Representations of writing materials on Roman funerary monuments. Text, image, message: On-line conference

Tibor Grüll

Tibor Grüll


“Scroll in Hand” Research Project (sponsored by NKFI K 135317)

Department of Ancient History, University of Pécs

28 October, 2021

Due to the six-hour time lag between ECT (East Coast Time) and CET (Central European Time) we decided to start the conference at 13:00 p.m. (CET) or 7:00 a.m. (ECT). There will be a 10-minute break between lectures, when questions and additions will be possible.

Keynote lecture (30-minute)

13:00‒13:30 p.m. (CET), 7:00‒7:30 a.m. (ECT)

Elizabeth A. Meyer (University of Virginia, Charlottesville, United States of America)

Klio and Kalliope:  Why Tablet and Scroll?

It seems to have been generally established (Cohon 1991/1992) that by the High Roman Empire, the attributes of the nine Muses had stabilized and regularized in the artistic representations in which they appeared. In particular, Klio (the Muse of History) mostly appeared with a tablet and stylus, and Kalliope (the Muse of epic poetry) mostly appeared with a scroll. Why was there this differentiation, and what might it have meant? Of the many possible interpretations of what a tabula might mean, I would like to build on arguments I once made about a tablet’s capacity to capture and fix an authoritative version of reality, and explore why this Roman understanding of the meaning of the object made the tablet a particularly appropriate attribute for the Roman Muse of History. Historians could make authoritative claims to understand the past not least because the human view of the past was retrospective, while Klio, being a goddess, could write authoritative history as it happened. Klio’s appearance on a sarcophagus would therefore convey something about the monument and the value of the deceased’s life rather than make a comment on the deceased’s talents and vocations (although this is still speculative).

Presentations (20-minute)

13:40‒14:00 p.m. (CET), 12:40‒13:00 p.m. (UTC)

Anna Willi (University of Nottingham, Great-Britain)

Scratching the surface. New thoughts about practicalities and depictions of writing equipment

In the proposed talk I will discuss depictions from funerary contexts that I believe show a rather enigmatic Roman writing implement, the bone spatulate strip. Find contexts clearly associate bone spatulate strips with writing equipment, and earlier interpretations as labels (tessera) or weaving tools can be discounted. Nevertheless, these objects keep scholars guessing about their exact purpose and function, as doubts have also been cast on their interpretation as rulers. The difficulties in identifying the function of bone spatulate strips highlight just how little we still know about the practicalities of Roman everyday writing and of the individual instruments used. I will propose the identification of bone spatulate strips in a number of funerary depictions and reexamine contexts and associated objects in both iconographic and archaeological evidence for these objects. I will argue that a comprehensive and practical approach is needed to identify writing equipment depicted on funerary monuments: by considering the materiality, design and performance of Roman writing equipment as well as archaeological and iconographic contexts, we can better understand the role of specific writing implements, which ultimately contributes to our understanding of the significance of such depictions.

14:10‒14:30 p.m. (CET)

Benjamin Hartmann (University of Zürich, Switzerland)

Tablet in Hand. Tabulae as markers of professional and social identity of Roman scribae

The scribae were the official scribes, documentary specialists and archivists of the Roman (Republican) state. They were assigned to various magistrates to draft and administer the public financial and legal documentation these office holders were expected to produce. In Rome, they were trusted with the administration of the public archives and the official documents they were composed of. As a result of their professional function and the workings of the apparitorial civil service of which they were part, the scribae soon enough found themselves at the heart of an expanding Roman documentary practice and were considered the veritable experts on public documentation. As they swore an oath of office and pledged to safeguard the integrity of the public documents with their own fides, they acquired a close, even intimate, connection with the repository of public knowledge, the so-called tabulae publicae. As the name suggests, the Romans chose to commit their official records to (large) wooden wax tablets (tabulae ceratae). As a consequence, it is these wax tablets that we find closely associated with the scribae. The functional connection of the documentary specialist with the writing material of choice on its own warranted a conjunction of the two. Thanks to the personal moral obligation the scribae owed to the documents, the link between scriba and tabula in addition became symbolic. This special connection can not only be traced in literary testimonies, but is also evident in pictorial representations of scribae. In relief depictions, wooden writing tablets in various forms and formats provide a rare insight into the scriba’s everyday work. At the same time, they serve as a means of identification and token of status. In self-representational funerary monuments of scribae, tabulae function as markers of professional and social identity.

