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January 15, 2018

Expressing Identities in Graeco–Latin Bilingual Inscriptions

In the Roman world, Graeco-Latin bilingualism was a frequent and acknowledged phenomenon, as shown by expressions such as lingua doctus utraque, ‘learned in both languages’ (used by Martial in Book 10, epigram 76) and eruditissimus et Graecis litteris et Latinis, ‘most skilled in Greek and Latin letters’ (in Cicero’s Brutus, 205). Analysis of the epigraphic record allows us to observe that such a phenomenon was not only common in the élite, but that it was also widespread amongst non-élite individuals and freedmen. Inscriptions are written evidence; they do not represent a spontaneous act but require more thought than the spoken word: therefore, the use of bilingualism in epigraphic texts always reflects a choice, whether it is personal or communal (Bauzon, 2008: 111).

In bilingual inscriptions, it is often the case that the Greek and Latin versions have content in common and overlap, at least in part. There are also instances where we can observe code-switching, which is the practice of switching from one language to the other within the same discourse, in order to express a single piece of information (Rochette, 2010: 287).

The number of individual and communal identities expressed in bilingual inscriptions in Greek and Latin vary greatly from one text to the other, especially in the funerary context. The analysis of the following epitaph will shed some light onto some of the elements encountered when tackling bilingualism in the ancient world.

The inscription IGUR 972 (CIL VI 27246), dated to the end of the second century A.D. and set up by Terentius Zoticus, reflects the dual identity of the individual:

D(is) M(anibus)/ T(erentiae) Marciae coiugi/ dulcissime Ter(entius) Zoticus/ dignae et merite fecit cum/ qua vixit m(enses)/ XI hec que vi/ xit ann(os) XXI et m(enses) VI λέγει δὲ/ Ζωτικὸς ὀμνύων ἀληθῶς/ Μαρκία μόνη καλὴ καὶ σεμ/μνὴ καὶ πρὸ πάντων σο/φή et Myrineti liberte eius/ dignissime fecit

[Latin] To the spirits of the departed, Terentius Zoticus made [this] to Terentia Marcia, his sweetest, worthy and well-deserving wife, with whom he lived eleven months and who lived twenty one years and six months.

[Text code-switches to Greek] But Zoticus says, swearing truly, [that] Marcia [was] the only beautiful [one] and honourable and, before all things, wise.

[Latin] And he [also] made [this] to Myrine, his most deserving freedwoman.

Zoticus dedicated the epitaph to his wife, Terentia Marcia, and his freedwoman, Myrine. The first five lines and the last two lines are in Latin, whereas in the sixth line, the text code-switches to Greek. We notice that the ‘official’ information about Terentia Marcia is written in Latin and this part of the inscription is quite formulaic: we encounter the famous dis manibus, found at the beginning of almost all epitaphs, as well as other formulaic expressions, such as coiuge dulcissime. The biological information of Terentia Marcia is also present and, again, this element is seen very often in funerary inscriptions.

However, at the time of complimenting his wife, Zoticus code-switches to Greek: the introduction of the verb λέγει clearly emphasises that these are his own words (Adams, 2003: 365). The phrase ὀμνύων ἀληθῶς is not formulaic and probably indicates that Zoticus himself commissioned this part to be written in Greek. Zoticus’ name reveals indeed his Greek origin and he possibly felt more at ease with this language rather than with Latin to compliment and commemorate his wife. Latin was considered the language of power and authority, and often used in bilingual inscriptions to express official information (Montiel, 2014: 127). The fact that Zoticus switches back to Latin at the end of the inscription to mention his freedwoman, Myrine, clearly demonstrates this: he has only saved the most affectionate, personal and Greek words for his deceased wife.

Zoticus’ bilingualism is not only caused by the desire to express his grief at his wife’s loss: his words in Greek are introduced by λέγει δὲ Ζωτικὸς which reveals that he actually wished to be perceived as a bilingual individual. Although he set up the inscription for his wife, he does not give this dual identity to her, but only to himself. Zoticus’ code-switching to Greek could then be considered as a reflection of his bilingual identity and expresses a desire to convey this mixed identity to other readers.

In conclusion, this epitaph demonstrates how complex Graeco-Latin bilingualism can be in inscriptions: in some cases, individuals used bilingualism to simply convey information about the deceased to passers-by, in order to reach a broader audience (this was especially the case of Romans living in Greek-speaking areas and Greeks dwelling in Latin-speaking areas). In other cases, the use of Greek and Latin in one single inscription actually reflects how the individual wished to be remembered. Therefore, the use and choice of bilingualism in the funerary context is always significant for all the individuals involved.


