Friday, September 15, 2017


Roger S. Bagnall, Roberta Casagrande-Kim, Akin Ersoy, Cumhur Tanriver, Burak Yolaçan (ed.), Graffiti from the Basilica in the Agora of Smyrna. New York: Institute for the Study of the Ancient World; New York University Press, 2016. Pp. x, 488. ISBN 9781479864645. $85.00.

Reviewed by Peter Keegan, Macquarie University (

Version at BMCR home site

Publisher's Preview

In his preface, Roger Bagnall outlines the stages of conservation and scholarship over the period 2003-2016 involved in bringing the graffiti in this volume to light, including the extent to which co-authors, copyists, and photographers were "mindful of the difficulties inherent in any method of publishing walls full of texts and drawings" (p. ix). The stated aim of the project is a model for similar efforts in the future: providing drawings and photographs that show the relationship of verbal and pictorial elements, allowing readers "to detect connections or distinctions" beyond those presented in the publication (p. x).

The introduction (pp. 1-54) contextualizes the catalogue of graffiti to follow, comprising: a history of excavations in Smyrna (Ersoy); a description of the Agora Basilica from its construction phases to abandonment (2nd century BCE to the beginning of the 7th century CE), including a closely detailed examination of its two main parts, the cryptoporticus and the building above courtyard level (Yolaçan); a brief commentary on the general characteristics of the graffiti (Bagnall), followed by a detailed overview of the pictorial graffiti (Casagrande-Kim); a careful review of criteria useful in dating the textual graffiti—internal evidence (e.g. use of era years, particular titles), palaeography and references to money (Bagnall); a synthesis of the language of the graffiti—phonetic interchanges, spellings and new word types; references to the "healing of eyes" and to "someone or something capable of being thanked" (i.e. the Baite); cultural formations (Christianity, civic pride); identification of names with numbers (isopsephism) in religious and erotic contexts; and the phenomenon of word-play (Bagnall). Next is the catalogue of graffiti (pp. 55-462) discovered during excavation of the basement level of the Basilica. Texts and descriptions are based on copies of graffiti and original photographs taken in 2003 and 2004. Subsequent to renewed conservation, the cleaning process revealed newer discoveries, leading to a complete revision against the original photographs and copies in 2012, followed by a final revision of the recently discovered texts and collation against all the drawings in 2014.

The system used in the catalogue for identifying the graffiti—either T(ext) or D(rawing)—is based on (a) original numbering of bays and piers in the basement1 and (b) a second numbering later introduced for reference to graffiti where there was no original bay number. A concordance to the systems (p. 479) and a plan of the basement (Fig. 4, p. 5) provide clarity for the reader.

A strength of this volume is the sheer number of previously unpublished texts and drawings, but also the team's careful attention to both texts and drawings. The remainder of this review will focus on several categories of graffiti and individual texts and drawings deserving special attention.

Bagnall notes that a significant number of graffiti refer to eyes, and some to the healing of eyes (pp. 42-4). Using the pertinent inscriptions (T12.2, 14.1, 14.3, 15.4, 16.1, 27.1, 27.2, 103.2; pp. 149-50, 173, 175, 183, 200, 264-66, 440), Bagnall convincingly reconstructs the critical phases associated with the healing process: a prayer for the eyes, the act of healing, and the dedication of lamps in thanksgiving. Intriguingly, based on particular references to (the) Baite and the act of drinking, it is possible that the local population associated the healing with a fountain or spring, and may have personalized or divinized this water source accordingly. Another equally fascinating category of verbal inscription displays the phenomenon of isopsephism; namely, a selection of graffiti that include the formula "I love a woman whose number is …". What is striking about the isopsephic items in the Smyrna corpus is not simply that the graffiti allow the identification of names associated with the various numerical values but help to enhance our understanding of the phenomenon. Taken in conjunction with the expression of word-play discernible in a number of texts—e.g., two graffiti preserving a new example of a five-by-five letter square (T9.6, T12.1; pp. 122-3, 148)—the Smyrna corpus accommodates the possibility that using a number to conceal the identity of a particular (female) object of desire conforms not so much to preserving the secrecy of the writer's erotic fixation as to the evident playfulness of the practice.

The catalogue of iconographic subjects provides similar fodder for closer study. Roberta Casagrande-Kim suggests that the bustling corridor with the greatest distribution of surviving pictorial graffiti constituted a "primary venue where one could openly display extemporaneous messages as well as more complex scenes depicting widely popular motifs" (p. 24). Importantly, the images and texts on the bays and piers of the cryptoporticus were accessible on a daily basis to a diverse viewership of persons that used the corridor to move within the Basilica or the Agora. Based on the range of artistic renditions (schematic to complex) and the degree of detail in many of the painted images (dipinti) of gladiatorial combat and ancient ships (the most common themes in the corpus of images), Casagrande-Kim is also able to suggest that certain graffiti were planned to address certain needs and with the consent of individuals or institutions who owned the surface on which the drawings were made or who had an interest in promoting the images in such a public space. For example, the complex series of images in Bay 28 (= G35, between piers A39 and A40) of gladiatorial combats and of spectators cheering at the games may reasonably be associated with a gladiatorial familia (eight of the 31 images of gladiators, combat scenes, and three scenes of venatio preserved in the cryptoporticus [DP28.2-8, pp. 276-87]). The images on Pier 84 of the incised hulls and painted sails of two ships (two of the 48 surviving images of ships [DP 84.2, 84.4, pp. 403, 405]) reflect familiarity with marine engineering or at least empirical knowledge of seafaring, as well as with the primary vessels of the provincial Roman fleets (as indicated by reverse types of ship's bows with high, inward-curved acrostolia on the local 3rd century CE coinage).

The catalogue also includes, in decreasing order of number, a record of images depicting geometric or nonfigural motifs, portraits of individuals, phalli, animals, and architecture.

The book concludes with a bibliography, an index of Greek words (names of persons, geographical names, divinities, money, and voces magicae), an index of subjects and motifs of drawings, a general index, and concordances with the present volume of Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum 61 and of piers and bays (pp. 463-88).

This volume represents a fine piece of scholarship that confirms the utility of graffiti as a source of evidence that builds on the collaborative work of art historians and philologists, affords opportunities for enriching our knowledge and understanding of archaeology, epigraphy, language use, palaeography, and social and cultural history associated with a particular Graeco-Roman site, and more broadly adds another substantial point of reference in the growing repertoire of graffiti studies that relate to the form and function of informal marking practices in antiquity.2


1.   As used by Roger S. Bagnall, Everyday Writing in the Graeco-Roman East, Berkeley; Los Angeles; London 2011, pp. 7-26.
2.   Jennifer Baird, Claire Taylor (ed.), Ancient Graffiti in Context, London-New York 2010; Rebecca Benefiel, Peter Keegan (ed.), Inscriptions in the Private Sphere in the Greco-Roman World, Leiden-Boston 2016; Peter Keegan, Graffiti in Antiquity, London-New York 2014; Kristina Milnor, Graffiti and the Literary Landscape in Roman Pompeii, Oxford 2014.

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