Hey, folks, fireside this week! As this is going up, I am preparing to appear digitally on a panel on “History and the Public, Now and in the Future” at the University of Maryland. March may end up with more than the usual number of firesides, because I actually have three of these invited talks this month, all scheduled before I thought I would be teaching this semester. Still, my hope is to at least start the series on the structure of civic governance that I’ve been wanting to run; we’re beginning with the Greek polis and then later we’ll at least do the Roman Republic. I am hoping to also talk a colleague or two into coming on to discuss medieval town governments. Since that means I have been looking through the organization of Greek poleis, that makes this a great time to talk about a rocky topic: epigraphy! First we’re going to talk a little about what epigraphy is and how it is done, and then a little more about the kinds of things we find that way.
Now we have talked a bit about epigraphy already in the fireside from March two years ago on the nature of the ancient evidence. To briefly recap that, epigraphy is the study of inscriptions (the Greek for which is ἐπιγραφή (epigraphe), from γράφω meaning to scratch, carve or write1 with the prefix ἐπι meaning on or upon, thus ‘writing on a surface’), which is to say texts carved into durable, inorganic materials like stone or metal. While metal is included, what we mean here is going to almost always be stone; there is an irony here that metal inscriptions, because they were written into prestige materials like bronze, tended to get melted down by later societies and repurposed. Stone inscriptions, too, as we’ll see, were sometimes put back to work, but in ways that make them more recoverable. Consequently, the vast, vast majority of inscriptions are in stone.
Precisely because the materials used in inscriptions were chosen for their durability, they tend to survive to the present day in a wider range of climates and conditions than more perishable writing media like paper, wax tablets, wooden-leaf tablets, etc., which is of course really handy for us moderns looking to study the past. That said, while these materials are more durable, they are not infinitely durable and so a lot of epigraphic study is dealing with inscriptions which are damaged or incomplete in some way. Not only, of course, can stone be broken, leaving a fragmentary, incomplete inscription, but it can also be worn down. Just a few decades of heavy foot traffic, after all, can begin to wear away the edges of things like stairs and flagstones; an inscription reused letters-up to make, say, the floor of a public building, is likely to be worn smooth very quickly by human feet. That’s especially true because the letters on inscribed material aren’t cut all that deep, so just a few millimeters or a centimeter or two’s worth of wear is going to render the letters unintelligible. Lesser damage may render them uncertain – think about how little wear it might take to make it impossible to distinguish between ‘T’ and ‘I’ or ‘C’ and ‘O.’
Then there are the challenges imposed by the writing at the time. Our modern writing has all of these lovely spaces and systems of punctuation, along with capital and lower case letters all to make reading easy. But those are innovations that emerge over time. Some of them emerge over the course of antiquity, but relatively late. As a result, ANCIENTINSCRIPTIONSAREWRITTENMOSTLYINALLCAPITALLETTERSWITHNOSPACESORPUNCTUATIONBETWEENWORDSORSENTENCESTHISCANMAKETHEMCHALLENGINGTOTRANSLATEEVENWHENTHEYARENOTDAMAGED.2
To compound this problem, inscriptions tend to be very heavily abbreviated. Writing in stone was very expensive both in material and time and so the commissioners of inscriptions had a lot of incentive to keep things as brief as possible. Thus you can get inscriptions like, “LVIBIVS·L·F·TRO·VECILIA·LHILAR [line break] L·VIBIVS·FELICIO·FELIX·VIBIAL·L·PRIMA” which actually stands for the Latin, “L(ucius) Vibius L(ucius) F(ilius) Tro(mentina), Vecilia l(iberta) Hilar[a] [line break] L(ucius) Vibius Felicio Fe[l]ix, Vibia L(ucii) L(iberta) Prima” which in turn we might translate into plain English as, “Lucius Vibius, son of Lucius of Tromentina, freedwoman Vecilia Hilara, Lucius Vibius Felicio Felix, and Vibia Prima, a freedwoman of Lucius.”3 It’s a list of the four members of this family who have been buried there: a freeborn citizen man, his freedwoman wife, their son and finally a freedwoman who was a client of his.4
Now of course you may well imagine the difficulty of combining all of these things at once: a heavily abbreviated inscription with little to no punctuation or spacing that has sustained meaningful damage wiping out often entire words or sentences. Thus despite the fact that presumably all classicists can read Latin and Greek inscriptions, we often rely on specialists, epigraphers, to handle them. Epigraphers are essential in particular for taking the raw inscription on stone and producing an edited text of it (in the original language) which the rest of us can read. Part of that task is determining what badly worn letters might be; one method here is the ‘squeeze’ – the use of special wet paper, pressed into the face of the inscription which when it dries holds its shape when removed, which both lets the inscription be inspected remotely but can also ‘bring out’ letters that would otherwise be hard to see. There are also efforts, of course, to use lasers and 3D imaging on inscriptions this way, but my sense is that so far they struggle with the demanded precision, since letters are often only a few millimeters deep.
