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OpenEdition Books

Studies in Greek epigraphy and history in honor of Stefen V. Tracy

Gary Reger
Francis X. Ryan
Timothy Francis Winters

Stephen Tracy the epigraphist

Christian Habicht


The following is the text of a talk delivered at the River Club in Colombus, Ohio, on the occasion of Stephen Tracy’s retirement from the Department of Classics at Ohio State University to assume the Directorship of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. In co-operation with Greek computer specialists Tracy has now pioneered the use of computers to study hands; see Stephen V. Tracy and C. Papaodysseus, “The Study of Hands on Greek Inscriptions. The Need for a Digital Approach”, American Journal of Archaeology, 113, 2009, 99-102, and other work listed below in “The Scholarly Work of Stephen V. Tracy”.

Texte intégral

1Stephen, Mr. Chairman, Colleagues, and Friends:

2I am delighted to be back at Ohio State after twelve years and honored to be given the chance of saying something about the man who is about to leave after 31 years of distinguished service. Others will probably have something to say about Stephen Tracy the professor and teacher and will assess his role as faculty colleague, chairman, and founder of a flourishing Epigraphical Center. I want to focus on Stephen the epigraphist. His field is Greek epigraphy and mainly (but by no means exclusively) Attic epigraphy as befits the former student of Harvard’s Sterling Dow, who himself had been a student of Harvard’s William Scott Ferguson. I hope to explain why he is, in fact, the legitimate heir of this great tradition and these two eminent figures. But first the question: why is the study of Greek inscriptions relevant and worth pursuing these days? What is its place within the realm of Classical Studies?

3The answer is simply this: inscriptions infuse fresh blood into the field. None of us is ever likely to have a chance of editing a previously unknown work of an ancient author, since there is little hope of such a discovery. Previously unknown inscriptions, however, turn up every day. So the epigraphist often has to provide the editio princeps of recently discovered inscriptions. Fresh lifeblood comes to our studies from inscriptions, papyri, coins, and artifacts. And since the number of new inscriptions, Greek or Latin, amounts every year to more than one thousand, they do have an impact. The new information that they supply may be trivial, important or downright sensational, with all shades of possibilities between these parameters. Furthermore, inscriptions confront us directly with antiquity, without anything or anyone coming between the ancient object and ourselves. As Fergus Millar once said: inscriptions provide “the most direct access… to the life, social structure, thought and values of the ancient world”. That alone is reason enough to care for the information they so richly (and often unexpectedly) provide. It is first-hand, not filtered second-hand, information.

4Now, there is, in my opinion, no epigraphical method as such, distinct from the historian’s usual business. Every classicist could double as an epigraphist. There are, however, five basic operations to be applied to any inscription and all require certain skills: inscriptions have to be read, located, dated, restored (unless fully preserved) and evaluated. Let me stay for a few minutes with these five steps before I focus on Stephen’s work.

5Reading an ancient inscription may be fairly easy or highly difficult. There is no space between words, no punctuation, the dialect may be unfamiliar as may be the lettering, or the text may be broken or worn, to name just a few obstacles. Helpful are paper squeezes, the use of water and charcoal, good and movable lights as well as photographs. A great deal of patience and insistence is often required, as well as repeated efforts to decipher rough passages.

6Location: to evaluate a new inscription we have to determine where it was found, if that is not recorded. The findspot, however, is not always where the inscription originated, since some stones traveled, especially as ship’s ballast, and since honorary decrees were usually set up in two copies at two different locations and may be found either where they originated or in the city of the foreign honoree. Some of the means to determine an inscription’s location are personal names, dialect, institutional and religious terms, idiosyncratic words, for instance the locally restricted use of the word agora used in certain regions instead of the usual ekklesia.

7Date: an inscription may provide a clue to its date, for instance the name of an Athenian archon or a pair of Roman consuls, a numbered year of an era, the name (and perhaps year) of a king. Such indications, however, remain enigmatic if we do not know the point of reference (not all of the Athenian archons are securely assigned to a certain year, nor is the ear in question or its starting point always known). A reference to famous persons (such as an emperor) or to dated events may give the clue. There is, for instance, a long list from Miletos in Ionia that gives the annual eponymous magistrates for no fewer than 266 consecutive years; to the name of one individual (it is no. 213 in the sequence of names) is added that in his year the city recovered its freedom, and we do know from Diodoros that this happened in 313 BC. With this single stroke, all 266 names are fixed to their respective years between 525 and 260 BC, with Alexander the Great appearing 21 years earlier than the year 313 which brings him to 334 where we would have expected him to have his place. All the documents dated by one of these eponyms are thereby assigned to their year. When everything else fails, the letter forms of an inscription may give an idea of its approximate date (to this I will soon return).

