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Graffiti from the Basilica in the Agora of Smyrna

Graffiti from the Basilica in the Agora of Smyrna

By Roger S. Bagnall, Roberta Casagrande-Kim, Akin Ersoy, Cumhur Tanriver, and Burak Yolaçan (Institute for the Study of the Ancient World). Pp. x + 488, figs. 29. New York University Press, New York 2016. $85. ISBN 978-1-4798-6464-5 (cloth).

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The most significant discovery of ancient graffiti in recent memory is surely that of the basilica of Smyrna. The substructures of the basilica were disinterred in 2003 and revealed a mass of handwritten messages visible on surviving wall plaster. Bagnall provided a first, satisfying glimpse of the basilica’s written treasures in his Everyday Writing in the Graeco-Roman East (Berkeley 2011); its first chapter presented an overview discussion of these handwritten texts. But those of us interested in studying the inscriptions as a corpus waited patiently for a full publication. This is the book we’ve been waiting for.

This masterful volume provides the complete publication of the graffiti from the basilica of Smyrna. The first two chapters (Ersoy, “History of the Excavations in Smyrna,” and Yolaçan, “Description of the Building and Its Phases”) provide archaeological context for this, “one of the largest basilicas in Asia Minor” (4). The main level was entered from the agora courtyard, which lies to the south. The cryptoporticus, which has yielded the graffiti, was accessed instead from the street to the north of the building. Casagrande-Kim’s extremely useful essay on the figural graffiti includes plans of the cryptoporticus and its four galleries, which are most helpful for understanding the spaces where the writings were found. Bagnall, aided by Tanriver for more recent epigraphic discoveries, is the main author of the volume. He provides a series of introductory essays that address fundamental issues such as dating, paleography, and language, and then thematic topics, including Christianity, civic pride, and wordplay. The book then presents the basilica’s more than 300 inscriptions, here documented, translated, explained, and handsomely illustrated.

The graffiti, dating from the later second century C.E. (after an earthquake in 177 C.E.) through at least the third century, present some fascinating inscriptions, including the earliest known example of a word square in Greek. Consisting of five words that are the same when read either horizontally and vertically, this square was written twice in the basilica (122–23, 148). Other, four-word squares are known from late antiquity, but Bagnall notes that this example is earlier “by a matter of at least two centuries” (53). Also early in date are some graffiti that appear to be Christian. The clearest example is an explicitly stated isopsephism that juxtaposes “lord” and “faith” (ἰσόψηφα / κύριος ω / πίστις ω), with the letters of both words adding up to a sum of 800 (TP100.3; 45–6). Other texts might reference the Holy Spirit or the martyred bishop of the city.

Ancient graffiti reflect the character of a place and the interests of its community. The messages here illustrate civic competition among the cities of Asia Minor (Ἀσίας πρώτοις! and, in another hand, Ἐφεσίοις! [T9.1], along with others), problems and healing of the eyes, and riddles. Indeed, wordplay seems to be a major motivation. As many as eight graffiti feature the term ζήτημα, and, although isopsephisms that include a declaration of love and indirectly name a beloved (φιλῶ ἧς ὁ ἀριθμὸς) are known from elsewhere, the five examples in Smyrna constitute the largest cluster so far. Two texts (T9.7, T9.8) may be written in Latin, although the first is perhaps Greek written in Latin letters, and the second has faded to only a few letters. Still, these offer tantalizing traces of Latin in this environment.

An important aspect of this book is that it presents an entire, substantial corpus of material: a mix of textual and figural graffiti, which are either incised into the wall plaster or written in black or red material. There are 155 figural and 170 textual graffiti (27); the ratio of drawings to text (9:10) is much higher than that found in Herculaneum and Pompeii, where the ratio of image to text is 1:4. Scholars will certainly want to pursue what accounts for this difference (methods of documentation? type of space inscribed? date at which the graffiti were created? other factors?). Another significant difference between the sites is the material used to generate the graffiti. In Pompeii, most were incised; a smaller number were written in charcoal. Charcoal was easy to erase, and these graffiti disappeared quickly after their discovery; I know of only one charcoal inscription still extant, located in the so-called Villa of Poppaea at Oplontis (cat. no. 6 in R. Benefiel, “The Graffiti,” in J. Clarke et al., eds., Villa A at Oplontis II [New York, forthcoming]).

The inscriptions in black at Smyrna appear to be something different. They are described as dipinti in the essays, while the catalogue describes the medium as black ink. In her chapter, Casagrande-Kim describes the black material as “obtained from charcoal or from soot of burned fat, oil, or resin, while the red accents were possibly made out of pounded brick dust mixed in with a binder” (25). This material certainly has greater staying power than the charcoal graffiti at Pompeii; it is also completely different from the red paint used for the public, official campaign posters that constitute most of the dipinti at Pompeii. It is significant because this charcoal binder was the preferred mechanism for writing in the basilica at Smyrna: two-thirds of the pictorial graffiti and a considerable number of textual graffiti were written in black; smaller numbers were incised; and red brick dust was used in a few instances. Here again, this collection presents valuable new material to be woven into our understanding of ancient graffiti across the Roman world.

The organizational system for the catalogue can prove challenging, as the graffiti are not numbered sequentially. Rather, the rule for assigning identifiers was to proceed through the bays of the cryptoporticus and then the piers to the south. So, graffito T15.1 is in Bay 15 and is a textual graffito. Bay 15 holds another seven texts (T15.2–T15.8) and six drawings (D15.1–D15.6). Fewer graffiti are found on the final section of piers, so the final two entries are TP128.1 (P to denote pier) and DP155.1. A concordance of bays and piers and several indices are helpful.

Each graffito is illustrated by a color photograph of at least half a page, an area big enough for a reader to discern the image, and several overview photographs display the layout of text and image on the plaster. NYU Press is to be commended for giving Bagnall and his coauthors the space and resources to present this corpus. By doing so, they have ensured that this collection can, and will, be properly studied further. It will certainly be an important comparandum in the field of ancient graffiti studies.

Rebecca R. Benefiel
Department of Classics
Washington and Lee University

Book Review of Graffiti from the Basilica in the Agora of Smyrna, by Roger S. Bagnall, Roberta Casagrande-Kim, Akin Ersoy, Cumhur Tanriver, and Burak Yolaçan

Reviewed by Rebecca R. Benefiel

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 1 (January 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1221.benefiel

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