Latin epigraphy

Latin epigraphy as a special discipline of classical studies

Latin epigraphy is a source-based special discipline of classical studies dealing with the directly transmitted, i.e. primary, textual evidence in the Latin language from the whole area of the Roman Empire and the ancient world (Mediterranean and neighboring regions), from the onset of writing in early Rome (oldest evidence from the 7th / 6th century BC) until the transition of late antiquity to the Middle Ages (7th century AD).

To date, roughly 750,000 Latin inscriptions ranging from the British Isles and the Strait of Gibraltar in the west over the Rhine, Danube and Black Sea, and along North Africa (north of the Sahara) to the Nile and Euphrates in the east have been identified and scientifically edited. Thanks to new archaeological finds, several thousand new texts are added annually. 


Ubiquity of inscriptions in public space

The ubiquity of different genres of inscriptions on permanent media such as stone or bronze was a fundamental part of public life during the Roman imperial period. The cities of the Roman Empire offered many diverse spaces for communication between the ruler, the power apparatus, the imperial elite, the local elite and the lower classes by means of inscriptions: firstly at the forum, the central square, the place of official proclamations and where outstanding persons were honored; followed by public buildings, temples, places of worship, and private homes of the upper classes, which were adorned with building, dedicatory and honorific inscriptions; and then at the necropolises whose countless graves lined the roads outward from the city gates – all this, in addition to the graffiti and dipinti, the messages of every imaginable genre stratched with a stylus or painted with a brush, that covered the buildings and monuments. This enormous mass of texts, whose authors represent all social classes and whose addressees varied according to the content, context and accessibility of the respective inscription, produced a lasting dialogue between the various social groups. During the imperial period, inscriptions came to be the medium par excellence for political and social discourse on topics such as the legitimation of authority, the definition and hierarchization of social groups, the function and self-representation of the elites, memory culture and identity.


Forms of private writing

In addition to this "monumental" form of writing aimed at a broad and sustainable interaction, there existed another form of writing dedicated to the purposes of administration, legal matters and business life, as well as the domestic and private sphere, which made use of transitory writing surfaces, such as papyrus and wooden tablets, and also employed the cursive script.


Chances of transmission

The remnants of both forms of writing that have been preserved and researched naturally do not provide an exact picture of their original conditions, since the materials that carried writing in antiquity were exposed in differing degrees to natural decay or intentional destruction; for example, organic materials such as papyrus and wood would rot, metal could be melted down, and marble burned in a limekiln. This picture is further distorted through other factors such as the varying intensity of both later building activity and the archaeological investigation of antique settlements. Nevertheless, as authentic primary sources, inscriptions open the possibility for deep insights into the antique world and especially into areas about which other sources provide little or no information at all. Overall, after collecting and comparing individual pieces of evidence, fundamental knowledge can be gained from inscriptions; not only their number but also their significance for research on the Roman Empire continues to grow from year to year.


Heyday of Roman inscription culture

The height of the monumental inscription culture of Rome was between the late 1st and early 3rd century AD. Around the middle of the 3rd century, a dramatic shift sets in, the primary cause of which may be seen in the general imperial crisis. There is an extreme reduction in the number of inscriptions, and the low level of execution of these epigraphic monuments is noticable. The form of the letters appears careless, and often older stone blocks or panels were used, which in their second usage had the first inscription effaced or were inscribed on the back side.


Writing media and writing technique

Stone and metal (especially bronze) served as a writing medium, but also wood. Other groups comprise small inscriptions on objects of everyday use und of economic production, as well as inscriptions on house walls, rocks and as part of mosaics. Depending on the characteristics of the medium, the texts were chiseled or carved (predominantly with a stylus) and occasionally also punched. Conversely, texts on transient materials (papyrus, wood) were mostly written in ink with a reed pen (calamus). Texts both etched and written in ink can be found on some media, such as ostraca (shards of unusable or disposed vessels, a free, widely available and easily accessible medium for everyone). Occasionally one finds scratched inscriptions and those written with a brush on the same medium, such as on some wax plates (legal documents in the form a double document with texts scratched into a wax field on the inside and notations in ink on the outside or on the edge).


Literary genres

The inscriptions dealt with in epigraphy are mainly divided into six groups: those mainly on stone comprise tombstones (tituli sepulcrales), honorific inscriptions (tituli honorarii), dedications (tituli sacri) and building inscriptions (tituli operis); those mainly made on metal are legal texts (instrumentum publicum); besides these are the most numerous group of retail inscriptions on everyday objects and objects of economic production (instrumentum domesticum).


Sister disciplines: epigraphy, papyrology and numismatics

The essential difference between epigraphy and papyrology is that epigraphy deals with majuscule scripts, while papyrology has to do with cursive scripts. However, there is some overlap in the areas covered by these two disciplines, to the extent that text finds from the west of the Roman Empire – even if they are written in ink and cursive script –are assigned to the field of epigraphy, whereas text finds on wood etc. from Egypt and neighboring areas– even if not in written ink but scratched with the stylus – are assigned to papyrology. Inscriptions are usually individually produced texts. Yet there is also special group of serially produced texts, namely those made with a stamp; this area stands in a certain methodological proximity to numismatics and archaeology.