Text: Roman Inscriptions

Written language began as a means of efficient communication, yet it has developed greatly since its advent, becoming ever more complex as aesthetics and presentation have taken a role of greater importance. Written language moved from pictorial images, through abstract symbols such as cuneiform script and hieroglyphics, into the alphabet, based, not on any visual link to the object, but phonetics. It became purely abstracted, far from its roots in representation, and thus had to be learned. Written language, in the form we know it today, is often referred to as text, however for many this has connotations to type and the act of texting, yet it is the term used to describe written communication that represents language through abstracted signs and symbols.

Graffiti on the walls in Pompeii. Graffiti was a far more interactive and socially accepted form of communication in Roman times, with contributions made on any and every wall, from all members of society.

Graffiti on the walls in Pompeii. Graffiti was a far more interactive and socially accepted form of communication in Roman times, with contributions made on any and every wall, from all members of society.

Text often falls into formal and informal, with examples of both found in Roman inscriptions. Most surviving examples of Roman inscriptions are from the Imperial period (27 BC – 3rd century AD), and although there may be less from the Roman Republic and late Roman period (4th – 6th century AD), there are still more surviving inscriptions from these periods than from the Dark Ages. Various materials were used for inscriptions, including stone, metal, wood, mosaic, pottery, fresco, glass and papyrus. This diverse range of materials was matched by the many uses of inscriptions from the formal, often dedications to gods and emperors or official documents, to more casual inscriptions including the graffiti found on the street walls of Pompeii and private correspondence (Reading the Writing on Pompeii’s Walls, Kirsten Ohlson, The Smithsonian, July 2010).

Ancient shopping list, 3rd century AD

Ancient shopping list, 3rd century AD

An example of this last type is a letter in Greek from 3rd century AD from a man to his brother. It contains a list of foodstuffs (poultry, bread, lupines, kidney beans, chick peas and fenugreek), making it one of the earliest surviving shopping lists in the world. This may be an extremely mundane use of writing, but the way it gives insight into the ordinary lives of the Roman people and enables us to relate to them is quite extraordinary.

The inscription from the base of Trajan's Column, Rome, Italy

The inscription from the base of Trajan’s Column, Rome, Italy

Trajan's Column base, Rome, Italy, 133 AD (my photo)

Trajan’s Column base, Rome, Italy, 133 AD (my photo)

A more formal example of Roman inscriptions can be seen on the base of Trajan’s Column in Rome, Italy, most famous for its continuous frieze that spirals up the exterior of the column. The inscription is a dedication from the Senate and people of Rome to the emperor Caesar. A more personal use of formal inscriptions was in funerary monuments that conveyed very precise details in beautiful Latin calligraphy, such as age, occupation and life history. These inscriptions have helped historians to learn more of the Roman’s lives, their society as well as familial and professional ties.

“In addition, the language of Roman funerary texts demonstrates the human, compassionate side of the Roman psyche, for they frequently contain words of endearment and expressions of personal loss and grief.” (Lightfoot, Christopher. “Roman Inscriptions”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Feb 2009)

Lightfoot states that the “enduring legacy” of Roman inscriptions lies not in their content, although this has given much insight into the history and lives of the Roman people, but rather in the lettering that evolved in their carved formal inscriptions, such as the one on Trajan’s Column. This medium perfected the shape, composition and symmetry of the Latin alphabet, which would come to influence the writing in much of the modern world, as the Latin alphabet was adapted to Romance languages (the direct descendants of Latin), Celtic, Germanic, Baltic, American, African, Australian, Austronesian, Austroasiatic and some Slavic languages.

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About startlediguana

Miscellaneous art history blog made for a module at uni. The likelihood of future posts is slim at best, like sliced cheese.
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