Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Version at BMCR home site

Francisca Feraudi-Gruénais (ed.), Latin on Stone: Epigraphic Research and Electronic Archives. Roman Studies. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010. Pp. xvii, 174. ISBN 9780739145906. $60.00.

Reviewed by Caillan Davenport, University of Queensland (caillan.davenport@gmail.com)

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Table of Contents

The aim of this edited collection is to showcase the research possibilities inherent in the application of digital technology, notably electronic databases, to the study of Latin inscriptions. The editor, Francisca Feraudi-Gruénais, head researcher at the Heidelberg Epigraphic Database, is admirably positioned to undertake such a task, and she has invited contributions from scholars in Europe and North America who are using this technology to ask new and interesting questions of the epigraphic material. However, the final result is somewhat less than the sum of its parts: the collection contains some informative and worthwhile articles, but others are more disappointing, since they merely summarise a proposed research project or database. Since the volume contains numerous references to online material, one wonders whether a hard-copy book (and a moderately expensive one at that) was the most effective way to disseminate this research to the widest possible audience.

The book begins with an introduction by Feraudi-Gruénais, entitled 'Latin on Stone: Epigraphy and Databases' (pp. 1-19). The first half of the article surveys the different contexts in which Latin inscriptions appear, such as imperial construction projects, honorific statues, and monuments for senators and equestrians. Feraudi-Gruénais also discusses the use of epigraphy in a variety of non-elite contexts, using Heidelberg as a case study. In the second part of the paper, she traces the development of epigraphy as a discipline from Mommsen to modern-day databases. Based on a talk given by the author, the chapter is a concise and accessible discussion of Latin epigraphy. However, as an introduction to a book on epigraphic research and electronic archives, it falls short of the mark, since it only discusses the Heidelberg Epigraphic Database, rather than surveying the field as a whole.1

Part I of the collection, 'Epigraphic Research and (Electronic) Technologies', contains three essays. William Stenhouse's article 'Epigraphy and Technology in the Renaissance: The Impact of the Printing Press' (pp. 23-44) is a fascinating account of the epigraphic collections compiled by Renaissance humanists, who used the material they had gathered to produce the first analyses of topics such as Roman nomenclature and voting tribes. Stenhouse explores how the advent of the printing press allowed scholars to experiment with different ways of presenting inscriptions such as the fasti Capitolini. However, this new technology was not without its problems, as the printers did not always replicate monuments accurately or to scale, placing artistic considerations above scholarly accuracy. The connection with electronic archives (and the overall theme of the book) is only made at the end of the article, as Stenhouse argues that scholars should not disregard the testimony of early manuscripts (pp. 37-38). Although this serves as worthwhile reminder, Stenhouse does not pursue the theme to the extent one would expect in a collection explicitly centred on 'epigraphic research and electronic archives'. For example, how should online databases best integrate this material? The Epigraphik-Datenbank Clauss-Slaby (EDCS) already provides some images from manuscripts where relevant,2 but it would have been beneficial to have discussion of more detailed proposals.

In the next essay, 'Rome in Pompeii: Wall Inscriptions and Pompeii' (pp. 45-75), Rebecca R. Benefiel shows how Geographical Information System (GIS) technology can be used to analyse the distribution of graffiti and other texts in Pompeii. Benefiel is particularly interested in wall inscriptions which contain references to the city of Rome or to the imperial court. She demonstrates that the word Roma tends to occur in public, rather than private contexts, perhaps as a type of political or ideological dialogue. This is most clearly evident in graffiti found outside a fullonica, where a parody of the opening line of the Aeneid ('fullones ululamque cano, non arma virumque') is met with a short, but effective response: Roma. The one-word riposte obviously originated from a resident who resented the use of Rome's greatest epic for humorous purposes (pp. 49-51). Benefiel also analyses the distribution of graffiti to trace popular response to individual emperors, with a particular focus on Nero. She notes that these texts often appear inside houses, as well as in public places, demonstrating the extent of private devotion to the emperor (pp. 62-63).3 This essay is the highlight of the book, as it shows how electronic technology can be profitably applied to the study of Latin epigraphy.

The first half of the collection concludes with a piece by Christian Witschel, entitled 'The Epigraphic Habit in Late Antiquity: An Electronic Archive of Late Roman Inscriptions Ready for Open Access' (pp. 77-97). In the article, Witschel describes his project to collect all the Latin inscriptions erected in the western Roman empire between the mid-third and early seventh century A.D., with the intention of analysing changes in the epigraphic habit. Particular attention will be paid to regional differences, the archaeological context of the monuments, and the technical quality of the inscriptions. The database generated as part of the project will not be published online as a separate resource, but will be integrated into existing online collections, such as the Heidelberg Epigraphic Database. This is undoubtedly a worthwhile project, but Witschel's piece reads more like a grant proposal than a research article. Since it functions primarily as an announcement of a new project, surely this piece would have been better published on a personal or university website rather than in a hard-copy collection of papers.4

Part II, containing four essays, deals with 'Electronic Archives on Inscriptions'. It begins with a piece by Gabriel Bodard, entitled 'EpiDoc: Epigraphic Documents in XML for Publication and Interchange' (pp. 101-118). This is a clear and concise account of the development and use of Extensible Markup Language (XML) to publish inscriptions online in a manner which displays the texts accurately while adhering to the Leiden conventions. EpiDoc XML can also be used to add further information to a text, such as dictionary headwords for Greek and Latin terms, which allows for an enhanced search capacity. Much information concerning the creation of EpiDoc can be found online, but it is presented here with the addition of appropriate examples to show how the coding works. The essay concludes with recommendations for scholars seeking to undertake a research project which involves the construction of an online database (pp. 111-115). I could see this article being assigned as reading for students in a Digital Humanities course.

