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Persons of Ancient Athens

Johannes Kirchner’s monumental Prosopographia Attica which was published in 1901 and 1903 in two volumes remains fundamental for the study of Athenian names of the classical period.  Meritt had the privilege of discussing with Kirchner his own reminiscences of the creation of that work.  Much of it was accomplished in the early morning hours while most of Berlin slept.  It was based on the then known published Attic inscriptions and on the entire corpus of Greek and Latin Literature.

When the American excavations of the Athenian Agora were begun in 1931 it was apparent that many new names would have to be added to augment Kirchner’s work and that of his successor Sundwall who published in 1910 his Nachträge zur Prosopographia Attica. His additions were concerned mainly with texts known from Delphi and Delos.  But the progress of Greek epigraphy left literally no stone unturned.  The American excavations between 1931 and 1970 brought to light in whole or in part some 7000 Attic inscriptions.  The systematic recording of the new Attic names in these and other newly discovered inscriptions offered a tremendous opportunity for increasing our knowledge of Athens and her people and at the same time an almost overwhelming burden of keeping the record anywhere nearly up-to-date as new discoveries were made.

When at the beginning of the excavations in the Athenian Agora in 1931 Meritt was assigned by the Field Director, T. Leslie Shear, the task of supervising the publication of the epigraphical material to be found, he realized that it would be useful to have a means of ready reference when any personal name was discovered.  He therefore began in his office at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton his card index file which became the master file of all Athenian proper names.  Into that file went not only the names which appeared on the new inscriptions found in the Agora but also all the names in Kirchner and Sundwall and many other names in inscriptions found elsewhere and published in current periodicals as they appeared, and as it was possible notations were made about them.  Voluntary contributions were made by other scholars from published texts, principally by James Notopoulos of Trinity College, Connecticut.

The stones discovered between 1931 and 1967 in the Athenian Agora were given a preliminary publication in the journal Hesperia by Meritt and some 35 collaborators as their varied interests justified their participation in the work.  The Attic names and others from the first ten years of Hesperia (1932-1941) were printed in a volume which indexed all names new and old found in the Athenian Agora and recorded them for easy reference in the index to Hesperia Volumes I-X edited in Meritt’s office and published in 1946.  A second Index volume covered the inscriptions published in Volumes XI-XX. Several people worked with Meritt on the compilation of the Greek names in these Index volumes.1  For the volumes of Hesperia beginning in XXI and carrying through to the end of the major campaign of excavation the epigraphical record was summarized year by year in the fourth number of Hesperia for each year, and no volume has been published to match the first two.

On each card in the master file are given the name, patronymic, and demotic in so far as these elements are known, followed by the excavation inventory number or other identification and/or publication references, and indication of date if known.   The cards offered a convenient place to record changes and emendations made as the epigraphical study progressed.  The usefulness of this master file was greatly enhanced by the inclusion of all the names published by Kirchner and Sundwall.  The principal followed from the beginning has been to note each reading proposed in the published works, even including erroneous readings which had to be corrected later.  It is thus possible with the use of this index to trace the development of a text, which is in itself a valuable contribution to the index as a whole.

As the usefulness of this file to epigraphists and general historians became known, scholars came from far and wide to consult it and were always welcomed to Meritt’s room in Princeton, and many who could not come in person wrote to him for the help this file could give them.  It became clear that it would indeed be desirable to have the information more widely available, and many suggestions for types of publication were made.  All had to be rejected, however, not only because of the quantity of the material and the practical difficulties of any traditional printing but also because none of them could provide for the all-important element of keeping the information up-to-date.    As a temporary means of having more than one copy available the cards were arranged seriatim by John S. Traill and Terry Traill and xeroxed in panels which could be bound in books alphabetically arranged as in the master file.  Twenty-seven such volumes were prepared during the 1960’s in three sets.  One set remains in Meritt’s possession, one set is kept at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton along with the original file, and one set has been used by John S. Traill for his further work in Toronto.

For it was John Traill, who had worked with Meritt on the manifold names of the councillors in the volume Athenian Agora XV, The Inscriptions, The Athenian Councillors, who envisaged the ideal solution to the problem of making the file both available and capable of addition and correction.  He was the ideal man to carry on the work and it was he who not only saw the possibilities offered by a computer but also set himself the tremendous task of finding a sponsor.  It was essential for all the material in the file in 1972 to be put into a computer in a place where provision for ongoing additions and emendations could also be guaranteed.  Meritt had retired from the Institute for Advanced Study, but Traill was a member of the classical faculty at the University of Toronto.  He was able first to gain the interest and approval of the project by the University, then the financial backing of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council which let him make a start.  There had to be the development of a computer system which would fulfill all the requirements of epigraphical composition; the keen interest and expert knowledge and skill of the Director of the Computer Systems Research Group, Professor Dennis Tsichritzis, let him devise this system.  Results of beginning stages of the work were so promising that the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council gave a long-range support and Traill went to work with the assistance of Terry Traill and graduate students well trained in epigraphy whom he oversaw constantly.  The information on every card in the file is checked before it is entered into the computer and, as anticipated and provided for, emendations are made as necessary to bring the record up-to-date.  The desideratum of many years is being fulfilled.  It is now possible to envisage the time when we shall have available a ready reference to any known Athenian and can use that knowledge for the further study of Athenian history.

For this service to classical scholarship Meritt is deeply grateful to John Traill.  He is also happy to acknowledge his indebtedness to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton for the many years in which, as a member of the Institute, he was able to devote himself to the elucidation of problems connected with the study of Greek epigraphy.


Benjamin D. Meritt
August 1984


1Principally to be mentioned are Paul Clement and Daphne Hereward

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