CIL Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, Inscriptiones urbis Romae latinae (Vol. VI), ed. Henzen, W., Rossi, G. B., Bormann, E. and Hülsen, C. (Berlin, 1894)

IGUR Inscriptiones Graecae Urbis Romae, ed. Moretti, L. (Rome, 1968)


Adams, J.N. (2003) Bilingualism and the Latin Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Bauzon, E. (2008) ‘L’épigraphie funéraire bilingue des Italiens en Grèce et en Asie, aux IIe et Ier siècles av. J.-C.’, in Bilinguisme gréco-latin et épigraphie : Actes du colloque organisé à l'Université Lumière-Lyon 2… les 17, 18 et 19 mai 2004, eds. F. Biville, J-C. Decourt and G. Rougemont (Lyon: Maison de l'Orient et de la Méditerranée) 109-128.

Montiel, J. F. (2014) ‘La influencia griega en el léxico érotico latino’, Agora. Estudos Clássicos em Debate 16: 105-136.

Rochette, B. (2010) ‘Greek and Latin Bilingualism’, in A Companion to the Ancient Greek Language, ed. E.J. Bakker (United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell) 281- 293.

Paloma Perez Galvan is a PhD candidate in the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance (with joint supervision in the Classics and Ancient History Department) at the University of Warwick. Her research looks at syllogai of classical inscriptions in the sixteenth century, exploring how these evolved over the course of the century. She is particularly interested in analysing the change from manuscript to print collection and how it affected the production of these epigraphic corpora and also how it influenced the way in which inscriptions were perceived.


October 16, 2017

Inscriptions on Inscriptions

Nestor’s Cup is a black figure Rhodian skyphos that dates to around 740-20BC and was found on Ischia, an island off the coast of Naples and a colony of the Greek peoples of Euboea. This cup was most likely used as a wine cup at the ancient Greek all-male drinking party called a symposium. But what is relevant about this cup to Classical Texting is the inscription on the cup’s side. Like many pots and potsherds from the ancient Greek world, the inscription was scratched onto the surface of the cup after firing; this is known as a ‘graffito’ and has been dated to as late as 600BC. What is interesting about this inscription is that it uses the formulae and conventions of two different types of inscription and turns them on their head. Those two types of inscription are the ownership inscription and the curse formula, which I will treat in turn.


First of all, here is the Nestor’s Cup inscription:

Νέστορός : ε[ἰμ]ι : εὔποτ[ον] : ποτέριο[ν].|
hὸς δ’ ἂν τõδε π[ίεσι] : ποτερί[ο] : αὐτίκα κενον |
hίμερος αἱρέσει καλλιστε[φά]νο : Ἀφροδίτες. (CEG 454)

I am Nestor’s cup, good to drink from,
whoever drinks from this cup, immediately
the desire of beautiful-crowned Aphrodite will seize him. (own translation)

Line one adopts the generic formula for an owner’s inscription, which normally follows the pattern of “I am/ this is [name in the genitive]”, such as this eighth century inscribed pottery from Mount Hymettos:

…εἰμὶ τõ Διὸς τõ… (Langdon: 1976, no.4a)

“I am of Zeus…” or ‘I belong to Zeus’

What this object’s inscription does is to make reference to the famous cup of Nestor mentioned in Iliad 11.632-7. This cup is described in the Iliad as studded with golden nails, with four handles, and two doves decorating it - a far cry from the ceramic, geometrically decorated cup before the reader’s eyes. By evoking the Iliadic cup through its reference to the mythical character Nestor, the inscription plays with contemporary practices of marking ownership and exaggerates them to make outlandish claims about the object’s identity. By juxtaposing the humble ceramic Nestor’s Cup with the lavish Iliadic golden cup, the inscription satirises claims of ownership by compelling the reader to knowingly make false statements while speaking in the voice of the cup: “I am Nestor’s cup”.

