Athenians Project

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Computers aid in quest for old Athens



Themistocles: He led the democratic party in Athens and was respected as a naval commander.




The ATHENIANS database can serve a number of demographic applications. For example, a simple command will produce a list of all the contexts in ancient Athens in which women are mentioned. As it happens, only about a tenth of the names in the Meritt file are of women. That's because most of the records are from a political or military context where men predominated. For that reason, the database cannot be used as a. statistical source.
     Enthusiastic support for the ATHENIANS project has come from around the world because each biography,
however brief, contributes to the modern scholar's understanding of life in ancient Athens. Among those scholars who have already availed themselves of the resource is Mogens Herman Hansen, a professor of ancient history at the University of Copenhagen. His particular interest is in political leadership in fourth century Athens so he is always on the lookout for information about ambassadors, generals, proposers of decrees or laws, prosecutors in public political actions, and so on. Hansen thinks Traill's project might turn out to be "the most important piece of scholarship on Athenian history to be produced in the 1980s".

by Pamela Cornell

With the full knowledge, blessing,    and even financial support of the  federal government, a U of T professor is compiling a database that will  include all the information he can possibly gather on some 150,000  persons. The idea is to facilitate  "snooping" by assorted investigators.  
     This calculated invasion of privacy is  unlikely to provoke any outcry, however, because the subjects in question have all been dead for at least 1,300
years. They.were citizens (or at least residents) of Athens between the seventh century BC and 'the fourth century AD --- a time span covering the archaic, classical, Hellenistic and Roman periods.
     For the past three years, classics
professor John Traill has been attempting to generate as complete a census for ancient Athens as current scholarly information will allow. Titled ATHENIANS, the five-year project is being funded with $250,000 from the Social Sciences & Humanities  Research Council.
    The names are all old but the tech
nology is new --- and a U of T exclusive. Working largely from index cards, compiled over 50 years by world-renowned philologist Benjamin D. Meritt, Traill and his associates key each entry into an "intelligent" terminal linked with one of the University's VAX mainframes. To handle input and output in the alphabets of both Greek and English, a special database management system had to be designed. The task couldn't have been better suited to the. expertise of Professor Dennis Tsichritzis, of the Computer Systems Research Group. Born in Greece, he has long had an interest in archaeology and classical literature.  

Learning centre

    Athens, or Attica, was not the largest Greek state but it boasts the largest number of records, thanks to the Athenians' obsession with literacy.  Known as "the university state",  Athens was the centre of western classical learning. It was home to the orator Demosthenes, the chronicler Thucydides, the dramatists Sophocles, Aristophanes and Aeschylus, and the philosophers Plato and Aristotle (though the latter was not technically an Athenian citizen). The term "atticism " is used to designate extreme elegance of speech and the expression "attic salt" refers to a refined wit.
    "Athens was a paragon of Greek excellence in every field --- literature, science, architecture and art." says Traill, "It was                                   

U of T project 'snoops' into
lives of some 150,000 people

findings of scholarly research. Revisions that used to take days, can now be handled in a matter of minutes. Even after individuals have been "corrected out of existence", their "ghosts" are kept on the database, providing a contribution to the history of scholarship. Moreover, storing the materials in computer form facilitates computerized typesetting --- the only economical means of publishing such a work.
    Traill delights in pointing out the aptness of the project's headquarters. Based at Victoria College. ATHENIANS is located on the top floor of the house at 85 Charles St. W. --- above the Records of Early English Drama (REED) project. What better place to compile an Attic epigraphy, he asks, than in an attic'!
    Pasted on the attic walls are instructions and tables to help project staff enter material into the database -- a task they perform at the rate of about 100 files a day. Carrying out this part of the operation are research associate Philippa Wallace Matheson, graduate students Leslie Schear, Nigel Kennell and Douglas Orr, and Traill himself.
    "This isn't a straightforward exercise in data entry, with us just taking down information as it comes," he says. "Even with pre-edited material, questions remain and
judgements must be made.
    "Being able to read and write ancient Greek is just the beginning. Our staff must also know where to look up references and how to interpret them in a scholarly way. To make the job even more laborious, we're working from copies of cards that are nearly all handwritten, many in very light or illegible script."
    Under those circumstances, mistakes are almost inevitable, so the computer program has been designed to permit systematic checking for particular types of error. In addition, a series of tests has been developed. These are applied to each batch of 200 or so records, as they are completed, to help correct errors made when the material was entered.

Easy access

Information in ATHENIANS can be organized and retrieved in a variety of ways --- both from local and remote terminals --- by scholars in different disciplines.
    "Our hope is that, within the next few years, when we've got the whole system ready, there will be enough universities with terminals that all a researcher will have to do is ring up this database," says Traill, adding that he purposely chose UNIX for the project because it is a worldwide system.

the city that gave birth to the basic concepts of our own society."
    Every conceivable body in Athens was highly organized --- from the state right down to small, selective clubs; and the proceedings from all of them were literally carved in stone, with the minutes from one men's club even detailing the shouting and fighting that took place at a particular meeting.
    Writing materials of the time
included papyrus (only one piece has survived), wax on wood, chalk on board, and "ink" on cloth. However, because those materials have not endured, the Meritt card file is based primarily on stone records found at the Agora in Athens in the 19th century. Included are public decrees, accounts, records, gravestones, tax stones, leases, curse tablets, dowry stones, boundary stones, masons' marks on theatre seats and inscriptions on coins, pottery and loom weights. Even roof tiles





Aeschylus: He was an ancient dramatist when Athens was the centre of western learning

often incorporated names and dates.
    "But the backbone of our work," says Traill, "is based on the endless catalogues. The Athenians were great people for listing. There are lists of soldiers, of priests, of councillors. of landowners, of books in the library and so on. Meritt transferred them all onto his file cards."

One of the earliest appointments to  the Institute for Advanced Studv at Princeton, Meritt joined that distinguished research centre soon after Albert Einstein. Though Meritt was laying the foundations for the ATHENIANS project long before computers were invented, his filing system is conveniently database oriented --- with one file card for each fact about each person. Meritt is now 84 and has retired to Texas, but he continues to follow ATHENIANS closely, usually dropping by during his annual summer excursion to the family cottage in Ontario.
    Meritt's epigraphy (from "epigraph") of Athens was not the first but it
is the most comprehensive.

No women

At the beginning of this century, a two volume Propographia Attica was published, but it's author, Johannes Kirchner, included only 15,588  important Athenian citizens --- hence no slaves and no Women --- and then only from the time before the Roman emperor Augustus. In addition to covering a longer period, the first computer-generated Athenian prosopography (from the Greek word "prosopon" meaning "face") will be much more democratic in its approach. As a result, new social classes will be opened up to research. Even some of the most notable Athenian figures were excluded from Kirchner's prosopography because they were not citizens of Athens. Aristotle is a case in point.
    "We include him and thousands of other foreigners who were part of the fabric of Athenian life," says Traill.
"A single computer command easily deletes non-Athenians if that be the requirement of a search."
    The application of database techniques to such a body of archaeological material has distinct advantages. With minimal effort, the data can be continually updated and corrected to incorporate the latest

Copyright ©2012 Athenians Project, Toronto, Canada