Tuesday, February 26, 2019


Matthias Steinhart (ed.), Griechische Inschriften als Zeugnisse der Kulturgeschichte: Griechisch-deutsch. Sammlung Tusculum. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017. Pp. 188. ISBN 9783110553246. €27,99.

Reviewed by Benedikt Eckhardt, University of Edinburgh (beckhard@ed.ac.uk)

Version at BMCR home site

This nicely produced and affordable volume contains 64 inscriptions from the Archaic period to late antiquity, and one Greek inscription (no. 65) from the Renaissance. Following an introduction that brings together valuable information on the development of Greek alphabets and scripts as well as literary sources on the reception of inscriptions, Steinhart groups the material into five sections: Early beginnings (no. 1–3), Archaic period (no. 4–21), Classical period (22–37), Hellenism (38–52), Roman imperial era and late antiquity (53–64). Almost a third of the inscriptions assembled thus predate 500 BCE. The unusual focus proves to be fruitful for two reasons. First, most early inscriptions are very short, which fits the format of the book well: the longest inscription included is no. 60 with 16 lines of text, and most others are no longer than 5 lines. Second, early inscriptions also show more variety in terms of alphabets and direction of writing, features that receive much attention in both the introduction and the commentary. The aesthetic and technical dimensions of Greek writing are important to Steinhart, which is why he provides the reader with drawings of almost all inscriptions assembled. While drawings can sometimes obscure textual problems, they are better-suited than photographs for communicating the variety of letter forms and inscribed objects to a wider audience. This is all the more important since Steinhart draws on a very diverse set of data. His inscriptions come from vases, tools, mosaics, reliefs and even spoons (no. 57).

The most important criterion for judging an edition is the texts and translations. The latter are reliable,1 but sometimes difficult to read. While Steinhart does not hesitate to simplify things occasionally via modernizing language (e.g., no. 35, l. 3 "war Regisseur" for ἐδίδασκε), he deliberately stays very close to the arrangement of the original Greek text. His success in preserving the word order is often remarkable. It leads to German that is at times poetic, at other times rather convoluted and hard to follow even for native speakers.2 The obvious advantage is that readers with little knowledge of Greek can immediately find the original wording. The disadvantage is that even simple grammatical structures now appear much more complicated than they would have to ancient readers. As for the presentation of the Greek texts, Steinhart's decision not to use hyphens at line breaks is difficult to understand, especially with a view to a broader readership with little knowledge of Greek.3 The lack of line numbers is not really problematic given that most of the inscriptions are very short. More important is the rather high number of missing accents, especially in the early sections, where epsilon with circumflex seems to have posed unsolvable problems to the typesetter.4 Other errors, mostly of accentuation, could also have been avoided.5

The commentary is short and to the point. It regularly draws attention to the connection between images, materiality and texts, and it does not lack a laconic humor (e.g., p. 105 on no. 45). Steinhart often points to contexts that are not immediately obvious, but shed important light on the inscription (e.g., p. 41 on the use of different alphabets, p. 57 on an unusual religious expectation). He sometimes points to continuities that go well beyond the item under consideration (e.g., p. 97, citing a much later Christian inscription that uses a Hellenistic apotropaic formula). Steinhart thus makes a lot out of the limited space available, although there is generally no room left for comments on how the texts given in his edition are actually created. To be sure, one might not want to bother the broader readership envisaged here with too many epigraphic minutiae, but curiosity about the subject could well have been raised through occasional glimpses at its methodological toolkit. On the very few occasions where Steinhart does discuss a reading or reconstruction, the result is not quite convincing. For the much-discussed line 1 of Nestor's cup (no. 2), the commentary limits the possibilities to "there is" and "there was" a cup ("es gibt"; "es gab"). It does not explain what either of these options would look like in Greek, and one of the most common solutions ("I am" the cup) is not mentioned, although the text is given as ε[.?.]ι. The commentary on no. 12 (IG XIV 1) discusses the possible meanings of a word (κεπικλῆς) that is not found in the Greek text given here (but is found in IG). Perhaps a more ambitious version of the commentary was cut down in the process of writing?

