Talk: Reitia and the epigraphic habit of Este

This Wednesday, I am giving the Classics and Ancient History research seminar at Exeter. The paper will be based on brand new research I have been doing on the dedications to the goddess Reitia at Este.

Here is the abstract:

The epigraphic culture of the Veneto region is full of contrasts, particularly between its two largest cities: Este and Padua. At Padua, dedications to the gods were made within the city, many dedications are uninscribed, and all named dedicators are men. At Este, religious activity was focused on a number of large extra-mural sanctuaries, each associated with a particular deity and social group. At the sanctuary of Reitia, goddess of writing, we find many dedications inscribed in the Venetic language, mostly in the form of bronze copies of writing tablets and styluses. The majority of these inscribed dedications to Reitia were made by women – or at least, they feature female names in the nominative. This paper explores the relationships between the goddess Reitia, the practice of dedicating inscribed writing tools and the position of women in Atestine society. In a society where we expect literacy to be predominantly male, how and why did these practices develop? Does the use of women’s names on bronze writing tablets and styluses provide evidence that women used these objects in daily life? This paper suggests that the dual functions of Reitia – her association with women and her association with writing – came together to create a highly specific local epigraphic practice, whose linguistic and archaeological traces continue into the Roman period of the city. It also argues that the dedicatory practices of women may have affected the wider epigraphic habit of the city, with women’s names appearing at Este more often than at Padua, not just in dedications but also in other text types.


Wednesday’s seminar will feature exciting diagrams like this.

What’s unusual about all this is not that the dedications to Reitia have writing on them, which is common enough in the ancient world, but that the dedicators seem to be giving writing itself to the goddess. I’d like to explore how unusual the act of dedicating writing is, with reference to similar phenomena at the sanctuary of Zeus Semios (“Zeus of the Signs”) near Athens. Pippa Steele of the CREWS project introduced me to this intriguing site, and I think there are comparisons to be made to the cult of Reitia.

Over the last couple of weeks, I have also been investigating a slightly different thread of this research: how the dedications at Este fit in to our knowledge of ancient education. The writing tablets at Este imply a certain set of exercises for learning to write. First, the alphabet; then the letters out of order; then clusters of consonants. This is not miles away from our evidence of Greco-Roman education, where the alphabet (in order and out of order) and simple syllables appear to be the first thing that children learnt. The dedicators at Este do not seem to be children, but grown women – does this matter? I’m still piecing these ideas together, and all suggestions are welcome.

All are very welcome to attend the seminar on Wednesday, and further details can be found here.

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