Lines two and three play with the standard formula of curses: “If X happens [normally to do with the violation of the associated object], Y will happen as a [negative] consequence.” Faraone also identifies the hexametric meter and the deictic tode in line two as further signs of performative curse language (1996: 96). Considering that it is a sympotic vessel - a drinking cup no less - it is virtually unavoidable that at some point during its use in the symposium someone would have drunk from it. Thus it is likely that the composer created a curse that he intended to be fulfilled as opposed to more conventional curses which are created for the very purpose of actually preventing their own fulfilment, such as this inscription on a small flask from seventh century Cumae: “whoever steals me shall be blinded.” (IG XIV.856). In this example, the curse is designed to prevent its own fulfilment, whereas the curse of Nestor’s cup has chosen a condition so likely to be fulfilled that it inverts the very concept of a curse inscription.

In sum, the inscription of Nestor’s Cup toys with ideas concerning the power of writing - whether these be assertions of the ownership, identity, or power of an object. It uses the performance context of the symposium to subvert the expectations the reader, making for highly self-conscious and playful interaction. As holder of the cup, the reader is compelled to adopt the false identity of the cup and to make the incorrect assertion that “I am Nestor’s cup” aloud before his audience, comprised of his fellow symposiasts. It also used the formula and attributes of a curse inscription within the context of the symposium to have fun with the idea of cursing and a curse’s fulfilment. This playful deployment of epigraphic precedents to subvert and amuse shows the sophisticated way in which Archaic Greeks were reading and thinking about the epigraphic material around them and treating it much like the way in which their contemporaries were treating material we would consider to be more ‘literary’. The self-consciousness of epigraphic material and its engagement with concurrent literary culture shows how Greek epigraphy, from a very early period, had the potential to be highly complex and self-aware of its own status as epigraphy.


CEG Carmina Epigraphica Graeca, ed.Hansen, P.A., (Berlin and New York 1983, 1989).

IG XIV Inscriptiones Graecae XIV Italiae et Siciliae additis Graecis Galliae, Hispaniae, Britanniae, Germaniae inscriptionibus, ed. George Kaibel (Berlin, 1890)


Langdon, Merle K. (1976) “A Sanctuary of Zeus on Mount Hymettos” Hesperia Supplements, vol.16, (The American School of Classical Studies at Athens)

Faraone, C. (1996). 'Taking the "Nestor's Cup Inscription" seriously: erotic magic and conditional curses in the earliest inscribed hexameters,' Classical Antiquity 15: 77-112.

Nick Brown is a PhD candidate in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. His research looks into the ways in which early Greek sculptures and their inscriptions interact with one another. In particular, he is investigating the significance of the body of the sculpture being the site of inscription. More broadly, his interests within Classics focus on the theme of art and text from Greek pottery to ekphrastic literature.

August 15, 2017

Writing and Reading in Ancient Greece

Two central factors that affect the significance of any text is how it was written and how it is read. In a world where word processing, animation, and moving images are not only possible, but in fact quotidian, the process of writing is often forgotten. Similarly, the act of reading is done so automatically in a society with high levels of literacy that we are rarely conscious of the fact we’re doing it: just think how quickly and without thought we read road-signs, billboards, and the time on our digital watches or phones. However, for the Greek people of the early Archaic period, the technology of writing and the ability to read were not accessible to many and would have entailed a far higher level of self-consciousness to utilise than either does today. In each section below I will outline and discuss just one brief reason why, as modern scholars, we need to think more about both writing and reading in ancient Greece.


The act of writing is the graphic representation of language, it is not purely the visualisation of language, as that would then include sign language, and body language. It may have been noted that my use of the term “graphic” is rather clumsy, given the fact that it is derived from the Greek word for writing, grapho. But, much like the ancient word grapho, the modern English word ‘graphic’ refers to both image-making and writing (Elsner, 2004). Students of the literary trope ekphrasis will immediately recognise this play on words used by such authors as Philostratus, as in his Imagines, 1.24.1-2:

Ἀνάγνωθι τὴν ὑάκινθον, γέγραπται γὰρ καί φησιν ἀναφῦναι τῆς γῆς ἐπὶ μειρακίῳ καλῷ

“Read the hyacinth, for there is writing on it which says it sprang from the earth in honour of a beautiful youth;” (trans. Fairbanks)

Just as authors of ekphrases were playing off of this dual meaning of grapho to mean both write and draw, the Archaic Greeks were similarly blurring the lines (or perhaps simply expressing that their own conceptual lines were blurred) through the deployment of writing on painted pottery. Many Geometric vases have writing in bands running horizontally, occupying the space that would otherwise be filled with a key pattern. Similarly, black and red-figure vases have their mythological characters and their names echoing one another or dancers interacting with the inscription, as on the Pyrwias aryballos, as discussed by Osborne and Pappas (2007). Thus it seems that the visual aspect of writing has been central to its deployment throughout antiquity, from the decorative writing of Archaic and Classical pottery, the calligrammatic poems of Simmias (such as the ‘Wings of Eros’), all the way through to the ekphrastic texts of Imperial Rome.


