Low, Constructing Lives from Stones (March 4)

(Paper given at the Ancient History Seminar, London, March 4th, 2010. Brief report by Susan Fogarty.)

Constructing Lives from Stone: Inscriptions and Biographical Traditions
Dr. Polly Low, Manchester

This lively seminar set out to explore whether the development of literary biography in the 4th C can be seen to be reflected in the epigraphic practice of the period. There is a change in style detected in the epigraphic material in the Classical and early Hellenistic periods and, concentrating on mostly Athenian examples, Dr. Low certainly posed some very interesting questions.

In exploring how an epigraphic text may be classed as biographical, Dr. Low looked at honorific decrees which concentrate on the moral qualities of the individual – for example IG i3 158 (honours for Corinthios) the honorand is simply an ἀνὴρ ἀγαθός, or IG i3 97 (Eurytion and his father) shows a shift to abstraction in describing them as possessing ἀνδραγαθία. These moral qualities are presented as paradigms of behaviour. The publication formula states the reason for the publication: “so that all other men may know”. This method and intention is seen in literary texts also: Isocrates’ Evagoras describes his individual characteristics (ἐυσεβία, σοφία) in order that he be emulated by the young (Evagoras 73-77). Therefore there is an overlap between the literary and the epigraphic with regard to individual character but this is not the same thing as biography. Dr. Low stated that it is the interaction between the abstract and the individual that is biographical and while Greek epigraphy is a good source for character at this stage, it is less so for action.

There is a change in epigraphic practice in the 4th C when the speaker believes that biography and epigraphy converge. Looking briefly at funerary epitaphs, there is certainly more biographical detail than before, and a much higher number produced, but the information has more to do with the deceased’s relationship to his family and polis rather than being about himself. They have little to do with biography and more to do with the polis, as evidenced by the now more frequent inclusion of the demotic in the epitaph. Honorific decrees of this period, on the other hand, show a surge in interest in the recording and celebrating of achievements – it is the actions of the honorand which serve as evidence of good character. 5th and early 4th C decrees refer to abstract and general virtues but give only minimal detail. In the 4th C the motivation clause expands and becomes an extended narrative. Dr. Low looked at IG ii2 448 (honours for Euphron of Sicyon) which includes two decrees, in the first of which (323/2) Euphron is an ἀνὴρ ἀγαθός and is praised for his ἀρέτη. The second (318/7) also praises him as a good man but spells out in great detail how this goodness manifested itself through his actions. The question was asked if this change was epigraphic or political. Was this a change in the level of detail presented in the assembly or simply a change to the inscribed monument? The latter is supported by IG ii2 1191 (Eleusis honours Xenokles) which refers to a law which regulates epigraphic practice but it is possible that this refers only to this specific honour. Much more, then, must have been said in the assembly; the things omitted or included on stone were not accidental and this must imply a change in epigraphic practice.

This move towards verbosity in the motivation clause happens alongside other changes and there must be interaction between these. Going back to IG ii2 448 (Euphron of Sicyon) a shift in chronological focus can be seen. The earlier decree emphasises the present-continuous nature of doing good, while the second decree emphasises his past actions. Earlier decrees show a bi-lateral relationship between Athens and the benefactor and it is an immediate one: the good deed elicits a response and more good deeds follow. Later decrees introduce another party, the reader, but this relationship is subordinate to the bi-lateral one: the good deed is responded to, after some time, by Athens and people other than the honorand find their relationship with Athens changes in the future. IG ii2 682 (honours for Phaidros of Sphettos) opens with the past honours of his ancestors, followed by extensive narrative of his good actions and then bestows honours on him and his descendants: it is less concerned with day-to-day politics and more with longer term past and future influence.

Dr. Low went on then to look at the process of creation. In SEG 28.60 (honours for Kallias) his section of past achievements is much longer than his present services. This was not to imply that his recent actions were less successful, but it was likely that the detailed parts were provided by the honorand himself and the rest was formulaic. Normally it was the friends and family who requested an honour and this was not unusual. They could therefore contribute to, and to a limited extent shape, the content. The publication clause provides the justification for the inscribing of a decree, but decrees with long motivation clauses state that the purpose of the decree is to let everyone know the way in which the city rewards good deeds: IG ii2 223 – “so that all other men may know that the demos and the boule know how to return thanks to those who always do the best things on behalf of the boule and demos…”

Athenian generosity is the key element of these decrees. The accounts of Euphron’s achievements are selective. The destruction of the first decree by the oligarchy is the highlight of the motivation clause of the second, for purely political reasons. This is an Athenocentric document and the polis, not the honorand, is the most important part.

In conclusion, earlier inscriptions can be used as a source of evidence for moral qualities but this does not hold into the Hellenistic period. There is a change in the function of honorific decrees as they become a more extensive political tool. Athens takes control: the lives of the honorands are constructed but by Athens and for her own purposes.

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