Inscribing Temples in Greece and Asia Minor: A Diachronic View

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My research centers on new approaches to epigraphic material, highlighting their physical characteristics and architectural contexts in addition to the texts themselves. My current project focuses on inscriptions written on Greek and Roman temples in Turkey and Greece in order to analyze the spatial settings of these documents and the role that they played in defining ancient sanctuaries and religious experience more broadly. I also draw attention to the “afterlives” of inscriptions, conceived not only as those inscriptions taken down and reused elsewhere, but also those texts that remained on display centuries later during the early Christian period (fourth to seventh centuries CE) under significantly changed historical circumstances, but at a time when educated viewers still had the ability to read and interact with these older texts. By examining the fate of inscriptions on formerly pagan temples, I argue that newly Christianized communities neither ignored nor unthinkingly destroyed these epigraphic reminders of the past, but rather actively tolerated their continued display, only occasionally visibly altering the older texts to remove the names of pagan gods and donors. These much older inscriptions continued to add meaning to sacred space even in late antiquity.


Inscriptions are one of the most important sources for the study of ancient history: they have been heavily mined for information on laws and regulations, ritual practice, leading figures, socio-economic data, and historical events. All of this information is usually drawn from the text itself, reproduced in various epigraphic corpora, such as the Inscriptiones Graecae or the Inschriften griechischer Städte aus Kleinasien, where the text and editorial discussion is typically accompanied by a brief description of the stone and, sometimes, usually at the end of the volume, by a photograph of the block or squeeze, which permits an analysis of the letter forms of the text and their potential dating. This modus operandi of epigraphic publications has brought order to thousands upon thousands of inscriptions, allowing historians to effectively draw on them as sources of historical information. It has also, however, transformed these inscribed blocks into texts, stripping away much of the physical quality and spatial context of the stone.

A number of ground-breaking recent epigraphic studies (Eastmond 2015; Berti et al. 2017; Bolle et al 2017) have drawn attention to this traditional focus on the words themselves rather than the full status of the stone as a physical object, within a specific architectural setting, an element of material and visual culture in ancient cities. It is now clear that the synecdochic understanding of inscriptions as texts leaves out a great deal of information: inscriptions are much more than the texts themselves. Epigraphic material could communicate to literate and illiterate ancient viewers alike. Inscriptions therefore remain a largely untapped source for studies from archaeological and art historical perspectives.

My project at the CHS furthermore drew attention to the transtemporal nature of inscriptions: they effectively communicated to viewers not just at the moment of their original inscribing, but decades and centuries later, under greatly changed historical circumstances. Growing out of my recent dissertation (2017), I have collected data on the epigraphic material at sanctuaries in Greece and Asia Minor, specifically, the inscriptions written on the temple structure itself: on its architrave, walls, and antae. I documented first the ancient (mainly Hellenistic and Roman) practice of adding texts to temples before turning to the late antique period (fourth to seventh centuries CE) and the early Christian response to these older texts. By taking a broad chronological and geographical view of inscriptions on temples, I have been able to chart the development of this epigraphic habit over time and the use of these texts to define and re-define ancient sanctuaries.

One particular temple inspired my work on these inscriptions: the Temple of Augustus and Roma in Ankara, Turkey. This temple famously bears a bilingual copy of the Res Gestae divi Augusti on its cella and pronaos walls, along with a list of priests on the antae. We may assume that imperial cult temple walls were the obvious place for inscribing important imperial documents, but this is in fact not the case. The other Galatian copies of the Res Gestae come from a statue base and pylons at the entrance to a temenos, respectively. The Monumentum Ancyrum therefore raised many questions for me: was there a long-standing practice of inscribing documents on temple walls? Did the practice extend to lists of priests? As a scholar who specializes in late antiquity, I was also intrigued by the preservation of these documents on the temple walls through the early Christian and Byzantine periods. Was such an attitude of tolerance towards older inscriptions – even a list of pagan priests – common? And why had no previous researchers considered the remarkable preservation of the Res Gestae on the walls of the temple in Ankara, instead taking its presence for granted?

While at the CHS and at the DAI (Deutsches Archäologisches Institut) in Berlin, as well as at the Kommission für Alte Geschichte und Epigraphik in Munich, I wrote an article exploring these questions and arguing that research on late antiquity has largely ignored the huge number of older inscriptions left on display in the early Christian period, instead focusing only on those blocks taken down and reused as spolia. Although the use of spolia is a hallmark of late antiquity, I argue that the scholarly fixation with the motivations for spoliating older material has obscured the overall tolerant attitude towards older material and the many texts left in situ and still legible to literate viewers. I trace the history of the temple at Ankara and its conversion to a church, which I argue took place in late antiquity, and draw attention to the continued importance of Augustus as a legendary figure associated with the birth of Christ and as a role model for good emperors. Furthermore, the list of priests of the imperial cult also preserved on the temple was less about pagan religion and more about local Galatian identity. Viewed in this light, I argue that the Res Gestae divi Augusti did not survive to the modern world by accident, but was rather the product of the continued significance of these texts to later viewers. This article was greatly supplemented by CHS library resources, including a copy of Mommsen’s original 1883 publication of the Res Gestae from the Rare Books room, with high quality plates showing the state of the blocks and later Byzantine graffiti better than more recent photographs.

During my time in Washington I also wrote another article deriving from my dissertation research on Aphrodisias in Turkey, specifically the display of older Roman inscriptions from the Temple of Aphrodite within the temple-church built on the same site around 500 CE. As in the case of the Res Gestae, the importance of the texts for understanding the Roman history of the city has obscured the later viewing and (selective) erasures of some of the texts. The addition of new inscribed texts to the church indicates that the act of writing continued to play a role in defining the sacred space and negating its previous pagan connotations.

