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ATHENIANS: The Persons of Ancient Athens

La passion des inscriptions mène à collectionner des milliers de noms qui nous relient aux grands personnages de l'Antiquite. Cest à l'ordinateur de les memoriser avant de les renvoyer à leur passè, aux chercheurs de notre temps de les faire revivre.

Three years ago at the CMI in Athens and last May at the charter meeting of the CMI Toronto chapter I had the privilege to speak of the ATHENIANS research project with which I have been associated (friends say "obsessed") for the past two decades. The project has other special connections with Canada which are acknowledged with pleasure in the following remarks taken largely from those CMI talks.

Friends, Athenians, Persons of every status - citizens, women, resident aliens, visitors, foreigners honored by Athens, slaves - lend us your names. We shall return them unharmed after we have recorded their important biographical information in our computerized data-base. To paraphrase Aristotle, a scholar by nature desires to collect, and a computer oriented scholar by nature desires to collect with her computer. What a collection! Friends, Athenians, et aliae aliique have certainly answered our plea: we have now well over 100,000 ancient Athenians in (or about to be entered into) our data-base.

A list of members of the Athenian parliament from the middle of the lst century B.C. This inscription, found in the Agora Excavations in 1974, added 35 names to the ATHENIANS data-base. Whence have they come? It is a most remarkable characteristic of excavating in Athens (or, including the area around Athens, Attica) that when you turn over an ancient stone, you often find writing on it. We label such writings "inscriptions", and a person who studies inscriptions is an "epigrapher" from the Greek epigraphein, "write-on". Right on! Epigraphers have had no shortage of material in this part of the ancient world. There are 13,500 inscriptions crowded into the Epigraphical Museum, and there is room for no more. Is there another city in the world which possesses a museum devoted solely to writings on stone? Across Athens the basement of the Agora Museum is jammed with 8000 more inscriptions. In the suburbs, Eleusis has more than 1000, and Rhamnous the same. Piraieus has an ample supply, and there are numerous inscriptions at Brauron, Sounion, and Marathon. Why, even the bedrock of the Mesogaia, the inland area, is inscribed, and the coastal region, the Paralia, bears a litoral heritage. In sum, it is a most remarkable record of a most remarkable achievement of a most remarkable people of antiquity. I know of no parallel for such an efflorescence of lapidary literacy, certainly not among Athens' neighbors, the Megarians, Corinthians, Aeginetans, and Boeotians, nor among Athens' traditional antagonists, the Spartans and Macedonians. These all, by comparison, were functional illiterates. It is true that where the Athenians went, they littered, or rather, lettered. The walls of their branch offices at Delphi are plastered with inscriptions, and when their businessmen subdued Delos in 166 B.C., they conquered with the word. The tomes of the Fouilles de Delphes and the Inscriptions de Delos bear ample witness, respectively, to these events.

Of the thousands of inscriptions which have survived from ancient Athens the majority have been carved on stone, although there has survived also a considerable amount of writing on pottery, especially the ostraca which were used in the infamous Athenian institution of ostracism, on lead, notably curse tablets, and on other metals, particularly silver coins. The span of time runs from some of the earliest instances of alphabetic writing at the beginning of the 7th century B.C. through more than a millennium until the decline of Athens in the 4th and 5th centuries after Christ. The range of subjects is bewildering: there are decrees and laws of the state and of communities within the state, of religious organizations, and of clubs and societies (we have the minutes of a meeting from about 170 A.D. of a fraternity devoted to Bacchus'); inventories of the Parthenon and Eleusis, and of numerous other cults, and countless lists of members of various organizations have survived, e.g., priestesses of Athens, councillors and draftees, men who performed at dramatic festivals or died in war, etc.; there are dedications, both public and private, from the simplest to the most elaborate, to all manner of deity; and Attica has yielded thousands and thousands of gravestones reflecting every status of citizen, resident alien, visitor, and slave.