In 'EDR: History, Purpose, and Structure' (pp. 119-134), Silvia Evangelisti describes the establishment of the Epigraphic Database Roma (EDR) and shows how users can search the database for inscriptions. I question the need to publish this information in hard-copy format, since most of it is already available online. For example, pp. 123-124, where Evangelisti describes the various search fields, is merely an English version of the online Guida alla consultazione. The language of the database is in Latin, and several pages of the article (pp. 127-133) are devoted to tables translating Latin terms into English. This information is also available in the database's online manual in Latin to Italian translations. Since the information on how to use the EDR is available online for free, it seems unnecessary to include it here.

The next essay, 'Ancient Magic through an Electronic Database' by Amina Kropp (pp. 135-155), is a promising venture, as it explicitly shows how electronic archives can be used as part of a research project. Kropp describes how she constructed a database of Latin curse tablets (defixionum tabellae) using File Maker Pro to study the linguistic aspects of these documents. In contrast to Witschel's article, which was preliminary to undertaking a research project, Kropp explicitly details the thought processes behind the construction of her database (pp. 137-147), and presents some preliminary results (p. 148). She argues that the tablets preserve many of the conventions of 'normal human communication', but that these are sometimes absent, reflecting the belief that the power of the words themselves could cause harm to the intended victim. The two tables on p. 141, showing the geographical distribution of curse tablets, as well as their archaeological context, will be useful to scholars working on this material.

The collection concludes with another contribution by Feraudi-Gruénais: 'An Inventory of the Main Archives of Latin Inscriptions' (pp. 157-160). This section contains short summaries of ten major online databases, including their content, search interfaces and URLs. There is no conclusion.

Overall, the papers in the collection are of mixed quality. The best articles, of which Benefiel's paper is the stand-out, show how electronic technology can be usefully applied to specific historical questions. Stenhouse's contribution, although interesting and well-written, seems rather out of place amongst the other papers. Less useful are those articles which describe a forthcoming project (Witschel) or how to use a specific database (Evangelisti). The collection could have been enhanced by an introduction which surveyed the current state of research in the field, and a conclusion which tied the major themes of the book together. At a price of $60, it is difficult to recommend this book for purchase by individual scholars, or for university libraries with limited acquisitions budgets in the current economic climate.

Indeed, given the subject matter and the editor's intention to bring 'research in the field of ancient Latin inscriptions ... to the attention of scholars in both Europe and America' (p. xv),5 a traditional edited volume may not have been the most effective format for disseminating this research. As Melissa Terras noted in her address to the Digital Humanities 2010 conference, databases or electronic reference tools do not rank highly (or at all) in research assessment exercises in comparison with publications in refereed journals, edited collections or books.6 Therefore, scholars in the Digital Humanities need to publish articles about the databases they have constructed in order to prove that they have successfully generated appropriate outputs. Such papers have the potential to advance the research agenda and open up a dialogue with scholars working in allied disciplines. But the articles contained in this book would undoubtedly gain a wider readership if published as a special edition of an open access online journal, such as Digital Humanities Quarterly or Digital Studies. With online publication, readers would have been able to follow the many links to databases and individual inscriptions which can be found throughout the book, thus illustrating the potential of electronic resources. For a work which proposes to bring the latest technological innovations in the study of Latin epigraphy to a wide audience, it is curiously old-fashioned.


1.   The paper could have benefitted from revision in some places. For example, on p. 5, Feraudi-Gruénais discusses a fragmentary inscription from Rome but no text or image of this monument is provided, and it is only at the end of a long paragraph that it becomes apparent that the inscription in question is CIL VI 41106, restored by Géza Alföldy to refer to the historian Cornelius Tacitus. It should also be noted that figures 1.1, 1.4, 1.5, 1.6, 1.7, 1.8 and 1.10, which are designed to accompany the text of the introduction, are to be found in the centre of the book, but the reader is nowhere informed of this fact.
2.   For example, see CIL VI 1595 on the EDCS.
3.   However, see M. Beard, Pompeii: Life of a Roman Town (London, 2008), 49-51, who notes the fragile evidence for a personal visit by Nero to Pompeii.
4.   For example, an account of the conference organised by Witschel and Carlos Machado on this topic is freely available online.
5.   One might point out that research and teaching in Classical studies is conducted in other parts of the world as well.
6.   The text of the address can be found at Melissa Terras' blog.

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