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Let All Marvel at This Stele: Complexity and Performance in the Shem/Antipatros Stele of the Kerameikos

Justin S. Miller

Harvard University

Ἀντίπατρος Ἀφροδισίου Ἀσκαλ[ωνίτης]

“Antipater, son of Aphrodisios, the Ashkelonite."


"I am Shem[.], son of Abd-Ashtarte, the Ashkelonian."

Thus begins the enigmatic and unique Phoenician-Greek bilingual inscription from the Kerameikos cemetery (IG II2 8388, CEG 596), which dates anywhere from the mid-fourth to second century BCE, most commonly referred to as the funerary stele of Shem[.]/Antipatros. The stele has long been recognised by scholars not only for its unusual appearance and language, but also for its usefulness in commenting upon ethnic identities in Greece and Phoenicia.

This paper seeks to re-contextualise the Shem[.]/Antipatros in its local context, and then expand outwards to understand its wider implications. To begin with, this paper aims to provide an updated edition of the three texts present on the stele using photogrammetric analysis to engage systematically with the surface topography of the damaged portions of the stele. Secondly, this paper will offer a new approach for analysing the stele by taking the stele itself and its content as the primary interpretive key. Thus, it will be shown how the stele’s innovative transgressing of the boundaries of ethnic and civic identities allow them to be delineated via their own deconstruction.

The Shem[.]/Antipatros stele has been discussed as early as Wolters (1888) and as recently as Quinn (2018). The first significant attempt to interpret the stele was done by Usener (1914), who assumed that the stele’s imagery was largely symbolic and indicative of a Near-Eastern preoccupation with a proper burial. Perhaps the most significant contribution was made by Stager (2005), wherein she advanced the idea that the stele’s unusual imagery was completely interpretable if recast within its native Phoenician context. Rejecting the symbolic explanation of Usener, Stager sees the epigram and the two bilingual epitaph inscriptions as the guide to unlocking the stele’s meaning.

The first real theoretical attempt to understand the stele was laid out by Osborne (2011). Osborne was also the first to problematise the assumptions often made about the inscription, but his ultimate purpose was to discuss the facets of language and bilingualism. More recently, Tribulato (2013) has argued in defence of Usener and against the strictly philological reading of Stager to include resonances from the Greek cultural mode as well.

This paper’s methodology will be closer to that of Osborne in its theoretical approach, and with Tribulato in including the Greek context as of critical importance. Starting with the assumption that the stele was inherently subversive of ethnic norms, this paper will argue that it is this subversion which more adequately indicates the boundaries of ethnic expression, rather than the stele’s familiarity with either Phoenician or Greek culture. In addition, the stele will be viewed not as being an adhoc expression of a bilingually incompetent Phoenician hearkening back to Phoenician culture alone, but rather as localised in its setting in the Kerameikos. Therefore, in a sea of gravestones, the unusualness of the Shem[.]/Antipatros stele would have guaranteed that it stood out, and by standing out, conferred kleos to its deceased.  Thus, while there may be elements in the stele which are familiar, the stele is an intentionally unique expression of identity, drawing attention to its own dichotomy of familiar and foreign. Furthermore, this would entail that the stele is not only unusual by Greek standards, but by Phoenician ones as well. For example, that the dedicator is from Sidon, but the dedicatee is from Ashkelon, which is unusual by Phoenician standards, has gone unnoticed. If Quinn (2018) is correct that Phoenician ethnic identity is non-existent, and civic identity was primary, then the fact that there are members of two cities present suggests an exceptional expression of pan-Phoenician identity. Ultimately, this paper will help to raise more important questions related to the stele by refocussing attention on the stele itself, and will reorient the discussion towards issues of identity in Hellenistic Athens, and the Mediterranean at large.

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