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Detail of an ancient Greek inscriptionThe Greek and Roman worlds did not have paper as we know it to write on. Papyrus from Egypt was both less durable than modern paper and more expensive. Although lengthy texts were written on papyrus scrolls, casual communications were almost always written on other substances, such as wax writing tablets or sherds of pottery. But for durable public communications inscription on stone or bronze was employed.

The earliest Greek writing to survive is on pottery of the eighth century BC and consists of lines of poetry, challenges and jokes, and claims to ownership. From the seventh century onwards laws, funerary epitaphs, and dedications to the gods survive on stone. Some inscriptions were written directly onto the legs or dress of sculptures, the walls of buildings, or just cliff faces. The choice of location was largely determined by the desire to get the communication to the right people in the right context.

Those who study Greek and Roman antiquity find inscriptions uniquely valuable. The literary texts that we have are almost all medieval copies on parchment of earlier texts on papyrus themselves copied from an author’s original. By contrast, inscriptions offer the very letters written in antiquity, complete with their original spelling and layout. This means that they are much better evidence for the history of writing and the history of language than any literary text.

Inscriptions prove that different areas of Greece originally used slightly different alphabets. It is from inscriptions that we know that different areas of the Greek world pronounced the language quite differently, and used dialect forms that are sometimes very different from the Greek to which we are accustomed from literary texts.

But inscriptions also give us a different sort of information from literary texts. Although epigrams were sometimes inscribed as well as being included in literary collections, long poems, tragedies, and histories were never written on stone. But decisions made by cities and other groups, inventories of objects in sanctuaries, rules that apply in a particular place, records of freedom being given to slaves, records of mortgages secured on land or a house – records of this sort survive on stone but never in a literary text.

Mostly when people wrote on stone they did so for a particular audience, and they wrote things on a need-to-know basis. Sometimes that audience was not human but divine; it was important that the gods knew that the representatives of two states had agreed to a 30-year peace treaty, for instance, or simply that a particular individual had given them a precious object. But even inscriptions that give information for the gods tend to have a human audience in mind too – individuals wanted their neighbours to know their generosity to the gods, or the fact that they were under oath not to go to war.

Because inscriptions were written for particular people to read, they often presuppose that the reader knows quite a lot already. This can make understanding what is going on quite hard. But the rewards for the detective are rich – inscriptions allow us to re-enter a past world and see individuals in a particular situation putting themselves on display.

Further reading

John Bodel (ed.), Epigraphic Evidence: Ancient History from Inscriptions, Approaching the Ancient World Series (London, 2001).