For Epigraphist, Inscriptions Tell Timeless
(October 11, 2001)
to Aldus Society In the News
Bill Eichenberger, Dispatch Book Critic
was a slave of Tertulla in ancient Rome. She was, probably, a household
seamstress. She was of African origin. And she died when she was 17.
little we know about Phryne we learn from an inscription taken from the tomb
where she was buried, an inscription translated by epigraphists such as Charles
Babcock, professor emeritus in Ohio State University’s Department of Greek and
a whole life history in a few words. Those words are all that exist now of
Phryne,’’ Babcock said in his OSU office. Of the inscription, housed in the
American Academy in Rome, he added: “I touch her (Phryne) every time I go back
young, obscure Phryne enjoys -- along with the emperors and senators who were
much more grandly inscribed -- a kind of immortality.
study of such inscriptions -- most commonly found on buildings, monuments and
tombs -- is known as epigraphy, a subject Babcock will discuss when he speaks
tonight at a meeting of the Aldus Society.
can be altered, mistranslated and misinterpreted, and mistakes can
passed down from one generation of scholars to the next. But the inscriptions
Babcock studies are a primary source of information.
inscriptions are real. Looking at them lets us be there, gets us as close to the
individual Roman as we can get,’’ he said.
across his desk, Babcock holds up a postcard from Italy of a baker’s tomb:
“His tomb is built in the shape of his oven, so he went out in style.’’
he’s at work on the first revised edition of the American
epigraphy collection since 1931, Babcock is no stuffy scholar. He is thrilled by
the inscriptions, and he approaches them in a nonacademic way.
don’t look at it (an inscription) without letting it work on you in some
of the inscriptions were designed specifically to “work on’’ passers-by.
Visitors today can walk parts of the Appian Way, an ancient road from Rome to
Capua to Brindisium, and read burial inscriptions.
inscriptions speak directly to a person passing by,’’ Babcock said. “A
typical inscription might begin, ‘Stop, traveler, and look!’ And then it
might say, ‘I was once what you are now.’ A lot of inscriptions remind us of
was common in ancient Rome for children to die young. Babcock is particularly
moved by an inscription written by a father at his son’s tomb: “What a son
should have done for his father, the father has done for the son.’’
wrote his dissertation on a branch of epigraphy known as “erasure’’ --
those instances when inscriptions were altered after they had been completed.
Antony’s name was condemned,’’ Babcock said, and so erased from
inscriptions throughout the Roman Empire. “Condemnation essentially eliminated
you. It was a condemnation of your memory.’’
Antony’s descendants eventually married into the imperial family and, in many
cases, years after being “erased,’’ his name was restored to
is essential to the study of Roman civilization, which Babcock taught at OSU.
can’t show them (students) the Pantheon without showing them the
inscription,’’ he said, launching into another fascinating story, this time
about Hadrian and Marcus Agrippa.
speak down the years directly to Babcock, and to us, if only we’ll listen.
Latin Club had these T-shirts made up,’’ Babcock said, reaching into a
cabinet by his desk, “with a quote from Cicero. Translated, it says, ‘But
not to know what happened before you were born -- that is to remain always a
wish more students understood that -- that you can’t eliminate the past just
because you’ve got a new technology; that you shouldn’t ignore the past just
because it’s old.’’
brings him back to his inscriptions:
inscriptions say so much about human nature. And they demonstrate how little
human nature has changed,’’ he said.
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