Graham Oliver, Destroying Inscriptions (London, Jan 14)

(Paper given at the Ancient History Seminar, London, January 14th, 2010. Brief report by Gabriel Bodard.)

Destroying Inscriptions: the authorised and unauthorised removal of inscribed documents in the Greek world.
Graham Oliver

In this seminar, Graham Oliver discussed a few particular inscriptions from the Athenian sphere in the Late Classical, Hellenistic and Roman periods, using these examples to make some general observations on the removal and erasure of inscriptions.

(1) Re-use

The first examples he discussed were a series of statue bases signed by Antignotos, but their original texts erased when they were re-used and re-inscribed at a later date. As the original inscriptions were not, as far as we know, issued by the demos,  Oliver argues that no special authority was needed to remove them, and in fact they had probably fallen out of use or been taken off display already, since we should assume that inscriptions were not considered to be permanent. Even a handful of fourth century decrees were re-used by pyloroi in the Roman period, which tells us both that even these texts were not permanent and sacrosanct, but that these decrees at least were still intact and in place on the acropolis in the Roman period. The re-use of inscriptions seems to have been fairly normal; even official documents could be removed and re-used without official sanction.

(2) Erasures

After discussing the use of erasure in inscriptions to correct mistakes, update accounts, alter lists, add and remove names etc., Oliver points out that the process of erasing text from stones was therefore familiar, even if these are not cases where the act is politically significant. To modify or destroy monuments relating to recent history, however, required a more formal process such as an act of the demos, as in the case of the erasure of the names of Philip V and his ancestors from inscriptions in Athens. This event also tells us that some Classical monuments put up by his ancestors were still standing in the late third century, and that Macedonian monuments were not automatically destroyed in the 220s. Some examples of Macedonian names were missed from this mass erasure, perhaps because the inscriptions had already been removed, or because they were not noticed, or the monuments had been forgotten among the many inscriptions that stood on the acropolis. The erasure of official titles (as of Julius Nikanor) and the names of emperors (such as Nero and Commodus) show similar patterns.

(3) Destruction

The removal of inscribed monuments for re-use in walls and other buildings shows inconsistent treatment, with some texts and images erased or defaced, and others more or less untouched. Again, more official texts take political acts to remove; the case of the laws of Drakon and Solon, destroyed by the Thirty Tyrants, is instructive. Although the demos decreed that the texts should be reinstated after the tyrants were overthrown, it was private citizens who funded and organized the re-inscription of the laws. Again, after the Lamian War the oligarchy removed the decree for Euphron of Sikyon, which was then reinstated, along with a new decree, by the demos with the involvement of the family of Euphron. Such removal of decrees has to be authorized, and although in this case the removal was authorized by the oligarchy, it was not authorized by the demos.

In conclusion, Oliver discussed the inappropriateness of the phrase damnatio memoriae (perhaps preferring Flower’s “memory sanction”). He argued that erasures, far from being designed to forget the person or title erased, in fact were deliberately visible in order to call attention to the condemnation of the target, a form of negative remembrance. Inscriptions themselves, although their longevity is important, are not guaranteed nor necessarily expected to be permanent. Many inscriptions and fragments do of course survive to the present day, hence we know about them, and in fact the very act of erasure sometimes helps to indicate how long the inscription remained on display before it was removed.

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One Response to Graham Oliver, Destroying Inscriptions (London, Jan 14)

  1. Pingback: Apagando inscrições no mundo grego « Antiguidades Romanas

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