Inscriptions Information

The ancient Greeks and Romans inscribed all manner of objects, from the largest public buildings and monuments to the smallest household and personal objects. The inscriptions in this collection are among the smaller ones: Greek and Latin funerary texts -- that is, epitaphs -- and Roman brick stamps. They are from a period beginning no earlier than the first century B.C. -- the last years of the Roman Republic and the first of the Empire -- and continuing through the second century of our era.


One notes immediately that in these formal inscriptions carefully shaped capital letters were used. Informal texts scratched on walls and objects (graffiti), or drawn on them with various pigments, could use more hastily written and less easily read cursive letters.


Epitaphs could be decorated, some quite elaborately. The marker for Saturnilla, daughter of Alypos, (on display, No. 1) for example, stands out elegantly with its carved image of the deceased at the top. This is one of the Roman influences on the Greek inscriptions of the collection, for the Romans had borrowed the use of such reclining figures for funerary decorations from their Etruscan neighbors. One side of an urn for ashes is lavishly decorated (on display, No. 10), with cornucopia and faces carved on the ends and griffins facing a ram’s head carved at the bottom; the letters on the first line are separated by an ivy leaf cut into the text.


Texts like these, inscribed on permanent materials, are extremely valuable to students of history, archaeology, and epigraphy. Greek and Latin texts on perishable materials like papyrus and parchment have in general not survived from ancient times. Hence most texts of a literary nature are known today only from copies of copies, each more recent copy adding to a store of errors, and we cannot always be sure exactly what their authors wrote. But inscriptions remain unchanged, if not unblemished. Large inscriptions have preserved laws, dedications of major public works, and the names of prominent people. Smaller inscriptions have preserved the names of minor public figures and craftsmen. Epitaphs recall the mighty and the humble alike.


Inscriptions also record the development of the alphabet, borrowed by the Greeks from their Semitic-speaking neighbors and transported by the former to the whole Mediterranean world including Italy and the city of Rome, where it was adapted to render the Latin language. A series of Greek and Latin inscriptions, chronologically arranged, would show changes in the shapes of the letters and in the sounds they represented. Such knowledge of the alphabet in ancient times can help us understand why the modern alphabets of Europe, which are based on either the Greek or Roman form of the alphabet, look and function the way they do.




The Greek inscriptions in the Wilcox Collection date from the time of Roman period of the Greek-speaking world. Latin names sometimes have misspellings (on display, Nos. 1 and 2) that one might not expect in a monolingual Greek community. Furthermore, words are set off by marks called interpuncts, a device more typically Italo-Roman than Greek. The plaque dedicated to the Theoîs Katakhthoníois (on display, No. 2) corresponds to the traditional Dis Manibus of Latin inscriptions. Its provenance is not known, but Saturnilla's is reputedly from Palmyra, Syria. The Greek epitaph for Martha, from Sparta (on display, No. 3), shows no direct Latin influence in its text; but the form of its letters places it in late Republican days at the earliest, and it came to the University of Kansas, as did the Latin inscriptions, from Italy. The name Martha is Hebrew. Since the forms of the letters of the inscription go back to pre-Christian days, Martha may well have been from the Jewish community known to be located in Sparta.


The names Satornîla and Aílios Tértilios are Greek renderings of the Latin Saturnilla and Aelius Tertius. The o (omicron) of Satornîla is actually a proper symbolization of the o-like sound that Latin u had come to have. by the same token, although forms with -o for -ou like Alýpo, ‘of Alypos,’ occur occasionally in Greek inscriptions, a Latin-speaking stonecutter might have some trouble representing the u-like sound of Greek -ou, already spelled in part by an o. The ếtē (with initial eta) for correct étē (with initial epsilon), ‘years,’ in No. 2 would also appear to be a Latin-speaking stonecutter’s error; it is paralleled by ētôn (for etôn) on a Greek inscription found in a cemetery at Rome.


Visually striking in these inscriptions are the lunate sigma (C) and the rounded uncial epsilon instead of the more familiar straight-lined letters. Both of these have come into the Cyrillic alphabet; the latter is also one of the forms of the lower-case epsilon in modern Greek texts.




A common type of Roman tomb was the columbarium (‘dovecote’). In the walls of this partly underground structure were niches like pigeonholes to hold the containers of ashes of those buried in it. Tablets or plaques with the names of the deceased were fastened onto the walls above or below the niches. Two inscribed tablets in the Wilcox Collection (on display, Nos. 5 and 6) still show traces of the iron nails that held them to the wall. One plaque for "well-deserving sister Fortuna" was viewed from the top (on display, No. 4), as indicated by the offering holes in the circular depression between the D and M of Dis Manibus. Another apparent plaque is actually one side of an olla or cinerary urn (for Gaius L. Barbula, on display, No. 10), which would have been placed inside a burial niche.


