Greek epigraphy

Show Summary Details

Quick Reference

The study of inscriptions engraved on stone or metal in Greek letters. Interest in inscriptions is not a modern phenomenon; in antiquity people studied specific inscriptions. In the early 3rd cent. bc Craterus published a collection of Athenian decrees in at least nine books, with extensive commentary. With the Renaissance, interest in antiquities went hand in hand with admiration for the ancient literary inheritance. With Cyriac of Ancona there began a long series of travelling scholars, who in their notebooks produced beautiful descriptions and drawings of ancient sites and the inscriptions on them. Initially, inscriptions tended to be disregarded or even despised by the champions of the revered literary sources; but when the latter came under the attack of Cartesian rationalism and Pyrrhonian scepticism, epigraphical shares increased in value on the historical stock exchange: inscriptions were authentic and direct and could not be disqualified as forgeries or highly biased accounts. Since then, inscriptions have increasingly become part of the standard menu of scholars interested in any aspect of Greek civilization and society.

First find your inscriptions: excavations and research‐motivated travel are the two main sources. Modern construction‐work hitting on ancient substructures, the demolition of an old house, a peasant ploughing his land: these all can produce inscriptions which the modern traveller may (or may not) be lucky enough to find on his path. Some finds may reach the local museums; others find their way illegally to the European and American antiquities market; still more end up as building material in new peasant dwellings or are simply smashed. Systematic excavations of urban centres and temple complexes yield(ed) numerous texts: Delphi, Delos, the Athenian agora (see athens, topography), Olympia, Thasos, Ephesus, Priene, Claros are examples of sites which were highly productive. Once an inscription has been found, the next stage is that of cleaning and deciphering it. The human eye may be helped by a photo or a paper or latex squeeze. Inscriptions are engraved in uninterrupted lines of capitals; punctuation is virtually non‐existent, though in Roman times dots are occasionally used to separate words, but never systematically. The Greeks began to write in the early Archaic period (8th cent. bc): initially brief texts on ceramics and on stone, betraying the Semitic origin of the script. Where and when exactly the borrowing from the Semites took place remains disputable. It probably happened in a NW Semitic setting shortly after 800. The so‐called boustrophedon style, in which lines, like ploughing oxen, move from right to left, from left to right, and so on until the end, is an adaptation of the Semitic habit of writing from right to left. In due course a general koinē‐alphabet (see greek language; alphabet) came into existence, whose letter‐forms slowly evolved between the Classical and the Roman imperial period. For decipherment a clear eye and knowledge of the Greek capital script as given in any grammar for beginners will suffice; for further judgement on the style of lettering and the ensuing date of the text, certain general principles have to be applied in combination with the most intricate technical expertise.


Subjects: Classical Studies.

Reference entries

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.