Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.02.04 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.02.04

Stephen V. Tracy, Athenian Lettering of the Fifth Century B.C.: The Rise of the Professional Letter Cutter.   Berlin; Boston:  De Gruyter, 2016.  Pp. xvi, 239.  ISBN 9783110401424.  $168.00.  

Reviewed by Patricia A. Butz, The Savannah College of Art and Design (

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

The purpose of this book is to establish the role of the professional letter cutter of inscriptions as a principal agent in the Greek polis in general, and Athens in the fifth century B.C. in particular. What distinguishes the publication under review and makes it an integral part of the whole “corpus” of Tracy’s work on this concept is its attempt to get at the actual chronology of inscriptions via the hand of the cutter. The epigraphical evidence for the study is presented in two parts. Part I addresses the broader picture of the fifth century in Athens from the standpoint of some of its most important epigraphic products, including the Salamis Decree, the Hekatompedon Inscription, and the Athenian Tribute Lists. Part II is a tour-de-force of the identification of specific cutters based on the application of Tracy’s methodology to inscriptions that he considers to be by the same hand. Although Tracy refers to the cutter as workman, letter cutter, inscriber, and “men who specialized in lettering texts on stone” (19), it is worth asking if there could have been any woman so employed. Precious evidence for a woman working in a vase workshop and decorating a volute krater is supplied on the “Caputi Hydria” by the Leningrad Painter, but no such scenes exist of a letter-cutting workshop.

Tracy describes his methodology as having been refined over forty years and that it “assumes that lettering on these ancient inscriptions can be treated as a kind of handwriting” (2) with the goal of taking a given sample of writing and isolating idiosyncracies, for example the shaping of letterforms, i.e. “the style of their lettering” (1), and the spacing that identify ultimately one individual cutter. Dating inscriptions by letterform is not the same as analyzing the personal style of the cutter. Dating by letterform is associated by Tracy with the methodology of epigraphers like B. D. Meritt, H. T. Wade-Gery, Malcolm McGregor, Russell Meiggs, and David Lewis. The most famous application of that approach was the three-bar sigma controversy that rose from insistence on the replacement of one style of the letterform with another having four straight segments by mid-fifth century.1 Tracy considers the use of the three vs. four-bar sigma to be a personal choice on the part of the cutter in the years following the mid-fifth century, not something imposed, and throughout his analyses of individual cutters in Part II, the sigma is recognized as a highly idiosyncratic element in the writing. It should have been stated, however, that, while there was nothing like the Decree of Euclides (403/2 BCE) ordaining the change from a three-bar to a four-bar sigma at midcentury, the legal establishment of the Ionic alphabet by that decree requires a clear cutoff for personal choice vis-à-vis the sigma. The reason is palaeographic with epichoric roots: the Ionic sigma is four-barred.2

With a sense of historiography, Tracy then considers the approach of Wade-Gery, whose methodology involved measuring the pattern of strokes created by the use of different widths of straight-edged chisels. Tracy claims, however, that in the end the method is invalidated because chisels are not mass-produced and will change width as they are used and worn down (3). This is certainly true of the chisel as tool, although it is to be assumed that the demands of the profession would necessitate refurbishment or replacement depending on how important consistency of stroke was to the cutter.3 But discussion of inconsistencies is also valid for handwriting—not only speaking of the writing tool proper—but the model itself which Tracy so espouses. Handwriting may change, even if generated by the same individual using the same tool, in the context of different documents, signatures vs. bodies of text, and ultimately over the course of a lifetime. It is in part because handwriting is a neurological activity with strong connections between brain and hand.4 For these reasons, I have some reservations concerning the terminology “handwriting,” also because of its immediate association with more perishable materials, even papyrus, and to some degree an implied informality. The cutting of inscriptions in the public domain, namely decrees and legislation all the way to casualty lists and even private funerary monuments intended for public display, is to be considered a formal activity.

Tracy’s own method, not unlike graphological analysis, focuses on “sameness of writing” as the quality ideally sought for in a sample and as the essential criterion. He criticizes Lewis, who was positively influenced by Wade-Gery’s approach, for attributing two texts as by the same hand that are so visibly different: the non-stoichedon IG I3 23 and the stoichedon IG I3 24. These inscriptions serve as the opening figures respectively in Tracy’s profusely illustrated text. They are significant because the author makes of them a natural comparison, discussing their palaeographic differences in detail and giving a foretaste of his methodological application in Part II. In my opinion, the same professional cutter should at least be capable of inscribing stoichedon or non-stoichedon, depending on the specifications for the work; consequently, the shape of a given letterform could be affected by compression. Tracy also mentions “offset” for certain lines of the Salamis Decree that break the grid pattern. “Offset” and “rectified” stoichedon are terms I have defined in my study of the Hekatompedon Inscription.5 Such modifications must be allowed for and simply may complicate the identification of a hand.6 I asked myself if this might have been what Lewis meant in the citation from his IG commentary that Tracy takes exception to: “Discrepantiae sane patent, sed lapicidam eundem esse qui n. 23 inciderit pro certo habemus . . . .” Nevertheless, the letterforms of the two inscriptions are what I would judge structurally different at their foundation, shown consistently throughout the whole body of writing. But the height of letterform I find important to consider as well. Tracy admits both are “rather tall lettering, viz. 0.018-22 and ca. 0.02 m. respectively”; more precisely, they are uncomfortably close to c. 2.5 cm which qualifies as monumental, as stated in conversation by Constantina Peppas-Delmousou. It makes individual hands harder to prove.

