Saturday, February 12, 2011


Ari Saastamoinen, The Phraseology of Latin Building Inscriptions in Roman North Africa. Commentationes humanarum litterarum 127 2010. Helsinki: Societas Scientiarum Fennica, 2010. Pp. €35.00. ISBN 9789516533776. $646.

Reviewed by Dennis E. Trout, University of Missouri (

Version at BMCR home site

Ari Saastamoinen's Phraseology of Latin building inscriptions is a thorough study of the diction and formulae of 1002 Latin inscriptions from four Roman provinces: Africa Proconsularis, Numidia, Mauretania Caesarensis, and Mauretania Tingitana. Saastamoinen has worked on the material in question for more than a decade, in part as the subject of a dissertation prepared at the University of Helsinki under the guidance of Olli Salomies and Heikki Solin. Broadly speaking it can be said that studies of this type have the two-fold aim, first, of drawing conclusions from the close investigation of a corpus of texts considered in aggregate and, second, of utilizing those findings to (re)contextualize individual inscriptions, not only those that were included in the aggregation but also others with similar characteristics. As Saastamoinen's study is essentially a regional one, his results will naturally be of interest to historians and epigraphists working in other areas or seeking global perspective on such matters as the Latin epigraphic habit, patterns of public building and repair, or the rhythms of euergetism as these phenomena unfold across four and a half centuries of Roman rule in the (western) Mediterranean.

Saastamoinen is quite clear about the parameters of his study and it is worth remarking on these at the outset, for they necessarily determine the nature and utility of his conclusions. Building inscriptions, he acknowledges, are conventional, formulaic, and generalizing texts, and therefore imprecise referents to the social history and urban forms to which they point (17). Even the very definition of the "building inscription," however, is debatable. Various scholarly engagements with the problem are reviewed, and Saastamoinen settles on a conception that emphasizes the epigraphic text's advertisement of a builder's philanthropy over, for example, the votive or honorific functions that some building inscriptions also performed. Saastamoinen's building inscriptions, therefore, are primarily propagandistic texts placed on monuments in order to highlight a donor's contribution to the common good (21). Thus the kinds of buildings in question are "public" structures: temples, arches, markets, porticoes, baths, aqueducts, walls, and so forth, as well as such ancillary features as fountains, steps, and gardens. Beyond the geographical boundaries mentioned above are the limits imposed by chronology and other factors. Saastamoinen's corpus ranges from the first century BCE, his earliest dateable texts, to 429 CE, which marks the onset of the Vandal occupation, when the regional record of building inscriptions virtually disappears until it re-emerges, transformed, in the Byzantine period. From the more than four centuries within his purview, moreover, Saastamoinen has excluded both metrical texts (which eschew the conventions that interest him) and all Christian texts. This latter choice, perhaps justifiable on the same terms by which Saastamoinen decided to bypass carmina epigraphica, nonetheless has momentous repercussions on the kinds of conclusions that can be drawn from the study. Finally, it is noteworthy that Saastamoinen's corpus of 1002 texts is a thin slice (about 2%) of an estimated 50,000 known North African inscriptions.

