Last week, I started a series of articles about inscriptions on architecture, particularly in the Mediterranean area. We began in Ancient Egypt with their hieroglyphs, a blend of magic and communication to form a rich blend of the physical world and influences beyond sight. I had intended to get all the way through BCE-era inscriptions but didn’t even get to scrape the surface of Greek and Roman buildings, which may be for the best.
If you remember the history lesson from last week, Rome was forming and Greece entering its classical period as Egypt was already in the downward swing of its glory. Rome and Greece formed next to each other, to what extent that influenced each of them is a lively academic debate of itself.
Greece was a set of city-states in Classical Greece, Athens and Sparta among the most well-known. Classical Greece is considered to have begun when the last Athenian tyrant king was overthrown, and the city re-organized into a democratic organization. From there, Greece developed a culture of thinkers and creatives that still influence today.
Building projects took place throughout Greece during this time, with the colonnades; pediments & entablatures; and Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders we associated with classical architecture. There were both more and not as many inscriptions in this period as (I) expected. The Greeks were free with their labeling, their vases were carefully outlined, characters named & plots explained. But the dedicatory texts were rarer and often in the form of removable stele. There are a couple of theories about this, one is that the Greek temples were built piece by piece, as evidenced by the columns in the temple of Hera at Olympia. The temple original was built with wood columns which were slowly replaced by local stone, hypothesized to have been paid for by individual donors. Alternatively, the overt neglect born to a dedication inscription on an otherwise well-cared for alter in Athens suggests a cultural expectation that the temples belonged to the gods, not the human donators.
There are only a handful of temples with inscriptions suggesting the temple in full was a donation. Even then the inscriptions were not obvious. One exception from the late sixth century has the inscription situated on the stylobate (a continuous column base) rather than the architrave (door lintel) where they frequently appear later.
It would not be until the late part of the fourth century that blatant dedicatory ownership of temples began, around the time of Alexandra the Great. Academics disagree as to whether dedications of temples were a natural development of Greek culture or if there was possible Roman or other cultural influence that encouraged it.
Romans, on the other hand, had no issue whatsoever in being quite clear on whom the gods should shower with praises for their latest temple. Dedicatory texts — for the first time in letters common to the present Romance languages — were emblazoned on the architraves of temples, on triumphal arches, aqueducts, really any built object. The earliest Roman dedicatory text is on the Pons Fabricius, the oldest Roman bridge in Rome, built in 62 BC. It reads, “L . FABRICIVS . C . F . CVR . VIAR | FACIVNDVM . COERAVIT | IDEMQVE | PROBAVIT.” The Romans really liked their acronyms, they’re fairly common in Latin inscriptions. This one reads, “Lucius Fabricius, son of Gaius, superintendent of the roads, took care and likewise approved that it be built.” This inscription is an odd one because it recognizes someone without Imperial ties, it is simply the local officer.
In comparison, the text on the Pantheon reads, “M.AGRIPPA.L.F.COS.TERTIUM.FECIT,” or “Marcus Agrippa, the son of Lucius, three times consul, built this.” The original Pantheon was built by Marcus Agrippa to celebrate Agrippa’s son-in-law, the emperor Augustus, when Augustus triumphed over Marc Antony and Cleopatra. Ironically, the inscription we read today is actually on a third-generation Pantheon building built by Emperor Hadrian — discovered via the dating stamped on bricks used in the building.
So, in the Pantheon we see a political and social maneuver played out in the inscriptions, which is quite common. The inscriptions were a useful way of telling the story and singing the praises the Imperial influence wanted heard and sung, so Roman inscriptions are at times … misrepresenting or at least straight-up confusing. A particularly insightful look at the political use of dedicatory texts is the translation for Trajan’s Column in Rome, which you can find here.
The Egyptians used inscriptions to wind the visible and invisible together to achieve Ma’at; the Romans used inscriptions to tell the political conquerors’ story; and the Greeks … they liked to talk, leaving innumerable records, but when it came to spirituality, they seemed to culturally eschew personal pride.
The Egyptians were taken over by the Hellenistic Greeks before the Romans took over all of Hellenistic Greece. About three hundred years later, the Roman Empire split in two in 285 CE. The next great development in inscriptions in architecture is the Eastern Roman Empire — also called the Byzantine Empire.
Next week: Byzantine Inscriptions