Computers aid in quest for old Athens
The ATHENIANS database can serve a number of demographic applications. For example, a simple command will produce a list of all the
in ancient Athens in which women are mentioned. As it happens, only about a tenth of the names in
the Meritt file are of women. That's because most of the records are from a
political or military context where men predominated. For that reason, the database cannot be used as a. statistical source.
Enthusiastic support for the ATHENIANS project has come from around the world because each biography, however brief, contributes to the modern scholar's
understanding of life in ancient Athens. Among those scholars who have already
availed themselves of the resource is Mogens Herman Hansen, a professor of
ancient history at the University of Copenhagen. His particular interest is in
political leadership in fourth century Athens so he is always on the lookout
for information about ambassadors, generals, proposers of decrees or laws,
prosecutors in public political actions, and so on. Hansen thinks Traill's
project might turn out to be "the most important piece of scholarship on
Athenian history to be produced in the 1980s".
by Pamela Cornell
With the full
knowledge, blessing, and
even financial support of the federal
government, a U of T professor is
compiling a database that will include all
the information he can possibly
gather on some 150,000 persons.
The idea is to facilitate "snooping"
by assorted investigators.
calculated invasion of privacy is unlikely to
provoke any outcry, however,
because the subjects in question have all
been dead for at least 1,300 years. They.were citizens (or at least residents)
of Athens between the seventh century BC and 'the fourth century AD --- a time span covering the archaic, classical, Hellenistic and Roman
past three years, classics professor John Traill has been attempting to generate as complete a census for ancient Athens as current scholarly information will allow. Titled ATHENIANS, the five-year project is being funded with $250,000 from the Social Sciences &
Humanities Research Council.
are all old but the technology is new --- and a U of T exclusive. Working largely from index cards, compiled over 50 years by world-renowned philologist Benjamin D. Meritt, Traill and his associates key each entry into an "intelligent" terminal linked with one of the University's VAX mainframes. To handle input and output in the alphabets of both Greek and English, a special database management system
had to be designed. The task
couldn't have been better suited
to the. expertise of Professor Dennis Tsichritzis, of the Computer Systems Research Group. Born in Greece, he has long had an interest in archaeology and classical literature.
or Attica, was not the largest Greek state but it boasts the largest number of records, thanks to the Athenians' obsession with literacy. Known as "the university state", Athens was the centre of western classical learning.
It was home to the orator Demosthenes, the chronicler Thucydides, the dramatists
Sophocles, Aristophanes and Aeschylus, and the philosophers Plato and Aristotle (though the latter was not technically an Athenian citizen). The term "atticism
" is used to designate extreme elegance of speech and the expression
"attic salt" refers to a refined wit.
"Athens was a paragon of Greek excellence in
every field --- literature, science, architecture and art." says Traill, "It was
U of T project 'snoops' into
lives of some 150,000 people
findings of scholarly research. Revisions that used to take days, can now be handled
matter of minutes. Even after individuals have been "corrected out of existence", their
"ghosts" are kept on
the database, providing a contribution to the
history of scholarship. Moreover,
storing the materials in computer form facilitates computerized typesetting
--- the only economical means of publishing such a work.
Traill delights in pointing out the aptness of the project's
headquarters. Based at Victoria College. ATHENIANS is located on the top
floor of the house at 85 Charles St. W. --- above the Records
of Early English Drama (REED) project. What better place to compile an Attic
epigraphy, he asks, than in an attic'!
Pasted on the attic walls are instructions and
tables to help project staff enter material into the database -- a task they
perform at the rate of about 100 files a day. Carrying out this part of the operation are research associate Philippa Wallace Matheson,
graduate students Leslie Schear, Nigel Kennell and Douglas Orr, and Traill
"This isn't a straightforward exercise in
data entry, with us just taking down information as it comes," he says.
"Even with pre-edited material, questions remain and judgements
must be made.
"Being able to read and write ancient Greek is just the beginning. Our staff must also know where to look up references
and how to interpret them in a scholarly way. To make the job even more
laborious, we're working from copies of cards that are nearly all
handwritten, many in very light or illegible script."
Under those circumstances, mistakes are almost
inevitable, so the computer program has been designed to permit systematic
checking for particular types of error. In addition, a series of tests has
been developed. These are applied to each batch of 200 or so records, as they
are completed, to help correct errors made when the material was entered.
Information in ATHENIANS can be organized and retrieved in a variety of ways --- both from local and remote
terminals --- by scholars in different disciplines.
"Our hope is that, within the next few years,
when we've got the whole system ready, there will be enough universities with
terminals that all a researcher will have to do is ring up this
database," says Traill, adding that he purposely chose UNIX for the project
because it is a worldwide system.
the city that gave birth to the basic concepts of our own society."
Every conceivable body in Athens was highly organized --- from the state
right down to small, selective clubs; and the proceedings from all of them were literally carved in stone, with the minutes from
one men's club even detailing the shouting and fighting that took place at a
Writing materials of the time included papyrus (only one
piece has survived), wax on wood, chalk on board, and "ink" on
cloth. However, because those materials have not endured, the Meritt card
file is based primarily on stone records found at the Agora in Athens in the 19th
century. Included are public decrees, accounts, records, gravestones, tax
stones, leases, curse tablets,
dowry stones, boundary stones, masons' marks on theatre seats and
inscriptions on coins, pottery and loom weights. Even roof tiles
names and dates.
"But the backbone of our work," says Traill, "is based on
the endless catalogues. The Athenians were great people for listing. There
are lists of soldiers, of priests, of councillors. of landowners, of books in
the library and so on. Meritt transferred them all onto his file cards."
One of the earliest appointments to the
Institute for Advanced Studv at Princeton, Meritt joined that distinguished
research centre soon after Albert Einstein. Though
Meritt was laying the foundations for the ATHENIANS project long before
computers were invented, his filing system is conveniently database oriented
--- with one file card for each fact about each person. Meritt is now 84 and
has retired to Texas, but he continues to
follow ATHENIANS closely, usually dropping by during his annual
summer excursion to the family cottage in Ontario.
Meritt's epigraphy (from "epigraph") of Athens was not the first but it is the most comprehensive.
At the beginning of this century, a two volume Propographia
Attica was published, but it's author, Johannes Kirchner, included only 15,588 important Athenian citizens
--- hence no slaves and
no Women --- and then only from the time before the Roman emperor Augustus. In addition to covering a longer period, the first computer-generated Athenian prosopography (from the
Greek word "prosopon" meaning "face") will be much more democratic in its approach. As a result, new social classes will be
opened up to research. Even some of the most notable Athenian figures were
excluded from Kirchner's prosopography because they were not citizens of Athens. Aristotle is a case in point.
"We include him and thousands of other foreigners
who were part of the fabric of Athenian life," says Traill. "A single computer command
easily deletes non-Athenians if that be the requirement of a search."
application of database techniques to such a body of archaeological material
has distinct advantages. With minimal effort, the data can be continually
updated and corrected to incorporate the latest