was the creation of national collections.  These provide more material for individual provinces.  For example, CIL volume 7 relates to Britain, but there is much more detail in the three volumes of RIB (Roman Inscriptions of Britain).

The later chapters of the handbook are topic based and suitable for dipping into.  These chapters cover epigrams across entire history of the Roman world, from the republic to late antiquity.  They also range across all provinces of the Empire.  They discuss emperors, senators, equites, local élites, law making, administration, the army, religion, social life, urban infrastructure, spectacles in the amphitheatre, family life, women, slaves, freedmen, death, burials, transport, communications, social mobility, economics, linguistics and other similar topics.  These chapters are a kaleidoscope of interesting information and insights, but they defy pithy summary within the word limit of this review.  

Perhaps, however, it is worth drawing attention to James Clackson’s intriguing account of ‘local languages in Italy and the West’.  This chapter reviews a vast number of inscriptions across the Roman world, which are in neither Latin nor Greek.  These include a law tablet in Oenotrian, some nine thousand Etruscan texts, two hundred Celtiberian inscriptions in northern Spain, a hundred stone stelae in southern Spain carved in Tartessian and many bilingual inscriptions (Latin plus a local language).  The survey reveals a rich linguistic and cultural landscape, which was crushed by the relentless advance of Greek and Latin.

Who should read this book?  The short answer is anyone interested in Roman epigraphy and the ancient world.  That doesn’t just mean professional classicists and archaeologists.  It also includes those visitors to Roman sites, who are fascinated by the carvings and inscriptions which they see.  Readers with a serious interest in the Roman world will find much to enjoy in this handbook.

Rupert Jackson

We welcome your comments; please send via our social media.
Back to Reading Room