Finally, the choice of texts. There will not be two scholars in the world who would pick the same 64 Greek inscriptions from the whole of antiquity for any given selection. Greek drinking culture receives a lot of attention, partly due to the emphasis placed on early inscriptions. Greek religion is slightly less prominent than one might expect, but we do find a request from Dodona (no. 43), an Orphic gold-leaf (no. 47), a hair-sacrifice (no. 50) and a few more. Economic and legal topics are not absent (e.g., no. 29, a list of prices, or no. 39, the sale of a house), and the same is of course true for sepulchral inscriptions. While all of this is easily justifiable and the commentary remains illuminating throughout, one might still have expected a bit more clarity about Steinhart's overall project. There is nothing in the introduction on the definition of "cultural history", the relationship of inscriptions to that history, or in fact about the aims of this collection (except the remark on p. 5 that thematical and geographical variety was one selection criterion). Potential readers will have their own assumptions about what inscriptions and cultural history have to do with each other, and the texts included do indeed offer a wide variety of perspectives. In general, the book's title is to be taken more seriously than at least this reviewer expected. Greek inscriptions are not presented as "sources" (Quellen) for cultural history, but as "testimonies". This approach allows for the inclusion of several inscriptions that cannot be said to be very interesting as such, but give occasion to bring into the picture prominent representatives of "Greek culture". Thus we find (no. 23) the cup of Simon the shoemaker (the whole text: Σίμωνος), which the commentary does not hesitate to connect with Socrates (hence the heading: "the philosophical shoemaker"), or the cup of Phidias (no. 27). The inscriptions themselves are in these cases reduced to mere illustrations of the lives and works of great men; one may wonder about the implicit definition of "culture". A related question concerns a number of items that elucidate Greek art – again a commendable thing in itself, but one that leads away from the inscriptions themselves. The 3D-effect on the Hephaistion mosaic from Pergamon (no. 46) is fascinating (although perhaps not so much in the simplistic drawing provided here), but it is not the inscription (Ἡφαιστίων ἐποίει) that matters; the same is true for a cup from Anthedon that shows Euripidean scenes and names the protagonists (no. 52). A more "constructive" approach (what can we do with inscriptions?) could sometimes have been employed, but there is no doubt that many readers will appreciate the effort to introduce traditional hallmarks of "Greek culture".

Steinhart has brought together an interesting collection of inscriptions illuminating many aspects of life in antiquity, and turned it into a highly readable book. Both the Greek and the German texts need some corrections for possible future editions, and the underlying notion of "Kulturgeschichte" is not quite clear. Occasionally, an antiquarian or anecdotal approach limits the book's use as an orientation about epigraphy as a discipline. For a potential first contact with inscriptions, it nevertheless can be recommended.


1.   But in no. 42 (Ι. Priene 315), an error seems to have occurred since the German makes no sense ("Für eine Bürgschaft bewache ich nicht / Nichts nichts" for …οὐ φυλάσσω οὐθενὶ οὐθέν, "nothing for anyone").
2.   E.g., no. 63: "Kleandror, / der auch Menir, / (der Sohn) des Kallistratos, / Anführer der Jugendschar, / als Patronom war / Gorgippos, (Sohn) des Gorgippos, / nachdem er im Moa gesiegt hat, / der Artemis / Borsea weiht er (dies)".
3.  There are cases where untrained readers may try to construe the end of a word after a line break as a new word, especially because Steinhart has generally made sure that there is an exact match between the beginnings of lines in Greek and German. E.g. no. 4, ll. 2–3: Hὸς δ' ἄν με κλέφσ/ει θυφλος ἔσται; no. 61, ll. 6–7: Μαρίωνος λύδοι/ο πατρὸς ...
4.   Accents are missing in no. 2 (l. 2 κενον), 4 (l. 3 θυφλος), 5 (αὐτο), 10 (l. 1 ἀδικεται, l. 7 and 8 εναι), 14 (l. 1 σεμα), 15 (l. 1 στεθι, l. 2 σεμα), 22 (l. 4 ἀει{ν}δειν), 25 (l. 1 περιιδεν), 28 (Πυθοκλ[ες]), 34 (l. 5 δε λαβεν).
5.   Νο. 1: The drawing clearly shows κάλμιν instead of κλμιν. Νο. 2: l. 2 ποτέρι[ον] instead of ποτερί[ον]. No. 10: in l. 5, μυθεόμενος should be followed by a colon, not a full stop. No. 17: l. 1 Νικάνδρη instead of Νίκανδρη. No. 22: l. 2 ἀμφὶ instead of ἀμφἰ. No. 39: l. 9 ἑκτπρωτ instead of ἐκτπρωτ. Νο. 53: l. 3-4 ἀνυγήσεται instead of ἀνυγησέται. No. 55: l. 1 Πίε instead of Πιέ. No. 64: l. 4 θεὸς instead of θέος.

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