BRINGING COMPUTERS TO CLASSICS
Mention the word computer and many people's imaginations light up with visions of the future - a new era of hightech information systems in homes and offices. But for John Traill of Victoria College, the computer is becoming an indispensable link with the past.
The forty-three-year-old classics professor is co-ordinating a five-year project to generate as complete a census for ancient Athens as current scholarly information will allow. The project, entitled Athenians, is built around a Concept 108 intelligent terminal linked with a University of Toronto Vac 780 computer. The software expertise comes from the University of Toronto's Computer Systems Research Group, where Dennis Tsichrirzis and his colleagues have designed a special database management system to handle both Greek and English input and output.
The project is noteworthy in that it opens new avenues of computer use by non-scientific scholars, at the same time providing them with an enormous fund of data for historical research. Financial backing for the project is coming mainly from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. The council's budget calls for $250,000 to be spent over five years, at the end of which time Traill expects to have a complete computer file on the thousands of known residents of ancient Athens.
Traill's work is essentially a continuation of
the mammoth filing and catalogue study started in the late 1930s by Benjamin D. Meritt, the world-renowned
philologist. Meritt's records, based primarily on stone inscriptions found at
the Agora in Athens in the ninereenth century,
form what is considered the most complete file of Attic prosopography, or
record of family names and connections. At the Institute for Advanced Study
at Princeton University, Meritt's colleagues are still adding to the wealth
of names and information contained in the original file. At present, a
catalogue of twenty-seven hefty volumes contains more than 150,000 entries.
Each entry corresponds to a name or part-name
found in Attic inscriptions. Cataloguers have gone to great lengths to
provide an identity for each name, using the biographical details implied or
spelled out in the epigraphy. Few of the names recorded in the catalogue
would surface in the history most of us read, for these were the military
officers, priests, statesmen, merchants, and the like who had an immediate
significance only to the events of their
day. Few were famous, or indeed infamous, but for classicists and
philologists these names are as important as any found in the encyclopedia.
Each biography, no matter how brief, contributes something to the modern
scholar's understanding of life in ancient Athens.
Although much of this information, in its raw form, is literally etched in stone, Traill explains that over the years scholarly interpretations and even perceptions have changed, altering individual catalogue entries as well as requiring adjustments to the file. New chronological findings often require the refiling of records and add a plethora of addenda to the catalogue. 'Endless revisions and corrections have made it impossible to keep the catalogue up to date, thereby indefinitely postponing its publication. But with a computer, says Traill, what used to take days can now be handled in a matter of minutes.
Having worked with Professor Meritt over the last fifteen years and at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton from 1970 to 1972, Traill has a very clear idea of what he wants from a computer version of the Attic prosopography. He points out that Meritt, now retired at age eighty-three, was thinking in computer terms even before the first transistor was introduced.
"His original ideas were very computer-like: one card for a single entry, for a single date, for a single function," says Traill. "So the file lends itself to computer techniques, because the material is database oriented. A certain person is known because he or she had a certain father and they came from a certain municipality or deme."
The primary goal of the Athenians project is a publication and ultimately anentire series of publications. Not since Johannes Kirchner published his two volume Prosopographia Attica in 1901 and 1903 has there been a substantial treatment of this subject. And whereas Kirchner's books provide only a select list composed of Athenian citizens living before the time of the Roman emperor Augustus, the first computer-generated Athenians publication will include all the existing files on persons living in ancient Athens between the seventh century B. C. and the fourth century A.D.
Matheson, assistant researcher on the project, handles much of the initial
data input. Her task is to transpose the Meritt file into a form the computer
can work with. A good part of her day is spent seated at rhe terminal keying
in the catalogue information in the project's
offices - the attic of the house at 85 Charles Street West. From time to
time she takes a brief pause and studies the photocopy of the catalogue. Each
page is riddled
with notes and memoranda written by a number of different scholars. From
these she learns further details about the individuals named in the original
epigraphy. In each name itself she watches for foreign stems and derivations, which tell her something about
the individual's citizenship.
Although she has no formal computer training, Matheson has quickly mastered the cryptic dialect of this electronic equipment. She has written a number of input programmes and several times has revamped the formats for hard-copy output. A graduate of classical studies, she describes the potential of the computer in this area of scholarship as "incredible". "What I think is so fantastic is that you can ask it a question and it doesn't take any time - well it takes a certain length of time to find all the records - and then it just spits everything out, one record after another. It's all there and you know it hasn't missed anything, whereas to do it by hand might take days."
Scholarly standards in the field of classical studies demand a publication for a research project such as this, but both Traill and Matheson feel that the truly exciting benefits have to do with the electronic dissemination of their material. Given the installation of terminals at other universities, the pair envision a day when the complete prosopography could be accessible to researchers in all parts of the world. As it now stands, academics at the Institute for Advanced Studies, where the file is kept, must make manual searches for each request and copy the relevant documents. The searches are time-consuming, to say the least, and the institute is forced to impose a limit on the extent of each request. To a couple of computer converts such as Traill and Matheson, this seems almost archaic. Says Matheson, "Our hope is that in five years time, when we've got the whole system ready, there will be enough universities with terminals - enough classics departments with access to terminals - that all a researcher will have to do is ring up this database."
all the Meritt records have been entered into the computer, specific areas of
inquiry can be handled quickly and efficiently. At the same time, the database
can be updated with current information almost immediately, making the latest
findings available to anyone who is online. Long-range plans include the integration of the file with other sources of Attic biography, such as
classical literature and
scholarly writings from the period. Ultimately, famous personages such as
Homer, Aristotle, and Socrates will be included, but this computerized
prosopography is not intended to serve as a Who's Who of Attica. What will be
important to classicists, as well as other scholars, are the brief curriculum
vitae for lesser-known statesmen and private individuals that can confirm or
refute conventional perceptions of the Attic period of history.
A zealous and unswerving promoter, Traill estimates that it has taken him almost fifteen years to convince university authorities to approve a grant for the Athenians project. He has faced opposition over the expense of the project, and within the classics community he has raised the skepticism and ire of a number of traditionalists who cling to the ways of pen and paper. The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council turned down numerous applications before finally acknowledging the technical and scholarly merit of such research and awarding a five-year grant subject to review in 1984. But with the Athenians project well under way, Traill believes the major hurdles have been surmounted and that classical studies, the forbear of all humanities, has taken a quantum leap into the lap of twentieth-century technology.
By Walter Walker
Winter 1983 Vol. XI No. 2
Copyright ©2012 Athenians Project, Toronto, Canada