One of the most important aspects of reading in ancient Greece is that it was read aloud (Svenbro, 1993). This may seem a rather mundane and insignificant point to make, but it actually reveals a great deal about the Greek language. At the most basic level, this collection of Greek letters was the first ever alphabet. That is, it was the first writing system from which you could entirely reconstruct the spoken language for which it was designed (Powell, 1991). Furthermore, the fact that Archaic Greeks read aloud has great significance for Archaic Greek reading, as written words cannot exist simply in a verbal context. As Ong (1982) points out, when read aloud, writing is lifted from its page and included within a spatial context as well as affecting, or being affected by, the position of the reader’s body. Movement around a statue base, the turning of an inscribed object in the hands, or craning one’s neck to see a monumental inscription of a treasury’s contents all have an effect on the way the text is perceived. Similarly, by reading aloud, the reader has no option but to perform for the people around them, announcing the name of the deceased or donor, declaring the ownership of an object to a man or a god, and causing them to publicly assert these statements for themselves. It is also possible that the act of reading aloud would cause the reader to adopt the voice of the writing’s person, ventriloquizing the reader or perhaps allowing them to play the role of the deceased or some other absent person.

We can see then, that that with only just two simple facts: writing is ‘graphic’ and reading was done aloud, that the acts of reading and writing in Archaic Greece were far more complicated than we might first think, sparking a greater degree of self-consciousness in their enactors than those quotidian acts do for us today.


Elsner, Jas (2004) ‘Seeing and Saying: A Psychoanalytical Account of Ekphrasis’, Helios 31.1: 157-86.

Ong, Walter J. (1982) Orality and Literacy: Technologizing the Word, London and New York, Methuen.

Osborne, Robin and Pappas, Alexandre (2007) ‘Writing on archaic Greek pottery’ Zahra Newby and Ruth Leader-Newby, Art and Inscriptions in the Ancient World, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 131-155.

Philostratus (2014) Imagines, trans. Arthur Fairbanks, Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press.

Powell, Barry (1991) Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Svenbro, Jesper (1993 [1988]) Phrasikleia: An Anthropology of Reading in Ancient Greece trans. Janet Lloyd, Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press.

Nick Brown is a PhD candidate in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. His research looks into the ways in which early Greek sculptures and their inscriptions interact with one another. In particular, he is investigating the significance of the body of the sculpture being the site of inscription. More broadly, his interests within Classics focus on the theme of art and text from Greek pottery to ekphrastic literature.

May 15, 2017

Martial’s Erotion in the epigraphic landscape

Critics have been deeply engaged with research into the interdependence of classical literature and verse inscriptions. Their connection and mutual influence is revealed by verbal coincidences (i.e. hexametric-dactylic clausolae, entire verses) or more general similarities in phraseology and content. The literature-epigraphy relationship is, however, anything but easy to determine and not always unidirectional (elite literature influencing metrical epigraphy). The genesis of CLE (carmina latina epigraphica) itself, without underestimating the crucial role of canonical literature as model for the metric-stylistic use, (Thévenaz, 2008: 170) reminds us that epigram, elegy and epikedion are “literary genres that, before influencing inscriptions, took inspiration, in many aspects, from those” (Hernández-Pérez, 2001:287). More specifically, the comparison between literary funerary epigrams with their inscribed counterparts gives compelling clues. The lexeme “epigram” first of all indicates an epigraphic object: a funerary, honorific, or votive inscription; its semantic extension indicates a new literary genre, occurring during the third century BC, with Callimachus, Posidippus and Asclepiades (Puelma, 1997: 190). Particularly noteworthy is the case of Martial’s obituary epigrams, which are ideal for illustrating to what extent and how the epigrammatist played a role in shaping the contemporary and later epigraphic landscape. Scholars generally over-emphasise the debt of Martial’s obituary production - where the epigraphic origin of the genre is disclosed - towards the epigraphic context, specifically with reference to some lexical and structural features. The research of correspondences in phraseology and content between Martial and inscriptions (loci similes), however, tends to discredit this claim. Therefore, through the use of a case study, that of Iulius Aptus (CLEHisp 82), Iwill explore an instance of direct quotation from Mart. 10.61 (Berger, 1959: 259-260; Cugusi, 2007: 178), a poem dedicated to the young slave Erotion.

