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Heroic Tablets

By Steve Moyer | HUMANITIES, March/April 2012 | Volume 33, Number 2

Roman depictions in stone of Homer’s Iliad and the epic cycle, known as the Tabulae Iliacae, pose a number of challenges for the modern viewer. Sometimes the low-relief, miniature carvings of the events of the Trojan War, including the eventual sacking of the city by the Greeks, are treated in chronological order, while at other times that order is circumvented by directing the viewer’s attention to Aeneas center stage. This emphasis on Aeneas in the Greek saga jibes with Augustan ideology, which by the late first century bce and the first century ce strove to emphasize the inevitability of the founding of Rome, thanks to the heroic arrival in Italy of a Trojan the Greeks regarded favorably.

David Petrain’s NEH-funded research on the twenty-three stone plaques making up the Tabulae considers their unique system of visual communication. Each tablet is not much larger than a sheet of paper. The one showing Aeneas setting sail after the sack of Troy, known as the Tabula Capitolina, places friezes atop each other, and the events can be read as one would the panels of a comic strip.

By accenting the safe departure of Aeneas from Troy en route to Italy, the Tabula Capitolina, carved in the early first century ce, seems to have been part of a conscious effort to reinforce a sense of national identity among Romans during the early empire. In an elegiac couplet inscribed on the reverse side of several of the tablets, moreover, Theodorus, creator of the work, is equated with Homer himself. The deft poetic diction that can create such an impression on a viewer is bolstered by another aspect of the Tabulae called “magic squares,” which are grids of letters that also name Theodorus and can be read like a palindrome, forward and backward. The Roman viewer puzzled over this less, perhaps, than we do today, and why that may be the case is another aspect of the Tabulae that Petrain brings to light.

The Tabulae, with or without such esoterica, worthy as they are of a novel from the pen, say, of Umberto Eco, are artistically compelling. The tablets should in turn compel many to seek out Petrain’s forthcoming book, Homer in Stone: The Tabulae Iliacae in their Roman Context from Cambridge University Press, and what he concludes were the sophisticated interpretive habits that the Roman viewer must have brought to them.