8Restoration is required whenever an inscription is not readable in its entirety. The aim is to come as close as possible to the original. To this end, one must first determine the category to which our inscription belongs, as other inscriptions of the same genre may well give us an idea of the content, the argument, or even the wording. Decrees tend to be formulaic and offer therefore often close parallels, so that one may recognize the sense of a paragraph or even the actual wording or something very close to it. This is, of course, impossible for anything unparalleled, especially for epigrams, that is, poetic inscriptions. As is the case with all poetry, originality of invention rules there, not formulaic routine. Restoration therefore requires guesswork about what the poet might have said and is far more arbitrary.

9Evaluation. Once we have read, located, dated, and restored the text at hand, we have to access what it says and how this ties in with what we have known before. What we learn is mostly new and in many cases highly important, in others of limited relevance. I will not dwell on this any longer but turn now to the epigraphical work and accomplishments of Stephen Tracy.

10As I said at the beginning, Tracy is today recognized as the legitimate heir of Ferguson and Sterling Dow, and this for two reasons: he shares with both these scholars a predominant interest in Attic epigraphy and, much more important, he accomplished what Ferguson had formulated as a desirable goal and what Sterling Dow, under Ferguson’s guidance, then began to pursue but, despite some initial success, was unable to bring about: the development of reliable means for dating Attic inscriptions by their lettering, especially decrees and laws for which the dates matter most. As Tracy himself tells us, it was Ferguson who in 1931, when the American excavations at the Agora were just beginning, led Dow to the study of Athenian lettering. It was Dow in turn at whose suggestion Tracy made the first systematic attempt to study a single mason and his output. In 1968 he received his doctorate with the dissertation A Letter Cutter of Classical Athens, which in revised form became the monograph The Lettering of an Athenian Mason (Hesperia Supplement 15, 1975).

11Up to then, scholars had occasionally observed that the lettering of two or more inscriptions was very similar, or had suggested that it was so close that both must have been produced by the same craftsman. Among their number were leading epigraphists such as Adolf Wilhelm, Johannes Kirchner, Sterling Dow, Gaston Colin (for the Athenian documents inscribed on the walls of the Athenian treasury at Delphi). I myself had made such statements for the Hellenistic decrees from Samos which I published in the later 1950s. All of this, however, was done haphazardly, in a casual and amateurish manner. It was therefore unavoidable that a number of these observations, or rather guesses, turned out to be wrong. Tracy has changed all of that and has put the study of lettering on a sure, that is to say on a professional, footing, the same way that Beazley long ago revolutionized the study of vase-painters. Tracy started with a long inscription, studied its writing, any single letter, for weeks and became in the process as acquainted with it as we are with the handwriting of our regular correspondents, which we immediately recognize. Then he systematically searched for other inscriptions that had the same peculiarities, that is to say other inscriptions cut by the same individual. He made the individual stonecutter the unit for study and assembled for him a portfolio or dossier that could be large or small, depending on his productivity and the extent to which stones once cut by him are preserved. From there, he then turned in the same way to a second, then a third individual, and so on. In the course of almost forty years he has identified and documented a very large number of those cutters active between the middle of the fourth and the middle of the first centuries BC.

