Thursday, March 15, 2018


Ulrike Ehmig, Donum dedit: Charakteristika einer Widmungsformel in lateinischen Sakralinschriften. Pietas, 9. Gutenberg: Computus Druck Satz & Verlag, 2017. Pp. 244. ISBN 9783940598356. €68,00.

Reviewed by Ghislaine van der Ploeg, University of Cologne (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

The work presented in this book was undertaken as the result of a Marie Curie fellowship hosted by L'Année Épigraphique in Paris. It examines Latin donum-inscriptions and its special value is in showing how unique this relative small corpus of inscriptions was in comparison with other kinds of sacred dedications, namely votum-inscriptions. As well as providing a thorough understanding of the nature of donum-inscriptions, the book explores who offered them and the gods to whom they were erected. The work also illustrates, via its analysis of these dedications, how people in antiquity increasingly sought a closer relationship with the divine and how one of the ways of achieving this was by giving gifts to the gods.

The book consists of 12 chapters, foreword, bibliography, and 16 appendixes comprising 123 pages. The appendixes are referred to in the text and cover various aspects of donum-inscriptions which are relevant to the subjects of the chapters. In each of these, the donum-inscriptions are contrasted with votum-inscriptions and the results of this study show differences in the use of these two terms. The author uses percentages to display these results which is a clear way of showing the dedicatory differences, especially as there is a far greater number of vota extant than dona.

The first chapter sets the scene for the rest of the work by making some introductory remarks and raises questions about the representational nature of the inscriptions discussed in the work.

Chapter 2 continues with the introductory theme. There are over 1,500 donum-inscriptions which have not yet been the focus of a specialist study. The aim of this book is to provide the first systematic analysis of Latin inscriptions which contain the phrase donum dedit. An innovative approach to this material has been taken by focusing on the nature of these inscriptions, why and by whom they were dedicated, and to which gods. This in contrast with past studies which have focussed solely on the chronological and spatial distribution of these dedications. The chapter also includes a helpful literary review of previous scholarship on the subject.

The third chapter describes the methodology, clearly showing the way in which the author used the online EDCS database and filtered the results for relevant inscriptions. The author also illustrates how she filtered the results for suitable and unsuitable inscriptions for this study. As such, this methodology can easily be followed by other scholars. The chapter also includes a discussion of the various meanings of the abbreviation DD which can stand for donum dedit but also for decreto decurionum, donis donatus, or dedit dedicavit. However, the vastly different natures of these inscriptions greatly facilitated the narrowing down of the search results.

The temporal and spatial spread of donum-inscriptions is the focus of the fourth chapter. When compared with votum-inscriptions, it becomes clear that there are very different patterns of distribution in the two types of sacred inscriptions. There is a distinct concentration of dona in Rome and Italy whereas vota mainly come from the Balkan provinces. Different patterns are also shown in the chronological spread of these inscriptions.

Chapter 5 analyses who precisely the recipients of dona were. The names of gods were recorded in 1,400 inscriptions but 200 of these are too fragmentary to know to whom they were dedicated. In total over 150 gods were the recipients of these dedications though for the vast majority of these fewer than 10 inscriptions to each god are known. It is noteworthy that the largest number of inscriptions was set up to Silvanus and not to Jupiter, as might be expected. However, the second greatest number of donum-inscriptions was erected to Jupiter and he was also the main recipient of votum-inscriptions. The central position of Rome and Italy is again shown as 90% of donum-inscriptions set up to Silvanus come from this region.

Analysis of who precisely dedicated dona and vota, undertaken in Chapter 6, shows that different groups set up these inscriptions. More men than women erected dona and the main dedicators of these inscriptions were priests and temple personnel. This was followed by freedmen and administrators such as decuriones and IIviri. Collective dedications were also common in the case of dona but vota were exclusively individual in nature. Soldiers were the main dedicators of vota and the largest number of these was set up in Rome.