L(ucio) Iulio Apto Gallio patronus

Itala me genuit tellus Hispania texit

lustris quinque fui sexta peremit hiemps

ignotus cunctis hospesque hac sede iacebam

omnia qui no[b]is hic dedit tumulum.

“To Lucius Iulius Aptus Gallus Patronus.

The Italic land gave me birth, Spain covered me.

I lived for twenty five years, the sixth winter snatched me away from life

I lie here unknown to everyone and a foreigner.

The one who offered to me everything, also gave me this burial.”

This elegiac couplet epitaph of the second century AD found at Mértola, in the ancient province of Lusitania (now Portugal), is mimetically structured as an autobiographical speech delivered by the dead freedman Iulius Aptus to recall the attention of the passer-by. The first distich reflects a literary dependence from two models: on the one hand, the first hexameter that illustrates Aptus’ birth-place (Itala tellus) and burial-place (Hispania) exploits a well-known epigraphic tόpos expressed in the canonic formula tellus x me genuit. The phrase clearly emulates the popular pseudo-epitaph of Vergil (Svet. - Don. vita Verg. 17, p. 9 Hardie = p. 81):

Mantua me genuit, Calabri rapuere, tenet nunc

Parthenope; cecini pascua, rura, duces.

Itala me genuit tellus, Hispania texit.

On the other hand, Iulius Aptus, recreating a common feature of epitaphs remembering the death of immaturi (young people), claims his age through a periphrasis intended to increase pathos in the reader: he died at 25 years old, (lustris quinque), extinguished on his sixth winter (sexta peremit hiems). A closer examination of the sentence, reveals a logical inconsistency: how is it possible for Aptus, who died at 25 years old, to have been snatched away from life in his sixth winter (sexta hiems)? The answer to this misleading logical gap lies in Martial 10.61.2:

Hic festinata requiescit Erotion umbra,

crimine quam fati sexta peremit hiems. (Mart. 10.61.1-2)

lustris quinque fui sexta peremit hiemps

Berger (1959: 265) noticed how the final pentametric clausola resembled Martial’s line on Erotion: it is probable, then, that the composer of the inscription, willing to imitate a literary formula, mnemonically adapted the line by Martial without considering the resulting logical inconsistency of the pentameter. This direct borrowing from a literary model shows a typical technique of the “epigraphic memory”, here responsible for a mistake at the level of logic. The epitaph of Iulius Aptus is relevant for two reasons: on the epigraphic side, it is crucial to have an insight on how epigraphists composed verse inscriptions, pointing out a functional use of Latin authors; from a literary perspective, it allows us to argue that Martial’s Epigrams circulated in Portugal at least during the second century AD.


Primary sources

Martial, Epigrams, ed. and trans. D. R. Shackleton Bailey (Cambridge, M.A.: Harvard University Press 1993).

Secondary sources

Berger, C. (1987) ‘Virgile et Martial dans un épigramme de Mértola’ in Epigraphica 49, pp. 264-265.

Cugusi, P. (2007) Per un nuovo Corpus dei Carmina Latina Epigraphica. Materiali e discussioni (Roma: Accademia Nazionale Dei Lincei).

Cugusi, P. - Sblendorio, M. T. (2007) Studi sui carmi epigrafici. Carmina Latina Epigraphica Pannonica (Bologna: Pàtron Editore).

Hernández-Pérez, R. (2001) Poesía Latina Sepulchral de la Hispania Romana: estudio de los tόpicos y sus formulaciones (Valencia: Universitat de València).

Puelma, M. (1997) ‘Epigramma: osservazioni sulla storia di un termine greco-latino’ in Maia 49, pp. 189-213.

Thévenaz, O. (2001) ‘Flebilis lapis? Gli epigrammi funerari per Erotion in Marziale’ in

Materiali e discussioni per l'analisi dei testi classici 48, pp. 167-191.

Alessandra Tafaro is a prospective doctoral student in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. Her interest is in the interaction of Latin Literature with Roman epigraphy, particularly focusing on the Imperial Age. Her research focuses on the influence of Martial’s Epigrams upon the contemporary and later epigraphic context.

