‘Communicating’ a ‘Code of Conduct’? Inscriptions containing Legal Regulations in Ancient Athens
From the early days of the Greek polis onwards (mid-7th century BCE), laws have been recorded on stone or bronze and displayed in various places of the city. They are found on the walls of public buildings, on rocks surrounding open spaces or on artefacts especially produced for the purpose of carrying an inscription, as stelai or blocks. Research questions about literacy in these early communities, as well as in the city-states of Classical and Hellenistic Greece, often consider such texts as manifestations of the self-government of the polis, making it possible for its citizens to consult the laws. Other approaches stress the symbolic character of the written artefacts, denying broad literacy among the citizens of the polis and perceiving them as symbols of elite-power.
The communicative power of inscriptions is largely undisputed in the traditional study of Greco-Roman epigraphy, and often forms the centre-piece of the definition of ‘inscription’. It is one of the aims of Research Field B to challenge this view by scrutinizing evidence from different cultures of writing. This project targets a specific group of written artefacts, which per definitionem could be seen as ‘communicating’: legal regulations that request behaving in a certain way or refraining from certain actions. As ancient Greek law usually concentrates on procedural prescriptions rather than on material law, the formulations raise questions about how these inscribed monuments are perceived. Thus, rather than specifying “Theft is the physical removal of an object without the consent of the owner” we would find “If somebody steals the cattle of the sanctuary, he shall be brought to the court of the city by anybody who volunteers to do so”. Are these texts meant to be a ‘code of conduct’ and read in order to get instructions? In order to determine in which ways such a rule of law would be conceived when inscribed within the realm of a Greek polis, the material qualities of the carrier must be taken into account: the properties of the writing, the placing of the object and therefore the principal visibility, readability and comprehensibility of the written artefact.
The prominent Greek polis Athens serves as a case study for this project. It provides the largest range of epigraphic, literary and well-documented archaeological sources. The evidence for the phenomenon starts at the 7th century BCE and is to be found until late imperial times (3rd/4th century CE), which allows for tracing developments in the use of written artefacts over an extended period of time. Against this background, this project will establish ways to describe what could and could not be read, understood and followed by Athenian citizens as well as foreigners.