Since their discovery in the nineteenth century the phialai inscriptions have generated a continuous and inconclusive debate. These 33 inscriptions, which date to the late fourth century BC, record multiple entries which are all variations of the same general formula: personal name x, living in [deme], having escaped personal name y, phiale (a bowl) by weight 100. A typical example of the most extended formula: Philon, secretary, living at Thorikos, having escaped Pherekleides, son of Pherekleides, of the deme of Perithoidai, phiale by weight 100. Since the late nineteenth century, these inscriptions have been related to freedmen and manumission on the basis of two observations. The first was the reference to the phialai exeleutherikai in the Acropolis inventories, which seemed to refer to the phialai mentioned in the phialai inscriptions and thus led to their interpretation as bowls offered by freedmen. But in what context? A second observation allowed scholars to connect them with a trial known as dike apostasiou, in which former masters could prosecute their slaves for ‘abandoning them, or registering another person as prostates, or not doing the things that the laws command’. Freedmen convicted in such trials reverted to slavery, while those acquitted became completely free and escaped any remaining obligations towards their former masters. Accordingly, it has become universally accepted that the phialai inscriptions record the dedications of successful freedmen in a dike apostasiou. Even more, some of these inscriptions seem to record multiple trials taking place at the very same day or within a short period of time. It has appeared to many scholars that it is implausible that so many trials could have taken place in such a short period if they were genuine trials; consequently, they have argued that the dike apostasiou was or had become a fictive and collusive trial, which served as the Athenian equivalent to the manumission practices we find in other Greek communities. The recording of the phialai was the Athenian equivalent of the recording of manumissions in other Greek communities.
In this very interesting book, Elizabeth Meyer offers a radical reinterpretation of these documents, which completely dissociates them from freedmen and manumission. The book consists of two parts. Part I (11-80) reviews and criticises earlier views and offers a detailed presentation of Meyer’s alternative interpretation. Part II (81-144) is a collection and re-edition of all 33 inscriptions, with full apparatus and commentary and accompanied by 47 excellent photos of the inscriptions.
In summary, Meyer’s interpretation is the following: these inscriptions are inventory lists of phialai dedicated as tithes worth 100 drachmas from fines of 1,000 drachmas paid by unsuccessful prosecutors of metics through the trial known as graphe aprostasiou, which involved the prosecution of metics for not having a prostates or for failing to pay the tax of the metoikion (28). Meyer reviews the problems faced by earlier interpretations (17-28) and tries to establish why the procedure of aprostasiou against metics provides a more convincing framework for interpreting these inscriptions than that of apostasiou against freedmen (28-47); she further shows that we can link these inscriptions with various other measures taken by the Athenians between the 350’s and the 320’s to ameliorate the condition of the metics and to offer them better protection from prosecutions (47-58); she reviews the administrative process instigated by Lycurgus that led into the collection of all phialai on the Acropolis, their recording in the inventories of the phialai inscriptions and their melting down and rededication (59-69); finally, she offers a number of considerations based on the prosopography of the defendants and prosecutors in the inscriptions which according to her point towards the metic procedures rather than the freedmen ones (69-78).
In my view, Meyer makes a very convincing case concerning the administrative process that led into the creation of the phialai inscriptions. She argues that we should see this process as part of the religious and administrative reforms of Lycurgus. The phialai were transferred to the Acropolis from their original place of dedication (in Meyer’s view the sanctuary of Zeus Eleutherios), inventoried in the phialai inscriptions and then melted down and rededicated. The information on the trials presented in the phialai records was inscribed on the phialai themselves and the scribes who created the inventories copied them straight from the objects (a nice illustration on 67). This ingenious interpretation explains the variety of formulas recorded on the phialai inscriptions. But equally importantly it provides a convincing explanation of the chronological context of the inscriptions. We avoid the chronological problems created by having to assume that all these phialai were dedicated by various people during a short period in the 330s and 320s: it is only the inventory of these dedications that took place in this period, while the dedications can have taken place many years or decades before. Even more, if these records are the peculiar Athenian way of recording manumissions, it becomes difficult to see why the Athenians only felt such a need to record manumissions for a short period in the 330s and 320s. But now Meyer offers a convincing explanation of why an inventory of these inscriptions was made at this particular point in time. The purpose of recording the phialai was not the public recording of manumissions, as earlier accounts posited.
Whether she is right about her other main point, which is the interpretation of the phialai records as trials involving metics and not freedmen is a separate story. I personally find that part of her argument largely unconvincing. There are many potential objections with Meyer’s interpretation, but for reasons of space I want to concentrate on the four most serious ones.
