You are here

Readers, Viewers, and Inscriptions in Athens in 200 B.C.

Julia Shear

Center for Hellenic Studies, Harvard University

In the spring of 200 B.C., when the Athenians declared war on Philip V of Macedon, they voted to destroy statues and inscriptions for Philip and his ancestors (Livy 32.44.4-6). This decision also led to the excising of references to the Macedonian kings and their family in inscriptions. In an important essay, Byrne (2010) reconsidered this material, but he focused on the political circumstances surrounding the events; earlier scholars also concentrated on the historical and political ramifications of this episode (e.g. Habicht 1982: 147-150; Flower 2006: 34-40). They did not ask what this material can tell us about how readers and viewers interacted with these texts. As I shall argue, these erasures show clearly that these inscriptions were expected to be read. The erasures also changed the texts and thus the imagery of the individuals involved. While some changes were benign, others dramatically altered how viewers would engage with the text and understand the imagery.

When the mason arrived to erase an inscription, he had to read the text in order to find the passage(s) to be cut out. On a decree honouring ephebes, such as IG II3.1 1176, he might have needed to scan as much as seventy-five lines in order to find the offending passages, in this case, the names of the tribes Antigonis and Demetrias. With the honours for Herakleitos of Athmonon (IG II3.1 1034), the mason removed the text in such a way that the document still made perfect sense. Clearly, other people were also expected to read the (amended) texts and thus they need to be comprehensible. Visually, these erasures mark an absence of text, which, because of its content, could not be allowed to remain. On an ephebic decree such as IG II3.1 1176, the effects are relatively benign and the ephebes in question are still presented as worthy of commendation because of their good conduct. With the honours for Herakleitos, the gaps indicate that material has been removed and Herakleitos had been active on behalf of an individual who could not now be named. Since the text makes sense as erased, Herakleitos still appears worthy of his honours. In contrast, Phaidros of Sphettos, from whose inscription significant sections were erased (IG II3.1 985), had clearly been consorting with Macedonians! Since so much text is missing, viewers may have wondered exactly what Phaidros had done during his career. Now, he no longer appeared as a good Athenian worthy of his honours and readers had to make a judgement about whether he really was an exemplary citizen, a process reinforced by the text’s setting in the Agora. Thus, these erasures changed how the individuals involved were presented, sometimes dramatically. These processes required viewers to read the texts, to consider how they now presented the individuals, and, in least some cases, to relate the texts to their larger settings. Active viewers and readers, consequently, were critical for conveying these documents’ new messages in a city at war with Macedonians.

Session/Panel Title

Inscriptions and Literacy

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy