Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa


  • Rachel Mairs (a1)

Hellenistic and Roman acrostich inscriptions are usually full of verbal and visual clues, which point the reader in the direction of the ‘hidden message’ contained in the vertical lines of the text. The authors of such inscriptions want their audiences to appreciate the skill that has gone into their composition. There are several complementary ways in which the presence of an acrostich might be signalled to the reader or viewer and their attention directed towards it. These include direct verbal statements, or more subtle allusions, within the text of the inscription. But, even without having read its text, the viewer of an inscription containing a ‘hidden message’ is often immediately aware that some kind of wordplay is at work. Acrostichs, palindromes and various kinds of word square are all graphically striking, or their appearance may be enhanced to make them more so. Regular spacing, the repetition of the acrostich in a separate column and the use of painted or incised grids are all ways in which the layout of the text on the stone can invite the viewer to play a word game. In some cases, as I will argue in this paper, acrostich makers envisaged—even intended—the participants in this game to include the illiterate as well as the literate.

Corresponding author
Hide All

1 In recent years, there has been a number of new studies on acrostich inscriptions, and on those involving wordplay more generally: see the articles in Kwapisz J., Petrain D. and Szymański M. (edd.), The Muse at Play: Riddles and Wordplay in Greek and Latin Poetry (Berlin, 2012), in particular V. Garulli, ‘Greek acrostic verse inscriptions’, 246–78; and Mairs R., ‘Acrostich inscriptions at Kalabsha (Roman Talmis): cultural identities and literary games’, Chronique d’Égypte 86 (2011), 281–97, on the inscriptions from Lower Nubia discussed below.

2 Mairs (n. 1), 281–97; R. Mairs, ‘Sopha grammata: Greek acrostichs in inscriptions from Arachosia, Nubia and Libya’, in Kwapisz, Petrain and Szymański (n. 1), 279–306.

3 Text and discussion: Vleeming S.P., Some Coins of Artaxerxes and Other Short Texts in the Demotic Script Found on Various Objects and Gathered from Many Publications (Leuven, 2001), no. 205, 99209 ; Brunsch W., ‘Die bilingue Stele des Moschion (Berlin Inv. Nr. 2135 + Cairo J.d'E Nr. 63160)’, Enchoria. Zeitschrift für Demotistik und Koptologie 9 (1979), 532 ; Bresciani E., ‘I testi demotici della stele «enigmistica» di Moschione e il bilinguismo culturale nell'Egitto greco-romano’, Egitto e Vicino Oriente 3 (1980), 117–45; Bernand É., Inscriptions métriques de l’Égypte gréco-romaine. Recherches sur la poésie épigrammatique des Grecs en Égypte (Paris, 1969), no. 108. The full Greek and Demotic text, with translation, is given in the appendix to this article.

4 μερίμνης ἀγαθῆς ‘good thinking’ (B 6); μισθόν ‘reward’ (B 13); φρονῆσαι ‘comprehend, understand’ (B 14); σοφία ‘wisdom’ (B 14); συνιέντι ‘to the one who perceives’ (B 20); πινυτόφρονος ‘of wise/understanding mind’ (C 1); τῶι μηθὲν ἀγνοοῦντι ‘he who is no fool’ (F 9); εὑρών ‘finding’; gm ‘find’ (F 10; G 10); νοῦς ‘mind’ (I 7, I 9); swn ‘knowledge’ (J 6); rx ‘know’ (G 11); ir HAt ‘reflect, consider’ (G 7); πυνθάνομαι ‘learn’ (I 9); mAwy ‘thought’ (J 3).

5 ἀμαθία ‘stupidity’ (B 13); λανθάνω ‘escape notice’ (F 8); συγχέω ‘pour together, mingle, confound’ (F 8); ἀγνόημα ‘ignorance, oversight’ (F 9); ἁμαρτάνων ‘going wrong, erring’ (F 9); Sft ‘err’ (G 9).

6 Implied, I think, in G 7: tS Dr.v=k; the word ‘hand’ also appears in G 8, 9, 13, 14.

7 I am reminded of this passage every time I see a person tapping in vain at the touch screen of a recalcitrant iPad.

8 See Parkinson R.B., Cracking Codes: The Rosetta Stone and Decipherment (Berkeley, 1999); Stewart H.M., ‘A crossword hymn to Mut’, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 57 (1971), 87104 ; Noegel S. and Szpakowska K., ‘“Word play” in the Ramesside dream manual’, Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur 35 (2006), 193212 ; Faulkner R.O., ‘Abnormal or cryptic writings in the coffin texts’, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 67 (1981), 173–4; Zandee J., An Ancient Egyptian Crossword Puzzle: An Inscription of Neb-wenenef from Thebes (Leiden, 1966).

9 Butz P.A., The Art of the Hekatompedon Inscription and the Birth of the Stoikhedon Style (Leiden, 2010), 42 .

10 Austin R.P., ‘Across and down’, G&R 8 (1939), 129–38, at 132: ‘His high opinion of himself will scarcely communicate itself to students of his verses; for they are often bombastic and obscure’; see also below on comparanda.

11 I. Metr. 168: Sotadics, pentameters and hexameters; I. Metr. 169: hexameters and pentameters, concluding in five lines of prose.

12 Adams J.N., ‘The poets of Bu Njem: language, culture and the centurionate’, JRS 89 (1999), 109–34.

13 line 28 gemma ut auro cluditur sic castram porta decorat; Verg. Aen. 10.134 qualis gemma micat fuluum quae diuidit aurum; see Adams (n. 12), 120.

14 Text and translation: Vleeming (n. 3), whose translation of the Greek was supplied by F.W. Walbank and D.J. Thompson.

15 Text: Bernard P., Pinault G.-J. and Rougemont G., ‘Deux nouvelles inscriptions grecques de l'Asie Centrale’, Journal des Savants 2 (2004), 227356 . Translation: Nagle D.B. and Burstein S.M., Readings in Greek History: Sources and Interpretations (Oxford, 2006), 285 .

16 Text: Bernand É., Inscriptions métriques de l’Égypte gréco-romaine. Recherches sur la poésie épigrammatique des Grecs en Égypte (Paris, 1969), nos 168 and 169. Translation after Burstein S.M., Ancient African Civilizations: Kush and Axum (Princeton, NJ, 1997), 66–8.

17 CIL 3.77 = CLE 271. Text and translation: Courtney E., Musa Lapidaria: A Selection of Latin Verse Inscriptions (Atlanta, GA, 1995), no. 26.

18 IPhilae 143. The translation is my own.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

The Classical Quarterly
  • ISSN: 0009-8388
  • EISSN: 1471-6844
  • URL: /core/journals/classical-quarterly
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 6
Total number of PDF views: 44 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 73 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 15th March 2017 - 21st October 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.