Athenians Project

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                              DAN FALK
              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.
    While the Athenians themselves are now silent, they left behind countless inscriptions, gravestones, inventories and works of art that document their once great civilization.
    "These 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 card catalogue, and made its Internet debut in 1996
( .
    Scholars and 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.
    "It's a 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. Traill said.
     Ian 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 Athenian people.
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.
    Research 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


NATIONAL ARCHEOLOGICAL MUSEUM, ATHENSWhile 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 building's foundation.
    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 pur
pose of the curse tablet, he said, was to "get that person to hell, in no uncertain terms," using the magical powers of the underworld.
    The Athenians 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.


Copyright ©2012 Athenians Project, Toronto, Canada