Material Text Cultures

Lettered and Inscribed. Inscriptions in Urban Space in the Greco-Roman Period and Middle Ages


Late Antique Culture(s) of Inscriptions in the Imperium Romanum – on the Changes in Communication Structures and Commemorative Media at the End of Antiquity


former staff members

Teilprojektleiter Prof. Dr. Christian Witschel
Teilprojektleiter Prof. Dr. Stephan Westphalen
akademischer Mitarbeiter Fabian Stroth
akademische Mitarbeiterin Katharina Bolle




The political, economic and social changes in Late Antiquity and the Early Byzantine period were not without their effects on the material culture in both the west and east of the Roman Empire. This process of transformation can be traced above all in script-bearing artefacts whose inscriptions were now presented in altered visual form and often in novel spatial contexts.

From the middle of the third century A.D. there was a strong wind of change in the culture of inscriptions in the Imperium Romanum, which had a both quantitative and qualitative impact: from then on inscriptions appear not only to have been made in much smaller numbers; even the characters were different from the examples we have from imperial times, often striking the present-day viewer as sloppy and less sophisticated. In many cases the script-bearers were moreover older monuments put to a new purpose after their original texts had simply been removed or written over. Finally, what came to colour the whole of Late Antiquity and the early Byzantine era was the unmistakable dominance of tituli of a Christian cast, which constitute a large part of the artefacts we now know from that epoch.

The sub-project is divided into two separate studies aimed at looking at the changes in the “epigraphic habit” at the end of Antiquity from various temporal and geographical angles. In order to grasp this intricate process as a socio-cultural phenomenon in all its complexity, the investigations will have to advance beyond semantic text analyses: rather, the meaning of script-bearing artefacts must be placed centre stage as indicators of material culture with a high iconic potential.

Looking at the western Imperium Romanum during Late Antiquity, Katharina Bolle is examining what role epigraphic artefacts played as media for social interaction. In particular, with the ongoing Christianisation of the empire, not only the content and design of the inscriptions changed – they were now also found in hitherto unusual contexts. Doubtless this process of transformation was also accompanied by changes in how these monuments were seen, and ultimately influenced their socio-cultural meanings. The aim of the investigation is to draw on the relevant epigraphic material and trace out an overall panorama of a culture of inscriptions in the throes of transformation and cast light on the specific materiality and presence of Late Antique inscriptions, their contemporary reception, and their changing functions – all from the cultural historical perspective.

Fabian Stroth uses the monogrammed capitals of the Hagia Sophia as a starting point to explore the early Byzantine capital as text support. The project approaches the subject from a particular interest in the monograms carved onto the capitals of the building’s 68 main columns. From these characters, the names and titles of the Imperial couple, IOVCTINIANOV / BACILEωS and ΘEOΔωPAC / AVΓOVCTAC, can be deciphered. Thus far, research on Early Byzantine capital sculpture has not classified monograms as ornamentation, except from the perspective of the art historian. However, these ornate „scripture pictures“ do not act exclusively as transferring signs, but meet in a form whose materiality and presence are involved in diverse processes of textual meaning.

The researchers on this project are involved in an intense exchange of ideas with a number of international collaborators. Silvia Orlandi of the Università ‘La Sapienza’ di Roma is providing important support with particular regard to the epigraphic culture of Late Antiquity in the Italian area and Rome. There are additionally close links with the Oxford project on "The Last Statues of Antiquity" under the direction of R. R. R. Smith and Bryan Ward-Perkins. In order to facilitate exchanges of information and images and to link up a wid range of existing data bases, the former Heidelberg Humboldt fellow Carlos Machado from the University of São Paolo has been enlisted by the project.



Subprojects of the 3rd Funding Period

A01 A02 A03 A05 A06 A08 A09 A10 A11 A12 B01 B04 B09 B10 B13 B14 B15 C05 C07 C08 C09 C10 INF Ö2 Z



Completed Subprojects

A01 A03 A04 B02 B03 B06 B07 B11 B12 C01 C02 C03 C04 C06 IGK Ö1



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