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




Epigraphy and Wanderlust



Cyriac of Ancona, Itinerarium

Marmora oxoniensia

Humphrey Prideaux, Marmora oxoniensia

A journey into Greece

Sir George Wheler, A journey into Greece

Whereas manuscript copies of numerous Greek texts were preserved in the Latin-speaking West, Greek inscriptions were scarce. The study of Greek epigraphy required access to the lands of the former Byzantine Empire, which by the mid-15th century had become Ottoman territories. The primary languages of Ottoman scholarship were Turkish, Arabic, and Persian, and its practitioners devoted scant attention to the Greek and Roman remains that surrounded them.

The story of Greek epigraphy therefore runs parallel to the story of western travelers to Greece. The greatest of these among the early antiquarians was Cyriac of Ancona (1391-1452), who, in the words of one of his contemporaries, visited "Greece, Asia, Egypt, and the Ionian and Aegean islands.... Whatever fine monuments of venerable antiquity he found worthy of note in these places, he faithfully recorded." Most of Cyriac's notes have been lost, but those that survive provide a valuable record of monuments and inscriptions that have since disappeared.

It would be some two hundred years before any antiquarians followed in Cyriac's footsteps, although some did recruit diplomats and merchants to ship antiquities west. Late in the 17th century, an English visitor to Ottoman Turkey could complain that "the scarcity of antiquities now to be found in Smyrna arises from hence, that it furnished the greatest part of the Marmora Arundeliana." These "Arundel Marbles" were the collection of Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel (1585-1646), mostly acquired by agents stationed in Istanbul. Eventually deposited in Oxford, they were the first Greek inscriptions to take up residence in England.

From 1675 to 1676, Jacob Spon (1647-1685) and George Wheler (1650-1723) traveled through Ottoman lands with the sole intent of describing their antiquities and copying their inscriptions, thus reviving the tradition that had lain dormant since Cyriac's death. Their accounts of Athens remained authoritative for a hundred years.


[Bryn Mawr College Library Special Collections]