The aim of the first part of this manual is to offer an overview of the ways in which Latin inscriptions were used in one particular region, namely the Bay of Naples in southern Italy. The Bay of Naples contained a variety of urban settlements, which differed in size, origin, and status, from Cumae in the north to Surrentum (Sorrento) in the south, via Misenum (Miseno), Baiae, Puteoli (Pozzuoli), Neapolis (Naples), Herculaneum, Pompeii, and Stabiae [Fig. 1.1]. In addition, the excavation of parts of the countryside, which was densely occupied by villas, also allows us to explore the rural context of inscriptions. There is no other region in the Roman empire that offers quite such a richly diverse assemblage of inscriptions, not least because of the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, which preserved significant quantities of types of writing that do not commonly survive archaeologically, such as wooden writing-tablets and notices painted upon walls. Furthermore, inscriptions did not cease with the eruption, but a vibrant epigraphic culture continued right down into late antiquity in towns not buried by Vesuvius. The wealth and prosperity of the region, along with its close ties to the city of Rome, promoted further by the construction of the via Domitiana in AD 95 (in thanks for which Domitian was celebrated at Puteoli as having moved the town closer to Rome), ensured that some of the basic prerequisites for prompting the setting up of inscriptions existed over many centuries.
The region enjoyed close economic, social, and cultural links with the city of Rome over a number of centuries from the late Republic onwards. Having developed a vibrant economic role linking Italy to the Greek East (notably Delos) in the second century BC, the major harbour town of Puteoli probably played host to the Alexandrian grain fleet until the late second century AD, and, after that, continued to supply Rome with vital resources such as the Puteolan sand (pulvis Puteolanus) essential for mixing pozzolana, or hydraulic cement. The harbour remained fully operational throughout the fourth century AD, with the authorities at Rome showing interest in maintaining and investing in the city's facilities, and, after Puteoli declined dramatically during the fifth century, Neapolis then took its place as the most important city in the region. Senatorial and imperial families regularly retreated from serious business at Rome to the pleasures of gastronomy and entertainment based in their luxurious villas along the bay (dubbed Cratera illum delicatum, ‘the Bay of Luxury’, by Cicero) and on Capri, and the Bay maintained its reputation as a place for luxurious living for many centuries.