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Notes on Roman Epigraphy

1.     Modern Conventions

In printing inscriptions, the following conventions are in general use:
[   ]       Square brackets enclose letters which are thought to have been originally engraved but which have been lost through the breaking or defacement of the stone.
(   )       Round brackets enclose letters which have been added by the epigraphist to complete an abbreviated word; or, less commonly, which have been substituted by him to correct a blunder.
<   >     Angular brackets enclose letters which the epigraphist believes were included in error.
|           A vertical bar indicates the beginning of a fresh line on the stone.
PR            Ligatures (defined in 2(b) below), are indicated by a bar, straight or curved, over the letters which are joined.
A         A dot placed under a letter indicates that it is not fully legible (through decay
 ·          or erasure)
            Various other conventions are sometimes employed and in using a work it is always worthwhile to look for a “list of critical signs”.


2.     Techniques

(a)   MaterialsThe normal material for monumental inscriptions is stone, but wood and bronze were also used, and sometimes bronze letters were fixed to wood or stone. Military diplomas (see 3(g) below), are engraved on bronze. Pottery and tiles carry impressions of stamps, and the stamps themselves might be of clay, wood or metal. Metal ingots are cast in moulds with embossed letters, but may have additions incised. Cursive graffiti may be scratched on metal, clay or plaster, or written in ink on wood. Paint was also used.

(b)   Lettering  is always in capitals, but may be “monumental”, which is deliberately formal, or “cursive”, which is produced by the rapid use of a stylus or brush. The latter increasingly influenced the former, especially when the mason was working from letters chalked for him on stone. In good monumental work the strokes of the letters are cut with a chisel to a v-section, but in rough work a punch or a mason’s pick might be used; the guide-lines used by the mason to keep the lettering straight can occasionally be seen. In monumental inscriptions the letters were usually picked out with cinnabar (minium); traces of it are rarely found, but some museums restore inscriptions to their original appearance by painting the lettering red.
Words are commonly abbreviated by docking their ends, and plurals are expressed by doubling, trebling or even quadrupling the last letter (thus AVGG – two Augusti, AVGGG = three Augusti etc.) Ligatures, or combined letters, become increasingly common after the first century A.D.  Greek letters are less uniformly capital. In letters, V is the formal form of U, and K often supplants C  (e.g. KANOVIO).  In numerals, note that the normal forms are IIII and VIIII, not IV and IX. Words are usually divided by stops, which may be simple or decorative and which are placed opposite the middle of the letter (i.e. not at its foot like a full stop). Words may be broken at any point to fit the lines; and stops are occasionally introduced in mid-word.

(c)   Erasures were sometimes made deliberately as the result of a damnatio memoriae passed by the Senate on a deceased Emperor. Over 30 Emperors were condemned after death in this way.


3. Types of Inscriptions and Formulae

a)      Religious dedications, usually of altars but sometimes of statues or whole temples. These normally begin with the name of the deity or deities (in the dative), followed by the name and status of the dedicator (in the nominative) and a verb or formula, usually abbreviated (e.g. P = posuit, REST = restituit, or, most common of all, VSLM = votum solvit libens merito) though this may be omitted. The reason for the dedication is sometimes stated.

b)      Honorific inscriptions , often cut on the base of a statue. These give the name and rank, and often the career, of the man who is being honoured (in the dative), followed by a statement of the dedicator, usually corporate (in the nominative), with or without a verb.

c)      Commemorative plaques recording perhaps a victory or a vow of allegiance.

d)      Building inscriptions recording the erection or repair of buildings. These vary from lengthy accounts to a bald statement of the man or body responsible. The longer examples may include:
                                               i.      The name and titles of the reigning Emperor – in the nominative if he is the builder, in the dative if it is in his honour, in the ablative if it is intended merely to record the date; this is expressed in terms of his consulship and tribunician power (see below).
                                            ii.      The name and status of the builder, if other than (i); this may be either an individual or a military unit, with or without the name of its commander.
                                          iii.      The nature of the building – PORTAM, HORREUM, PRINCIPIA, etc
                                         iv.      If it is a reconstruction, its previous condition is noticed – VETVSTATE CONLAPSVM, VI IGNIS EXVSTVM etc. If it is a complete reconstruction or a new building, it may be described in a form such as A SOLO RESTITVIT etc.
                                        v.      The name of the man in charge of the work, who may be the provisional governor or the commander of the unit.

