Seminary XXX: Ephesan epigraphy and Byzantinist jibes

Professor Charlotte Roueché

Professor Charlotte Roueché

The Earlier Middle Ages seminar at the Institute of Historical Research on 8th October was by Charlotte Roueché, under the title of “Late Antique Ephesus: Walking the Streets”. As you may be able to tell from the title, Professor Roueché has a lively sense of humour, which made this one of the most amusing papers I’d been to since Roger Collins last addressed the seminar, though the number of jokes at the expense of classicists and archaeologists and well, anyone who wasn’t a Byzantinist epigrapher rather did in the end pile up a bit like Frank Zappa’s works, snarking at so many people that there’s no way for the listener not to be attacked.

The restored Prytaneion at Ephesus

The restored Prytaneion at Ephesus

This is, admittedly, not to say that she doesn’t have a point. Even if one didn’t know full well that classicists are likely to want to dig up a fourth-century site to find what’s under it, and quite likely restore the early Roman stuff which was probably robbed to build the later stuff (of which she used the example above, the Prytaneion of Ephesus whose columns had been dismantled and reused in the sixth century), one could easily believe that Byzantine inscriptions, written of course in classical languages (both Latin and Greek at Ephesus at least—more on that in a minute), would not rate high in the publications of this material, done of course by classicists for the most part. She had one very sharp example, of a column at Ephesus on which had been inscribed an acclamation of the Empress Eudoxia, which was therefore published in the relevant corpus for the year 395 or thereabouts, because Emperor Theodosius I (379-395)’s wife was called Eudoxia and therefore, &c. Unfortunately, Emperor Heraclius (610-641) also had a wife of that name, and since the other thing on the pillar is an acclamation of him, it seems overall more likely that it’s the later not the earlier. But the corpus puts the one early and Heraclius’s late and there’s no indication in the edition that these things are associated in any way. This is a problem about which we heard a great deal. (The relevant pillar is one of many on what’s called Marble Street, shown below, though I am informed by Prof. Roueché herself that properly speaking Marble Street starts beyond that, and the below is really Kuretes Street, as confirmed here. The photographer didn’t know that, then, is all I can say…) Ephesus also has the additional problem that, being in Turkey even if at the very western end of it, the government is more interested in Ottoman archaeology than Christian archaeology, so funding tends to have to come from overseas and then be successfully got into place. (That this can be done is shown by the huge Inscriptions of Aphrodisias project, which has them all online now, a process in which Professor Roueché had no small part.)

Kuretes Street, Ephesus, crowded with tourists

Kuretes Street, Ephesus, crowded with tourists; Marble Street lies beyond

Because Professor Rouché was conscious that she was talking to an audience who primarily work on Latin, Western, parchment texts, she spent perhaps more time than she really needed emphasising the particular difficulties of an epigrapher: the fact that the evidence comes out of the earth without much ability to choose it, that it has to be cleaned, has often been reused, and so on. I think we got all of this quite easily but I’m no-one to criticise for making the most of the special nature of one’s field after all. What she was actually doing was coming to ask for comparanda, because what you can’t easily see on that image above is that the actual paving stones are also heavily inscribed, and what the inscriptions mean is rather unclear because they’re only symbolic, in the literal sense of being composed of symbols. They are traditionally dismissed, as Professor Roueché was inclined to see it, as gaming circles, which as she said belongs to a very Gibbonesque view of the late Empire where everyone’s so decadent that they’re playing dice in the middle of the street, perhaps because there’s nothing else to do till the barbarians arrive and so on. Of course, in Ephesus, which was a provincial capital till the seventh century (there’s a relatively neat and well-illustrated account of its history here, and Philip Harland has a page up about the site), that takes a bit longer, and the classicists and classical archaeologists have to deal with the fact that very little of the visible fabric is older than fourth-century and had even then seen centuries of use, modification and rearrangment. She wonders, anyway, if they may not be positions marked out for groups in ceremonies, for which there would be more readily intelligible parallels both from earlier Greek cities and later Rome, or even market-stall stances, which one wouldn’t want in text as market-stall holders would probably change faster than you wanted to replace your paving-stones…

