Interview with Professor Silvia Giorcelli Bersani

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Professor Silvia Giorcelli Bersani teaches Roman History and Latin Epigraphy at the University of Turin. She has done many studies about the growth and evolution of urban settlements in northern Italy, mostly about the process of Romanization. She has many publications, and assisted with the Supplementa Italica of Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum.

An "Interview the Expert" interview.


Latin Epigraphy

What is the CIL and what is its composition? What other methods do epigraphists have at their disposal?

The CIL (Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum) is the most important collection of Latin inscriptions, and is a very important tool for every student of Roman history. It was conceived by Theodor Mommsen (Nobel Prize for literature in 1902) in mid-19th century after dozens years of planning work and attempts. It was published thank the undertaking of the Berlin Academy (Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum consilio et auctoritate Academiae litterarum regiae Borussicae editum, Berolini 1863).

It is composed of a lot of volumes (and each of them is divided into installments and tomes) and is written in Latin. Because of its makeup it is still incomplete, even though it is widely updated. To date there are 18 volumes organized following different criteria: on a chronological basis (vol. I, containing republican inscriptions prior to Caesar's death, 44 B.C.[ad C. Caesaris mortem]); on a geographical basis (vol. II-XIV, divided into provinces, Italic regions and cities); on a typological basis (vol. XV, domestic tools, vol. XVI, military diplomas, vol. XVII, mile posts, vol. XVIII, epigraphic poems).

  • VOL. I Inscriptiones Latinae antiquissimae ad C. Caesaris mortem
  • VOL. I2 Inscriptiones Latinae antiquissimae ad C. Caesaris mortem
  • VOL II Inscriptiones Hispaniae Latinae
  • VOL. II2 Inscriptiones Hispaniae Latinae
  • VOL. III Inscriptiones Asiae, provinciarum Europae Graecarum, Illyrici Latinae
  • VOL. IV Inscriptiones parietariae Pompeianae Herculanenses Stabianae
  • VOL. V Inscriptiones Galliae Cisalpinae Latinae
  • VOL. VI Inscriptiones urbis Romae Latinae
  • VOL. VII Inscriptiones Britanniae Latinae
  • VOL. VIII Inscriptiones Africae Latinae
  • VOL. IX Inscriptiones Calabriae, Apuliae, Samnii, Sabinorum, Piceni Latinae
  • VOL. X Inscriptiones Bruttiorum, Lucaniae, Campaniae, Siciliae, Sardiniae Latinae
  • VOL. XI Inscriptiones Aemiliae, Etruriae, Umbriae Latinae
  • VOL. XII Inscriptiones Galliae Narbonensis Latinae
  • VOL. XIII Inscriptiones Inscriptiones trium Galliarum et Germaniarum Latinae
  • VOL. XIV Inscriptiones Latii veteris latinae
  • VOL. XV Inscriptiones urbis Romae Latinae. Instrumentum domesticum
  • VOL. XVI Diplomata militaria
  • VOL. XVII Miliaria imperii Romani
  • VOL. XVIII Carmina Latina epigraphica

Within the volumes each inscription is identified by a number (e.g. CIL, V 5768 = 5th volume, about Gallia Cisalpina, inscription number 5768, which in particular is a sacred epigraph in Hercules' honour coming from Milan) and is briefly described (kind and shape of the object, state of repair, where it was found and where it is today). Then there is the transcription of the text, paged up as in the original. They are written in CAPITALS and integrated where needed by using lower-case italics. ITALIC CAPITALS are used for those letters and lines which we already knew from other inscriptions and which were later lost. A series of slashes /// indicate that the surface of the text is damaged. After the text there is the bibliography and the apparatus criticus (i.e. all the studies on that document in chronological order, the reading variants line by line, the expansion of the abbreviations). Each volume has an index divided into chapters (nomina and cognomina, but also divinities, emperors, consuls, magistrates, soldiers, localities, collegia and corporations, activities, etc.) which is the principle means to find inscriptions.