The book contains a total of 236 high-quality black and white figures. Part II is all about attributions, many of them new to an already named cutter, hence the necessity for extensive photographs. Yet the vast majority are of squeezes, not the inscriptions. The practice accords with the value Tracy places on the squeeze as vital for the study of epigraphy: “Photographs and scans offer no substitute...” (xv). Yet there are limits: one can see significant differences in weight and absorbency of professional squeeze papers used by excavations and museums on the same stone; squeezes made outside, and at different points in the life of the stone, will differ from those made in the storeroom or museum. Such variations need to be studied and recorded more rigorously, especially since digitization of squeezes and the formation of databases is well underway, a technological advance but a conscious distancing from the stone proper. The very cover of the book is consistent with Tracy’s position towards the squeeze. In fact, it is a kind of metatext on the subject depicting a piece of white squeeze paper placed over the “stone,” which on closer inspection is a squeeze itself, reversed in order to appear right-reading despite the greyer color. Unlike the other scrupulous captions throughout the book, the cover is not identified anywhere and it should be: IG I 3110, the proxeny decree for Oiniades of Palaiskiathos dated 408/7 B.C.

In summation, Athenian Lettering of the Fifth Century: The Rise of the Professional Letter Cutter makes a strong contribution to the field of Greek epigraphy and palaeography. Its intended audience is that community of classical Greek scholars whose interest is not limited to the contents of an inscription, which naturally furnishes a host of disciplines; but the valued existence of the physical inscription as writing on stone as well. Paradoxically, the book is on the cutting edge of the increased role of squeezes in the discipline and the urge for the scholar to use them instead of personal autopsy. Those interested in methodology will also be drawn to the book. Tracy’s method of identifying hands is not unlike Beazley’s connoisseurship in establishing the corpus of Attic vase painters. Both seek to identify idiosyncracies in the hand of the maker. One such idiosyncracy that Tracy noted for a number of the cutters in Part II but did not address specifically is punctuation. Punctuation is uniquely linked to the graphic side of an inscription and could be the mark of an individual cutter. 7 It intersects at the point of syntax, grammar and ornament and deserves more attention. In the end, despite his statement, “I am in complete agreement with Angelos Matthaiou’s dictum that ‘historical context, prosopography, phraseology, language, and grammar should have priority as criteria for the dating of epigraphic documents,’” (231) Tracy tries something different in this book by attempting to set a legitimate standard for epigraphical chronologies through the personal styles of the individual work force.

Table of Contents

List of Figures ix
Abbreviations xiii
Preface xv
Introduction and Methodology 1
Inscriptions Discussed and/or Assigned 7

Part I: General Studies of the Writing of the Fifth Century B.C.
The First Decrees and Laws of ca s of ca. 515 to ca. 450 B.C. 17
Unique Examples of Writing of ca. 450 to ca. 400 29
The Inscribers of the Lapis Primus and Lapis Secundus (IG I3 259–280) 41
The Inscribers of the So-called ‘Attic Stelai’ (IG I 3 421–430 55

Part II: Attic Letter Cutters of ca. 450 to ca. 390
The Cutter of IG I3 263, 454/3–450/49 77
The Cutter of IG I3 270, 448–ca. 438 83
The Cutter of IG I3 35, 440/39–432/1 93
The Cutter of IG I3 364, 434/3–433/2 103
The Cutter of IG I3 392, ca. a. 425 a. 109
The Cutter of IG I350, 424/3 113
The Cutter of IG II2 1386, 423/2–394/3 121
The Cutter of IG I3 80, 421/0 145
The Cutter of IG II2 17, 414/3–386/5 149
The Cutter of IG I3 102, 413/2–410/09 181
The Cutter of IG I3 316, ca. 408/7 185
The Cutter of IG II2 1401, ca. 395 191

Summation 195
Appendix One: Hands in Fifth-Century B.C. Attic Inscriptions (reprint of Studies Dow 277–282) 199
Appendix Two: The Wrongful Execution of of the Hellenotamiai (Antiphon 5.69–71) and The Lapis Primus (reprint of CP 109, 2014, 1–10) 207
Appendix Three: Down Dating Some Athenian Decrees with Three-Bar Sigma: A Palaeographic Approach (reprint of ZPE 190, 2014, 105-115) 217
Index of Passages Cited 233
General Index 235


1.   Tracy credits Harold Mattingly as the exception, “at first almost alone,” in disputing the generalization (xvii).
2.   LSAG, 325, sigma 2 on the exemplar.
3.   I would argue that the tools for the Hekatompedon Inscription, for example, were always kept up and replaced if needed. A remarkable uniformity of stroke (2.5mm wide) is maintained throughout that inscription. But these letters were not stem-cut and the wear of the tool would not have affected the length of stroke. The technique is completely different.
4.   A classic source on the subject of handwriting and the science of the “graphic faculty” is Robert Saudek, Experiments with Handwriting. London: George Allen and Unwin, Ltd., 1928.
5.   Patricia A. Butz, The Art of the Hekatompedon Inscription and the Birth of the Stoikhedon Style. Monumenta Graeca et Romana 16. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2010, ix-xx.
6.   Tracy further says concerning these two inscriptions, “One has to admit that the same individual might have inscribed them employing two very different styles of writing. But if we ignore the clear differences in the shapes of the letters and allow this attribution [Lewis’] to stand, then it follows that we must give up the basic criterion of sameness of writing and be willing to accept any identification made by an experienced scholar for whatever reasons” (5-6). The problematic word again is “style” (as in “style of writing”) and the dynamic fine line that does exist between a personal style which is believed to identify the individual vs. something broader, for example the preferences of a patron, period, or regional styles.
7.   Punctuation is a key element in the identification of a “Hekatompedon Master.” See Butz, The Art of the Hekatompedon Inscription and the Birth of the Stoikhedon Style, 129.

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