Then the epigrapher has to turn the raw letters of the original stone into a readable published text. That means filling out abbreviations into their full words, breaking up words where there is no spacing, providing punctuation and so it. It also means interpolating missing words and letters. You can see that in the inscription above: we have “FE[.]IX”5 and a clever Latinist is going to be able to realize that the word where is almost certainly ‘felix,’ ‘lucky’ – a common enough nickname. Now that is an extremely easy interpolation (the only sort my meager skills will support), but trained epigraphers can do a lot better than that, often supplying whole words that are grammatically necessary based on the size of gaps that can be many letters long or realizing that very large gaps fit standard legal formula. Frankly, a good epigrapher’s work often resembles a sort of wizardry as they lean on their massive mental database of inscriptions and philology to see if they can’t be sure what word used to be there (or if certainty is impossible, provide a workable but uncertain reading).
All of that work then leads to an inscription which can be published (often as an article) and then included in the major inscription compendia, like the CIL (Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, “Body of Latin Inscriptions), the IG (Inscriptiones Graecae, “Greek inscriptions”) and SEG (‘Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum, “Supplement of Greek Epigraphy”). Publication generally follows the Leiden system for publishing inscriptions, with a whole system of marks to indicate missing letters, supplied words, uncertain interpolations and so on. For instance, because we might have a sense of how big even a heavily damaged inscription is, we can indicate gaps with [ ] (gap of unknown length) or something like […………] (a twelve-letter gap).
So that’s how epigraphy works, but what sort of things does it let us find? As moderns, we might be puzzled by the value of reading things inscribed in stone because we generally don’t inscribe many things in stone; at most they tend to be labels like the names of buildings or very short dedications. But clearly the ancients used inscriptions a lot more widely and for different kinds of texts.
Inscribed stone came with three big advantages: permanence, publicity and status. Permanence is a pretty easy one to think about there: if you want the document to be around for a long time, inscribe it in stone. But there’s more to it than that. Remember, these are societies where paper is expensive and books (scrolls, in this case) are relatively rare and hard to produce. So while we might make a document permanent by, say, putting it in some sort of register that is reprinted regularly with updates, the cost of doing that for an ancient society would be quite high. That ties into the second value: big stone inscriptions were available to the public, able to seen and read (those are different activities!). Finally, as noted inscribing things in stone was expensive and so that makes inscriptions valuable as a status display (even if they can’t be read): they communicate either than the commissioner was important, that the document is important, or both.
All of that then leads into what we call the ‘epigraphic habit.’ That’s a term that emerged in the study of Greek inscriptions and is mostly associated with ancient Greece and to a lesser extent Rome, but we should be clear that the Greeks didn’t invent inscribed texts. Indeed, public inscribed texts far older than the Greek polis are known, things like the Code of Hammurabi (c. 1750 BC) or the Kadesh Inscription (c. 1270) among many others. Most of these early inscriptions are royal documents (like codes of laws or royal pronouncements) because of course kings (and to a significant but lesser extent, important temples) were the sorts of people with the resources to put up an inscription. And of course for the kings, putting up a permanent record of something in stone was also an important legitimacy-building enterprise, even if few could read it. You don’t need to be able to read the decorated stone stele for instance to say, ‘gee, that looks important and will last forever.’6
But, as we’re going to discuss, the situation is a bit different in a self-governing small community like a polis (or the Roman Republic). Instead of a king, that community has leaders who are in some sense responsible to a larger citizen constituency (which may or may not be defined by minimum property or limited to a small band of elite families). Consequently there’s a desire both that those magistrates’ actions can be observed by the community and also a desire that those actions might be checked against some clear code of conduct. Thus the first laws in Greek poleis (and the Roman Republic, with the Twelve Tables) are often understood as efforts to restrain the sort of elites that would get elected into high office, because written laws were supposed to limit what they could do by clearly spelling out the penalties they could inflict for a given set of crimes. But for that to work, those written laws need to be durable and public.
