Letter from Libya: Epigraphy and Landscape

By Vita-Finzi, Claudio | Antiquity, June 2010 | Go to article overview
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Letter from Libya: Epigraphy and Landscape


Vita-Finzi, Claudio, Antiquity


Although epigraphers can deal with inscriptions on shell, pottery, glass, wood, silk and tattooed bodies (but on no account with what are the jealous provinces of the papyrologist and the numismatist), their texts are more often than not on bulky stone or affixed metal and are thus immobile or effectively so. As for subject matter, votive inscriptions, edicts, codes of law and other items addressed to the living are easily outnumbered (at least in the Latin world) by items of prose celebrating dead people or inanimate monuments.

The marriage of epigraphy and geography that is at the core of the Inscriptions of Roman Cyrenaica project is therefore rightly focused on mapping the location of the texts on the assumption that, as they have hardly moved, the development of language, culture, trade, individual lives, campaigns and other historical topics can thereby be traced in context. An underpinning belief that the topography we see today is the same as that of antiquity has of course been repeatedly questioned. Paradoxically, the belief that the climate of North Africa in Roman times was kinder than it is now also refuses to die. In the right hands, epigraphy may help us decide how far these two beliefs are justified; hence the title of this article.

An alternative title I toyed with was Futurist antiquarianism, since so much of Libya's present epigraphic stock was unearthed during the three decades of Fascist Italian rule. The search for romanita by which to justify the land grab probably did little harm to the inscriptions themselves, but it favoured site clearance at the expense of stratigraphic excavation (Munzi 2004). More sinister but harder to prove is the charge that, once Mussolini had clambered aboard the anti-semitic chariot, with the great archaeologists Pietro Romanelli and Renato Bartoccini enthusiastically beside him, Punic studies were neglected on the grounds that the Phoenicians qualified as the Jews of antiquity. No Buddhas were blown up, and so far as I know no Punic texts were turned to lime by Italian antiquaries, but the fact remains that the key contributions to the subject were not by Romanelli, Bartoccini and their associates but by Giorgio Levi della Vida, who was, by virtue of his race and anti-fascist stance, in exile in Philadelphia during 1939-1945.

The colonial top brass did more than dig up inscriptions; they wrote some. There is an inscription on a sundial on Tripoli castle honouring the first Governor, Giuseppe Volpi, comite praeside prov(inciae) Tripolitanae. The arch dedicated to the Phileni ('Marble Arch') that once stood at the border between Cyrenaica and Tripolitania commemorated Italo Balbo (1896-1940, Marshal of the Air Force, Governor-General of Libya, and Mussolini's heir apparent) as Libyae proconsule/anno XV a fascibus restitutis / primo ab imperio condito. On the front of the arch one could read part of Horace's Carmen Saeculare (Aline sol possis nihil urbe Roma visere maius) and the sides bore extracts from the writings of the journalist Quilici, translated into what has been described as Sallustian Latin. The pomposity slides into farce; according to the infamous Rodolfo Graziani, Balbo indulged in a little damnatio memoriae by having Graziani's name erased from some marble monuments so (as Graziani saw it) emulating the Roman centurion of Bu Ngem who erased the names of Severus Alexander and his mother Julia Mamaea after they were killed in AD 235 (Marichal 1992).

Coping with abolitio nominis and the like is a routine matter for epigraphers, who hold every line of text up to the light to detect forgeries, lies and subterfuges. It is not a simple matter of plugging gaps or deciding whether LDDD stands for libentes dono dederunt dedicaverunt or loco dato decreto decurionum or any other such formula; only with a sound grasp of all the relevant languages, histories, stylistic traditions and political intrigues can one pry open the texts to reveal a polychrome former world.

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