January 16, 2017

Deep Thinking: The EdStone and Beyond

The UK Labour Party’s 2015 general election campaign-pledges were set in stone quite literally by party leader Ed Miliband. Yet the purported permanence afforded these pledges by their inscription on stone transmuted into ridicule, as national news media consumed the monument – the EdStone, as it came to be known – for what it seemed to represent (vanity; hypocrisy; presentational gaffe; popular cynicism about politicians) rather than what it appeared to intend (earnest – if hopelessly vague – policy).

Ed Miliband unveiling the

Doesn’t the EdStone, in context, seem uncannily Classical? The attitudes of Classical texts to the memorializing powers of material culture, from Homer, through Simonides, Pindar, Herodotus, and beyond, reveal the aesthetic and politicized controversies of mortal claims to permanence.

The opening of Homer’s Iliad 12 takes seeming pleasure in Poseidon’s destruction of the Greeks’ wall, doomed not to outlast the memorializing power of the heroic song that creates but then destroys that condemned construction.

Simonides attacks the earlier Kleoboulos of Lindos for foolishly proclaiming the permanence of stone in a poem (581 PMG).

Pindar seemed to eschew the inferior memorializing powers of statuary:

“I am no sculptor, one to fashion stationary statues that stand on their same base. No, on board every ship and in every boat, sweet song, go forth … and spread the news…” (Nemean 5.1–3)

Classical examples also remind us that inscribed stone monuments (stelai, the EdStone’s ancient Greek equivalent) served a range of functions. Stelai could list achievements (Olympic victory-lists survive in the material record but are also alluded to as early as Pindar and as late as Pausanias), set out the laws of states, and document their ambitions (for instance, the Athenian Tribute Lists). But they also recorded deaths, as grave-markers.

Might we (rather smugly) suggest, then, that ancient Greece supports a cynical reception of the EdStone as political epitaph? Or (even more smugly), that Miliband should have known better than to reach out to a symbol whose resonances he would be unlikely to control: the frailties of an overreaching policy-wonk?

Perhaps. But maybe not quite so fast. One lesson is that non-inscribed texts seem to hanker after the materiality and the potential permanence of stone – literary texts seem to protest too much, don’t they? For Classicists, such hankering forms the basis of debate concerning the interdependence of art and text across the ancient world. The flaws of the EdStone might also symbolize a journalistic nostalgia for the simpler political world of 2015.

Moreover, what of the literary contexts of these ancient moments of transformation from material culture into text? And what is at stake in even feeling a sense of a connection across time between things ancient and modern?

The Greek historian Herodotus may guide us. Herodotus’ most well-known transmutation of the fame of physical monumentality into textual significance is the story of Cleobis and Biton in Histories book 1. The intellectual curiosity of his writing also resonates for the complex relation between enquiry as thirst for knowledge (the diagnostics involved in ‘wanting to get to the bottom’ of an issue – the contemporary EdStone helping us to think we ‘know’ classical Greek politics and aesthetics better?) and enquiry as thinking about the emotional and intellectual investments involved in the histories of that process of ‘wanting to know’. The story of Cleobis and Biton also stages the political issue of speaking to power.

The story gains its force as part of the advice given by the Athenian sage, ‘wise adviser’, and statesman Solon to Croesus, King of Lydia. The otherwise unknown Cleobis and Biton are an example of ultimate happiness provided by Solon to answer Croesus’ narcissistic quest for flattery (Herodotus 1.30–4). Cleobis’ and Biton’s fame relies, for Solon, on their memorialization in the material form of statues at Delphi. But Herodotus’ animation of their fame is a story with a point, a lesson for Croesus, and for us too. Solon’s feint when confronted by Croesus’ overbearing personality is part of a broader strategy. “Look to the end, no matter what it is you are considering”, says Solon to Croesus. “Man is entirely a creature of chance”. Happiness and good fortune are much too powerful concepts to be corralled by the rich and famous for particular moments in time. The ‘long view’ is essential.

One insight of Herodotus’ Histories – one that Classics can hope to project anew – is that self-awareness of our own complex temporalities comes with a double mandate. We should be humble in our assumptions about the knowledge we have acquired from the past – as opposed to the arrogant appropriation of alleged Classical certainties for (for example) political grandstanding, educational policy, or other social and cultural interventions (such as the immediate diagnosis of the EdStone’s failings through Classical paradigms, for instance). And we should feed off Herodotus’ magnanimity, in the world-creating potential of literary texts, shaping futures through their inquisitive power to inspire.

