John Bodel

in The Oxford Handbook of Roman Studies

Published in print June 2010 | ISBN: 9780199211524
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Classics and Ancient History


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  • Classical Studies
  • Greek and Roman Epigraphy
  • Historical Archaeology



Epigraphy is traditionally defined as the study of inscriptions – a term, according to one authoritative opinion, that could properly be applied to any form of writing produced in a given culture with writing instruments and on surfaces other than those normally used in day-to-day life. In practice, however, the territory it conventionally covers includes all modes of writing that are not regularly employed for the production of literary texts. The significance of inscriptions for determining general levels of literacy in the ancient world is a matter of controversy, but it is clear that basic literacy in the Roman Empire meant some form of epigraphic literacy, in the sense that whatever reading ability a Roman possessed probably included the capacity to decipher public monumental lettering, and whatever writing skills he or she may have exercised were more likely to have been practised in the forms conventionally defined as epigraphic than in any other. The Pompeian couplet addressed to a wall burdened with graffiti has often been invoked to suggest the pervasiveness of writing at Pompeii.

Keywords: Roman Empire; epigraphy; inscriptions; graffiti; writing; culture; literacy

Article.  7297 words. 

Subjects: Classical Studies ; Greek and Roman Epigraphy ; Historical Archaeology

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