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In this paper I will argue for a new approach to understanding opisthographic (double-sided) funerary inscriptions. The dedicator of an epitaph, in providing the same (or similar) information on both sides of a stone, of which under normal circumstances only one side can be read, imbues the epitaph with a symbolic function that goes beyond the notion that a funerary inscription is meant only to be read.

The NYU epigraphy collection contains four opisthographic epitaphs for which the explanations of opisthography hitherto available fall short. Our opisthographs do not represent cases of reuse where an inscribed stone is re-appropriated after some time (e.g. Bodel 1992, inscription #13). The explanations that Di Stefano Manzella (1987) offers, namely that one of the inscriptions was dissatisfactory (either to the stonemason or the customer), or served as a draft, do not readily apply either.

The NYU opisthographs were inscribed on both sides intentionally: there are no mistakes, nor are there big differences in the quality of the inscriptions within a pair. A helpful analogy is arguably provided by Roman military diplomas. These were inscribed with the same text inside and outside and sealed to deter anyone from tampering with them (Keppie 1991, Roxan and Holder 2003). In Roman Egypt so-called double-documents on papyrus functioned in a similar fashion (Meyer 2004). In this context it is crucial to remember that Romans also worried about the possibility of someone tampering with their tombstones, as is evident from the standard formula dolus malus abesto found in epitaphs.

With an opisthograph, should anyone deface the front of the stone, the inscription on the reverse is still preserved. While it cannot be read, as the reverse is fixed to the wall of the tomb, it still performs the symbolic function of the epitaph: one’s life and death are still recorded, and the burial site is safeguarded for the dedicatee. Beard (1985), for example, has argued that some religious inscriptions do not have a utilitarian function (they are not meant to be read). Recording the performance of a ritual has itself become part of the ritual, and the inscription fulfills a symbolic function. Similarly, on lead curse tablets the text cannot be read, because the defixiones are folded or rolled up. The performative power of the writing however is maintained or rather enforced by hiding the text from view: the casting of the spell is completed only once the folded or rolled up tablet has been deposited in an appropriate location (Gager 1992).

I argue that, analogously, double-sided epitaphs fulfill a symbolic function. The stones are inscribed on both sides intentionally to protect the record of the life and death of the dedicatee. This protective strategy gains in significance when we understand that epitaphs do not only convey information, but that they also have a symbolic and performative function. With this paper I hope to shed further light on Roman attitudes towards recording and protecting information, and on the intentions and purposes Romans had in setting up tombstones.


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