An unknown ancient Greek marble inscription stored in a museum vault since the 1880s has been rediscovered in Scotland. New research now shows that the tablet includes a list of young men who took the Ephebic Oath. It is in effect an ancient version of a school graduate yearbook.
The inscribed stone had been kept in storage within the vaults of National Museums Scotland (NMS) since the 1880s. It was only recently rediscovered and put under the microscope as part of a university project to publish English translations of ancient Athenian inscriptions held in UK collections. Researchers have announced that the names on the marble stone are of young men who took the ephebic oath in Classical Athens, which was sworn upon induction into the military academy known as the Ephebic College.
Dating to the mid-1st century AD, the stone tablet lists 31 friends who had gone through the Athenian Ephebate together during the reign of the Roman Emperor Claudius (41 to 54 AD). Graduation was required to attain status as full citizens of Athens, and it is thought the rare stone acted like a modern yearbook, in that it commemorated the time the boys had spent together and the relationships they had formed.
Clau which appears to have been repurposed from another object. ( National Museums Scotland )
Really “Thrilling” Discovery of Ancient Greek Graduate Yearbook
For the last four years, the Arts and Humanities Research Council-sponsored Attic Inscriptions in UK Collections has been led by Cardiff University with the University of Durham and the University of Manchester. Details of the newly discovered tablet were published this week on the website Attic Inscriptions Online .
Research into the nature of the inscribed marble tablet was led by Dr. Peter Liddel, a professor of Greek history and epigraphy at the University of Manchester. Not having seen the stone personally, because of the 2021 lockdowns, Liddel suspected it was a copy of another stone tablet stored in the Ashmolean Museum collection in Oxford.
However, the professor recently announced that the stone features a new list of “co-ephebes and friends” names. According to Metro, Dr. Margaret Maitland, principal curator of the Ancient Mediterranean at NMS, said that “to have the team come and visit and confirm it was something that had never been published before was really thrilling.”
Close up of an oil amphora included at the top of the ancient Greek graduate yearbook. ( National Museums Scotland )
Insights into an Elite Military Institution
A report on ITV explained that the new list has provided researchers with a selection of ancient Greek names that have never been read before. Furthermore, the list of names provides the “earliest evidence” for non-citizens taking part in the ephebate during this period. Liddel said the stone features “a really interesting inscription” which offers insights into “the sort of access or accessibility of this institution which is often associated with elite citizens.”
Circumstances surrounding the ephebic oath were described by the Attic orator Lycurgus, in his 4th century BC work Against Leocrates . The oath was taken in the temple of Aglaurus, an Athenian princess and the daughter of Cecrops, who ignored a warning from the goddess Athena and was driven to suicide. Dressed in full armor, and holding a shield and spear in his left hand, the candidates right hand touched the right hand of the ritual moderator, and they became an epebos until the age of 20.
Marble votive relief, circa 400 BC to 375 BC, showing eight young Athenian men and two bearded officials. The ancient Greek graduate yearbook includes a list of names of young men who took the ephebic oath in Classical Athens upon induction into the military academy known as the Ephebic College. (The Trustees of the British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 )
Athens Academy Graduation Class – Mid-1st Century BC
According to Dr. Peter Liddel, the discovery of this inscribed stone tablet represents “an important new source of information about elite Athenian society in the mid-first century AD.” This was a crucial period for Athens as the city attempted (re)incorporation into the Roman Empire after the Battle of Actium in 31 AD.
Liddel explained that such carved lists of names unified the young men and created a sense of camaraderie and comradeship. Having all been through a rigorous training program together, such a stone would have made the men feel like “part of a cohort.” This is why the rare stone is described as the ancient equivalent of an ancient Greek graduate school yearbook. The lead researcher suspects it would have been displayed on a wall in the young men’s training gymnasium.
Top image: Dr. Margaret Maitland, Principal Curator of the Ancient Mediterranean at National Museums Scotland, with the recently discovered ancient Greek graduate yearbook. Source: National Museums Scotland
By Ashley Cowie