Doorways and thresholds were an important locus of power in Greco-Roman antiquity–but we might also think of them as an epigraphic opportunity. Inscriptions often preceded ancient doorways, just as tabulae (inscribed tablets) could demarcate the sacred boundaries of temples. Writing was and is a means of delineating and mapping space. Additionally, certain words could serve to set the tone for guests entering a household, just as a welcome mat does for us today. The famous ‘HAVE‘ (“Welcome”–a variation on ‘Ave’) mosaic from Pompeii’s House of the Faun is a well-known mosaic inscription that ushered in Roman visitors.
Some welcome inscriptions were quite the mouthful and likely took a moment for guests to read, process, and appreciate. For instance, in the front of the reception room of Apamea’s Maison du Cerf (5th c. CE; See Scheibelreiter-Gail 2012: 148) is a mosaic tabula ansata with a quotation from the Odyssey (Hom Od. 1.123-124) that spoke to guests:
“Welcome, stranger. By us you will be treated as a friend. After you have finished your meal, you will tell us what you need.”
Here, both the image and the inscription speak to the viewer. First, the use of a tabula ansata was a calculated move. It was a shape often used for formal documents. Consequently, it communicated a level of authority to the visitor, while the Homeric quotation advertised the learned nature of the owner of the house and stated values of the Greek idea of ξενία (“guest-friendship”).
Yet another purpose for writing near entrances was protection. Images worked in tandem with writing in order to accomplish this. A good example of this practice comes from a floor mosaic once placed in the baths of the North African city of Thysdrus, but now in the El Djem museum. It depicts a togate owl (!) with a bunch of dead songbirds around it. The inscription reads: ‘Invidia rumpuntur aves neque noctua curat’: ‘The birds are destroyed by jealousy, but the owl doesn’t care.’ I must say that the owl does look rather chilled out, and was a symbol of protection. The owl may, as has been suggested (2006: 135), represent an elite Roman, with the jealous songbirds representing the rest of the populace, but it is more specific to the city than that. The standards of the Telegenii, a group that put on shows in the amphitheater at Thysdrus, are depicted, and thus the inscription is probably serving to protect the high status (with a togate owl!) of the association–who many were likely invidious of.
The harm caused by invidia or Φθονος (jealousy) and the idea of an “evil eye” were pervasive in antiquity, just as it is in Greece and other countries today. I brought a few evil eye protections home with me from Thassos, and I was happy to see that the recipients promptly put them on.
Greeks and Romans believed that the evil eye could cause illness and weakness, and many thought that particles could be sent through the eyes into another individual. In antiquity, direct lines of vision were dangerous and had to be blocked with another, reflective eye. As John Clarke has noted, beauty was often the thing that was most envied, and thus the baths were a place where the danger of the evil eye lurked most strongly (2005: 283). Gazing upon a naked body was not harmless, if there was envy behind those eyes. Clarke emphasizes that funny pictures in frescoes or on mosaics in the baths had an important function: laughter could dispel the evil eye. Forcing a patron to laugh could break the gaze and the tension in a room where naked people looked longingly and covetously at the bodies of others. This is perhaps one reason that college gyms should have more amusing frescoes than they currently do.
Sometimes mosaics carried a number of apotropaic devices. This is what I call the “kitchen sink” approach to protecting one’s self. A second century CE house from Antioch has an intriguing mosaic depicting an evil eye, but also a raven, trident, sword, scorpion, dog, serpent, centipede, panther, and a dwarf with a large phallus (because of course you need one of those). What is important is the protective function of the inscription, “KAICY” (“and you” or essentially “the same to you”). Writing combines with the apotropaic images in order to create a layered mosaic for protection.
Another good example of the use of “KAI CY” or “ΚΑΙ ΣΥ” for protective purposes comes from an Egyptian limestone stele now at the Fitzwilliam Museum (E.49.1901). The votive offering inscription honors the imperial cult of Nero and thus is from the mid 1st c. CE. It similarly combines text with protective images (dogs and a winged sun disk) in order to ward off the evil eye.
Even early Christians placed a large amount of stock in the power of sight and the eyes. Gregory of Nyssa discusses the evil eye of the Devil that eats away at him (‘Βαcκάνῳ τηκόμενοc ὀφθαλῷ’ [PG 46.597]). Accusations regarding the evil eye were so pervasive that Basil wrote his On Envy in the mid 4th century CE, as a means of quelling the unrest.
What these inscriptions reveal to us is a society as obsessed with the ideas of envy, jealousy, and power as we are. Ancient mosaics used writing and depictions of the evil eye as prophylactic devices against evil gazes, but such inscriptions could also tell guests to relax and let go of their jealousy. This goes back to the classical knowledge that while envy could do damage to another, it also tended to punish the person casting the evil eye. Envious people could be internally eaten up by envy or destroy their own eyes. Inscriptions and apotropaic images could protect the owner of a house from the dangers of the evil eye, but ultimately, envy harmed the envious the most…