So you inscribe them in stone. You inscribe the laws in stone, but also major actions by magistrates might also get a record inscribed in stone. Status still matters here; in some cases it’s not even clear the inscribed documents could be clearly ready (the stele was tall and the letters small), but of course having a bunch of inscribed laws and decrees and so on communicates the status of the collective government and thus of the citizenry, the same way it might have once done so for a king.
And those demands of civic government then get the ball rolling on a much wider use of inscriptions as well as literacy. More people can read and more people are familiar with using inscribed documents to communicate both a text but also status and importance and so they begin using them to do that in other ways. For instance, let’s say you did something good for the community, maybe you paid to have a big section of the city wall repaired because you are a rich, security-conscious fellow. The city might then vote you some honor – the sort of thing where we’d name a post office after you. In a Greek polis often this would mean the city might vote you a crown of some precious metal, which you then devote to a god in a temple (you don’t keep the crown, that’s not the sort of community we are). Well, you might want to make sure that everyone knows – for as long as possible – just how cool you and your crown and wall repairs were. So you take the text of that decree giving you a crown and you pay someone to inscribe it on stone in the most public place you can. Most Greek poleis end up with clusters of inscriptions either on their acropolis (the mountain citadel with the most important temples) or agora (the market, meeting and government area) like this.
And you can then see how that habit begins to extend to other sorts of things once it is widespread, like the funerary inscription above, or other sorts of important official documents. In the Roman Empire, any community could petition the emperor by letter and it seems to have been pretty normal if your community received a favorable response to put that up in stone, both to preserve the record of your new rights and privleges but also as a sign of your community’s status: we wrote to the emperor and he7 wrote back.
So these communities came to have a whole mess of inscribed documents set up, some by the state, many by individuals. That influences the sort of things we find inscribed. Official documents are quite common and funerary inscriptions are very common. But it’s very rare that inscriptions give us much of a narrative or are very creative in their own right; they tend to be formulaic, practical documents (with exceptions, of course; funerary inscriptions often have neat artwork). But they are fantastically valuable for understanding how these states functioned, the activities of some of the elite that could afford to commission these sorts of things, the role of literacy in these societies and so on. Inscriptions can often attest to minor officials that might have only the dimmest presence in our literary sources (which are more focused on the activities of the highest magistrates). And sometimes we get nearly complete laws or legal codes, which are can be tremendously important finds (especially in Greece where we lack complete law codes for any polis; Roman law is much better attested thanks to the Corpus Iuris Civilis, aka Justinian’s Code (and then some)).
So that’s a brief primer on epigraphy! I’ll admit I don’t myself interact a lot with epigraphy directly. I had my training in Greek and Latin epigraphy in graduate school (it was not a strength of mine, but I got through), but epigraphy tends to be less focal in the Middle Roman Republic because we have less of it for that period as compared to, say, Classical Greece or Imperial Rome. Still, working with published inscriptions is one of those things that every ancient historian needs to be able to do, even if the transmutation of raw stone to usable text is mostly managed by specialist
(Seriously though, epigraphers and papyrologists are, to me at least, some of the most impressive members of our big ancient studies field.)
On to Recommendations!
[ ]ERECSTHISWEEKWIL[..]EDELIV[…]DINTHEFORMMOFANINSCRIPTION…I’m kidding.
First this week, for all of the Tolkien fans out there, the Prancing Pony Podcast has reached the Siege of Gondor in their march through the Lord of the Rings and they invited me on to do a series of short appearances in those episodes, starting this week. The PPP is generally a must listen for Tolkien fans so I was very excited indeed to put in some appearances!
In a bit of an odd recommendation, I am going to recommend Walter Scheidel’s “Resetting History’s Dial? A Critique of David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn Of Everything: A New History of Humanity.” Over the past year or so I’ve been asked, on Patreon and in the comments here and on Twitter for my view on The Dawn of Everything, which I’m always hesitant to offer first because I don’t specialize in pre-history and second because the last time I had an opinion on the matter, David Wengrow personally dove into my Twitter mentions multiple times to assure everyone I was wrong. So instead I am going to let Walter Scheidel speak for me on this one, giving voice to a wide range of problems with the book. I find Scheidel’s reading of the evidence closer to mine: not that there were all sorts of brilliant alternatives to farming and the state which were left untried, but that they were all tried and failed.
