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Epigraphic evidence on public building: shifting procedures or shifting perspectives?

My second post will focus on some methodological considerations prompted by the study of 5th and 4th c. Attic inscriptions, in particular building specifications and building commission accounts. As I proceed with my research, I am becoming increasingly aware of the extent to which the correct interpretation of the nature and function of these inscriptions is essential for a proper understanding of the information they provide.

At risk of stating the obvious, I would like to make some preliminary remarks. I fully subscribe to the view that inscriptions are the final stage of long and often complex political and administrative procedures. As such, inscriptions on stone are usually an abridged version of more detailed dossiers written on perishable materials, which recorded all stages of the procedure and were stored in public archives. Inscriptions did not simply perform the duty of making public certain acts of the city: in Athens this function – as a number of sources attest – could be performed also by wooden tablets or whitewashed boards (e.g. sanidia, pinakia, leukomata), on which new documents were displayed in public for a certain amount of time (e.g. on a wall in the Bouleuterion, on the base of the monument of the Eponymous Heroes, etc.). Rather, inscriptions were meant as enduring monuments, designed to perpetuate the memory of certain acts that were considered relevant to the city and its values[1].

In line with this approach, the study of building specifications has confirmed that the publication on stone did not meet the practical need of conveying instructions to the potential contractors. In most cases, their goal was to underline the nature and importance of a particular building initiative undertaken by the polis. That is why building specifications usually record no more than a general outline of the project, with a selective emphasis on certain aspects that were more relevant to the public than to the contractors[2]. The same tendency can be seen at work also in the case of public accounts: lapidary accounts must be considered a selection of the primary working documents rather than a full record of the transactions for which the public officials were responsible. In most cases, the publication on stone aimed to affirm the principles of the Athenian administrative system and to meet political or religious preoccupations, depending on the specific object of the account. In other words, the symbolic value prevailed over the practical function[3].

This has important methodological consequences for my own research. An inscription is no neutral record: in order properly to assess a given text, I will always have to consider the specific episodes, as well as the general political context, which prompted its publication on stone[4]. Moreover, I will assume that inscriptions are usually a concise and ‘monumental’ version of more detailed dossiers, so that the lack of certain pieces of information does not imply that such information was missing in the original dossier. The choice to underline some details at the expense of others reflects the political and symbolic function of the inscription rather than the actual working of the administrative procedure from which the inscription originates.

I will give just an example of the importance of these assumptions for my research. As regards the system of labor recruitment, Attic building inscriptions are usually taken to reflect a gradual shift: while in the 5th c. the city tended to opt for the direct hiring of workers and small craftsmen, in the 4th c. there is an apparent shift towards the contracting out of works to bigger entrepreneurs[5]. However, building specifications and commission accounts are two distinct categories of inscriptions, with a slightly different agenda. As such, they focus on different aspects of the procedure leading to the construction of public buildings and offer a selection of the original details, according to their respective agendas. A word of caution, then, may be in order: 5th c. sources consist mainly of building accounts, whereas 4th c. sources consist mainly of building specifications. This being the case, are we still in a position confidently to state that there was a shift in labor recruitment? Could it not be the case that this is an unwarranted conclusion based on the shifting perspectiveof our evidence?

[1] L. Boffo, “Ancora una volta sugli «archivi» nel mondo greco: conservazione e «pubblicazione» epigrafica”, Athenaeum 83, 1995, 91-130; P.J. Rhodes, “Public Documents in the Greek States: Archives and Inscriptions. Part I-II”, Greece & Rome 84, 2001, 33-44, 136-153.

[2] C. Carusi, “Alcune considerazioni sulle syngraphai ateniesi del V e del IV secolo a.C.”, ASAA, s. III, 6/I, 2006, 11-36.

[3] J.K. Davies, “Accounts and Accountability in Classical Athens”, in R. Osborne, S. Hornblower (eds.), Ritual, Finance, Politics. Athenian Democratic Accounts Presented to David Lewis, Oxford 1994, 201-212.

[4] A point made also by L.J. Samons II, Empire of the Owl. Athenian Imperial Finance, Stuttgart 2000, 312-317, apropos Athenian financial documents.

[5] E.g. R. Martini, “Lavori pubblici e appalto nella Grecia antica”, in I rapporti contrattuali con la pubblica amministrazione nell’esperienza storico-giuridica. Atti del convegno internazionale della Società Italiana di Storia del Diritto (Torino, 17-19 ottobre 1994), Napoli 1997, 37-53.

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