We respond creatively, not abandoning ourselves to the past as a dead end sought out in shameless acts of atavistic intellectual recidivism. Herodotus’ own sense of the importance of the past – in which materialist metaphor plays a prominent role – is shaped by facing up to impending vicissitudes:

“Herodotus of Halicarnassus here presents intellectual enquiry as exposé, so that human events may not become faded through time, and great and wondrous works … may not become inglorious…” (Book 1 preface).

Herodotus encourages us to look into the future, creatively to plot our paths into it, and so to shape it. We are enjoined, subtly and wryly, to use his exemplary source-gathering and source-questioning skills as a trusty companion (and despite contemporary deprecation of ‘experts’) in the face of, and handhold against, perceived existential threats: the rise of ‘fake news’ and the nefarious political sway of individuals whose significance cannot possibly be permanent come immediately to mind (cf. Dewald, 1987: 169–70). Never has Herodotus seemed more of our time, and more worth living with.

Further Reading:

Butler, S. (ed.) (2016) Deep Classics: Rethinking Classical Reception (London).

Dewald, C. (1987) ‘Narrative surface and authorial voice in Herodotus’ Histories’, Arethusa 20: 141–70.

Fearn, D. W. (2013) ‘Kleos v stone? Lyric poetry and contexts for memorialization’ in P. Liddel and P. Low (eds.) Inscriptions and their Uses in Greek and Latin Literature (Oxford) 231–53.

Fearn, D. W. (forthcoming 2017) Pindar’s Eyes: Visual and Material Culture in Epinician Poetry (Oxford).

Grethlein, J. (2008) ‘Memory and material objects in the Iliad and Odyssey’, Journal of Hellenic Studies 128: 27–51.

Immerwahr, H. R. (1960) ‘Ergon: history as a monument in Herodotus and Thucydides’, American Journal of Philology 81: 261–90.

Munson, R. V. (2001) Telling Wonders: Ethnographic and Political Discourse in the Work of Herodotus
(Ann Arbor).

Pelling, C. B. R. (2006) ‘Educating Croesus: talking and learning in Herodotus’ Lydian logos’, Classical Antiquity 25: 141–77.

David Fearn is Associate Professor in Greek Literature at the University of Warwick. Email:

November 15, 2016

Right Back Atcha: καί σύ Inscriptions and ‘Apotropaic’ Text

Apotropaic art, symbols or objects are those which have - or are reputed to have - the power of averting evil influence or ill luck. Many images and inscriptions from the Greek and Roman worlds are believed to have served an apotropaic function. The Greek phrase “καί σύ”, usually inscribed ‘KAICY’, is one such example. Literally translated “and you”, debate continues to persist as to how this type of inscription was meant to be ‘read’. Warner Slane and Dickie, amongst others, stress the apparent hostility of these inscriptions, taking καί σύ to be symbolic of apotropaic phallic aggression (1993: 492; see also Trentin 2015: 51-72 and Clarke 2007: 65).

For instance, in the House of the Evil Eye at Antioch, a mosaic in the vestibule depicts the Evil Eye being attacked by a raven, trident, sword, scorpion, serpent, dog, centipede, and a panther [Fig. 1] (Levi 1947: 33-4). To the left of this montage, an ithyphallic dwarf walks away from the Eye, his oversized phallus curving backwards toward it in a gesture of phallic assault. ‘KAICY’ is inscribed above his head. In this instance, image and inscription clearly work together: the καί σύ projects the violence enacted upon the Eye towards the viewer – “σύ” - warning them that such punishments will also be exacted upon them.


Fig. 1.: Roman mosaic from Antiochia, House of the Evil Eye. Hatay Arkeoloji Müzesi, Antakya, Inv.-Nr. 1024.

However it is still possible to detect, in even the most violent of examples, that καί σύ inscriptions are characteristically ‘double-sided’ and not solely intent on the infliction of injury. The aggressive character of such inscriptions has perhaps been over-stated: their language is inherently conditional and open-ended, and therefore cannot only denote hostility. The Antioch mosaic undeniably wields violence as its primary weapon in the fight against ill-will, but the accompanying inscription installs the tableau with a precondition. Crucially, the use of “καί” presents this violent imagery as a retaliation, not an instigation; that is, it is designed to be read as being in return for something committed against the household – albeit pre-emptively – and if nothing is indeed committed, then this imagery becomes non-operational. In this way, the καί σύ inscription ensures that the aggressive visual imagery only be ‘activated’ if the viewer actually qualifies as ‘evil’.

