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Document Titles in Greek Inscriptions

Randall Souza

Seattle University

Titles are so fundamental to modern documents that a piece of writing without an identifier is considered incomplete, and yet little systematic attention has been paid to the evolution of document titles in Greek epigraphy. While scholars have made great strides toward an understanding of how archives and their users functioned in the Greek Mediterranean (Sickinger 1999; Rhodes 2001a and 2001b), the mechanics of consulting an archive consisting of non-portable documents remains relatively unexplored. From the mid-fifth century BCE at the latest, however, poleis were adding titles to important documents. This paper traces the development of these labels from the Classical into the Hellenistic period and argues that titles made it easier for non-experts to consult archives, and may even have offered some information to the semiliterate.

“Title” is defined here as a word or phrase that appears at the very beginning or at the very end of a document, and which describes the document but does not form a complete sentence. Titles are often though not always inscribed in larger letters than the body of the document and outside the block of text or centered rather than left-justified. These features set titles apart from other forms of document identification which ancient Greeks doubtlessly also employed. An expert could become familiar with the prescripts, letterforms, stele shapes, and decorative scenes and use these characteristics to identify a particular public document. While experts could thus have navigated the “forest of dedications and inscribed stelai on the Acropolis” (per Shapiro 2004, p. 91), this paper suggests that explicit written titles made it possible for someone without a connoisseur’s eye to locate the document desired.

Titles appear to have originated in Athens in the middle of the fifth century BCE. The first clear example comes from an Athenian agreement with Chalkis of 446/5, IG I3 40, which carries the simple title hόρκος at the very bottom in letter roughly twice the size of those in the body of the text, spaced out to fill the entire width of the stele. Less ambiguous was the title of Thoudippos’ decrees relating to the reassessment of tribute in 425/4: τά[ξσι]ς [φ]ό[ρο], this time placed at the top of the stele in slightly oversize letters. In 410/9, Athenian decrees honoring Thracian Neapolis included, above the text, the title [Ν]εο[π]ολιτ [ν] | [τ] μ παρὰ Θάσ[ον]. From the early fourth century on, the practice became much more common on Athenian stelai, e.g. IG II2 20, 107, 110. IG II2 212, dating to 347/6, has a title that Rhodes (2001a, p. 39) does mention, but only to say that it does not exactly match the decree below.

Titles can be found outside of Athens from the fourth century as well, and on bronze tablets that were likely fixed in place. At Entella in Sicily, three of the city’s third- century decrees, destined for the temple of Hestia, preserved titles naming other cities involved (SEG 30.1117-8, 1122). At Corcyra, proxeny decrees included titles naming the honorand (IG IX 12 4.786, late 4th century; IG IX 1 685-688, third-second century). The practice continued into later Hellenistic times as well.

It is well established that the creation of official records is fundamental to a functioning state. However, unless the user can navigate the archive easily, access to documents may not allow effective research. Document titles were a navigation tool that made it not just possible but practicable to scan multiple documents in search of the one required. 

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Graphic Display: Form and Meaning in Greek and Latin Writing

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