Reading Images and Seeing Epigrams: Image and Text in Attic Dedications

In the previous post I argued that some Archaic and Classical dedicatory epigrams deliberately selected non standard and non formulaic features to communicate with their audience. Those features concerned the material and immaterial elements of the dedicatory epigrams, that can be described by the three semantic systems of art and archaeology, epigraphy and literature.

Of the two components of a dedicatory epigram — the material and the immaterial — the former was primary in terms of level and timing. In terms of timing, because the visual image is what a viewer, of any level of literacy, firstly encounters; and in terms of level, because at a low level of literacy, even the visual image of the epigram by itself could convey essential information. This was the case, as I argued, of the royal Achaemenid trilingual inscriptions and of some well-known Greek dedications. For example, Hipparchus’ herms had a well-defined aspect: they were square shaped, made of marble and inscribed usually on the left and right sides with epigrams to serve as vehicle for education (cf. Pseud.-Plat. Hipparch. 228e–229a). Therefore, the herm itself was a message, accessible even to an audience not able to read. Moreover, it cannot be excluded that for such well-known monuments a not-educated viewer could access (part of) the content via an “oral (as opposed to written) information” (a sort of, although not properly, “oral tradition”). The visual image of a dedication was even more important to address an educated reader. In fact, only if the reader was attracted by the visual aspect of the monument (phase 1), he was stimulated to inquire on its additional elements (phase 2) and therefore receive the information embedded in the immaterial component of epigrams on stone, i.e. the literary text. In other words, in dedicatory epigrams, not dissimilar to Greek Comedy, there was a “basic” level accessible to everyone, but a deeper one accessible only to the εὖ φρονοῦντες, to paraphrase Aristophanes (cf. Nu. 537ff.).

In this post, I shall focus on some more elaborated epigrams, and, by way of example, on two “sub-genres” of epigrams, 1) epigrams set up by victors; 2) epigrams equipped with the signature of the artist.

A perfect case in point is, to my mind, the difference between two victory dedications by the same patron, Alkmeonides: DAA 317, on the Acropolis (ca. 550 B.C.) and CEG 302, in the sanctuary of Apollo Ptoios in Boeotia (ca. 540 B.C.). The writing of DAA 317 runs untidily on a Doric poros capital; the inscription is in prose and the dialect is epichoric Attic with features avoided in verse-dedications and in high-styled Attic poetry (e.g. in the tragedy), such as the dual. On the contrary, CEG 302 is engraved in the so-called fine style on a Doric marble capital; the text includes elements typical of dedicatory (and agonistic) epigrams, but presented either with an epic flavor or in an elaborate fashion. Moreover, the epigram combines more modern forms with traditional features of the epics, “Doric” lyrics and (Ionic-)Attic elements, clearly in an effort to achieve an elevated style. The “Doric” forms were both an element of the poetic tradition and at the same time possibly selected as an hommage (with political reasons) to the context of the dedication (a sanctuary of Apollo). In my opinion, the differences in the two dedications depend on their different destination: the prose-inscription was intended for a local context and audience, while the verse-dedication set up at the Ptoion for a broader one.

And what about the dedicatory epigrams equipped with the signature of artists? A dedicatory epigram signed by Kresilas from Kudonia (CEG 280; Athens, ca. 440 B.C.) is engraved in mixed alphabet and in an alignment that, under the influence of book script, intentionally avoids the stoichedon order, which was common at the time. The deeper level of the literary text reveals an admixture of features of choral lyrics and Ionian(-epic) poetry (‘Doric’ [a:]; [ε:]; the Homeric syntagma genitive of the father plus φίλος υἱός etc.), selected to convey a high-styled poetic flavor. More notably, some of the aforementioned features are found in the signature of the artist, which, interestingly, is unusually set apart from the dedication not by a blank space or difference in dimensions of the letters, but by a metrical shape different from that of the dedication.

Another interesting example is the column of Iphidike (CEG 198; Athens, Acropolis, 510 B.C.), a white marble fluted column probably supporting a small marble statue, dedicated by Iphidike and signed by the artist Archermos of Chios. The monument is refined and clearly identifiable as a product of prestigious Ionic manufacture. The epigraphic aspect is refined and influenced by the Ionic world, as well. The inscription is engraved in two flutes (with the “mannerism” of writing the second line above the first), in the so-called strong style and in mixed alphabet, i.e. with some Ionian letters alongside a distinctive Attic graphic convention (Ε = [e], [ε:], [e:]). Finally, the literary text clearly shows that the dedication is deliberately fashioned to give an “international” nuance to a strong Attic local base, represented by the thorough Attic dialect of the epigram. The international dimension of the epigram is achieved through the formula Ἀθηναίαι πολιούχωι (scil. in the dative), which was carefully selected as not exclusively Attic instead of the perfectly metrically equivalent (after the verb of dedication ἀνέθηκε(ν)) and more frequent, but only local, Διὸς γλαυκώπιδι κούρηι and Διὸς κρατερόφρονι παιδί. The exceptionality of the monument is confirmed by the signature of the artist. In the case of the dedication by Iphidike, it is evident how the material and immaterial components of the epigram could operate on two different levels. On a basic level, the signature by the artist in itself indicated that a monument was a not-ordinary one. On a deeper level, accessible to an educated reader, the syntax of Archermos’ signature with the specification ὁ Χῖος aimed to stress the identity and connection to Ionia of the famous sculptor; and it was functional to the complex operation conducted by Iphidike. In fact, the commission of a solemn monument to a famous Ionic artist perfectly fits the political and cultural framework of the late archaic Athens. As I argued elsewhere, it is even possible that a signature of the type ὁ Χῖος was a distinctive feature, alongside the accuracy observed in the disposition of the lines of the inscription, of the work of Archermos of Chios (cf. CEG 425 and DAA 9).[1]

In conclusion, it seems safe to me to suggest (and therefore to approach them in this fashion) that several sophisticated and elaborated Archaic and Classical dedicatory Attic epigrams deliberately exploited the interplay between “visual” and “literary” medium, and the semantic systems that go with them (art, epigraphy and literature). These was done in an attempt to make these monuments stand out and, as a consequence, their patrons more visible and noticeable.


[1] S. Kaczko, Archaic and Classical Dedicatory Epigrams on Stone: Commentary with a Literary and Linguistic Study, (forthcoming).

CEG 280