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The Pharos of Alexandria: At the Interface Between Non-Extant Inscription and Other Written Evidence

Patricia A. Butz

     The interface that occurs when an inscription, in some concrete form, survives in conjunction with a literary counterpoint (either transcription or some reference to it in the literary or historical tradition) has all the potential of a mixed-media discourse: rich and dynamic, but also a great luxury. Most extant inscriptions per se are not referred to in literary texts; yet when they are, there occurs a second validation, even if there are variants, attesting to the power of writing in any form and even begging the question whether or not there is a hierarchical scale involved. How does validation of a “non-inscription” work the other way around? This paper examines the evidence for the inscription or set of inscriptions that marked one of the greatest buildings of the ancient world, the Pharos of Alexandria dated to the reigns of Ptolemy I Soter and Ptolemy II Philadelphos. The hard-core epigraphy is still missing despite tremendous finds pertaining to the Pharos proper in the underwater archaeology conducted in recent years; but reference to the inscriptions exists with great vitality in literary and historical texts of at least four ancient writers: Posidippus, Strabo, Pliny, and Lucian. Not the least of the issues at stake is the name of the architect himself, and whether even possession of the dedicatory inscription, which is cited in more than one of the sources, would clinch the attribution differently. Most significant for this question is the contemporary epigram by Posidippus, preserved on papyrus, celebrating the monument and the one who erected it, Sostratus the Knidian. This paper further argues that a substitute, but bona fide, interface exists precisely because of the intermediary papyrological evidence, together with multiple literary sources, two Greek and two Latin, from different genres and time frames for this unique monument. The sum total of the ancient writers’ individual corroborations attests to the eloquent role that the original epigraphy must have played in the reception of the Pharos.

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Inscriptions and Literary Sources

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