Edited with introduction, translations and commentaries by Robin Osborne and P.J. Rhodes

OUP (2017) h/b 629pp £125 (ISBN 9780199575473)

One of the most striking and enduring practices of Graeco-Roman antiquity was the epigraphical habit, that is, the tendency of private individuals, associations and communities to make use of stone and metal inscriptions to record their transactions and to represent their activities and existence. Some of these inscriptions remain in situ but a long history of collection (and plunder) means that many have been moved to museums across Europe and North America, where a privileged minority are on public display. (A remarkable collection exists in the Epigraphical Museum in central Athens, which is dedicated to Greek inscriptions). 

From the early modern period, ancient Greek inscriptions have been published in meticulously-produced, prestigious, expensive editions without translation and with explanation in Latin. Yet since the late nineteenth century, Anglophone scholars have published selections of inscriptions (usually designated as ‘Historical Inscriptions’) with commentaries which aim to make them accessible to a wider audience and in particular those who are interested in their linguistic and historical significance. 

Rhodes and Osborne’s selection, entitled Greek Historical Inscriptions 404-323 BC (=RO), broke new ground in 2003 by publishing English translations of inscriptions alongside the Greek texts and commentaries. The current volume (=OR) follows the same pattern; concentrating on inscriptions of the period 478-404 BC, it replaces the classical portions of Meiggs and Lewis’ Historical Inscriptions to the End of the Fifth Century BC (=ML); in their Preface the editors indicate that another volume, dedicated to the archaic period, will follow, to replace the earlier sections of ML. 

The introduction to this volume provides an excellent introduction to the phenomenon of epigraphical publication and its study. Detailed commentaries place the inscriptions in their historical and cultural context and offer an up-to-date overview of scholarly controversies. Given that several important Athenian documents previously assigned to the mid-5th C on the basis of letter forms have now been down-dated by two or more decades (thanks to the work of Harold Mattingly and others), these commentaries are essential reading for teachers of the fifth-century units in OCR’s A-Level Ancient History (see commentary on no. 166) and for anyone else with an interest in the classical age of Greek History. This book, then, will be an important new acquisition for those school libraries which have the resources to purchase it (an e-book version is expected in due course).

Athens—as the city with the most prolific public epigraphical habit in the fifth century BC—is proportionately well-represented in the collection, especially by inscribed decrees of its assembly; but inscriptions deriving from other centres with significant epigraphical publications, such as Sparta (nos. 112, 128, 151, 192), Thasos (103-4, 176-7) and Argos (111, 126, 165) loom large; sanctuaries which were the recipients of dedications appear frequently too (Olympia: 105, 112, 140, 164; Delphi: 116, 138, 192). Less well-known parts of the Greek world are also represented: the bilingual monument for the Lycian dynast Gergis derives from Xanthos in SW Asia Minor (193)

One of the most exciting things about reading this collection is realising how inscriptions raise a huge range of questions about classical Greek culture, history and language. The sacred law from Selinus in Sicily (115), for instance, records instructions about sacrifices to those associated with the treatment of the dead; it opens up perspectives on the relationship between the gods and other supernatural powers. Inscribed accounts of sanctuaries (134, 147, 160) demonstrate the significance of financial management to the temple administration and the wider economic role of sanctuaries. The Halicarnassan law on disputed property suggests that the Ionic alphabet and dialect were used in Herodotus’ home city, even though it was generally regarded as a Doric settlement (132). Inscriptions offer alternative perspectives on fifth-century Athenian power: why were the Athenians so interested in Carpathian cypress-wood (136)? And why did they require their allies to dedicate first-fruits at Eleusis (141)? What does the ‘Standards’ decree (155) tell us about the level and form of Athenian intervention? We get a view of populations divided over the question of allegiance with the Athenians (121, 177), how the Athenians rewarded insiders in their allied cities (184) and the ways in which some communities celebrated liberation from the Athenians (175).

Politics is, of course, an important theme in this collection. However, some of the big names of fifth-century history are conspicuous by their absence: the name Perikles appears only once in fifth-century Athenian decrees (in a restored context by reference to his sons: IG I³ 49) and that inscription does not appear in this collection; interestingly, Alkibiades appears twice as the proposer of treaties (185, 186). 

At some points inscriptions allow us to add to stories known already from the literary sources: 172 in this collections tells us what happened to the property of the Hermokopidai. 179, the gravestone of the Athenian priestess Myrrhine, suggests possible association with a major character in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. At other points literary texts are important to the restoration of fragmentary inscriptions: 165 is restored on the basis of Thucydides’ account of the alliance between Athens and the Peloponnesian states of 420 BC. The reconciliation of literary texts with epigraphical remains is in some cases, however, still a challenging puzzle (e.g. 178).

By offering us perspectives on the Greek ‘second world’, inscriptions inspire thinking about Greek History beyond an Athenocentric approach: in this collection we find a document setting out relations between Argos and two Cretan communities (126), and a monetary pact between Mytilene and Phokaia (195). There are detailed civil laws from Gortyn (125) and regulations on the commemoration of the dead from Keos (194) which tell us much about the community intervention in daily life on those islands. 

It is true that Attic Inscriptions Online (AIO,, an open-access website which provides translations and concise commentaries on inscriptions of Athens and Attica, has not only given teachers easy access to inscriptions but also, in the words of one head of classics in a UK state school, ‘empowered A-Level students to confidently use inscriptional evidence in their work’. But there are no such resources for non-Attic inscriptions; moreover, readers will find that OR has the space to offer far more detailed commentaries than those on AIO; there is still, therefore, a need for a book such as OR. 

The spatial and thematic breadth of this collection—with attention to a wide range of cultural aspects of history—makes it stand out from amongst its predecessors. The inclusion of 17 high-quality figures reflects an increased interest in the physical forms of inscriptions: as well as marble slabs (sometimes decorated with reliefs: 150) the collection includes stone bases (163, 192), a bronze spear-butt (141), a bronze helmet (101), bronze tablets (118, 127), lead tablets (115, 124) and inscriptions on reddish stone (114, 122).

The only balanced way of approaching the ancient past is by combining material and literary sources: inscriptions offer a short-cut to this; they raise questions about broad aspects of Greek culture; they offer snapshots which can be readily analysed by students over the course of a short session. The development of AIO and the publication of this book means that inscriptions are ever-more accessible to teachers and students: as I have written elsewhere, there should be more of them on the A-level specifications for classical subjects!

Peter Liddel

We welcome your comments; please send via our social media.
Back to Reading Room