Other Anthologies

From the second half of the 19th century onwards other anthologies of inscriptions were compiled. Among them we can mention:

  • F. Bucheler, Carmina latina Epigraphica (i.e. CLE, Leipzig 1895)
  • H. Dessau, Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae (ILS, Berlin 1892-1916)
  • Inscriptiones Italiae (Roma 1931, incomplete)
  • E. Diehl, Inscriptiones Latinae Christianae Veteres (ILCV, Berlin, Dublin, Zürich 1925-1931)
  • A. Degrassi, Inscriptiones Latinae Liberae Rei Publicae (ILLRP, Firenze 1963 and 1965)
  • Inscriptiones christianae urbis Romae septimo saeculo antiquiores (ICVR, Roma 1922 -)
  • Inscriptiones christianae Italiae (ICI, Bari 1985 -)
  • Supplementa Italica (Roma 1981 -).

Today we have at our disposal reading techniques which are more advanced that those of Mommsen and his contemporaries. In the critical editions there are extensive descriptions of the object (the class and kind of manufactured product according to a precise classification system, material, state of repair, figurative body, size of object and letters), the place where it was found, its history (its travels if any, after discovery), its current location and the bibliography. There is clear and detailed photograph, which allows one to immediately get the exact idea of the document and its text. Finally, there is a historical commentary and the dating of the object.


Given that the epigraphic patrimony is constantly growing thanks to new findings, it is necessary to systematically update the CIL. Therefore there are a lot of regional collections, magazines, journals, supplements which integrate the various volumes of the Corpus. The constant updating of the epigraphic editions is the purpose of the periodical "L'Année épigraphique" (AE or AEp) which has been published in Paris since 1888. Other magazines dedicated to the publication of epigraphic documents (new, but also new editions and commentaries) are:

Epigraphic Resources on the Internet

There are several websites on the Internet which contain archives with texts and pictures, as well as a number of informative websites about specific epigraphic projects. Among the most important ones we will mention the Epigraphische Datenbank Heidelerg directed by G. Alföldy, and the wide data bank of the J. W. Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt. These both are for experts in the field. Accessible to amateur is the website Le iscrizioni latine come fonte per la ricostruzione storica (Latin inscriptions as source for historical reconstruction), edited by A. Cristofori. P. Donati Giacomini has recently published a small book about the use of the Internet in the study of ancient history where it is possible to find useful addresses for the research: (Innovazione e tradizione. Le risorse telematiche e informatiche nello studio della storia antica, Il Mulino, Bologna 2002). [ISBN 8815087834 , Review at BMCR. Ed. ]

What are those things we know only from epigraphy with no other source?

The fundamental contributions which epigraphic documents brought to our knowledge of Roman history are many. I can only write a list and make some significant examples.

I. The Romanisation, i.e. the impressive expansion process of Roman civilization, both in the East and in particular in the West, by which a systematic process of political and cultural integration of a conquered population took place. While we know the military and diplomatic steps of the conquest thanks to literary sources, we also know the varied and complex mechanism of expansion of the Roman institutions within the conquered territories only through epigraphic documents. For example: Inscriptions tell us about the mediating work of certain persons who, in particular in the East, attempted to defend their motherland from the arrogant meddling of Roman governors. Inscriptions attest the various ways Rome acted within the military occupied territories (as in Hispania), which caused the elimination or deportation of local populations; in the founding of colonies and in the distribution of parcels of land to the colonists. In Italy Alpine populations were reformed to administrative and jurisdictional Roman structures following different methods and charters which we know thanks solely to epigraphic documents. We understand the reorganization of the rural territory in the context of the colonization thanks to aerial photography, but also because of those inscriptions telling the names of the people who made surveys, those inscriptions documenting the close relationship between the colonies, the military and roads, those epigraphs identifying small rural settlements around the territory (such settlements being not even identifiable archaeologically today). Epigraphy also allows us to know about disputes (mostly territorial ones) between Romans and native populations and, in general, about incidents of resistance to Romanisation. Finally, epigraphic documentation records the passage from local languages to Latin. First there is the coexistence of two languages, then the use of the Latin alphabet to write the native language, then the use of Latin with more or less visible traces of local elements, and finally the normalization of writing, at this point conceived in the Latin way, where only the persistence of local linguistic rudiments indicates a link with previous tradition.