What precisely was dedicated as gifts to the gods is the subject of the seventh chapter. There is again a difference between what is offered in donum- and votum-inscriptions as statues were the most common objects mentioned in dona, followed by altars. However, altars were the most commonly item erected with vota. These inscriptions also state more frequently than dona what precisely was offered.

Chapter 8 explores the reasons why these inscriptions were erected. Only about 20 inscriptions give a clear reason for their being set up, for example being freed from an office or a payment. However, vota could be erected for a variety of reasons including safe travel. The author stresses how dona were set up in a positive environment, where a good relationship with the god was created, and that these were not erected as the result of negative happenstances which occurred in a dedicator's life, for example an illness.

The ninth chapter continues with this theme, focussing on dedications containing the formula ex viso and how these inscriptions have been treated by other scholars. A comparison is again made with the votum-inscriptions where, in about 125 inscriptions, the text states that the dedication was erected as a result of a vow, something which does not occur with dona.

Chapter 10 examines donum and votum as different ways of communicating with the gods. The analysis undertaken in this work clearly shows the difference in the use of these two terms as those containing the term votum were mainly set up in fulfilment of a vow and those with donum were solely gifts to the god, erected without a prior action undertaken by the god. These gifts were set up through an individual's own choice and show a more personal way of interacting with the gods. The analysis here shows that people had very different reasons and ways for erecting both types of inscriptions.

The eleventh chapter engages with sociological theories about the nature of giving, taking, and reciprocation and how this should be seen as a connected whole. The author questions where the epigraphic material can be placed within this discussion. She emphasizes how donum-inscriptions were focused upon ensuring a good future interaction with the gods whereby the dedicator made the first overture and hoped to create a sense of future obligation in the gods when they accepted the dedication. These dedications looked to the future and no mention is found within them of illness or issues of safety and salvation. In contrast to this, votum-inscriptions asked for divine help in concrete and specific circumstances, and were often set up as the result of a vow.

Chapter 12 contains a good summary in German, English, and French of the key points made in this book. The 16 appendixes cover various aspects of these dedications, for example organising the inscriptions by god to whom they are dedicated or lists of dona which date to the Republican era.

As well as being an invaluable tool for understanding the nature of dona, this book also aptly illustrates why people sought to erect these dedications as well as putting this habit in its temporal and spatial setting. Furthermore, it emphasizes a desire on the dedicator's part to increase their closeness to the gods. This allows the reader to better understand how people started to approach the gods in different ways over time and that there was a definite change in how this happened between the Republic and the Empire. However, the subject matter is quite specialist and the text could perhaps have benefitted from giving some example of inscriptions in the text, rather than giving partial quotations or the whole inscriptions in footnotes.

There are few criticisms to be made of this work, though the large number of chapters could have been condensed in number as some are not even 5 pages long (e.g. making the first 3 chapters into one longer introductory chapter. Criticism of Renberg's work in Chapter 9 seems a bit excessive but the author's arguments would have been augmented by references to his new book, also published in 2017.1 Similarly, engagement with works on divine epiphany by Platt2 and Petridou3 would have strengthened this section as perhaps would a reference to von Ehrenheim's book on incubation practices.4 Despite these minor points this work offers a valuable insight into the ways in which and the reasons for which people in antiquity erected donum-inscriptions.


1.   Renberg, G.H. (2017) Where Dreams May Come. Incubation Sanctuaries in the Greco-Roman World. Leiden: Brill. (2 vols.)
2.   Platt, V. (2011) Facing the Gods. Epiphany and Representation in Graeco-Roman Art, Literature and Religion. Greek culture in the Roman world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
3.   Petridou, G. (2015) Divine Epiphany in Greek Literature and Culture. Oxford:  Oxford University Press.
4.   von Ehrenheim, H. (2015) Greek Incubation Ritual in Classical and Hellenistic Times. Liège:  Presses Universitaires de Liège.

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