Epigraphy and its Afterlife:

Reusing, rediscovering, reinventing, and revitalising ancient inscriptions



Emperor or Ass? Mussolini in the Piazza di Augusto

Ass or Emperor? The inscription from the fascist Piazza di Augusto imperatore, with Mussolini's name tellingly abbreviated to 'musso'

Once an inscription has been cut, it is hard to kill it stone-dead. A two-day conference held at Corpus Christi College on 3rd-4th July, 1998 aimed to explore the afterlife of ancient inscriptions in all their varied manifestations. Epigraphers and non-epigraphers alike who attended the conference, coming from seven different European countries and from the United States, found that they had many interests in common when it comes to exploring the reasons for the transformation of inscriptions. A number of themes recurred throughout the two days-how different groups have sought to use the tangible evidence of inscriptions in order to confirm their own superiority, for example, or how they have attempted to exploit the monumental status of inscriptions in order to shape the historical perceptions of later generations. Forging ancient inscriptions has also proved popular through the ages-either the complete invention of monuments, or the addition of an inscription to an already existing ancient or modern monument.

In order to create a backdrop against which the afterlife of inscriptions might be spotlighted, the first two papers considered the practice of setting up inscriptions in Roman times, exploring the original intentions of those who commissioned them. Firstly, Alison Cooley, "The creation of history at Rome", explored the cultural and political reasons determining the setting up of inscribed monuments on the Capitol. In a second paper, "Inscriptions and civic memory in the Roman East", Onno Van Nijf investigated possible reasons for the extraordinary rise in the number both of public honorific inscriptions and of inscriptions set up by private associations in Greek cities under Roman rule.

Robert Coates-Stephens ("Epigraphy as spolia") discussed possible motives for the reuse of inscriptions during the early mediaeval period, and reminded us of the dangers of treating reused inscriptions only as inscribed texts. He pointed out that such inscriptions at Rome might also provide information regarding spolia networks, the supply of building materials, and the urban landscape of the city itself.

Wolfgang Hameter ("The afterlife of some Noric inscriptions") analysed some inscriptions from Noricum which have been tampered with, or totally invented, in modern times. He showed that the temptation to alter an inscription in order to confirm some historical event is not always resisted. Amanda Collins ("Renaissance epigraphy and its legitimating potential") showed how the career of Annio of Viterbo blossomed largely because of his skill in forging inscriptions. Glenys Davies ("Enhancing by inscription in the late 18th century") identified the characteristics of forged inscriptions, and considered the motivations for adding them to the ash chests collected by Henry Blundell in the 18th century.

Jeremy Knight ("Some uses of literacy: Welsh stones and Oxford scholars") discussedthe various ways in which the Roman inscriptions of Wales were seen as important in later centuries, and were rediscovered and reinvented. Mark Handley ("A Carolingian collection of Late Antique Inscriptions from Burgundy") argued that this 'Burgundian collection' may have been designed to serve as a 'model book' for epigraphic composition, a reuse of these inscriptions for a purpose quite removed from their original function. William Stenhouse ("Antiquarian scholarship and classical inscriptions in 17th century Italy") examined the preoccupations of the 17th century Italian scholars thanks to whom many of the texts we know today were preserved, showing how their work fitted into the contemporary currents of antiquarianism.

The careers of two British travellers and collectors, Thomas Leigh and William John Bankes, who travelled the same roads in Greece and the Near East in the early nineteenth century, received complementary treatments in Graham Oliver's paper, "Images of death from Classical Athens to Regency England", and Charles Crowther's "Two nineteenth-century travellers in search of inscriptions". The perfect Atticism of the reliefs brought back from Athens to Lyme Park by Leigh influenced the Atticising funerary monuments of the sculptor John Gibson and influenced, in turn, through the designs of the architect John Foster the first public cemeteries in Britain. In this way, the epigraphy of ancient Athens breathed life into the treatment of the dead in nineteenth-century England. William John Bankes, whose contribution to the epigraphy of Syria and the Near East has only recently come to light, also copied many inscriptions in the course of his extensive travels in Greece and Turkey and made a notable transcription of the copy of Diocletian's Edict at Stratonikeia. His plans to publish an epigraphical album, however, were frustrated by plagiarism.

Colin Cunningham ("The rise of typography and the decline of epigraphy?") explored the paradox that in the nineteenth century, a time when classical scholarship, and epigraphy in particular, was seeing some spectacular advances, there was no comparable flowering of architectural inscriptions in this country. A variety of factors contributed to this paradox. On the one hand Gothic Revival architecture offered less opportunity for placing inscriptions on buildings, while at the same time introducing a number of technical constraints that militated against the development of high-quality lettering. On the other, the spread of literacy directed the creative energies of craftsmen towards type design rather than letter cutting.

In the concluding paper of the conference ("The word in stone: a fascist Italian perspective"), Tim Benton discussed the fascists' use of inscriptions in the 20th century, concentrating upon the potential power of inscriptions to control history. The notorious 'Piazza di Augusto imperatore' created by the fascists around the 'liberated' Mausoleum, with its invocation of the shades of Augustus and celebration of 'il duce', however, shows how inscriptions can, in the end, misfire. Mussolini's name (pictured above) loses its dignity, when it is not erased by the damnatio memoriae dear to the classical epigrapher, but transformed into 'musso', or 'ass'.

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Created on Sunday, 07 March, 1999: 12:14:22