12As a result of his work, hundreds and hundreds of decrees have been redated, given more precise and more reliable dates, with immense benefits for historical knowledge. His work was of the highest value to my own work on Hellenistic Athens, which began only in the 1970s. From 1971 onwards, the time he came to Ohio State University, Tracy was kind enough to send me his publications, the first being “Identifying Epigraphical Hands”, GRBS 11 (1970). After a while, I began to acknowledge his achievements in my own publications. Let me just briefly enumerate a few of the highlights among them. A statue base from Eleusis has for more than 100 years been taken to refer to Demetrios of Phaleron, pupil of Aristotle and Theophrastos, philosopher, regent, and law-giver of Athens from 317 to 307, and from this base “general” was taken to have been his title as regent. The base was, in fact, set up in honor of the regent’s homonymous grandson, the general, while the regent (it now becomes clear) never was a general and his title, in all probability, was epimeletes, as Adolf Wilhelm suggested in 1903, or possibly nomothetes. Another decree, documenting Athens’relations with king Pharnakes of Pontos, and dated to the year 160/59, is in fact a generation earlier and the queen not a daughter of Antiochos IV Epiphanes but of Antiochos III the Great. The Athenian archon who dates it moves up some 30 years. A long decree found in the Agora and published by Meritt in 1967 honors a close associate of a Seleukid king Antiochos. It was understood as referring to Antiochos IV, but it dates in fact some 30 years later and refers to Antiochos VII, the only king who succeeded in subjugating the Jews, only to lose his life soon thereafter and part of his kingdom in a battle against the Parthians. Another decree of Athens found at Delos seemed to refer to the war of the Romans against Antiochos the Great in 190: it refers in fact to their war against Aristonikos, the pretender to the throne of Pergamon, in 133. Outside Athens, Tracy has put his method to good use in Delphi and Samos, where the famous long law on the distribution of grain to the citizens, published a century ago by Wilamowitz and Wiegand, received a new date half a century earlier than the first editors and all others thought. I could go on with many more cases, but will instead just mention the titles of his books (I leave aside the gem that is The Story of the Odyssey). First came The Lettering of an Athenian Mason (1975), then IG II2 2336. Contributors of the First Fruits for the Pythias (1982), Attic Letter-Cutters of 229 to 86 B.C. (1990), Athenian Democracy in Transition. Attic Letter-Cutters of 340 to 290 B.C. (1995), and Athens and Macedon: Attic Letter-Cutters of 300 to 229 B.C. (2003).

13The craftsmen identified in this way by their individual writing remain by necessity anonymous, deprived of their proper names. But some of them, thanks to Tracy’s work, have taken on a personality of their own. Occasionally a career evolved over more than 30 years, or a cutter moved from Athens to Delphi to inscribe documents on the Athenian treasury there, while another cut documents in Athens, then on the Athenian island of Delos, and back in the city again. Some cutters took apprentices who then became master cutters themselves. There were different workshops, besides in the city itself, in Piraeus and at Rhamnous. The basics of the working techniques of these artisans became much clearer, including indications of how many letters they were able to inscribe in a day’s work, and so on.

  • 1 Tracy 1970, 327.

14Recognition of Tracy’s accomplishment was for a time somewhat slow. Not that his work was criticized – scholars rather remained cautious for a while, until overwhelming proofs followed one after the other in rapid succession. Such proof was presented in the form of joins, that is physical connections of larger or smaller fragments to each other, originating from the same stone but broken apart in antiquity (or later) and put together again, after more than 2000 years, once Tracy had identified them as being cut by the same mason and then determined where they joined. Such joins, now more than 80, have convinced all the experts in the world of the solidity and reliability of the method if it is used according to Tracy’s strict rules. As he himself once put it, in an early stage of his career, “A physical join is its own proof”1.

15Nowadays, Stephen is still unique in what he does, or, as an English reviewer put it more elegantly, he is “a nonpareil”. Almost 70 years ago, in 1935, one of the two greatest figures in Greek epigraphy, the Austrian Adolf Wilhelm, described the contribution of the American epigraphists in connection with their rich finds in the Agora in these words (I translate from the German): “They can pride themselves to have founded, by applying scrupulous care to the material features of the monuments and to their lettering, a new direction of epigraphy, the technical”. Within that realm of technical epigraphy, Stephen Tracy has created an area entirely his own and has formulated the laws that will have to be obeyed by whoever may be willing and able to follow in his footsteps.

16One final paragraph. As Tracy is about to take a new position and to shoulder new responsibilities in Athens, where he will have easy access to the Agora, the Epigraphical Museum, and other sites in Attica, he will be ideally placed to further these studies. It is my sincere hope that his daily duties may still leave room for his scholarly work, since much remains to be done and there is so far no one else who could do it. Dear Stephen, June, Mr. Chairman, distinguished colleagues and guests, it has been a great honor, a privilege, and a pleasure to present these remarks about a scholar and friend I admire and love. I wish him the very best in his new endeavor.

17May 3, 2002


1 Tracy 1970, 327.

© Ausonius Éditions, 2010

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