Wednesday, February 8, 2017


Dirk Booms, Latin Inscriptions. Ancient scripts. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2016. Pp. 112. ISBN 9781606064665. $18.95.

Reviewed by Marco Erpetti (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

This book belongs to a series ('Ancient Scripts') intended to teach museum visitors how to read ancient inscriptions. The series includes a volume on cuneiform by Irving Finkel and Jonathan Taylor (2015), and one on runes by Martin Findell (2015). The volume under review introduces readers to Latin epigraphy. Since this work is not aimed at academics, we shall regard it as an attempt to disclose to non-experts, in a simple but effective way, the messages recorded on stone and coins coming the ancient Roman period.

In the introduction Booms points out that museum visitors seldom take notice of ancient inscriptions, which is a pity, for even the shortest inscriptions can teach aspects of Roman society. People, however, do not pay much attention unless inscriptions are beautifully decorated or set in prestigious monuments.

In Chapter 1 the author gives a brief overview of inscriptions as historical sources, and explains how they were used in ancient Roman times. The author seeks to demonstrate that Latin inscriptions are not difficult to read, and provides a step-by-step guide to deciphering them, designed even for readers who are not familiar with Latin. At p. 14 he writes that "there is no actual need to know much Latin in order to understand most inscriptions covered in this book"; at page 15, he adds (rather optimistically) that "academic conventions in the transliteration of the text are also simple".

Chapter 2 takes up onomastic practices and contains a good summary of them. Here Booms examines six inscriptions in order to illustrate Roman names (CIL XI, 3073; VI, 10224; VI, 11595; VI, 8525; VI, 15171; VI, 1862). As the book is not aimed at scholars, inscriptions are not identified by CIL reference number. All of them are part of the British Museum's collection, except for Nr. 17 and 24, currently preserved in the J. Paul Getty Museum. Comments are brief and refer only to the subject of the chapter in which they appear. Only part of Nr. 2 (CIL VI, 10224) is discussed in this chapter, while the rest of the discussion is found at p. 41, in the context of the whole monument, sequenced as Nr. 8. The same happens with Nr. 3 (CIL VI, 11525), a portion of which is commented on at p. 76.

Chapter 3 is concerned with funerary inscriptions and offers very simple and general instructions on the significance of formulae such as bene merenti, fecit, posuit, dis manibus, and so on. Nr. 7 (CIL II, 1146) explains the practice of consecratio ad Manes, biometric data and expressions such as h(ic) s(itus) e(st) and s(it) t(ibi) t(erra) l(evis). The transcription of vixsit on the third row should be corrected as vix<s>it. Nr. 8, which resumes Nr. 2 (CIL VI, 10224), is a very beautiful burial chest, which might have deserved more attention to iconography than the author pays in his discussion. Pp. 44-48 are about columbaria, with some interesting examples of plaques. In Nr. 9 (CIL VI, 8962), which closes this section, I note that the author does not comment on the fact that the father, Titus Flavius Acraba, has a different nomen from that of his daughters Hadria Acrabilla and Hadria Provincia.

Inscriptions of emperors, magistrates and soldiers are presented in Chapter 4. The first examples are two gold coins from the time of Marcus Aurelius (Nr. 10). The transcription of Nr. 11 (CIL III, 13580) does not respect standard rules1 and, as with the others, does not have any punctuation, and therefore should be corrected on rows 2, 3, 5, 8 as follows: Imp(erator) Caesar [[Domitianus Aug(ustus)]] / [[Germanicu]]s, pontif(ex) maximus, trib(unicia) / potest(ate), co(n)s(ul) XV, censor perpetu(u)s, p(ater) p(atriae), / pontem a solo fecit. / [[- - -]] / Q(uinto) Licinio Ancotio Proculo praef(ecto) cast(rorum), / L(ucio) Antistio Asiatico praef(ecto) Beren(ices), / cura C(ai) Iuli Magni (centurionis) leg(ionis) III Cyr(enaicae). A typo occurs in the transcription of Nr. 12 (CIL III, 6074), where one notices, in row 6, a space between ad and lecto, but it that is one word, adlecto. The author gives at Nr. 13 (CIL X, 3469) and Nr. 14 (CIL X, 3478) two nice examples of funerary inscriptions dedicated to soldiers identified with their ships: the liburna Nereis, belonging to the praetorian fleet at Mysenum, and the quadrieris Venus. Nr. 15 (CIL VI, 3222) is the grave stele of an eques singularis. This section ends with a milestone from Hadrian's time found at Llanfairfechan (Gwynedd) in Wales (Nr. 16; RIB I, 2265).

'Total Devotion' is the title of Chapter 5, in which the author reproduces inscriptions set alongside figural reliefs. Nr. 17 shows the portrait of the libertus Publius Curtilius Agathus during his employment as faber argentarius.2 In the beautiful tombstone at Nr. 18 (CIL III, 6083) we can see the fasces that characterised the profession of the lictor Decimus Publicius Fructus. Three inscriptions are dedications to gods, which illustrate the use of abbreviations such as D(onum) D(edit) and V(otum) S(olvit) L(ibens) M(erito). Nr. 19 (CIL VI, 676, 30811) is a gift to the god Silvanus, which is very briefly commented on together with Nr. 20 (CIL VI 301, 30731). The latter is a gorgeous altar that a slave or a freedman of some Flavian emperor consecrated to Hercules after a vision or a dream. Nr. 21 contains at both sides other inscriptions that the author does not mention (CIL VI, 180).

Nr. 22 (CIL VI, 16753) offers an example of a man who had lived with his freedwoman for thirty-five years sine ulla querella. Here the man refers to his liberta as coniunx: the reference deserved comment in view of the fact that Roman law did not permit iustae nuptiae between a freeborn citizen and a freed slave. Nr. 23 (CIL VI, 29896; CLE 1775) is a beautiful poem in elegiacs, in which the speaking voice (in the first person) is that of a pet dog called Margarita. The inscription reveals that the dog's owners must have been affluent enough to afford setting up such an elegant monument. Nr. 24 (CIL VI, 19190) is dedicated to the soul of another dog, Helena, addressed as alumna: the master may have grown up this dog since she had been a puppy (the author leaves the term unexplained).

The last chapter offers an overview of officinae lapidariae and the hard manual work behind an inscribed monument. The author discusses the practice of ordinatio, the diverse quality of monuments and the most common mistakes in spelling and grammar. The last inscription (CIL VII, 328) is the tombstone of young man, Marcus Cocceius Nonnius, where examples of ligatures can be seen.

On the whole this work is remarkable for the effort made to make the material accessible to the general public and for the attempt to provide museum visitors with some basic notions of Latin Epigraphy. The set of photographs is valuable as well.3

Table of Contents

Introduction p. 6
1. Recording on Stone p. 8
2. What's in a Name? p. 16
3. In Memoriam p. 34
4. Governing an Empire p. 52
5. Total Devotion p. 76
6. The Art of the Stonemason p. 96
Afterword p. 104
Roman Emperors of the first two centuries AD p. 106
List of Abbreviations p. 107
Further Reading p. 109
Acknowledgements p. 110
Picture Credits p. 111


1.   See e.g. Hans Krummrey and Silvio Panciera, 'Criteri di edizione e segni diacritici', in Tituli 2, 1980, pp. 205-215.
2.   John P. Bodel, Stephen V. Tracy, Greek and Latin Inscriptions in the USA. A checklist, Rome 1997, p. 14.
3.   I would like to thank Dr. Elisa Sarto for correcting my imperfect English.

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