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  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: November 2012

2 - Epigraphic culture in the Roman world


Defining epigraphy

One answer to the question ‘What is epigraphy?’ might be ‘Material studied by epigraphers’. As Chapter 1 has illustrated, epigraphers do study a whole range of different types of writing: texts carved individually upon stone and metal; texts reproduced in multiple copies by stamps; texts included within pictures on glass or mosaic or painting; painted texts imitating the style and format of monumental texts, but which are public notices of only temporary relevance; a variety of handwritten texts, shallowly incised, in ink, or painted on almost every conceivable surface, some, like writing-tablets, intended to be used for the purpose, and others being used willy-nilly, whether a wall of a public building, private property, or tomb enclosure.

This brief outline already goes well beyond the definition offered by the Oxford English Dictionary of epigraphy as the study of inscriptions, with inscriptions being defined as lettering ‘traced upon some hard substance for the sake of durability’. On that basis, therefore, one simple way forward would be to focus only on texts written upon a durable surface. Another common feature of inscriptions is the essential artificiality of their style of lettering, which is normally in capitals or majuscule script. The usual exclusion of coins from epigraphy, however, raises immediate questions about the neatness of this solution, given that legends upon coins fulfil both of these criteria. It also does not make sense to include texts incised upon bronze or lead tablets, but to exclude those written in wax or ink upon wooden ones, given that the basic decision to use a writing-tablet for any sort of text was the result of the perception that this particular format for writing possessed certain special qualities, whatever its material. Writing-tablets were not simply cheap, convenient, and reusable, but were trustworthy and authoritative guarantors of matters both public and private. For the Romans, perhaps paradoxically, wax was used for texts that were intended to last. Furthermore, texts may be written in ink or paint on eminently durable (if not virtually indestructible) surfaces, such as pottery, but the durability of those texts is not an intrinsic quality of the texts themselves, nor is durability a necessary precondition for the texts to perform their functions, but it is simply a by-product of the use of writing in these contexts. By contrast, the texts typically studied by papyrologists, whether actually written upon papyrus, fragments of pottery, parchment, wooden tablets, or bone, generally have no ambitions to any great length of life.