Meanwhile, on contemporary state activity, Ryan Evans over at War on the Rocks interviewed Undersecretary of Defense Colin Kahl and Counselor to the Secretary of State Derek Chollet on American policy in the War in Ukraine. Now I should note of course that these fellows are literal government actors and so any listener should be taking what they say with more than a grain of salt, but at the same time conversations like these are quite valuable for getting a sense of what the people involved in the policy process are thinking and also generally to get a sense of how military and foreign policy decisions emerge (for more on that, be sure to check out the last Fireside’s book recommendation, The Regime Change Consensus!).
For this week’s book recommendation, I’m going to recommend T. Andrade, The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation and the Rise of the West in World History (2016), which has by some mysterious alchemy escaped my recommendation list so far. I’ve mentioned this book quite a few times but it is well worth a full recommendation. Andrade covers the development and spread of gunpowder technology from its origins in China in the Song Dynasty, through its introduction into Europe by the 1300s, through to the Great Divergence visible in the Opium Wars (1839-1842; 1856-1860). The shear breadth of the study is one of its strengths, making for a remarkably complete tracking of the progress of gunpowder technology from China to Europe and then catastrophically back again.
The core of Andrade’s argument is that military pressure, created by periods of high fragmentation was what drove firearms development. Europe, being fragmented continuously through the entire period thus eventually outpaced other regions of the world in firearms technology. Crucially, Andrade notes that in periods where China was also fragmented, its firearms technology advanced quickly, but then stagnated again in periods of unity. As he bluntly puts, it, “Rates of warfare correlate with military effectiveness.” But Andrade’s argument is pleasantly multi-casual beyond this point; he emphasizes also the importance of statecraft in the development firearms – not merely the technology, but also the doctrine and practice of use. It isn’t enough to merely be a highly fragmented and violent region, because effective deployment of firearms also requires (internally) strong and well-organized states. Moreover, Andrade’s book is tremendously useful because he also considers directly (and discards) many of the fairly lame ‘cultural’ explanations for rapid firearms development in Europe or slow firearms development elsewhere; things like property rights, systems of government and so on (though he is in the conclusion interestingly open the idea that European science really was a different sort of thing and might thus be its own significant factor).
Finally, the book is just quite fun and readable. It is well-illustrated with lots of maps and black-and-white reproductions of historical artwork of firearms. And it’s just fun to learn about how this technology developed and all of the different weapons that resulted, from the “burning heaven fierce fire unstoppable bomb,” “fire lances,” the “thunderclap bomb” (seriously, pre-modern China was unbeatable at ‘cool weapon names’ and we should immediately begin naming our weapon systems this way) to Mehmet II’s massive siege artillery at Constantinople in 1453 and the ‘Frankish cannon’s’ arrival China in the early 1500s. Andrade writes very well, weaving an argument that is very readable even for a general audience, while still being an argument with substantial scholarly import. Also, there is, briefly, a “flying incendiary club for subjugating demons” and that’s just awesome. Also a “Great Bowl-Mouth Tube” gun and a “No Alternative” gun.
That’s it for this week. Next week, fortuna permitting, we’ll start in on our look at Greek civic governance!
- You can easily see how a society might built those meanings on each other when their early writing is on media other than paper.
- ancient inscriptions are written mostly in all capital letters with no spaces or punctuation between words or sentences. This can make them challenging to translate even when they are not damaged.
- We’ll discuss this in just a second, but the square brackets indicates indicate letters that are damaged or missing in the inscription as it survives to us, whereas the round brackets as you can see are letters abbreviated away in the original inscription.
- She might have been a close family friend, or perhaps the younger Lucius’ nurse. Roman elites were often as much raised by their enslaved nurses as their mothers and sometimes returned that attachment later in life.
- Square brackets with a number of dots between them is how we mark gaps. The number of dots is equal to the number of missing letters that would fit in the gap.
- Though it is worth noting both of my examples above are also illustrated in interesting ways. In both cases the illustration – a scene of the Battle of Kadesh on one and Hammurabi accepting the laws from the god Shamash on the other – prioritize the core status meaning of the text: the King is Very Important and Worthy of your Submission. Even if you can’t read Hammurabi’s laws (that’s what the judge is for), you can at least absorb the gravitas that he and they enjoy as a consequence of this scene of him receiving those very laws from a god.
- Actually his secretary ab epistulis, a high ranking functionary who will have handled nearly all of the emperor’s official correspondence. Ab epistulis means ‘for letters.’ Although really, you wouldn’t have gotten a response from the actual ab epistulis, because he’s probably running a whole office; this is a pretty important position.