(1) If Meyer is right that the phialai records have nothing to do with manumissions or freedmen, then how should we interpret the reference to the phialai exeleutherikai in the Acropolis inventories, on the basis of which the phialai records were originally interpreted as recording manumissions? Her suggestion is that the term exeleutherikai has nothing to do with freedmen, but should be linked to the cult of Zeus Eleutherios and interpreted as ‘brought forth from Eleutherios’ (54). But this is an implausible translation of exeleutherikai, and equally implausible is her suggestion that the metics who escaped conviction in aprostasiou trials called themselves exeleutheroi (55). Given that exeleutheros, though a rare term, is only attested in relationship to freedmen, Meyer’s suggestion seems to be strained. We know that in other Greek communities freedmen made dedications of sacred objects on the occasion of their manumission, and this seems the most plausible interpretation of the phialai exeleutherikai.
(2) If the phialai are tithes, the natural assumption would be that they would be paid and dedicated either by the victorious metics in their own name, as with most Greek dedications, or by the defeated prosecutors, as e.g. with the convicted athletes in Olympia. The suggestion that the phialai are dedications of tithes of the fines, which were dedicated by the victorious metics but paid by the defeated prosecutors (59) seems strained. Meyer does not bring any parallels in which a dedication is offered by one person but paid by another and I am not aware of such examples either. If these are tithes, they must be either paid and dedicated by the defendants or paid and dedicated by the prosecutors. The formulas make it quite unlikely that they were dedicated by the prosecutors; consequently, it seems more plausible that they were dedicated by the defendants. If this is correct, it creates a grave problem for Meyer’s interpretation of the phialai as tithes from fines in a graphe. Another explanation must be sought.
(3) The prosecutors include two minors acting together with their kyrioi (guardians) and one public slave (73). It is difficult to see how a minor or a public slave could bring a graphe, but this problem is perhaps not insurmountable. What is difficult to envisage is a circumstance in which a minor or a public slave might litigate against a metic as suggested by Meyer. Clearly neither category could act as prostatai; but how plausible is it that either a minor or a public slave would have acquired the rights to a contract to collect the metoikion and sue a metic for non-payment? I find this scenario largely implausible. On the contrary, it is easy to interpret these cases if they involve prosecutions against freedmen: both a minor and a public slave could conceivably own slaves and move against them for either ‘abandoning them’ or ‘not doing the things that the laws command’, i.e. the other two potential charges relating to apostasiou, apart from ‘registering another person as prostates’, which clearly would not apply in this case (18-9).
(4) If the phialai result from prosecutions against metics for not taking a prostates or not paying the metoikion, then there emerges an immediate problem: 16 of the phialai result from prosecutions against boys and girls. In what circumstances would it be possible to litigate against metic children? I know of no parallels for such an action against free children, and Meyer does not offer any either. I find it deeply implausible that they would result out of a charge for not taking a prostates : surely the prosecutor would prosecute the parent or guardian and not the minor. Is it possible they might result out of non-payment of the metoikion ? According to the sources, the metoikion was 12 drachmas for males and 6 for females, but ‘if the son pays, the mother need not’ (29). The only way to interpret the passage is that metic women paid only if they were unmarried, divorced or widowed, i.e. if they were without a male kyrios; if they had a husband he would presumably pay the metoikion on behalf of the household, and if not, if the male son was old enough to pay (presumably as head of the household), then the mother had no obligation to pay as well. This must mean that children did not have to pay at all. From a comparative point of view, all cases of poll tax I am aware of do not apply to children, and many of them do not apply to women either: they tend to apply to male heads of households and other adult males living in them (or to women acting as heads of households). Even if we concede Meyer’s point, that the prosecutor might prosecute the male children in order to avoid arguments like ‘my son has paid, so I do not need to’ (71), there would be no point in prosecuting a female child: accordingly, it is difficult to see how the phialai might result from prosecutions against metics. On the contrary, it is easy to interpret them if they result from prosecutions against manumitted slaves: manumitted children could certainly have obligations towards their former masters and they could be prosecuted for not meeting them.
Perhaps it is possible to meet the above objections, and in that case they will hopefully generate further fruitful debate. For the time being, in the view of this reviewer Meyer’s argument that the phialai relate to metics and not freedmen is not convincing; although the precise procedure that has generated these records is still far from clear, some connection to freedmen is the only way in which the four objections above can be met, as far as I can see. Nevertheless, Meyer’s book has provided a very useful collection and edition of the texts along with a convincing interpretation of their process of recording and publication. It deserves to be read with attention even by those who might disagree with the central interpretation and it will be undoubtedly be at the centre of any future discussion of these deeply fascinating inscriptions.