Special to The Globe and Mail
Imagine the chore
that the census-taker has to face --- quizzing thousands of people on their families, their
jobs, their lives. Now imagine how much harder the task is when the people being studied
have all been dead for two millennia.
As difficult as
it sounds, that's precisely the goal of the "Athenians" project at
the University of
Toronto --- a mammoth scholarly undertaking that's slowly but steadily bringing
the ancient Greek city-state into the computer age.
Athenians themselves are now silent, they left behind countless inscriptions,
gravestones, inventories and works of art that document their once great
people were obsessed with writing," classics professor John Traill said. "They left their
graffiti and inscriptions everywhere."
Over the past 35
years, Dr. Traill has been
putting together a database of the people of ancient Athens. It began as a
and made its Internet debut in 1996 (www.chass.utoronto.ca/attica) .
students from around the world do about 250 searches using the Web site every
month. But the Athenians project --- known in academic circles as Peoples of Ancient Athens --- is more than just a
reconstructed phone book. It is also a unique tool for examining the lives of
an ancient society.
monumental undertaking in the field of ancient history," said Konrad Kinzl,
a classics professor
at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont. "It's an indispensable tool
for anyone doing anything connected with Athens, be it Literature, history,
art --- any field."
The project now
boasts about 100,000 entries, although only about 15,000 have been entered
into the electronic database thus far. "We're working with pieces of a
jigsaw puzzle," Dr. Traill said. "We're trying to read them, decipher them, to put them into a historical,
social and political context." And it's far from being a complete
picture of the city. Nine out
of 10 entries, for example, are for men. Still, the listings include thousands of records of Athenian
women, "which is more than we have of men, from any other [ancient] state," Dr.
Storey, a colleague of Dr. Kinzl's at Trent, has found the database
invaluable. Dr. Storey has been studying the ancient Greek theatre ---
specifically, the comedies of the fifth century BC. But understanding the
satirical references in these plays demands an intimate knowledge of the
The Wasps by Aristophanes. During a choral interlude. we're told
that one of the characters, a poor man named Amynias, "is hungry like
Antiphon." But who was Antiphon? "Obviously the audience in 422
B.C. knew who Antiphon was, and knew why that was funny," Dr. Storey
said. So he sifted through the Athenian listings, which included 17 people
with that name. He concluded that the line was probably an ironic reference
to a wealthy citizen known for his luxuriant lifestyle --- "the equivalent
of a Kennedy or a Donald Trump." And more than likely, Dr. Storey
added, this particular Antiphon would have been watching from the front
rows. "The whole point of these jokes was to make fun of real people who
were probably sitting in the audience," he said.
associate Philippa Matheson demonstrated how the database works by selecting all
of the women whose names begin
Making census of the Athenians
The ancient Greeks had no need of a phone directory.
But using computer age technology, Canadian
researchers are compiling one for them
While all the big
names such as Plato and Aristotle (above) are included in the new
census, lesser middleclass families (right) also figure along with
prostitutes, athletes, politicians and merchants. The project now offers
about 100,000 entries, although only about 15,000 have so far been entered into the electronic database.
with the letter D. (The database can also be searched by occupation,
date, geographical region, known relatives, etc.) The search revealed a woman named Demo, who
belonged to a religious club in the fourth or third century BC. She
contributed money to a loan for the construction of a house, possibly the
clubhouse itself. The information came from a boundary stone in the
Farther down the list was another woman with the same name --- this
time, a prostitute who lived in the Parthenon itself. She apparently belonged to a man named
Demitrius Polyorsitis, a soldier who went by the nickname "sacker of
cities." Although being a prostitute wasn't the most desirable profession,
Ms. Matheson explained, it did have its advantages. Unlike other women,
prostitutes were allowed to talk to men, attend functions, and even read
books. "It was the one way a woman could get an education," Ms. Matheson said. Prostitutes "were the educated women in Athens."
On a subsequent search for athletes, the database turned up a list of
boys and young men, including the winner of a boxing tournament in 182 BC, a javelin thrower
commemorated on a vase, and winners of horse races and foot races. If a boy's
name was inscribed on a vase, Ms. Matheson said, it was often an indication
of a homosexual love affair --- an older man showing his affection for a young
athlete. "This, of course, was open in ancient Greece. Homosexual relations
were accepted," she said.
The famous Greeks of literature and politics are here, too -- Plato, Aristotle,
Socrates, Pericles --- but there are lots of ordinary people, too --- citizens
and slaves, husbands and wives, sons and daughters. And all of them, it
seems, liked to see their name in print.
The "curse tablet," however, was probably the least
desirable place to find one's name. This was how an Athenian could get his
ultimate revenge against a neighbour. He would write his enemy's name on a
piece of lead,
along with a string of obscenities and, if possible, a piece of the despised man's hair. The
Athenians project has records of 11,000
such tablets, Dr. Traill said. The purpose of the curse tablet, he said, was
to "get that person to hell, in no uncertain terms," using the magical
powers of the underworld.
project had its roots in the 1930s, when workers began excavating the agora (marketplace) in Athens --- and found as many as 25
inscriptions per day. The data was collected at the Institute for Advanced
Study in Princeton, N.J., but the project was moved to the University of
Toronto in the 1960s. Dr. Traill collaborates with scholars from around the
world, and is helped by a rotating series of volunteers and students.
The project has
received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council,
but is now supported by corporate sponsors and the income from publications.
Along with the Web site, the project has spawned eight volumes of data, with
a dozen more still in the works.
It is not clear
when the project will finish, as every new construction site or engineering
project in Athens seems to turn up relics. Current excavations for the city's
new subway, for
example, are providing still more ancient inscriptions for Dr. Traill and
his colleagues to ponder. "There seems to be no end," he said.
Dan Falk is a science journalist based in Toronto.