These inscriptions are also interesting for their orthography. In two instances, C is the abbreviation for the proper name Gaius (on display, Nos. 7 and 10); it is a relic of the time when the letter G had not yet been distinguished from C. The reversed C is the abbreviation for Gaia (on display, No. 6), typically used to refer to a woman whose actual name is not given. In this case, Gaia once owned a slave named Hilarus who was eventually freed. Th K in KARISIMO of the epitaph for Postumianus, "very dear son" of Rubria Postima (on display, No. 8), is an inheritance from the time when only that letter ordinarily stood before an A to indicate the sound shared by C, K, and Q. The single S in the same word, on the other hand, is erroneous in that it does not show the true double s pronounced in the word whose standard spelling is carissimo. The variation in the related pair of names Postima and Postumianus shows a fluctuation between -u- and -i- in words ending in -imus, -ima which to this day is not fully understood; the forms with -u- seem to represent the older pronunciation, those with -i- the newer. The AE’s in BAENAEMA[ERENTI] of the epitaph for "well-deserving daughter Canina" (on display, No. 7) stand for the e-sounds left out of the abbreviated B(E)N(E)M(ERENTI) on the epitaph for Fortuna (on display, No. 4); this was possible because the sound-sequence represented by AE had come to have an e-like pronunciation.


Roman naming practices are exemplified in these texts. A man’s full name had three parts. The first was the praenomen, e.g., Sextus, Gaius. The second was the nomen, the name of an extended family called the gens, e.g., Caelius, Junius. The third was the cognomen, e.g., Celer, Proculus, Cimber. A daughter was given her father’s nomen; thus the father of Caninia must be Caninius (on display, No. 7).


The people remembered in several epitaphs in the Wilcox Collection were once slaves but died freedpersons (Nos. 5, 6, and 9). A freedman typically took the praenomen and nomen of his former master and kept his own given name as cognomen; thus the liberator of Sextus Lartidius Thelys must have been named Sextus Lartidius (on display, No. 5). A freedwoman prefixed the nomen (also called the gentile name) of her master to her personal name; thus Lartidia Stacte of No. 9 has been freed by Sextus Lartidius. A man freed by a woman would take her nomen and her father’s praenomen; hence Publius Junius Hilarus of No.6 must have been freed by the unnamed daughter of Publius Junius. His mate in burial (and probably in life as well), Hilara, had doubtless been freed by the same woman and taken her nomen Junia. It is noteworthy that a slave could be freed by more than one master (Nos. 5 and 9).


The decorations in these inscriptions range from the simple linear outlines of No. 5 and 8, through the red painted outlines and letters of Nos. 7, the pickaxe at the top of No. 8, and the plant-like forms at the edges and center of No. 9, to the ornate relief of No. 10.




Although when we think of Greek and Roman buildings the impressive facades and interiors of some come first to mind, a basic construction material of the Romans was the humble brick. Even as bricks in our own country once had the name of the city of origin (e.g., the locally famous Lawrence, Kansas bricks), if not of their manufacturer, fired into them, so Roman bricks could be stamped by their makers. In the very words of these stamps, a brick was an opus doliare (from the estate of Lucilla, on display, No. 12), or if its clay came from along ancient Rome's famous salt road, the Via Salaria, an (opus) Salarese (on display, No. 11). In general emperors and members of the imperial families (domini) owned the praedia (estates) and figlinae (brickworks or claylands -- the meaning of the word is in some dispute) from which the finished bricks came.


A prominent family in this activity was the gens Domitia, represented possibly by two different bricks in the collection (on display, Nos. 12 and 13). These two stamps are each in the shape of a circle with two lines of text around a central figure, No. 13 is intact, revealing a small partial circle, the orbiculus, cutting part way into the large circle and defining the lines of the text. The figure on No. 12 is an eagle facing left; that of No. 13 is a palm frond. When viewed at extremely close range these stamps are seen to have distinctive raised quadrate letters. They can be dated approximately to the middle of the second century.


The simpler stamp on a rectangular brick (on display, No. 11), with two lines of concave rectilinear text, can, on the other hand, be dated precisely to 123, the year when Quintus Articuleius Paetinus and Lucius Venuleius Apronianus Octavius Priscus held the office of consul in Rome. The brick stamp's abbreviated text tells us that one Aulus Gabinus Sucessus was the officinator, the person in charge of the brick's manufacture. Interestingly, the officinator of another brick in the collection was a slave, "Mercurius, slave  of Tiberius Claudius Quinquatralis" (on display, No. 13).