Permeating this mass of documentation is this common theme or purpose, the recording for posterity of the names of Athenian individuals. When we consider their number, probably no more than 150,000 men, women, and children living in Attica at any time, and when we consider their achievement in literature and the arts, in architecture, government, and science, we must marvel. Why and how so much of such magnificence by so few? The answer seems to lie in the value these people placed on the individual, an importance which found expression in the institution of democracy, which was born and lived longest in Athens. The Athenians constantly honored, and were honored by, their fellow citizens, and they considered these honors of such importance that they committed their record to imperishable stone. Literacy, especially lapidary literacy, was their vehicle to immortality.

This epigraphical phenomenon was not unnoticed by scholars. I pass over the revered book of August Boeckh, who first breathed life into the body, or Corpus, of Greek inscriptions in 1828, and move down to Johannes Kirchner, who, in addition to breathing a new life into the Corpus Inscriptionum Graecarum, produced in 1901 and 1903 the first prosopography (he coined the usage of the word) or biographical dictionary of ancient Athenians. His main catalogue, comprising 15,588 entries, was a social record culled from both literary and epigraphical sources. His addenda supplied another 1200 names, gathered largely from newly discovered inscriptions. A supplement was furnished by a Johannes Sundwall a decade later, and there have been specialized studies from 1910 to the present, but there has been no attempt to replace Kirchner's Prosopographia Attica until our ATHENIANS project. It is no disparagement of Kirchner's magnificent achievement to point out that it has limitations: his cut-off date, 30 B.C., excluded two-thirds of the material (Athens is prolific with Roman inscriptions); he accepted only bona fide Athenian citizens, thereby removing Aristotle, Lysias, all metics and slaves, and most women; his work was completed just before the undertaking of a new series of excavations in Athens.

From the very commencement of the modern phase of the Agora Excavations in 1931 it became clear that inscriptions were to be a common find. In one day alone 25 were uncovered. Bearing in mind that ancient Athenian inscriptions were regularly painted red, this was certainly a red-letter day! The late Benjamin Dean Meritt, who was in charge of the Agora epigraphy, began to keep a file of the names on the inscriptions, so that the same inscription would not be republished unknowingly, as had happened on a number of occasions in the Corpus. Other scholars contributed to this file of Attic names at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, culling material from a variety of sources, both published and unpublished. After 40 years, the catalogue had grown to more than 100,000 entries, the majority of them hand-written, some in fading pencil. With every addendum, the implementation of corrections became proportionately more difficult, and soon even addenda could not be accommodated. The hope of publication waned. Enter the computer.

Here I must pause to make some acknowledgements, first to Professor Meritt, with whom I have a wonderful association of 25 years, who spent nearly 70 of his 90 summers in Canada, and who has made the most numerous and the most important contributions to the file; to Homer Thompson, former director of the Agora Excavations and a long-time friend of Meritt, who has strongly supported the ATHENIANS project from its inception 20 years ago; to Professor Denis C. Tsichritzis and the Computer Systems Research Institute at the University of Toronto for giving the project a new, electronic life; to my research associate and fellow CMI member, Philippa Wallace Matheson, for so much help, particularly with programming; and to the project's many contributors in Princeton, Athens, and Toronto. Victoria College granted us the top floor of a house on Charles Street: what better place to compile an Attic prosopography than in an attic? The SSH RCC provided us with five years of funding, followed by support from the Packard Humanities Institute, and more recently, from CAlL Systems of Markham, Ontario. The database management system MISTRESS, developed by John Kornatowski and Ivor Ladd of Rhodnius, now EMPRESS Software of Toronto, was customized especially for our project. The former name, it must be admitted, led to several incidents, of which I shall mention the most egregious example. The Victoria College business office has very kindly handled our accounts over the years. Their software system was not so sophisticated as ours, and they were compelled to abbreviate descriptions to a fixed number of characters. The purchase of a some software manuals was recorded as follows: "8 mistresses, $65". This notation caused a commotion in the office, the two sides being almost evenly divided between those who were outraged at this apparently flagrant misappropriation of research funds, and those, no doubt the chauvinist segment, who marveled not a little at the thrift of 8 for $65. The new name, EMPRESS, is a decided improvement.