Saastamoinen's painstaking attention to detail does yield numerous conclusions relevant to larger historical questions. Although he explicitly acknowledges that the chronological curve of building inscriptions cannot fully reflect the realities of building activity over time (not a single text, for example, commemorates the construction of a taberna [56]), the 755 inscriptions deemed dateable within a fifty-year span do display the now familiar third-century "crisis" in epigraphic habit. Their numbers peak dramatically in the "halcyon days" between 150 and 250 CE, fall precipitously in the next half century, and recover gingerly in the fourth century, constituting evidence at least, Saastamoinen suggests, for late-third-century "financial difficulties" in the region (48-49). Unfortunately, the absence of Christian texts from the data renders opaque the nature of the fourth-century epigraphic recovery for, as Saastamoinen admits, the epigraphic record of temple construction "all but ceases" (49) just as church construction (not accounted for) begins to boom. Furthermore, his data reveal that private benefaction (41%) prevails over other documented forms (e.g., communities, 33%; the army, 8%; and emperors, 7%) across the full time span, but that its incidence declines notably in the fourth century (52-54), though again the absence of Christian data surely skews the picture. Finally, aggregation reveals that temples and arches are the structures considered most appropriate for donor commemoration, though the evidence is complicated by a tendency not to name arches in the texts that adorned them (57-58). Crucially, moreover, Saastamoinen shows how sorting the information as he does can lead to further qualifications: by locale, for example, since in Caesarensis walls nudge out arches (59); or by chronology, for although new temple construction almost disappears from the epigraphic record in the fourth century, temples along with baths and porticoes are the structures then most often advertised as repaired (59-60). It is one of the great virtues of this study (and its many charts and graphs) that a nearly endless array of such observations can be teased out of its data.

The book falls naturally into four parts. Chapters one and two provide overviews and are the source of most of the issues treated above. Chapters three through seven each consider in turn a specific syntactical component of the corpus' inscriptions: the starting phrase, the subject, the object, the predicate, and finally such supplementary parts as financing and authorizing statements. These five chapters constitute the heart of Saastamoinen's analysis and their patterned and workmanlike presentation of evidence and findings justifies his designation of the book as a "manual" (8). "Syntactical" aptly describes Saastamoinen's analytical taxonomy in a semantic as well as in a grammatical sense, for the "subject part" of these texts typically is both nominative and presents the names of builders, donors, and/or dedicators while the "object part" is normally accusative and denotes the type of structure in question. Despite the apparent regularity and conventionality of these inscriptions, Saastamoinen's close reading isolates significant variations in diction, style, and function that tend to fall out along chronological axes. Yet while these five chapters will surely serve as valuable reference tools, the full impact of Saastamoinen's work emerges most clearly in the book's eighth chapter, "Conclusions." Organized here by chronological periods rather than by syntactical "parts," Saastamoinen's discussion of the evidence provides a virtual history of the diction of Latin building inscriptions in this region—and thus of particular textual practices exercised within their political and social environments. It is clear, for example, that the average length of building inscriptions generally increased across the period, as did their syntactical complexity (397). By dissecting the "parts" of his texts as well as their sum, however, Saastamoinen reveals, for example, that imperial titulature's portion of the whole was not constant; the space (and words) devoted to recognizing or honoring emperors gradually increased until plummeting sharply subsequent to the murder of Caracalla (390), remaining relatively diminished thereafter as its character also changed, for example, with dominus noster emerging as "essential" by the century's end (392). Moreover, although commemorative patterns should not be confused with the realities of urban construction, it is noteworthy that in the fourth century advertised repair work did drastically outpace new construction (primarily basilicae), and private funding significantly gave way to public funding (396), phenomena of obvious historical interest. Only by having established comparable ratios for the second century, however, is it possible to detect the extent of these late antique shifts. Finally, diachronic study reveals the changing fashions of expression: the second-century preference for the bald fecit; the third-century monopolizing tendency of the pro salute imperial honorific (392); and the novel fourth-century fondness for "starting expressions" heralding the felicity of the times, e.g., beatissimo saeculo (398). Not all of these and other observations are new, of course (and the notes consistently point to earlier bibliography), but their clear documentation here should encourage their integration into other studies.

Finally, the utility of Saastamoinen's study is greatly enhanced by his inclusion of the full texts of the 1002 inscriptions that are his primary database (405-538) and, perhaps even more so, by the concordance of major epigraphic corpora (539-601) and the book index keyed to them (622-646). The former facilitates easy location and cross checking of individual inscriptions that might already be of interest to the reader while the latter makes tracking down Saastamoinen's discussions of a particular text a fairly simple task. In sum, this is a study whose carefulness commends it and whose seemingly narrow horizons open up a range of historical vistas.

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