Ancient History & Civilisation

Inscriptions

Very numerous inscriptions in Greek, Latin, and other peripheral languages have survived from late antiquity, but they are less abundant than for the early empire and have played a less important role in modern studies of the period. Public inscriptions in particular were not produced in a vacuum, but reflected their institutional and cultural background. So the senatorial aristocracy of Rome continued to be commemorated by honorific inscriptions in the same tradition as their predecessors in the early empire. These documents are extremely important for defining the culture and political outlook of the final generations of pagan society in the West.68 The thriving urban culture to be found in North Africa up to the fifth century is revealed by the texts of honorific statue-bases set up for members of the local elites.69 Two monographs have also been written which chart the history of Athens and Attica, and of Carian Aphrodisias, through a study of their inscriptions.70 The largest body of public epigraphy from this period, however, is to be found at Ephesus in Asia Minor. In Greek cities there was a growing vogue for verse inscriptions set up to honor benefactors. Apart from over two hundred inscribed examples, many more survive in the pages of the Palatine Anthology.71However, it is striking that most of the honorific texts of late antiquity in the eastern provinces were set up not to honor local civic dignitaries but imperial officials. They thus clearly reflect the growing centralization of authority and the decline in civic values. Major imperial rulings continued to be published as inscribed documents during the late empire. The most famous example is Diocletian's Price Edict of 301, known from multiple copies found in Greece and western Asia Minor (Plate 2.1). There is also a growing number of other official edicts and rescripts of tetrarchic date from the eastern provinces, all of which, significantly, were inscribed in Latin.72 Imposing imperial building inscriptions, put up in urban centers and along the military frontiers, were another emphatic hallmark of the new order of Diocletian and his colleagues.73 Between the fourth and sixth centuries Greek increasingly replaced Latin as the language of choice for such documents in the eastern provinces, although Latin remained the language of law and administration in Constantinople itself.74 Inscribed acclamations are a genre that is especially characteristic of late Roman public epigraphy. Chants and shouts raised in public meetings to acclaim benefactors, governors, local church leaders, or emperors were now carved in stone on columns, on the exterior walls of buildings, or on statue bases, often in combination with the symbol of the cross.75

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Plate 2.1    The Price Edict of Diocletian, carved on the parapet wall of the circular meat market at Aezani in Phrygia (S. Mitchell)

Epigraphy at a more vernacular level also reflected cultural and social trends. In the western reaches of Britain metrical Latin inscriptions reveal that the inhabitants still retained knowledge of classical culture and could quote and appreciate Vergil, long after the political structures of the empire had been eclipsed.76 Inscriptions set up in the Burgundian kingdom between the fourth and sixth centuries used Roman consular dating as a mark of cultural and political affiliation to the empire.77 Above all inscriptions mark the spread of Christianity. The heretical and schismatic Christian groups of central Asia Minor – Novatians, Encratites, Montanists – and others, as well as Jews of the diaspora, are readily identifiable from their inscriptions. The diversity of these groups contrasts markedly with the general tone of patristic Christian literature, which asserted the triumph of a dominant orthodoxy.78 The Christian inscriptions of the Near East, including over a thousand texts relating to church construction, are an enormous resource for understanding the cultural development and social and economic relations in the region.79 Another vital body of epigraphic material from the Levant are the inscribed texts of the seventh and eighth centuries which covered the era of the first Islamic conquests.80

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