Read this now! A Study of Latin Verse Inscriptions

You there, scrolling through these records, wait a second, read my blog and learn about my project!  Have I got your attention now?  In the English language there are many different ways of grabbing somebody’s attention: the calling of a name, a description of the addressee, or even just a straight-up order; the same is true in Latin.  Throughout the Roman Empire we find various instances where inscriptions, graffiti and gravestones each do their best to get a passer-by to notice them.  My project, supervised by Prof. Peter Kruschwitz, is an enquiry into this linguistic phenomenon.

There are over 400,000 different recorded Latin inscriptions from all over the Empire, far too much for a single 6-week project to cover, thus some narrowing-down is needed.  Prof. Kruschwitz and I have been looking through one of Latin epigraphy’s more curious bodies of work: the Latin verse inscriptions (Carmina Latina Epigraphica), a collection of Latin poetry from thousands of authors of different backgrounds.  Choosing a body of work such as this gives us a unique insight to Latin word usage and linguistic formulae: we can see how the Romans and their neighbours manipulated their common tongue to fit into a variety of poetic metres.

From what we have seen already, it seems that in Latin, as in English, requests and orders are somehow mitigated by various different politeness formulae, whether this be a simple ‘please’ (quaeso, oro) or a more elaborate combination of phrases such as ‘if you’re free’ (si libet).  Examples of this in the Carmina Latina Epigraphica are plentiful; however the most interesting inscriptions are the unmitigated orders: Stop! (siste!) Read! (lege!) See! (cognosce).  How do these instances fit in with the politeness culture of the Romans? What does the inscription gain when it goes unmitigated? Our project aims to answer these questions.

Alex Heavens, Classics