In addition to these two articles on the late antique fate of inscriptions, I also continued my larger project on the ancient practice of writing inscriptions on temples in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, which should result in a slim monograph or hefty article in the near future. My analysis has produced a clearer sense of the types of texts added to these sacred structures and the motivations behind this habit. Certainly not all temples bore inscriptions; famously, the Parthenon in Athens remained uninscribed until the ill-fated and short-lived dedication to Nero, still evident from the dowel holes of the bronze letters left on the temple’s east façade. While the origin of architectural dedications in the Archaic and Classical periods has been studied, the full flourishing of the practice in later eras has not. G. Umholtz (2002) has convincingly argued that inscribing dedications on temples grew out of existing Greek votive practice, rather than being an innovation imported from eastern despots. Nonetheless, my analysis indicated that after an initial proliferation of the habit at fourth-century Carian sanctuaries such as Labraunda and Amyzon (in southwestern Asia Minor), the habit almost disappeared before resurfacing in the second half of the second century BCE. By the early imperial period, inscribing dedications on temples became exceedingly common, whether the donations were made by individual citizens, the polis, or distant emperors. With few exceptions, however, only donations related to the architecture of the temple itself were permitted to be inscribed on the structure, with other instances of euergetism, such as the sponsoring of festivals or the construction of other buildings at sanctuaries, excluded. Longer documents, such as civic decrees, royal letters, or contracts could also be inscribed on the temple. Surprisingly, my catalogue of temple inscriptions has indicated that these documents more often dealt with civic matters (territorial disputes, taxation rights, honorary decrees) than with matters directly relevant to the temple (regulations of sacred festivals, the sanctuary’s territory, or praise of the deity). This finding, that many of the texts inscribed on temple antae and walls related more to the city than to sacred space, has been arrived at independently by E. Roels in her on-going doctoral work.

My time at the CHS and DAI also resulted in other work on the late antique eastern Mediterranean. I submitted to an edited volume an essay on the “dead villages” of northern Syria, a region currently at the middle of the tragic civil war. In the late antique period, this area had seen Peter Brown’s “rise of the holy man” and shows evidence of a prosperous agrarian society without the obvious presence of elite landowners. In an attempt to better understand the lived experiences of the past inhabitants of these abandoned villages, I analyzed domestic architecture dating from the fourth to the eighth centuries CE and argued that, rather than reflecting economic systems, as had previously been argued, these houses showed a need for inter- and intradomus surveillance in these remote yet prosperous villages, a phenomenon which I connect also with the rise of stylite saints in the region.

I also submitted a preliminary report on my fieldwork at Labraunda (Turkey) from the past summer; the excavation is directed by Olivier Henry. In order to better understand the means and motivations underlying the “Christianization” of this Carian sanctuary of Zeus in late antiquity, I led a group in excavating two olive presses installed at the edges of the sanctuary. Although the finds are still under analysis, the presence of the presses suggests that agricultural needs, rather than religious appropriation, may have been behind continued use of the site. I have received a Dumbarton Oaks grant to continue this project in the 2018 summer season.

During the spring 2018 semester, I was able to present my research at several invited lectures and workshops, including at Brown University and in Munich and Berlin. All of my work benefitted greatly from discussions with colleagues at the CHS as well as at the DAI, in addition to the institutional support and assistance from the entire staff of the Center. In the fall, I will continue developing publications on the ancient habit of using inscriptions to add meaning to temples, as well as the late antique fate of these pagan texts when Christians appropriated sanctuaries. This work intersects with broader research in the ancient world on how sacred space was created and in turn shaped communities, and on how the rise of Christianity fundamentally altered these religious systems while incorporating the physical remains of the pagan past.

Select Bibliography

Bauer, Franz Alto, and Christian Witschel, eds. 2007. Statuen in der Spätantike. Wiesbaden: Reichert.

Bayliss, Richard. 2004. Provincial Cilicia and the Archaeology of Temple Conversion. BAR International Series 1281. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Berti, Irene, Katharine Bolle, Fanny Opdenhoff, and Fabian Stroth, ed. 2017. Writing Matters: Presenting and Perceiving Monumental Inscriptions in Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Bolle, Katharine, Carlos Machado, and Christian Witschel, eds. 2017. The Epigraphic Culture(s) of Late Antiquity. Stuttgart, Franz Steiner.

Busine, Aude. 2013. “From Stones to Myth: Temple Destruction and Civic Identity in the Late Antique Roman East.” Journal of Late Antiquity 6.2:325-346.

Eastmond, Anthony, ed. 2015. Viewing Inscriptions in the Late Antique and Medieval World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jacobs, Ine. 2013. Aesthetic Maintenance of Civic Space: The ‘Classical’ City from the 4th to the 7th c. AD. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 193. Leuven: Peeters.

Myrup Kristensen, Troels. 2013. Making and Breaking the Gods: Christian Responses to Pagan Sculpture in Late Antiquity. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press.

Myrup Kristensen, Troels, and Lea Stirling, eds. 2016. The Afterlife of Greek and Roman Sculpture: Late Antique Responses and Practices. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Sweetman, Rebecca. 2015. “Memory, Tradition, and Christianization of the Peloponnese.” American Journal of Archaeology 119.4:501-531.

Thonemann, Peter. 2015. “The Martyrdom of Ariadne of Prymnessos and an Inscription from Perge.” Chiron 45:151-70.

Umholtz, Gretchen. 2002. “Architraval Arrogance? Dedicatory Inscriptions in Greek Architecture of the Classical Period.” Hesperia 71:261-293.