I was just musing on the issue of apparent mistakes in inscriptions. What prompted it was a Twitter thread on this delightful Roman inscription from the Baths of Diocletian, commemorating an eye doctor called C. Terentius Pisto and his wife. As you can see, both the stone and the inscription are extremely wonky!

Altar commemorating C. Terentius Pisto, Baths of Diocletian, 1st C CE. Image from EAGLE.

So how do we explain this? Well the Twitter thread in question raised some interesting questions, for instance whether the inscription simply followed the shape of the stone, which was already cut at an angle – plus the fact that the decreasing size of the letters made it look a bit like a modern Snellen eye chart! Here is the Twitter thread by @chapps:

As it happens, a thread on the very same inscription was posted by @pompei79 (Sophie Hay), labelling it as “eye-ronic”, with some very similar comments:

I can’t help wondering whether the wonkiness of both the stone and the inscription is entirely deliberate. It’s dedicated by two freedmen, former slaves of Pisto the eye doctor. The slant of the inscription mirrors the slant of the top of the stone, and continues that way all the way to the end. Could it be that there’s an intentional reference here to Pisto’s profession, a visual joke to make the reader wonder if their own eyesight is failing them? (Which in turn reminds me of the “Should have gone to Specsavers” adverts in the UK!)

Of course craftspeople responsible for carving ancient inscriptions did get it wrong sometimes. Mistakes can actually be not only quite fun, but also great evidence for linguistic features and oddities. I always show my students this altar from Roman Tripolitania, where the E of Concordiae in the first line is awkwardly added in the margin:

Altar to Concordia set up by Africanus, from Sabratha, Libya. Image from Inscriptions of Roman Tripolitania.

It’s interesting to consider whether this is just bad planning on the part of the person carving it, as they seem to have started too far to the right on both lines, or whether the mistake is linguistic – perhaps they had forgotten that there is an e on the end of the dative case in first declension Latin nouns. The latter explanation could be supported by the fact that this area of north Africa was certainly multilingual, with speakers of other languages present such as Berber and even Punic as well as Latin and probably some Greek too.

Although some mistakes are clearly just that, in some cases it is much more difficult to tell whether a feature is intentional. I was thinking recently about the inscription on the Nikandre kore, an Archaic Greek statue with an inscription on the left side of her skirt (famously a ‘talking object‘ that speaks to us in the first person). If you just take a picture of the inscription, which is boustrophedon (i.e. alternating L>R and R>L direction), and display it the ‘right way up’ for reading, then you may notice that the last line is upside-down. Could this just be a mistake, driven by some sort of confusion with the alternating direction of the text?

To understand this better, you need to think about how the inscription is oriented on the statue, as the lines are actually vertical, not horizontal. Here’s me with a cast of the statue that lives outside the VIEWS office (in the Museum of Classical Archaeology in the Cambridge Faculty of Classics):

Of course we don’t know what the orientation of the statue was when the inscription was carved – it’s difficult to imagine that it was carved standing up, so it may well have been lying down. But if that is the case, it becomes very hard to explain how the last line ended up being carved upside down. Perhaps the idea is to make the reader take a more active approach to interacting with the monument, having to turn their head and reposition themselves to read the last part of the inscription.

Actually, that point rather reminds me of a paper given at one of the CREWS conferences by Christian Prager (who is going to be involved in the VIEWS project!), explaining the ways in which Mayan monuments make the reader move around and engage in dynamic interaction. You can view his presentation below (or you can read the published chapter in the Social and Cultural Contexts of Historic Writing Practices volume HERE):

Well this is just a short post prompted by the Twitter threads I mentioned, but there are lots of interesting issues here that I hope we’ll explore further in future posts. In the meantime, please do feel free to comment or contact me with your own favourite visual oddities in ancient inscriptions!

~ Pippa Steele (PI of the VIEWS project)

4 thoughts on “Epigraphic mistakes or visual jokes?

  1. I love this pippa! I’m not an expert of course but love the explanations that go with this so it gives me pleasure to be an outsider/insider. Lol!


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