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Votive Inscriptions, Aretalogy, and the Epigraphic Habit in the Ancient Novels

Barbara Blythe

Tulane University

Inscriptions on durable objects take center stage in epigraphic studies, while texts inscribed on perishable materials that rarely survive in the archaeological record (such as textiles, trees, and loaves of bread) occupy a more peripheral position in the field. The ancient novels offer opportunities for examining ancient conceptions of the ephemeral margins of the epigraphic habit in order to better understand how the Greeks and Romans imagined and experienced their lettered environments. Sironen (2003), Nelis-Clément and Nelis (2005), and Slater (2009) have discussed the various roles that inscriptions play in the ancient novels (lending a sense of verisimilitude and enhancing the polyphony of genres and voices, for example). I argue that the ways in which the authors of the ancient novels describe texts added to surfaces such as wooden tablets, textiles, papyrus, and human skin suggest that they did not view inscriptions on durable objects as fundamentally different from texts written or inscribed on non-durable materials.

As a case study, I focus on the authenticating conceit presented in several of the ancient novels (and hinted at in most of the others, as I argue) that the novel itself is either based upon or copied from a text deposited in a temple or tomb. This pseudo-documentary motif has been discussed by Hansen (2003) and Ní Mheallaigh (2008). I argue that whether inscribed upon a durable surface such as marble or bronze, a semi-durable surface such as wood, or a highly perishable surface such as papyrus, the authors emphasize not the perceived permanence or impermanence of the material, but rather the concept that the text is a physical dedication preserved for future generations.

The ancient novels display many thematic and intertextual connections with aretalogies, which were ephemeral when voiced orally in religious sanctuaries, yet became more permanent when inscribed on stone or deposited in temple libraries. Aretalogies recorded on papyrus were often preserved and read aloud to convince listeners of the power of the deity in question long after the original recipient of divine aid had left the sanctuary. There is evidence that readings from such books could be combined with readings of inscriptions during tours of religious sanctuaries conducted by temple personnel. The ancient novelists’ fascinations with aretalogies, religious sanctuaries, and temple exegetes eager to give lectures on votive dedications offer at least a partial explanation for their frequent use of the conceit that the novels themselves are based upon or copied from religious dedications or texts deposited in tombs.

I conclude by discussing some religious dedications mentioned in these novels outside of their pseudo-documentary frames, demonstrating that these imagined texts are likewise inscribed upon materials that range from perishable to permanent with no discernible hierarchy based upon the durability of the inscribed surface. Even texts written on perishable materials such as fabric are often presented as important documents intended for broad audiences. By creating worlds filled with inscriptions on a diverse array of materials, the ancient novels offer fascinating insights into the ancient epigraphic imagination.

Session/Panel Title

The Ancient Novel and Material Culture

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