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Res Gestae: The Queen of Inscriptions and the History of Epigraphers

Morgan Palmer

Tulane University

The Res Gestae, famously dubbed by Theodor Mommsen (1887) as “The Queen” of inscriptions, is a testament to the collaborative achievements of epigraphers.  Echoes of the Res Gestae in later authors, including Tacitus and Velleius Paterculus, reflect ancient Roman interest in studying, interpreting and appropriating this inscription (cf. Cooley 2009).  This interest has continued over the years, with epigraphers ranging from amateur to professional reconstructing and reinterpreting the text.  Their efforts offer a case study for how the discipline itself has evolved while always being driven by the “thrill of discovery” (Bodel 2001) and spirit of innovation that continue to energize the field today.

This paper examines the “Queen of Inscriptions” as an example of the Res Gestae of epigraphers, using three individuals as case studies, and contextualizing their research with recent scholarship.  I will begin with Augier Ghiselin de Busbecq, an ambassador of Ferdinand I, who assumed the role of epigrapher in 1555 after happening upon the Res Gestae in Ancyra (Martels 1991; Cooley 2009).  In a letter chronicling the discovery and transcription of the inscription, he remarks, “we made our people copy as much as was legible.”  Providing a level of detail characteristic of the work of professional epigraphers, he describes the placement of the inscription, the condition of the lettering on different lines, and the gaps which form “a great literary loss.”  This letter demonstrates that at this early stage the “thrill of discovery” led to a desire to learn as much as possible about the monument to the extent that someone lacking epigraphic training and equipment was driven to record it with precise attention to detail.  Another epigrapher who studied the monument enthusiastically was the archaeologist David M. Robinson, who discovered fragments at Antioch (Robinson 1924), and also incorporated pieces into his own personal collection (U. S. Epigraphy, MS. Univ. UM. UM. L. 77.3.576a, b).  Robinson (1926) recalls how he found pieces of the “jig-saw puzzle” in the “dump” of his former colleague Ramsay’s excavation, bought sections that had been excavated by locals, and offered “Baksheesh” to children who brought him fragments.  Confident that he managed to recover almost all of them through these various means, he notes that for each fragment drawings, two squeezes, and photos were taken, and uses his findings to offer variant readings of Mommsen’s original text.  

In addition, letters and photos from the collection of the epigrapher Arthur Gordon reflect his efforts to apply innovative techniques to the study of the Res Gestae.  In a 1972 letter to Gordon, the archaeologist Crawford H. Greenewalt discusses the feasibility of his request to take photos of the Res Gestae, remarking that they could arrange for a professional photographer from Ancyra to stand on a step ladder while using a large-plate camera, and also discussing the potential disadvantages of photos, which can be subject to variations in lighting relative to casts.  In his Illustrated Introduction to Latin Epigraphy (1983), Gordon published photos along with a detailed critique of the Res Gestae, discussing the condition of the fragments and the lettering, and even offering a thorough philological discussion of usage of the word profligata on the inscription.  Like de Busbecq and Robinson, Gordon was driven to find the most effective means of studying the Res Gestae and disseminating knowledge of it.  I will contextualize the efforts of these three epigraphers with examples of recent work on the Res Gestae (Drew-Bear and Scheid 2005; Scheid 2007; Cooley 2009; Mitchell and French 2012) which demonstrate continuing interest in the monument.  I will conclude that the Res Gestae has inspired epigraphers to be innovative, thinking creatively while developing new ways to study and appreciate it.  The collective Res Gestae of epigraphers who have studied “The Queen” of inscriptions reflect the drive and ingenuity that continues to move the history of epigraphers in exciting new directions.

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Writing the History of Epigraphy and Epigraphers

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