A very important class of building inscriptions are the stones from Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall which record the lengths constructed by different units.

e)      Milestones were set up when a road was first constructed or when it was repaired. They consisted of stone pillars bearing an inscription which gave, first, the name and titles of the reigning Emperor (in the nominative or ablative), secondly, his consulate and tribunician power, and finally the mileage from a stated town ( the Roman mile of 1,000 passus, measured 1,618 yards = 1,480 metres). Later, in the third and fourth centuries, new stones seem to have been erected purely for propaganda purposes and only the Emperor’s name and titles are inscribed, but it is possible that the mileage figure was added in paint.

f)  Tombstones are very numerous and the form of words varies a great deal. The commonest beginning is D.M. or DIS MANIBUS (“To the spirits of the departed”) followed by the name in the dative or nominative or genitive. But we also have MEMORIAE (“to the memory of…”) followed by the genitive, or the name may come first, either in the nominative or (with “the town of” implied) in the genitive. The name may be given in full, with that of the deceased’s father, his voting- tribe (if he is a Roman citizen) and his place of origin. The careers of soldiers and prominent men are often recorded, soldiers’ tombs give the length of their service, and a statement of age is normal. The heir, relative or friend who erects the stone is commonly added. Common last lines are H S E (hic situs est) and S T T L (sit tibi terra levis). But many other phrases occur, sometimes poignantly personal. The pagan formula D.M. curiously persists even on some Christian tombstones, but here the age is often given as PLVS MINVS LX (“more or less 60”), possibly to express unconcern over length of life in this world.

g)      Military diplomas were the certificates issued to auxiliary soldiers on discharge, confirming the grant of Roman citizenship and legitimizing their children. Each diploma consisted of two linked bronze plates, to be folded together and were worn on the person, and was a copy of an edict posted up in Rome. Hence it included the name and titles of the Emperor, the units to which the edict referred, the province in which they were serving and the name of its governor, followed by the date, the name of the individual soldier, and the names of seven witnesses to the accuracy of the copy.

h)      Other inscriptions include the stamps on tiles and ingots of metal, seals, potters’ stamps, votive plaques (often bronze), curses, oculists’ stamps (for impressing on ointment) and graffiti – words and sentences scratched on various objects.


3.     The dating of Inscriptions

Under the Empire official Roman dating continued to be by reference to the consules ordinarii who took office at the beginning of the year, but consular dates are rare on inscriptions, especially in Britain. Much more useful are the statements of the Emperor’s powers and titles, and especially his tenure of tribunicia potesta , for this provides the equivalent of regnal years.

Down to the end of the third century every Emperor assumed this power at or soon after his accession, and from Nerva onwards the normal pattern is that while his TRIB POT I may begin at any date, his TRIB POT II begins on December 10th. So Hadrian, for example, who succeeded Trajan in August AD117, dates his TRIB POT I from 11th August 117, his TRIB POT II from 10th December 117, his TRIB POT III from 10th December 118, and so on.

Another indication of date is provided by the number of consulships held by an Emperor. When Hadrian succeeded he had already been consul once, in 108; he held his second consulship in 118 and his third and last in 119. So from January 119 until his death in 138 he may be described as COS III. Inscriptions may also record the number of times an Emperor has been saluted as IMPERATOR and other offices and titles he holds. Hadrian was saluted as IMPERATOR for the first time in 117, for the second time (IMP II) in 135; he became PONTIFEX MAXIMUS (P.M.) in 117 and PATER PATRIAE (P.P.) in 128. Finally there are titles derived from victories. These are often useful in identifying an Emperor whose actual name is missing from the surviving fragments of an inscription but they are especially valuable for dating when a title was assumed during his reign; Trajan, for example, became DACICVS in 102, PARTHICVS in 116.

Because of local differences in style and variations in the skill of the engravers, it is extremely difficult to date inscriptions, even approximately, by the form of the letters; this can only be attempted by a very experienced epigraphist.