Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Roman Inscriptions

In a number of civilizations, the written word has been seen as an art form in itself—calligraphy. One may, for example, see ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs or Arabic inscriptions as attractive and meaningful even without an understanding of their contents. In the classical world, the use of the Greek and Latin alphabets, derived originally from Phoenician characters, has been taken to be much more functional, and it is the reading of the surviving texts that has been regarded as all-important. There are many more extant examples of Roman inscriptions than earlier Greek and Hellenistic ones, but not all Roman inscriptions are in Latin. In fact, probably as many Roman inscriptions are in Greek as in Latin, for Greek was the common language in the eastern half of the empire; see for example, two marble reliefs showing Roman games, one from Rome (57.11.7), the other from Sardis in Asia Minor (26.199.63), both inscribed in Greek. In addition, many, principally official, inscriptions were put up in both languages. An example of a private bilingual inscription (in Latin and Greek) is the tombstone of a freedwoman (ex-slave) called Julia Donata that forms part of the Cesnola Collection from Cyprus (74.51.2393). Some Roman inscriptions, however, are written in other languages; there are examples of inscribed Palmyrene funerary stelae, dating from the second to third centuries A.D. (02.29.1). Palmyrene is an ancient form of Aramaic. Many of these local languages eventually disappeared, but Hebrew, for example, continued to flourish during Roman times.

Relatively few inscriptions survive from the Roman Republic; the vast majority belong to the imperial period—that is, from the time of the first emperor Augustus (27 B.C.–14 A.D.) until the third century A.D. The number of inscriptions set up in the late Roman period (fourth–sixth century A.D.) was much reduced but still much larger than in the following early medieval period (the so-called Dark Age). It is impossible to estimate the number of surviving Roman inscriptions, although this must run into the hundreds of thousands, and, of course, archaeologists and chance finds are continually bringing yet more to light. This ever-growing corpus of epigraphical material provides information about many different aspects of life in the Roman world. The inscriptions are thus valuable historical documents, shedding light on the political, social, and economic realities of the past and speaking directly to the modern reader across time.

The variety of media used for inscriptions (stone, metal, pottery, mosaic, fresco, glass, wood, and papyrus) is matched by the diverse ways in which the inscriptions themselves were used. At one end of the scale were large, formal inscriptions such as dedications to the gods or emperors, publications of official documents such as imperial letters and decrees, and, on a smaller scale, the names and titles of rulers minted on coins along with their portraits or the discharge papers, known as military diplomas, of Roman soldiers that are found on portable bronze tablets (23.160.32a,b; 23.160.52). At the other end are casual inscriptions such as the graffiti that have been found on street walls at Pompeii and private correspondence such as a papyrus letter containing a mundane shopping list (25.8).

The largest group of Roman inscriptions comprises epitaphs on funerary monuments. The Romans often used such inscriptions to record very precise details about the deceased, such as their age, occupation, and life history. From this evidence, it is possible to build up a picture of the family and professional ties that bound Roman society together and allowed it to function. In addition, the language of Roman funerary texts demonstrates the human, compassionate side of the Roman psyche, for they frequently contain words of endearment and expressions of personal loss and grief. A good example of the various aspects of Roman funerary art is the marble funerary altar of Cominia Tyche (38.27). In addition to a fine portrait of the deceased, in which she is depicted with the elaborate hairstyle that was fashionable among the ladies of the imperial court in the late first century A.D., there is a Latin inscription that records her precise age at death as 27 years, 11 months, and 28 days. Furthermore, her grieving husband, a certain Lucius Annius Festus, wished her to be known as “his most chaste and loving wife,” her qualities being emphasized by the use of superlatives in each case.

The most enduring legacy of Roman inscriptions, however, is not their content, regardless of how important that may be, but the lettering itself. For through the medium of carved inscriptions the Romans perfected the shape, composition, and symmetry of the Latin alphabet. Roman inscriptions thus became the model for all later writing in the Latin West, especially during the Renaissance, when the setting up of public inscriptions revived and the use of printing spread the written word farther than ever before. It was not just that the Latin language formed the basis of western European civilization, but it was also because the Latin alphabet was so clear, concise, and easy to read that it came to be adopted by many countries around the world. Those brought up in such a tradition perhaps find it hard to appreciate the beauty and grace of these letter forms, but at its best, as seen in innumerable ancient inscriptions in Rome and elsewhere around the ancient world, Latin may justly be described as calligraphy.