Inscriptions in the Roman Empire

Latin inscriptions are valuable historical sources that provide crucial information on the history of the Roman Empire as well as on Roman life and living. Their direct transmission renders these remnants of ancient societies especially vivid testimonies of a culture that has had a profound impact on Europe up to the present day. Unlike any other historical source, inscriptions represent various groups of the population from all over the Roman Empire, which are not represented in archaeological finds and literary sources, as these focus predominantly on the heartlands of the Imperium Romanum and on the leading classes of Roman society.

Inscriptions tell the history of Rome and its provinces, starting with only few remnants from the early history and the Roman Republic. Inscriptions come to be preserved in larger numbers from Augustan times onwards and in abundance throughout Roman Imperial times up to the 6th century C.E. As an omnipresent medium of everyday communication, they mirror multiple facets of human life. The examples are numerous: there are engraved epitaphs from North Africa, an attestation of a vow to the matrons in the lower Rhine region being fulfilled, and Spanish amphorae with painted weight indications; there are the owners’ inscriptions on slaves’ collars, explicit graffiti on house walls in Pompei, and an inscription relating to road construction works on a rock in Syria. The contents of these inscriptions are as diverse as the form and material of the objects on which they are preserved.

The discipline of Latin epigraphy aims to collect, read, classify, interpret, and edit these inscriptions. Within the editions, the inscriptions are presented in a systematic order according to their geographic origin and their content. Epigraphy aims at making the enormous resulting collections of texts accessible by creating indices and concordances. Databases and digital editions simplify these processes significantly. The disparate source material requires scholars of Latin epigraphy to apply their techniques in compliance with the immediate, specific historical questions and with the relevant scientific methods. This implies that research on inscriptions can only be rewarding when carried out in collaboration with other historical disciplines. Latin epigraphy naturally pursues overarching research questions from the broader field of the Classics. In especially close collaboration with archaeology and historical topography, epigraphic studies assess the carriers of inscriptions and the circumstances under which they were found and had possibly been re-used. The inscriptions themselves are of primary interest in palaeography. This discipline analyses comparatively the discovered written materials, which is an important factor in classifying the inscriptions according to their date and place of origin. Philology contributes to the reconstruction of the text and classifies its literary and linguistic historical context. Today, epigraphy draws increasingly on the methods of modern social and communication sciences. These allow more insight into how representative any given inscriptions are, which information was purposefully included in them, and the practices of specific social groups represented in the inscriptions.

The classical disciplines mentioned are equally dependant on the results of epigraphic research. Today, the only considerable increase in the number of historical sources available to us from Roman antiquity comes from entirely new discoveries of inscribed material. Consequently, research in some classical disciplines is primarily based on epigraphical sources. Research on prosopography, on social and economic history, on administration, on the Roman military, and, increasingly, on the history of religion relies on epigraphic sources. Valuable information preserved in inscriptions fills the gaps in the literary tradition or survives only in fragments. Inscriptions may even suggest a new interpretation of one-sided accounts given in literary sources, such as the historiography of the 3rd century C.E. For archaeological research, inscriptions often provide crucial information, which contextualises archaeological finds. Although lexicography typically studies and interprets literature preserved in handwriting, the discipline draws on inscriptions as well. For lexicography, the unique value of epigraphical sources lies in their having come down to us by chance. Thus, the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, a comprehensive dictionary of the Latin language, has always maintained strong links with the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, and the editors of the CIL took great part in establishing the Thesaurus. Beyond Classics, Romance studies benefit from the unique documentation of vulgar Latin in inscriptions. Lastly, for modern social and communication sciences, inscriptions provide a still far from exhausted potential for testing and expanding their methods.

Click here for examples of inscriptions in the Roman Empire.