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Epigraphic Egocentrism and Ancient Literary Invention

Seth Larkin Sanders

University of California, Davis

What sorts of things can the broad comparison of ancient literatures conceal? In what ways might cross-cultural analysis open up new possibilities for obfuscation even as it sets other things in illuminating new perspective? In this talk I will examine one fundamental pattern that cross-cultural literary analysis seems not only poorly suited to see but perhaps systemically to miss. The talk covers three points: 1. A sort of 'natural experiment' in the comparative study of ancient vernacular literatures is possible by examining the parallel projects of Sheldon Pollock and then of Denis Feeney, begun independently some 20 years later. Each investigates the creation of a written literature in a local language calqued on a preexisting high-status literature, and the divergent answers suggest a problem that haunts the nature of such endeavors. 2. The main part of the talk addresses a surprisingly literary dimension of ancient nonliterary corpora: the patterning of voice in Iron Age North-West Semitic and Western Mediterranean epigraphic texts, in particular the remarkable distribution of "speaking objects" or egocentric inscriptions. In the West, these are for the most part confined to archaic Greek, Etruscan, and Latin inscriptions, but completely unattested in the immediate sources of these scripts in Phoenician, Aramaic, and indeed the entire corpus of North-West Semitic epigraphy. Why did ancient Greek craftsmen at once give "voice" to the (mostly) consonantal Phoenician writing system and to the objects bearing it? 3. The paper will end by asking how we can plausibly investigate what such inventors thought they were doing--which data and modes of analysis are most sensitive to ancient inspirations? We may best place ancient literary cultures in history by connecting them with those who voice them.

Session/Panel Title

Ancient Mediterranean Literatures

Session/Paper Number

67.3

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