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16 I: Andreas Rhoby (Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften), The Ubiquity of Metrical Inscriptions in Byzantium. Texts and Contexts


Everything inscribed on something, even if it is not expressed in verse, is called an epigram. This statement, attested in the tenth-century Byzantine so-called Suda lexicon, describes the meaning of epigramma. Interestingly enough, the term does not only encompass metrical inscriptions in this definition. The passage even if it is not expressed in verse clearly indicates that the Byzantines normally identified epigrams with metrical inscriptions. These metrical inscriptions were very widespread in Byzantium, from Late Antiquity until the end of the Empire. From the seventh century onward, the main metre of the Byzantine epigram is the dodecasyllable. These dodecasyllables are inscribed on stones; yet, especially in the middle and late Byzantine period, they were used for various further media: painted fresco inscriptions, epigrams on icons, metalwork, textiles etc. During this period the churches with their painted inscriptions, which were mostly in verse, became the new center of the epigraphic tradition. 

The number of still existing Byzantine epigrams dating after AD 600 had been considered very small by previous scholarship. Within the project ‘Byzantine epigrams on objects’ (4 vols, 2009-2018), however, ca. 800 Byzantine metrical inscriptions, still preserved in situ, were collected. This relatively high number testifies to the original ubiquity of metrical inscriptions in Byzantium. This is also corroborated by the numerous epigrams that are preserved both in collections of known Byzantine poets (such as Manuel Philes in the fourteenth century) and anonymously.

For various reasons, such as for example issues of self-fashioning, metrical inscriptions were preferred to mere prose inscriptions. Donors of churches, of icons or other portable objects wanted to have their donation celebrated by an extraordinary epigram. The same is true for tomb inscriptions: verse inscriptions celebrating the deceased’s deeds during lifetime decorate aristocratic tombstones.

Byzantine metrical inscription are, of course, not transmitted isolated, but they interact with their surroundings. They refer to depictions and/or decorations close to the text. In addition, verses and their punctuation signs are part of the decoration of a church wall, a tombstone or a scene on an icon. Moreover, metrical inscriptions were not just meant to be there, but also to interact with their readers and beholders. They were read aloud at various occasions (on commemoration days, during liturgy etc.) and, thus, both the literate and illiterate audience was involved in the performance of text and depiction.

In my contribution, I shall discuss various representative examples of Byzantine metrical inscriptions of the entire Byzantine millennium.