14:40‒15:00 p.m. (CET)

Csaba Szabó ‒ Ernő Szabó (Lucian Blaga University Sibiu/Nagyszeben, Romania ‒ University of Pécs, Hungary)

Connection between a rediscovered Dacian wax-tablet and the funerary reliefs

In January 2021, at Nagyenyed (Aiud, Romania) we had an opportunity to thoroughly examine and digitize the wax-tablet CIL III 953 (TC XV). The tablet, which has been discovered in the ancient mining region of Verespatak (Roșia Montană, Romania) in 1855, was considered to be lost for about a century and a half following Theodor Mommsen’s publication, and up until now only a concise description and a vague reading published in the CIL was available. Mommsen did not mention the wax coating of the pagina prior recto and the pagina posterior verso, as well as the traces of text observed on these pages. Thus, the later technical literature erroneously referred to these tablets as a diptych or triptych instead of a codex originally consisting of at least four (quinquiplex or tetraptychon) or more (multiplex or polyptychon) wax-tablets. The board is in “portrait” format, the traces of writing scratched into the wax run parallel to the shorter sides of the tablets perpendicular to the connection and the veining of the wood. This format is unique among the Dacian wax-tablets. Due to the vertical format of the board and its connection by means of pairs of holes in a vertical position on the edge of one of the longitudinal sides, it cannot be fitted into the typological system established on the basis of the similar finds at Vindonissa and also used in interpreting other related objects. Based on these two characteristics—the portrait format and the connection—as well as their small size and the content of the text we can classify them as codices called “account-tablets”. Similar codices were found in large numbers in the territory of Roman Egypt, and a specimen is also known from Dura Europos. We also know wax tablets of this format from Herculaneum, although their text has not survived. Probably such account-tablets can be seen in some still lives on the wall paintings in the Vesuvian cities. In our lecture—in addition to the presentation of the now rediscovered Dacian wax-tablet—we look for the answer to whether analogous account-tablets can be identified on the representations of Roman funerary reliefs.

15:10‒15:30 p.m. (CET)

Josy Luginbühl (University of Bern, Switzerland)

Educated by the nine muses?

Representations of women with writing materials on funerary monuments

Both in funerary reliefs and in the written sources, writing tools and materials are often associated with men. Freedmen in Rome and members of the provincial roman elite are depicted with scrolls and toga on their grave monuments, librarii with writing tablets and styli in the act of writing. Much less common are depictions of women with writing implements or the mention of learned women in ancient sources from the early imperial period. However, the number of portrayals of writing women increases during the imperial period and in late antiquity their number even exceeds the representations of writing men. The choice of the writing utensils depicted, the actions associated with them, the other attributes such as the garments and the type of monument on which the representation is figured provide clues to the interpretation and statements of the depictions. Furthermore, grave inscriptions can provide additional information on the represented persons and thus contribute to clarify the role of the depictions. The interpretation of funerary reliefs changes in the course of time. In the beginning, for example, scrolls often seem to be associated with the newly acquired Roman citizenship of freedmen and inhabitants of the provinces. Later on, the “learned sphere” comes into focus through its proximity to the muses and philosophers. This ideal of education and wisdom is then adapted for Christian representations as well. My paper traces the development and changes in the iconography of the depictions of women with writing material in the roman world from the imperial period to late antiquity. I will discuss the possible interpretations of the different writing utensils associated with women depicted on funerary reliefs from this period and compare them to representations of their male counterparts. This clarifies the similarities and differences between the iconography, the underlying message and ideals over time.

15:40‒16:00 p.m. (CET)

Sanja Pilipović (Institute of Archaeology, Beograde, Serbia)

Scroll and Codex on the funerary stelae of the Upper Moesian Limes

The paper investigates the meaning and different context that the scroll (rotulus, volumen) and codex (codex) could have on the reliefs on one group of tombstones from Singidunum, Viminacium and Vinceia. The scroll is shown in the hand of the portrayed deceased as an attribute. A scroll appears as an attribute of P. Aelius Dionysius (IMS I 35), a veteran, ex signifer of Legion IV Flavia, and T. Baebius Eutiches (Lupa 5431), an augustalis of municipium (municipii Aelium Viminacium), and of other men about whom no more precise data exist. The scroll also appears as an attribute of the two women of the hospita Domitia Ursa and Serenia Quarta (IMS I 52). The scroll and the codex were also shown within three scenes that referred to the occupation of the deceased. The scroll is shown in the hand of a speculator (IMS II 106) in a scene of traveling in an open car (rheda), also is shown in the hand of a sacral lictor next to sella curulis (IMS II 73) while both the scroll and the codex are shown in the scene of counting money, Kontorszene (Lupa 6809). The aim of this paper is to examine the role of these manuscripts as an attribute of the deceased, both in the portrait itself and in the scene related to his occupation. In addition to expressing belonging to the educated and cultural layer and emphasizing social status, an attempt was made to understand the more specific context that the scroll and the codex could have in the integrated system of iconography and inscriptions on these tombstones of the Upper Moesian Limes.

