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Encountering the evidence: Funerary inscriptions

Inscriptions are a useful source of evidence when researching the ancient Romans. Watch Dr Nicholls and Prof Kruchwitz discuss some examples.
When we’re thinking about life and death in the city, we need, perhaps, to look beyond the great marble monuments and the great literature literary texts that celebrate them and try and find evidence for daily life of ordinary people. I’m here to talk with my colleague Professor Peter Kruschwitz about inscriptions, a subject in which he’s a great expert. Peter, what are inscriptions? I think a good answer would be inscriptions are texts on objects that serve some kind of purpose. For example, if you think about the different kinds of inscriptions there are, the different types of inscriptions there are, from milestones or funerary inscriptions or decoration on triumphal arches.
Well, the main point of a funerary inscription is really to remind you where is my relative buried, because how else would you find them? But the object is the marker of the position, it’s the marker of the burial spot, and the text is an addition to that helps you to understand this is the place I’m looking for. This is the person I’d like to remember. So these texts inform the meaning of buildings to which they’re attached, to amplify the meaning of these buildings. What kind of buildings had text attached to them in the ancient world? Just about everything around a structure, in a structure could be inscribed.
So whether you scratch your name on a plate to remind everyone this is yours, or whether the plate’s being stamped as to point out which great factory has actually produced it, or a slave scribbling something on a wall or somebody leaving behind, sort of, the equivalent of a campaigning poster or advertisement for a circus games. The range is just as wide as it would be nowadays. It’s my view that the Romans really inhabited a lettered world in which writing was ubiquitous. Whether or not they all could read this is another matter.
But both daily experiences in everyday lives was to inhabit a lettered world, and once they left the urban space, they too would probably still be in a lettered world with graveyards providing funerary inscriptions, or people fancying the idea of carving their names into trees. It’s an amazingly wide field from which we can learn so much about the Latin language, about Roman history, about archaeology, about the ancient Roman frame of mind really. So your phrase, ‘a lettered world’, is a very nice evocation of how Rome was a city of inscriptions and texts from grand state inscriptions to graffiti scratched in doorways and on walls.
So if we look at some of these inscriptions, and we have thousands upon thousands of funerary texts from the world, these are one of the ways in which we can get a glimpse into something about the lives and deaths of ordinary people. Albeit, as you told us, a very carefully presented miniature version as much as they can afford to fit onto a small stone or tomb. What sort of things do we learn? We could start with something very obvious, and say well we think we learn their names, for example. And names can be very telling. We learn about their life dates.
Now they don’t give us indication of life dates the way we’re used to with, sort of, born and died with a precise date. But they may give us their lifespan for example, so we can start thinking about how old did people get in the ancient world. There are lots of problems with this, but it’s something to work with. In the case of the aristocracy, certainly, as far as the city of Rome was concerned, we learn about their political careers, about their ambitions, about the way in which they think politicians and orators and lawyers, should be remembered, and which priests should be remembered. We learn something about the organisation of the Roman administration, of the Roman state.
We often, when we talk about ancient Rome, we tend to think of ancient Roman males. We also learn a lot about ancient Roman females, of course. Also from every part of Rome’s society, how do women, members of the Roman aristocracy, get commemorated? Were they just, sort of, suppressed and, sort of, kept in their family home? So what kind of– what level of agency did they have? But the most fascinating aspect about Roman epigraphy, the study of Latin inscriptions, to my mind is that we get to know what we might call the common people. But I’m pretty sure that we also don’t know much about, sort of, the very, sort of, lowest part of the Roman social structure.
The ones who couldn’t afford tombs at all. That’s– definitely, yeah. Thank you, Peter. So you provided for us a wonderful selection of epitaphs of funerary inscriptions. Of course, from all these thousands, there are so many we could choose. But you’ve given us a selection. Perhaps, we can talk about those a little bit. Well, I’ve selected three texts all from the city of Rome, and I thought just to give you an idea of a much wider range of the Roman society, and its complexities. So we could talk about the inscription for Melania, for example. What does her tomb tell us?
What fascinates me about this text on– about this text in particular is that it talks about the structure of the tomb itself, which is unusual, because you would think that in a tombstone you learn something about this lady. All we know about her is that she was attractive and, sort of, of decent morals. But the amazing thing about this inscription, in my view, is that in its first line after the names have been mentioned, talks about how this little structure we’re talking about, a so-called loculus, a tiny little burial place in this, sort of, overall structure. It’s a niche, and it’s as unspectacular as it gets really.
That it seems to be a skillful structure that prevents the earth from crushing the bones. Now for some strange reasons the Romans were obsessed with that idea of soil and earth not pressing too hard on bones and crushing them. And here it seems to me as though this person seems to think that this particular structure, however much it expresses poverty and lack of financial means, is actually ideal to prevent the bones from getting crushed under the pressure of the soil. The other amazing thing about this text is that it suggests that she has been buried in a cicada’s tomb. And I thought well that’s a really unusual image. What’s the insect got to do with it?
Well it turns out it has absolutely nothing to do with it. But ‘Cicada’ was the name of someone previously buried there. And as the text talks about her, sort of, never having remarried, it’s quite likely that she was reunited with her one husband in that tomb, and in fact his name, Cicada, has been found in another layer inscribed underneath the current layer in which the inscription has been written. So I think this is an extraordinary piece. Even though we learn very little about her, we learn a bit about the moral standards should you remarry, these kind of questions.
But we hear about how they started conceptualising their tombs, and how they in this one example thought, well, how can we turn something as poverty that makes us bury our poor in this unspectacular way, how can we turn this into virtue, and, sort of, still make this a success story? And let art and skillfulness prevail. So we get a lovely insight into one particular individual or couple’s view of death and burials. Certainly true.

In this, the fifth of our ‘Encountering the Evidence videos’, I meet with Professor Peter Kruschwitz in the Ure Museum at the University of Reading to discuss inscriptions in Ancient Rome.

In the next Step, we share some examples of funerary inscriptions and invite you to reflect on what each tells us about Roman attitudes toward death commemoration and the afterlife.

If you enjoy Peter’s take on Roman inscriptions, you’ll find much more on his lively blog, The Petrified Muse.

Don’t forget to ‘mark this Step as complete’ before you move on.

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