The Epigraphic Habit. Inscriptions, chiseled in stone, were a highly visible and durable means of conveying information to the general public. The process of writing in stone or bronze, or on any other hard and permanent medium, was a well-advanced science in Rome; more than three hundred thousand inscriptions survive today, a fraction of what originally existed, and the study of them is called epigraphy. They range in length from one or two words to long passages that would fill many pages of modern publications; one of the longest, a philosophical text of Diogenes of Oenoanda, was carved on stone tablets that stretched for eighty-seven yards. So prevalent was the practice, and so formulaic was its aspect, that the Romans have been said to function according to an epigraphic habit that outpaced earlier civilizations, including the Greeks, particularly during the turn of the second century C.E. A widespread expectation prevailed that important documents were to be cast in stone and in accordance with certain patterns and language. Like any other kind of text, inscriptions had an author, or group of authors, and an audience. The audience for an inscription was simple: it included any literate passerby who chose to stop and read it, or illiterates who asked someone to read it for them. The authors of inscriptions were, of course, more specific, and a wide range of people might engage in epigraphy, regardless of their social position or ethnic origins. Their access to the reading population depended only on the location and prominence of their carved, immobile texts.
Tombstones. The bulk of public inscriptions that survive are funerary epitaphs for the deceased. These works were set up outside of tombs, which themselves were typically positioned along a well-trafficked road outside of the sacred boundary of the city. They could take the form of conventional slabs, such as are common in modern cemeteries, or they could be written on altars, upon which offerings to the spirits of the dead were made. The more busy the thoroughfare, the more valuable was the funerary real estate. The Via appia, leading south from Rome, was a popular site for memorials early in the Republic, and its tombs have yielded some of the oldest Latin epitaphs. The clan of the Cornelii Scipiones, which produced several generals and consuls, including Scipio Africanus of the Second Punic War (218-201 B.C.E.), had a complex of tombs there, beginning, at least, in the third century B.C.E. Their epigraphic dedications are written in meter and some are addressed to the Roman people generally, using the second person plural. Most funerary inscriptions share certain characteristics, in keeping with a basic pattern, no matter the time period or location. Authors of the memorials would usually record the age of the deceased, often down to the number of months and days; his/her career and occupation, including the most significant promotions and accomplishments; the children or other family members who remained; and perhaps a description of the deceased’s personality or moral rectitude. By
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
way of example, the following excerpt from an inscription from Rome demonstrates the kinds of attributes that one might want remembered, as well as the conversational, almost casual, nature of communication between the realms of the dead and the living, as preserved on stone:
Stranger, my message is short. Stand by and read it through. Here is the unlovely tomb of a lovely woman. Her parents called her Claudia by name. She loved her husband with all her heart. She bore two sons; of these she leaves one on earth; under the earth she has placed the other. She was charming in converse, yet gentle in bearing. She kept house, she made wool. That’s my last word. Go your way.
Another example, taken from the Via appia, demonstrates the careful guarding of rights to use the tomb by others:
Stranger, stop and turn “your gaze towards this hillock on your left,” which holds the bones of a poor man “of righteousness and mercy and love.” Wayfarer, I ask you to do no harm to his memorial. Gaius Atilius Euhodus, freedman of Serranus, a pearl merchant of the Via Sacra is buried in this memorial. Wayfarer, good-bye. By last will and testament: it is not permitted to convey into or bury in this memorial anyone other than those freedmen to whom I have given and bestowed this right by last will and testament.
The Res gestae. One career inscription has received considerable attention from historians because of the honoree. The Res gestae (the Accomplishments), often called “the queen of Latin inscriptions,” is a long description of the deeds of the first emperor, Augustus, written in a first person, autobiographical style. It had a broad readership: the original was set up in Rome outside the emperor’s new family tomb, which he had constructed in the middle of a large public park, and copies of it were distributed throughout the provinces and translated into different languages. The inscription details Augustus’s conduct in the recent war against Mark Antony and enumerates the foreign enemies he had conquered or subdued. It also discusses the benefactions of the emperor, from major buildings to public gladiatorial combats, for which he had paid from his personal funds for the enjoyment of the people. The object was to impress all readers, from all walks of life, with the stature and magnanimity of their leader, regardless of whether it was true or not.
Auctoritas and Propaganda. Prestige counted for a lot in antiquity; the Latin term, auctoritas, loosely translated as “authority,” stood for a virtue that carried real political significance. The level of one’s auctoritas determined his/her ability to command favors from supporters or to influence decisions by others, either through intimidation or attraction. It was important not just to the emperor: all people were measured by how others perceived and remembered them. Auctoritas was a nonquantifiable virtue—an intangible entity—meaning that one’s prestige was simply a “gut feeling” on the part of the populace. Public inscriptions were manipulated in such a way as to elevate or improve one’s public image. Honorary inscriptions did not just come upon a person’s death but were also employed in order to mark a momentous occasion—a military victory or the construction of a large public building, aqueduct, or bridge. In the case of the Res gestae, some of Augustus’s claims are known to have been illusory; yet, in a world that dealt heavily in the value of images, reality was not as important as its perception, even if it were mistaken. It is a never-ending
task of the student of Roman history to uncover what in public memorials is fact and what is fiction, or rhetoric.
Damnatio Memoriae. The power and significance of how positively one was remembered can be demonstrated by how greatly the Romans feared its reverse: a negative opinion, or complete oblivion. One form of punishment that the Romans saw as particularly heinous was the damnatio memoriae (condemnation of one’s memory). In such a penalty, a public figure’s name was to be erased from all documents—inscriptions, coins, contracts, and so forth—and his images were to be recarved or painted over. His first name, the praenomen, was never to be used again by anyone else in his family. It was a negative sort of propaganda, visited upon a sitting emperor’s worst enemies. Victims of damnatio memoriae include emperors, such as Nero, Domitian, and Commodus, who were viewed as despotic by those who followed.
Lawrence Keppie, Understanding Roman Inscriptions (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991).
Ramsay MacMullen, “The Epigraphic Habit of the Roman Empire,” American Journal of Philology, 103 (Fall 1982): 233-246.