Content note: non-graphic mentions of blinding and the death of a young woman
On a recent visit to the Athenian Agora – the city centre of ancient Athens – I made sure to pay a visit to this stone, which, as its inscription declares, was one of the markers of the boundaries of the Agora: “ΗΟΡΟΣ ΕΙΜΙ ΤΕΣ ΑΓΟΡΑΣ” (“horos eimi tēs agoras”), “I am the boundary-stone of the Agora”. After this visit I decided to continue my epigraphic baking series by making a version in cake:
Athenian boundary-stone: original and cake versions.
Looking at the pictures, the first thing you probably notice is the layout of the writing – not arranged in lines, but running along the top and then down the right-hand side of the stone. (There’s another stone with an identical inscription written in reverse – right-to-left along the top and then down the left-hand side). Although ancient Greek, like modern Greek and other writing systems descended from it via the Roman alphabet, is standardly written left-to-right, early inscriptions in particular can be written in other ways: right-to-left, or in a style called boustrophedon in which the lines of text alternate between left-to-right and right-to-left, or (partly) vertically as here.
If you know either modern or classical Greek, you might also notice that the spelling is not quite what you’re used to. The letter <H> is used not for ‘eta’ (a long ‘ē’ sound in classical Greek, an ‘i’ in modern Greek) but for ‘h’ – its original value, and the one transmitted to the Roman alphabet – while the definite article ‘tēs’ is spelt ΤΕΣ with an <E>, not ΤΗΣ. The reason for these differences is that there were many slightly different versions of the Greek alphabet in use in different places. The original Athenian version kept the original values of <E> (both short and long e) and <H> (h), but in Ionia (the west coast of Turkey), the local dialect of Greek had lost the sound ‘h’. With the letter <H> going spare, and the letter <E> representing two different sounds, the Ionians killed two birds with one stone by deciding to use <H> for the long ē sound. This Ionic version of the alphabet spread to other areas, including Athens, where it became the official alphabet in 403 BCE (about a hundred years after this stone was set up), and thus eventually the standard Greek alphabet we know today.
But perhaps the most striking thing about this inscription is that it’s written in the first person. “I am the boundary-stone of the Agora”, the stone itself tells the reader. These ‘speaking objects’, in which the inscribed object is cast as an active participant in a conversation with the reader/viewer, are common in archaic Greece. They’re found not just on boundary-stones like this one: some are simple statements of ownership (e.g. “I am Tharios’ cup”) or of dedication to a god (“I belong to Zeus”, say a series of cups from the sanctuary of Zeus on Mt Hymettos near Athens); or they give the identity of the maker of an object, as on this vase, whose inscription informs the reader that “ΑΜΑΣΙΣ ΜΕΠΟΙΕΣΕΝ” (“Amasis m’epoiēsen”), “Amasis made me”.
Vase signed by Amasis the potter (and painter?). Photo: Louvre Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Other ‘speaking inscriptions’ are much more elaborate. This small vase doesn’t just tell us the name of its owner, but adds a threat of what will happen to anyone who steals it: “ΤΑΤΑΙΕΣ ΕΜΙ ΛΕϘΥΘΟΣ ΗΟΣ Δ’ΑΝ ΜΕ ΚΛΕΦΣΕΙ ΘΥΦΛΟΣ ΕΣΤΑΙ” (“Tataiēs ēmi lekuthos, hos d’an me klephsei thuphlos estai”), “I am the jug of Tataie: anyone who steals me will go blind”. The joke is that this is not nearly a fancy enough vase to merit putting a curse on it!
Tataie’s jug, with right-to-left inscription. BM 1885,0613.1. Photo © The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).
More often, longer speaking inscriptions are found on dedications or tombstones. This memorial, whose astonishingly good state of preservation means that we can still see much of its original colouring, is to a young woman called Phrasikleia, who died before she could get married:
Memorial of Phrasikleia (left) and reconstruction of its possible original appearance in colour (right). Photos: George E. Koronaios, CC BY-SA 4.0, and Rekonstruction: Team Vincenz Brinkmann, CC BY-SA 3.0, both via Wikimedia Commons.
The inscription on the base of the statue reads “ΣΕΜΑ ΦΡΑΣΙΚΛΕΙΑΣ / ΚΟΡΕ ΚΕΚΛΕΣΟΜΑΙ / ΑΙΕΙ ΑΝΤΙ ΓΑΜΟ / ΠΑΡΑ ΘΕΟΝ ΤΟΥΤΟ / ΛΑΧΟΣ ΟΝΟΜΑ” (“sēma Phrasikleias: korē keklēsomai aiei, anti gamō para theōn touto lakhōs’ onoma”), “(I am) the memorial of Phrasikleia: I will forever be called a maiden, since instead of marriage I received this fate (death) from the gods.” Here the use of the first person creates an inextricable relationship between the statue and the woman it depicts: both Phrasikleia and her statue are simultaneously speaking to us, telling us in exactly the same way of its status as her memorial and of her early death. (An extra layer is added by the fact that we now refer to this type of statue as a korē, the word for ‘maiden’: so the statement that ‘I will forever be called korē‘ ends up being true in another way too).
There are many more ‘speaking objects’ of this type from archaic Greece – you can see some more examples here, and there are two interesting chapters that talk about these inscriptions and the role they may have played in the early development of the alphabet in the recently-published volume The Social and Cultural Contexts of Historic Writing Practices (open-access pdf available here: chapters by James Whitley and Natalia Elvira Astoreca). If any readers know, I’d be interested to find out if there are many examples of inscriptions that speak in the first person like this from other ancient cultures, Mediterranean or otherwise – I’m aware of some Etruscan and early Roman examples, but these presumably may well have been influened by Greek epigraphic practices, and although in later Roman periods ‘speaking gravestones‘ are common, they often seem to use the first person only of the deceased, not of the memorial itself. The one first-person inscription from the ancient Near East mentioned by Whitley in the chapter I referred to above, the Mesha Stele, is similarly a first-person text written from the point of view of its author but is not clearly being ‘spoken’ by the stele itself. So if you know of other examples where it really is the inscribed item that speaks to there, please let me know in the comments! Oh, and if anyone feels like recreating the cake, with or without inscription: it’s a chocolate tahini cake with tahini vanilla buttercream, and this is the recipe. Enjoy!
This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 885977.