16:10‒16:30 p.m. (CET)

Nándor Agócs (ELTE Berzsenyi Dániel Teacher Training Centre, Hungary)

Representations of scrolls on funerary monuments in the Danubian provinces

This presentation addresses the issues and problems that arose during the analysis of the scroll representations on the sepulchral monuments of the Danubian provinces (Raetia, Noricum, Pannonia, Moesia, Dacia) and Dalmatia. The above provinces are particularly suitable for comparison because even according to the Romans they formed a kind of a unit, since they were regarded as parts of a unified customs system (publicum portorium Illyrici). Due to their location (apart from Dalmatia) they had to face similar external challenges on the one hand, and on the other hand they had different influences from inside the Empire, viz. in Raetia the influence of the Rhineland provinces prevailed much more than in Moesia Inferior, which can hardly be mentioned as a part of the Latin-speaking Western Roman Empire. As for the numbers of stone monuments: among the provinces of the Danubian region, most of the scroll representations are known in Pannonia (250-300 occurrences); Noricum is also above 200 scroll-monuments, while in the other provinces the number of scroll-representations barely reaches 50. After a brief introduction of the database created by our research group, I will examine the similarities and differences between provinces and regions and their possible causes. It can be stated with certainty that the separate examination of the material of each province can answer only detailed matters: for instance, it can also be asserted on the basis of Pannonian representations that the scrolls cannot be documents of Roman citizenship. At the same time, representations of scrolls together with the gesture of dextrarum iunctio occur in a relatively small number to be able to confirm or refute the interpretation of these documents as marriage contracts. My presentation will briefly cover other possible solutions as well.

16:40‒17:00 p.m. (CET)

Łukasz Sokołowski (University of Warsaw, Poland; University of Konstanz, Germany) 

Writing attributes in funerary Art of Palmyra. Imagery, message and parallels

Both from an artistic and statistical perspective the funerary portraiture from Palmyra constitutes the unique set of visual monuments attested at the Roman East. The men of Palmyra were frequently shown with the writing tools held usually by the right hand. The writing tools constitute the largest group of Palmyrene male attributes, yet definitely not a homogeneous one. On their funerary representations, Palmyrenes were shown with styluses, tablets, rolls and open polyptychs whilst the codices and the capsae occasionally appeared in the background. Further, tablets can take wide and narrow forms. Moreover, the tablets and possibly the squeezed papyri could have been shown as schedulae, the narrow, trapezoidal form of iconographic representation which has been worked out by Palmyrene workshops by the mid-second century. Contrary to tablets and schedulae the representations of other objects like codices are small in number, approximately less than a dozen.  Still, they are extremely interesting because they document the familiarity with Graeco-Roman imagery. The Palmyrene workshops were replicating similar models and were operating on the akin technological level as at the other sites of the vast Roman Empire. But the evidence provided by the broader contexts attested in Palmyra and Roman East makes it possible to reconstruct the several identities that were related to social roles performed by Palmyrene men: (a) schoolboys; (b) citizens of the Greek polis and the Roman Empire; (c) representatives of the Roman civil and military administration; (d) merchants and caravan organisers; (e) tomb owners; (f) priests. There is also some evidence on the education and literacy of women. The wide spectrum of possible identifications depicts the broad range of social roles that were stressed by writing tools shown in the figures’ hands.

17:10‒17:30 p.m. (CET), 16:10‒16:30 p.m. (TRT)

Ergün Laflı (Dokuz Eylül Üniversitesi, Izmir)

Representations of scrolls and writing documents in Roman funerary art of coastal western Asia Minor

Representations of writing tools (such as writing tablets or pens) and materials on Roman funerary monuments in the coastal sites of western Asia Minor are very frequent. Especially in both of the archaeological museums of Izmir there are several examples of such monuments, especially of steles and other reliefs. But the scrolls are rare in the Christian funerary art of the fourth and fifth century A.D. In this paper these examples will be presented one by one from the regions of Ionia, Aiolis, Caria and Mysia whereas examples of such tools from Phrygia and Lydia will be presented in another paper of the same conference.

17:40‒18:00 p.m. (CET)

Tibor Grüll (University of Pécs, Hungary)

Representations of codices on Phrygian funerary monuments and a codex plumbeus at the National Museum of Rome at the Baths of Diocletian

Phrygia developed a unique epigraphic culture during the imperial period (second‒fourth centuries C.E.). One of its distinct features is the countless representations of writing tools (styluses, stylus-/pen-cases, inkwells, etc.) and writing materials (scrolls, writing tablets, codices, etc.) on funeral monuments. Among these representations codices appear repeatedly, but not in the form we are accustomed to in the west (multiple writing tablets bound together at the longitudinal sides), but in a very special form. These Phrygian codices are represented with a lock—such as that seen on book-cases (capsae) and, occasionally, on polyptichs as well—as well as with a “horn” and a “hinge” along their longitudinal side. The function of these has not been clarified in the research so far, although the “horn” also appears either on scrolls or codices in Campanian wall paintings. At the National Museum of Rome at the Baths of Diocletian there is a special codex plumbeus (the so-called “Libro Basilidiano”, inv.-no. 65036) that can be compared to Phrygian representations. The lead cover of this 9.5 cm high and 7.5 cm wide gnostic codex was found in an ancient sarcophagus in the sixteenth century. Although there is no lock on it, the “hinge” running along the longitudinal side is characteristic. This short presentation raises more questions than it answers. Is it possible that this is the only surviving codex from ancient times that we see on the tombs of Phrygia? Why any other specimens of such covers did not survive in the Nag Hammadi collection? Would this codex plumbeus be the missing link in the history of codices?

18:10‒18:20 p.m. (CET)

Closing remarks of the conference by Tibor Grüll

    Mert Şahinsoy
    October 28, 2021


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