The Great Theatre of Ephesus, where St Paul is supposed to have preached

The Great Theatre of Ephesus, where St Paul is supposed to have preached

Two other interesting things struck me as being worth remark about this paper. The first was that the extent of stone-carving in these cities, which is huge—Professor Roueché had a picture of a fair-sized wall at Aphrodisias covered in imperial edicts—was apparently dwarfed by the number of more temporary painted inscriptions. Such an amazingly lettered culture is implied by this that it does seem quite alien to Westerners, who too often acquire an idea that writing is the preserve of the Latin Church. At Aphrodisias, the theatre seats are covered in carved graffiti; as Professor Roueché said you begin to think that everyone was carrying a chisel and hammer in their back pocket in case they passed a blank surface… The other thing was language shift. A lot of the inscriptions are Latin, but most are in Greek, and at Aphrodisias almost overridingly so (because it’s not a capital, was in fact a free city which Romans have to have notional permission to enter, and so on). All the same, when dealing with the Emperors Latin creeps in. I’ve been noticing this myself with Roman Provincial coins lately that I’ve been cataloguing for the exhibition I mentioned, over time what was ‘SEBASTOS’ (transliterated) becomes the Latin word that translates, ‘AVGVSTVS’, but still in Greek (so usually AUGOUSTOS, again transliterated). She pointed us at an acclamation of Justinian I that ends, “TOU UINCAS” in Greek letters, that is the Latin ‘tu vincas’, thou shalt conquer, simply transliterated into Greek without translation. There are others like this, but by this Latin is on the retreat in the Eastern Empire: all the same, apparently when dealing with emperors of the Romans, as the Byzantine rulers consider themselves, one uses the language of the Romans, at least a bit. Both of these things involve mindsets very different from those I’m used to thinking of, but as Professor Roueché observed during the questions, it presupposes that the people making these inscriptions are trying, if rather diffidently, to identify with the West as a larger thing that includes them, and from which scholarship tends instead to divide them. Worth remembering.

Fragment of a letter of Emperors Valerian and Gallienus (260-68) preserved in stone at Aphrodisias

Fragment of a letter of Emperors Valerian and Gallienus (260-68) preserved in stone at Aphrodisias

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7 responses to “Seminary XXX: Ephesan epigraphy and Byzantinist jibes

  1. A guess about the paving stones. When escorting a visitor through a tour of Toronto, I was once asked “Why are there so many Italian names stamped on your sidewalks?” Indeed, every few yards one could see a name impressed into the concrete slabs of sidewalk, usually something like “Lorenzano” or “Magliocco Bros.” The names would fit well into Byzantine Calabria. I had come to see such inscriptions as normal, but apparently they are not. Other cities just have sidewalks without names stamped in them. But here, hundreds of small paving companies (invariably run by immigrants from southern Italy), are given contracts to repair worns slabs of sidewalk, and they stamp their names into them to prove that they have completed the work, and so that inferior work (say, shoddily mixed concrete)can be traced to them. The paving stone inscriptions in Ephesus sound like something along those lines.

  2. That’s interesting, and certainly an angle we hadn’t thought of, but it seems to me that if accountability or advertising were the purpose the marks would be more readily intelligible, don’t you think? I think that the fact that these aren’t text makes it encoded, and therefore either each inscription is covering multiple possible meanings (like a stall pitch, or a ceremonial stance) or else it’s deliberately secret, which would tend to the latter explanation only. Some of them are actually game circles of course :-) So Prof. Roueché still has to explain why people were sitting in the street dicing…

  3. Also, welcome to the blog. I have a post coming up that reacts to something you wrote, which Prof. Muhlberger was posting about, but as I haven’t posted it yet I’m faintly surprised to see you here ahead of it…

  4. I find the articles Steve links to consistently useful to me, or at least entertaining, and usually check them out. This is the fourth time you’ve found my way onto my reading logs.

    It would be interesting to know how city paving work was done in the Roman empire. Contracts with the masons’collegia? Does any classical source describe municipal contracting?

  5. I wonder if some of the myriad papyrus fragments surviving might contain such arrangements? But I have to admit I have no idea whether any actually do…

  6. Some corrections have taken place after Professor Roueché got in touch with me having seen this, mostly to place things in Aphrodisias that I had thought were in Ephesus. It should be noted however that the Price Edict of Diocletian, which you may have heard of and which we only have from stone, was not as I first said on the Archive Wall at Aphrodisias, but is inscribed on the basilica, which is almost more interesting, as I guess that may have been where business was carried out quite often…

  7. Pingback: Finding a way | The strategies of way-finding,messaging and signage design[from 2000 years ago] | GIRVIN | Strategic Branding Blog

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