After considerable experimentation (and a certain amount of simultaneous development of our software) we resolved to break ATHENIANS into two relations. A relation is a table with a number of defined headings, or attributes, which may contain information in characters, including Greek characters, or in numbers (several orders of magnitude). It seemed expedient to place the important biographical facts in one relation consisting of 15 attributes, which we entitled "main", and to place the references, which we knew to be more numerous and which we expect to increase at a much greater rate than the data in "main", in a separate relation of 7 attributes. The extremely versatile data-base management system EMPRESS permits, along with many other features (including all the facilities of its very popular host operating system UNIX), selection, retrieval, correction, and organization of any or all of the attributes of either or both relations in a bewildering variety of formats, of which we have utilized only a few.

Each name is assigned a unique identifying number, like a Social Insurance Number, by our "Enter" program, which goes on to prompt for other pertinent biographical information, e.g. the person's address, profession, dates, relatives, etc. The program then requests the references, i.e. where the evidence has been published, and continues by requesting additional relatives, professions, etc. There is provision for listing the sex, social status, reliability of the reading, and so on, and for giving a precise representation of the text in which the person is listed.

At this time about two-thirds of our material, or about 80,000 records have been entered into the computer. Simultaneously with data-entry we have been attempting to keep the data-base au courant with the latest research publica­tions. Moreover, we have made significant discoveries of our own, e.g. new restorations of names which have been lost or misread in the transmission of the sources (the computer is particularly adept at supplying possible names for missing sequences of letters), and new identifications or persons or arrangements of families (the construction of stemmata, or family trees, by computer is a present challenge).

A few interesting statistics from the data-base are supplied here. Kirchner had 2,810 names commencing in alpha; ATHENIANS has nearly 23,000. At the other end of the alphabet, there were no psi's in Prosopographia Attica, and only 4 omegas. Our data-base has 13 and 68 of these letters respectively. The most common name is Dionysios (progenitor of our Denis) with about 1200 occurrences. There are several thousand least common names with one occurrence each. The longest name found so far is Agathodorostratos, the shortest, Ion. The most interesting name, perhaps, is that of a man named Paiderastes, who held the office of Protector of the Youths! There is a man named Archon who was an archon, and an ephebe called Ephebe. We do not know what the brother of "No-trouble" was called, but we can certainly guess his nick-name. The largest file is not that of Perikles, or Socrates, but rather of the Roman emperor Hadrian, who, in return for many benefactions, was made an Athenian citizen.

The computer offers some very distinct advantages to the ATHENIANS project.

(1) Material may be selected and retrieved in a variety of formats hitherto very difficult, if not impossible, by traditional means. For example, all the persons between certain dates, and/or of certain professions, and/or with certain relatives, from this or that type of document, and so on, may be summoned from the data-base with a simple command.

(2) Data may be corrected globally or automatically. When the date of one inscription changes, often a whole series must be changed - a very easy task with electronic tools. Unique lists of names, professions, dates, etc. make data-entry errors stand out. Proofreading programs developed by P. Matheson search for a variety of common errors, e.g., persons entered with the wrong status, and correct them, if we wish, automatically.

(3) Material may be disseminated quickly and economically. On-line access, distribution on 9-track tape, floppy disk, data-cartridge, and optical (laser) disk are both much more versatile and cheaper for the distribution of this material than traditional hardcopy printing.

(4) Finally, the computer offers facility of customizing output to the extent that each copy could, theoretically, be unique. In a discipline of constant change and violent controversy, the thought of a pre-Gutenberg format, safe from reviewers, until, of course, they adopt the same technology, is something of a consolation. Herakleitos Potamios would be pleased.


John Traill,
Victoria College University of Toronto


Copyright ©2011 Athenians Project, Toronto, Canada