Learning to Read

Feats of Scholarship

The Writing on the Wall

Epigraphy and Wanderlust

Cities and Men

The Currency of the Ancients

The Visual Image of Antiquity




The Writing on the Wall


De notis

Marcus Probus, De notis

Epigrammata Antiquae Urbis

Jacopo Mazzocchi, Epigrammata Antiquae Urbis

Inscriptiones sacrosanctae vetustati

Peter Apian, Inscriptiones sacrosanctae vetustatis

Latin remained a living language during the middle ages, and Roman literature and history were still read. However, Latin inscriptions, texts worked in stone or bronze, soon became obscure. Most were written in a crabbed style incorporating many abbreviations, the meanings of which had been forgotten. Medieval authors wrote of inscriptions that could be "read but not understood." The ability to decode inscriptions resembled magic. In 1350, Cola di Rienzo summoned the Roman people to hear his interpretation of a bronze tablet that preserved a Roman imperial edict. Cola used the text to describe the past majesty of the Roman populace and to prophesy its restoration.

The antiquarians adopted a more dispassionate demeanor than Cola, but they shared his belief that ancient inscriptions could reveal vital truths. The study of inscriptions, today called "epigraphy," was furthered by Poggio Bracciolini's discovery of a copy of the De notis, a list of legal and administrative abbreviations compiled by the first-century grammarian Marcus Valerius Probus. This text was often copied by antiquarians into their "sylloges," notebooks in which they collected the texts of the inscriptions they encountered on their traels. The first printed edition of the De notis, shown here, was edited specifically as an aid to epigraphers.

Early in the 16th century, printed versions of the sylloges began to appear. The first of these was the Epigrammata antiquae Urbis, published by the prolific Roman printer Jacopo Mazzocchi (fl. 16th century). This book served as a spur to further research, as antiquarians such as Antonio Agustín (1517-1586) and Jean Matal (1510-1597) carried it into the field and compared its contents with the actual monuments, applying the methods of textual criticism to epigraphy. Mazzocchi's book was limited to inscriptions found in Rome. The mathematician Peter Apian (1495-1552) expanded upon his project, gathering inscriptions from across Europe in his Inscriptiones sacrosanctae vetustatis.


[Bryn Mawr College Library Special Collections]