Today, at the First North American Congress of Greek and Latin Epigraphy in San Antonio, Texas, Werner Eck presented a keynote address entitled “Documents on Bronze: A Phenomenon of the West?” I offer the following summary largely from memory, hoping that other readers present will correct errors and supplement deficiencies.
Eck’s thesis is that we can discern an essential difference in epigraphic habit across the Roman empire: normative documents of public import (i.e., publicae constitutiones) were customarily inscribed on bronze in Latin-speaking areas, whereas stone was the preferred material in Greek-speaking provinces. Bronze was clearly used everywhere, for a variety of epigraphic purposes, but with regard to public legal documents divergeant practice is argued. Eck posits that these opposing patterns were set long before the empire came into existence and were so strongly established that even centuries of Roman rule caused little erosion of the Greek pattern.
The paper begins with a helpful consideration of the range of inscribed materials and documentary types reflected in the historical record and the low survival rates for same. This theme carries on throughout the paper, and appropriate examples are marshaled to support the thesis. Some highlights: Inscriptions on wood may have constituted 90% of the inscribed documents (most intended as ephemera and now almost entirely lost). Less than one percent of military diplomata (on bronze) survive. These are found in both Latin- and Greek-speaking areas, and many have clearly appeared through at the hands of metal detectorists. As the mode of discovery is similar for many celebrated Western bronze leges, we would expect the same pattern in the east, but don’t see it. Bronze likely suffers loss disproportionately (it could be melted down for reuse, and generally was); therefore, we must imagine a disproportionate loss of normative, public texts from the West. The few Roman-period examples of normative public documents on bronze in the East are explained either as having been so specified in the originating document itself (there is evidence for such provision), or the product of Roman (pro-)magistrates doing things the way they were accustomed to do them.
Afterward, some audience members challenged Eck’s characterization of the Greek-speaking east as a place where some public documents were traditionally inscribed on wood and stone, citing examples from Argos, Athens and elsewhere during the Archaic and Classical periods. Eck maintained his thesis, seeking distinctions between the examples offered and the types of texts he feels were distinctively “on bronze” in the West, but expressed interest in getting more details that might affect his approach.