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AN ATHENIANS CELEBRATION

THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY NEARS COMPLETION

 

It is trendy these days to celebrate anniversaries. Not too many years ago this country had a centennial, this college a sesquicentennial, our neighbour to the south a bicentennial, and the hemisphere is now agog with a quincentennial party celebrating its Columbian discovery. Why, it is probably the two-to-the-nth, give or take a few nanoseconds, anniversary of the big-bang­birth of our beautiful little universe!

Here at ATHENIANS we are also celebrating some anniversaries. It is 60 years since the project listing the names of individuals---inscribed in ancient Athens and revealed through archaeological excavation---was initiated by the late Benjamin D. Merritt, Professor of Epigraphy at the Institute of Advanced Study, Princeton, a centre of learning otherwise made famous by physicists, such as the relatively well-known Albert Einstein, and mathematicians, such as John Von Neumann, from whose daedalian brain, to the consternation of his colleagues, the first electronic computer sprang.

Inscription recording the names of members of the Athenian parliamentIt is ten years since we at ATHENIANS, embracing the computer, embarked on our electronic Odyssey of adventure and discovery. Our prosopographv, or biographical dictionary, is now four-fifths complete, with nearly 90000 files formatted and computerized.

Where have all these 90000 people come from? Our ancient authors have provided us with only several thousand names, a small proportion of the total. There is another source ...

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 13500 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. Pceiraicus 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 littoral 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' neighbours, 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 wherever 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 BC, they conquered with the word.

Permeating this mass of documentation is this common theme or purpose, the recording for posterity of the names of individuals. The Athenians constantly honoured, and were honoured by, their fellow citizens, and they considered these honours of such importance that they committed their record to imperishable stone. Literacy, especially lapidary literacy, was their vehicle to im­mortality.

When we consider their number---probably no more than 150 000 men, women and children living in Attica (about the population of Oshawa or St. Cathariucs) 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 is there so much 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. This brings us to our last anniversarial celebration: Next year marks the 25OOth year since the birth of democracy, the product of a rare collocation of ingredients in a primordial political "soup", and Athens' greatest legacy to posterity.

What is ATHENIANS doing to celebrate?  This past summer as part of the program of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, led a lecture-tour of Greece entitled "From Democracy to Empire". The only other Canadian member of the group was Elaine Godley, by happy coincidence a Vic graduate of my year.

Next spring, to commemorate the anniversary of the democratic reforms of Kleisthenes in 508 BC, ATHENIANS will publish the first of the 20 volumes of Persons of Ancient Athens, a biographical record of the men and women, resident aliens and slaves, visitors and foreigners honoured by Athens---the complete fabric of ancient Athenian society over more than I2OO years. The publication, both in conventional format (bound printed volumes) and in electronic media (CD-ROM and data­cartridges) of the prosopography will continue through the last decade of this millennium, and then, we hope, it will be time to celebrate the completion of publication.

athenaWith all the toil, with all the celebrating, with all the day-to-day taedia of research and scholarship, we do not wish to lose sight of the fact that we are dealing with the individuals of a profoundly creative and fascinating society. Along with the great events in the lives of a Socrates or a Plato, a Pericles or an Aspasia, there are also the trivial curiosities. For instance, how did a person named Ephebe become an ephebe (a conscript), or another named Archon become an archon (a leading magistrate)? What was the lost older brother of a person called "No­Trouble" called? (We can probably guess his nickname). What possessed parents to name their child "Paederastes'', a child who grew up to hold the office o("Protector of the Youths"!

And so ... come join us for the celebrations. Drop in on the ATHENIANS, (ground floor, Old Vic), help us enter a name or two, share a cup of "primordial political soup", and pour a libation to the Virgin Mother of Democracy, Athena.

 

 

By John S. Traill
ViC REPORT

Winter 1991/1992

 

Copyright ©2012 Athenians Project, Toronto, Canada