Therefore the ‘correct’ reading of a καί σύ inscription intrinsically hinges on the input of the viewer. This fundamental dynamic of reciprocity is exemplified by a pair of marble panels from Delos. They bear reliefs of two phallic monsters, with phalluses for heads, threatening each other (Warner Slane & Dickie 1993: 492). Below the two monsters on one panel are inscribed the words “τουτο εμοι|και τουτο σοι”, and on the other “τουτο σοι|και τουτο εμοι” (“That which is done to me, is also done to you” and “That which is done to you, is also done to me”). Each phallic creature declares to the other that for every hit he receives, his opponent will receive the same. But the language leaves it unclear as to who the instigator and retaliator are in this situation; one phallus-creature cannot take action without the other, thus rendering a humorous stalemate. Perhaps this matching-pair of inscriptions is a direct, tongue-in-cheek reference to the prolific “καί σύ” (either they deliberately expand upon the widespread phrase or we could in fact consider καί σύ to be an abbreviation of this longer inscription) for they neatly convey the inextricable relationship such texts are intended to have with their reader and enactor.

Given this patent equilibrium, we can further assert that καί σύ inscriptions were also used to transmit good fortune as well as bad. Not only did they withhold aggression for the correct recipient, they in fact reflected whatever came their way. This is verified by the fact that “καί σύ” also appears alongside more beneficent imagery - yet the auspicious capacity of these inscriptions has long been overlooked. In the vestibule mosaic at the House of Dionysus in Nea Paphos, the words “ΧΑΙΡΕΙ” and “ΚΑΙCΥ” are inscribed in tabula ansata (a "Christmas cracker" shape) either side of a depiction of the four seasons (Kondoleon 1995: 85). The mosaic’s scheme accentuates the threshold in a typical manner - “ΧΑΙΡΕΙ” unambiguously greets the entrant - but the καί σύ here explicitly accompanies imagery evocative of bountifulness, and thus it is these beneficial implications toward σύ, the viewer. It is clearly meant to be read in direct conjunction with “ΧΑΙΡΕΙ”, the two inscriptions ‘bookending’ the visual ensemble. Therefore, the καί σύ inscription still interjects at the moment of threshold transition in the same way as the Antioch mosaic, but does so by projecting positive themes rather than aggressive ones. Equally, however, we should assume it implicit that the reader who entered this house with bad intentions would, conversely, have had a suitably violent response intended for them, facilitated by the duality of a καί σύ.

This pervasive inscription is comprised of only two short words, yet yields surprising polysemy. The open-ended nature of the language of these inscriptions - inherently bilateral but also inherently conditional - generated a relationship with the viewer that was intrinsically oscillating and irreconcilable, neither able to confirm its own status without that of the other. These inscriptions were indispensable in directing the ‘correct’ reading of the visual imagery they accompanied, and capable of turning such images on their head entirely. Thus the study of apotropaic inscriptions is extremely pertinent to the wider discussion of the meaning and perception of text in classical society; the inscriptions examined here possess palpable multivalence and even magical qualities, transcending the limitations of that which was simply just ‘written’.


Clarke, John R. (2007) Looking at Laughter: Humor, Power, and Transgression in Roman Visual Culture, 100 B.C.- A.D. 250 University of California Press.
Kondoleon, Christine (1995) Domestic and Divine: Roman Mosaics in the House of Dionysus Cornell University Press: London.
Levi, Doro (1947) Antioch Mosaic Pavements (Vol.1) Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Trentin, Lisa (2015) The Hunchback in Hellenistic and Roman Art Bloomsbury: London.
Warner Slane, Kathleen & Dickie, M. W. (1993) ‘A Knidian Phallic vase from Corinth’ pp. 483-505 in Hesperia: Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens Vol.62, No.4 (Oct-Dec 1993).

Kathryn Thompson is a second year PhD student, supervised by Prof. Alison Cooley. She is investigating the concept of 'apotropaic' art and symbolism in the Greek and Roman worlds. Currently Kathryn is conducting a re-evaluation of this terminology itself, by considering the extent to which the 'apotropaic' can be considered an invention of late eighteenth and nineteenth century anthropological discourse.

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