This paper aims to demonstrate the importance of inscriptional context and argues that by studying the specific material appearance of an inscription, such as the size, setting, texture, shape, letter-design, and environmental relation to other objects, we can gauge the ancient viewer’s perception and interpretation of an inscription.
The method is illustrated with an analysis of two sets of inscriptions from the 4th cent. CE Ostia, set up by two Roman officials, Flavius Octavius Victor and Ragonius Vincentius Celsus. Both men were praefecti annonae and both improved the bath-facilities at Ostia and set up inscriptions in order to commemorate this activity. The analysis of the specific visual design and spatial arrangement of inscriptions set up to commemorate the deeds of each man reveals that each had adopted a markedly different strategy for inscribing their memory in the inscriptional dossier of Ostia: the inscriptions set up by Celsus pursue clarity to the point of redundancy, whereas Victor’s display a unique and highly aesthetic visual design, which goes hand-in-hand with the sophisticated textual content of his bilingual inscriptions. Victor commemorated his deeds inside the baths by setting up inscriptions partially composed in verse, and even one in Greek, thus limiting his audience to the educated elite, whereas Celsus placed his bold and repetitive formulaic Latin inscriptions on the outside. His strategy was to achieve optimal visibility and legibility, so as to reach the widest possible audience.