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Graphic Order from Alpha to Omega: Alphabetization in Hellenistic Inscriptions

Alexandra Schultz

Harvard University

The Hellenistic period was a time of radical experimentation for the Greek alphabet. One of the most striking new uses of the alphabet was the technology of alphabetization, the process of arranging items in lists according to alphabetical order. Yet, outside of the preliminary study of Daly 1967 and brief discussions of individual examples (notably Mahaffy 1891–1893; Segre 1935; Turner 1955; Robert 1976; Paton and Hicks 1990; Battistoni 2006; Ellis-Evans 2012), the history of this technology and of its uses across different types of objects has received little attention. In this paper I propose to study the use of alphabetization in texts inscribed or painted on objects as a strategy of graphic display.

After briefly surveying the earliest examples of Greek alphabetization, which are found in papyri from Ptolemaic Egypt, I will examine the use of alphabetization in the mid-third to late-second centuries BCE in three different classes of inscriptions: subscription lists, lists of cult participants, and catalogues of authors and books.

First, by examining a subscription list from Cos in which each subscriber is typically listed on a new line (SGDI 3626 = Paton and Hicks 1990 #12 = IG XII (4, 1) 70), I argue (following Ellis-Evans 2012) that alphabetization in combination with other layout techniques could function as a primarily visual tool for conveying an ideology of unified collective activity. Second, by examining how subscribers were divided into groups by ethnicity and other criteria in many subscription lists, indicated by, e.g., an ethnic designation centered on its own line, I refine Ellis-Evans’ view that alphabetized subscription lists represent collectivity: I suggest rather that alphabetization – in combination with other visual strategies – could equally emphasize the disunity of a community divided into distinct, internally unified groups.

Next, I turn to an alphabetized list of participants in the cult of Apollo and Heracles, from the deme of Halasarna on Cos (SGDI 3705–3706 = Paton and Hicks 1990 #367–368 = IG XII (4, 1) 103–104). The use of alphabetization in this inscription is remarkable, in large part because the inscription was a revised version of an earlier, un-alphabetized inscription. Here I explore some possible motivations for the conscious decision to list participant names “inscribed according to letter in order beginning with alpha” (col. 6, κατὰ γράμμα ἀναγεγραμμένος [= Attic -ους] ἕξαν ἀπὸ τοῦ ἄλφα), as the decree at the top of the stele states. In addition to the practical benefit of being able to find people in the list more quickly, and beyond the visual strategy of communicating a collective identity, I consider a political motivation, namely an attempt to emulate what was perceived as an Alexandrian practice at a time when Cos was still allied to the Ptolemies.

Finally, I consider a catalogue of authors painted on stucco from the gymnasium at Tauromenion (most recent edition in Battistoni 2006) and a book list from Rhodes that was inscribed in stone (NSER 11). The Tauromenion catalogue contains the names of five different authors grouped by genre and listed in alphabetical order; each author’s name is followed by a brief bio-bibliographical entry with details about his life and works. The Rhodes inscription lists author names in alphabetical order, with books by each author listed under his name. In both inscriptions, the author names are in “reverse” or “hanging indentation”: relative to the rest of the column, they protrude slightly to the left by one or two letters. The use of slight hanging indentation not only highlights the author’s name, but also draws special attention to the fact that the first letter of each name is in alphabetical order. I conclude that beyond important practical considerations, alphabetization was an evolving visual strategy that drew on the prestige of alphabetically ordered encyclopedic works, such as Callimachus’ Pinakes, to convey a sense of ordered knowledge. 

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Graphic Display: Form and Meaning in Greek and Latin Writing

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