II. In the case of City structures and urban civilization, the most visible cultural manifestation is the epigraphy. We know of the urban civilization mostly thanks to the inscriptions. They played the role of a mass medium, the way to spread public and private messages. It was the main mean of interpersonal communication, so it is not surprising to notice a prevailing concentration within the city. The knowledge of the urban area too often is the fruit of epigraphic documentation. A high amount of inscriptions often is the sole clue of the existence of a city settlement, while within already individuated cities it is possible to find out the existence -without excavations- of functional areas of relevant importance (e.g. sanctuaries or religious spaces). Through the inscriptions found on them we know the name of a number of buildings, their destination, the name and title of those who had them built, with whose money and why. In some cases we know a building existed by only the relevant inscription which has survived.. Private homes are identifiable through brick stamps, water conduits on which the name of the owner was written, and boundary stones, sacred or honorary inscriptions which can be found inside.

Funeral and honorary inscriptions are the most numerous sources to define many aspects of urban society. The political careers of the citizens and in general the leadership of the notables are largely represented, as well as the role of imperial legates and of patrons.

The picture is completed by decurional decrees, i.e. the decisions taken within the curia of the city (often imitating Rome's Senatus Consulta), and municipal laws, i.e. the constitutions which regulated the functioning of the city institutions. The latter in particular are a new element: we have a lot of fragments of municipal laws concerning several cities of Spain (Salpensa, Malaca and Irni), dating back to Domitian's reign (81-96 A.C.), which give us a lot of details about local justice, management of community goods, collection of taxes, public activities, patron/client relationships and the diplomatic relationship with the emperor or with the governor of the province, legations, magistrates' duties, magistrate's election systems, and more. No literary source could provide us with information about these aspects of the Roman citizen's life.

III. Discovering the Historiography of individuals. Epigraphs, both honorary and funeral, tells us the biography and the public and private profile of the people, both the elite (senators, equites and city aristocracies) and simple folk (citizens without any public role, workers, women, children, freedmen, slaves). As to senators and equites we know their careers which obviously changed as the time went on. We can follow the steps and the transformations of such careers thank hundreds inscriptions at our disposal. Also we know local notables, i.e. the upper class of the civic body holding economic power and monopolizing public offices. The analysis of their very wide epigraphic documentation allows us to understand, for example, how was it possible to climb the social pyramid, which offices were considered a privileged position of the political way, through which conduct and financial means allowed the families more opportunities to keep and increase their prestige and power. The most original information concerns the lower social class, which are not represented in literary sources (but in part in archaeological ones, at least as to material life aspects), so slaves, from those employed in rich houses to wretched men working in the mines, tradesmen and artisans, the slave and freed staff at the emperor's service, women, members of collegia and professional, religious, funeral and game corporations. It is in this viewpoint of social representation, that Latin epigraphy represents all of its documentary potential.

Is it possible to give a final answer to the meaning of the abbreviation "SPQR"?

The expansion of this abbreviation [ SPQR ] is "Senatus Populusque Romanus", a phrase which may be translated as "the Roman Estate" that is, the whole of the civic body and its institutional system. This formula is significant because first of all it proclaims the whole of the civic body, represented by the Senate and the people (i.e. the sovereignty of the republic is one but is two-headed, and in it the Senate and the people are indivisible). However on the other hand this formula also discloses the prominence of the Senate over the people, and then underlines the limitations which the latter suffered.

The voices which arose in successive stages against this reading mostly refer to G. Dumzil's theories and to the functional tripartition of the Indo-European societies, and so of Roman society too. This is the source of expansion of SPQR as Senatus Populus Quirites Romani, where Quirites stands for the inhabitants of Curi (a city of the Sabinians), which in this way would represent the third element with the Senate and the people.

In reality, the populus is not the indistinct whole of masses, but rather a narrow group of citizens with political rights, the Quirites precisely (in reality coming from co-viria = group of men, distinct from slaves, from Latins and from foreigners). In addition this formula also appears written in full in this version.

An objection to this view is that the enclitic "-que" does not appear in abbreviations. Epigraphy confutes such an hypothesis by presenting a number of cases, for example SSQ = s(ibi) s(uis)q(ue) or SPQS = s(ibi) p(osteris)q(ue) s(uis) or PSPQR = p(ro) s(e) p(ro)q(ue) p(atria). Finally, in other communities of Latium, where the presence of Quirites of Curi would not be justified, they make recourse to a similar abbreviation to indicate exactly the Senate and the people: SPQA = S(enatus) p(opulus)q(ue) A(lbanus), SPQT = S(enatus) p(opulus)q(ue) T(iburs), SPQF = S(enatus) p(opulus)q(ue) F(erentinus).

N.B. There is further discussion of this question.

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