BMCR 2023.09.22

Le ‘poleis’ e i loro archivi: studi su pratiche documentarie, istituzioni e società nell’antichità greca

, , Le 'poleis' e i loro archivi: studi su pratiche documentarie, istituzioni e società nell'antichità greca. Trieste: Edizioni Università di Trieste, 2021. Pp. 964. ISBN 9788855112536.

Open Access


A 750-page account of something that is not preserved is only seemingly surprising. Brevity in description of complex matters requires a certain density of primary sources, which isn’t at hand when it comes to Graeco-Roman archives outside of Egypt. In the poleis of Greece proper, the main region of interest in this book, mere reflections of public record-keeping are preserved in inscriptions and literary sources. In spite of these challenges, what the authors of this seminal study have achieved goes well beyond the narrow scope of archival history. The book is, in fact, not one merely on archives. It rather captures the strategies used by cities in record-making and record-keeping in major domains such as legislation, public finances, or jurisdiction, adding to our knowledge about the institutions the archives pertained to and, thus rendering it a central contribution to our understanding of Greek polis administration.

Le poleis e i loro archivi is, in essence, not one but two books. After a co-authored introduction, it is divided into two main parts, the first by Michele Faraguna, covering the Archaic and Classical periods, and the second by Laura Boffo, covering the Hellenistic period and the transition phase after Rome’s conquest of the East through the first century CE. The division is not merely conventional, but prompted by the political transformations of the fourth century BCE, when poleis and their archives were no longer purely local matters (see pp. 21–2). Both authors have published substantially on the subject, and were thus able to pool their considerable expertise into this successful joint project.

Following Isabella Zanni Rosiello, Faraguna and Boffo define the archive as “the organized memory of the institution producing it” (p. 29, my translation; further such definitions from secondary literature in Italian, German, French and English are given pp. 29–30, n. 1). We are very far from the typical modern definitions of archives and are dealing with accumulations of working documents in active use, rather than ever-growing collections that exist mainly for memory’s sake. This (accurate) definition has two major advantages: For one thing, it promotes the search for and analysis of processes. For another, it provides an effective remedy for the terminological headache produced by the challenging variety of terms for archives and the changes in meaning that these terms underwent over time.[1] Regarding the actual (physical) archive, both of the book’s parts, but especially the first one, show how misleading the search for one centralized institution (rather than several archives, each pertaining to different polis entities) would truly be.

In what follows, I will briefly treat the book’s main sections (Introduction, Part I, Part II), trying to sketch their main results. All sections are packed with information and are exceptionally rich in the use of primary evidence; summaries, thus, would not be of much use. Recurring themes, however, do invite overarching observations. A fourth section, not discussed here, is the appendix, containing a very useful glossary, indexes (locorum and general) and a bibliography of nearly 90 pages (not including titles cited only once, which are documented in their respective footnotes).

The Introduction starts with a preface (p. 3–27), containing a detailed account of the secondary literature (on archives, but also on related topics), a brief guide to the book’s structure as well as remarks on topics that were not able to be treated. For understandable reasons, albeit regrettably, this also includes the archives’ services for private individuals. The following methodological considerations (pp. 29–57) first tackle the terminological debate sketched above, then continue with general remarks on the archives’ character, their purpose for the community, and the different archival realities detectable in the ancient world. The authors stress the importance of finding common elements and characteristics among the archival practices of civilizations rather than lines of continuity and cultural transfers, in order to allow for a heuristic approach and the comparison of principles and motives (pp. 38–40). Brief remarks follow on the archives of the ancient Near East (archival behaviour, buildings and furniture, habits of cataloguing, sealing and storing), on Rome, and on Egypt.

The Introduction provides a wonderful read to scholars mainly interested in more general questions on archiving and record-keeping. It is perhaps the book’s densest part (especially the footnotes), but it contains a wealth of valuable observations and comparisons and a well-digested account of the secondary literature.

Part I (Faraguna) comprises ten chapters, covering (1) writing and writing materials, (2) lists of eponymous magistrates, (3) laws: their consultation and revision, (4) public secretaries, (5) citizen registers, (6) financial registers, (7) the preservation of decrees in the fifth century, (8) accountability reports and inventories, (9) documents and archives in court practice, and (10) land registers. Chapter 1 serves as an introduction, especially on the ‘soft’ writing materials as well as on Phoenician influence, not just on the alphabet, but also on archival practices. Chapter 4 likewise highlights the practical side of public record-making (and record-keeping), convincingly following the premise that where there is a grammateus, there should be records, too.

For the other chapters, common threads can be discerned. I summarize them here, along with some of the key findings:

  • Record-keeping, at least in the Archaic and Classical periods, was not achieved by one central institution, but rather by various magistrates who were in charge of different tasks. We are, thus, talking about several archives in a given city.
  • For several tasks, record-keeping seems to have been performed not on the polis-level, but within demes or tribes. This can be best observed for citizen and land registers (see Chapters 5 and 10).
  • These records, fulfilling key functions for civic society, were kept and could be consulted for a considerable period. Re-installations of inscribed copies of important decrees or later reconstructions of magistrate catalogues are two evident examples for the continuous use of copies on soft writing material.
  • Several features in the inscribed evidence provide hints at copies on perishable material: headings, formatting, separation lines, internal referencing, observable editing. Datings in the inscriptions fall into the same category.
  • Early attestations of public record-keeping can be traced back to the sixth century BCE, and are arguably plausible even for the seventh century in rare cases (see, e.g., pp. 78–80 on lists of archons from Thasos and Paros). The systematic keeping of records from the sixth century onwards should be expected for citizen registers, lists of magistrates, financial accounts (especially for sanctuaries) and sacred laws. The written registration of real-estate transactions dates back to at least the end of the fourth century, with earlier traces of public documentation on the status of land (fifth century BCE).
  • Even though access to archived documents by the wider public remains debatable, it is certainly to be expected for the civic magistrates. Examples at hand include preparations for a new law or motions against an existing one (γραφὴ παρανόμων), accountability procedures for magistrates (εὔθυναι), but also research conducted by ancient historians (see especially Chapters 7 and 8).

The first part’s main challenge is perhaps the scarcity of (all too often only roughly dated) primary evidence. Nevertheless, Faraguna is able to create a compelling body of thoroughly analyzed sources and careful arguments, convincingly showing that elaborate systems of record-keeping were not confined to Athens or to the Classical period. While readers will benefit from a general grounding in the subject (e.g., from E. Posner’s 1972 monograph Archives in the Ancient World), the author provides the necessary background information to fully assess archival strategies in, e.g., Athenian court practice, law-making in Gortyn or the handling of real estate in Tenos. Controversies in specialized literature are summarized and Greek passages are translated, facilitating the full appreciation of this impressive work also to the non-specialist.

Part II (Boffo) tackles different challenges: While the primary sources for the Hellenistic era are considerably more numerous than for the previous periods, the Hellenistic Greek cities are confronted with various external influences (first by the Hellenistic kings, then by the Romans), whose precise impact can be assessed only roughly. The initial chapters acknowledge this difficulty by providing overviews on the cities and the requirements that their archives faced (1) during the Hellenistic period and (2) concerning the relations with Rome. The remaining chapters cover (3) decrees, (4) laws, (5) treaties, (6) interstate arbitration and (7) the registration of citizens and non-citizens.

The following themes and and findings can be highlighted:

  • In the face of foreign powers, the poleis were largely able to adapt existing systems of archiving. The notion that a ‘true’ archival system existed only from the fourth century BCE onwards (fueled by influences from the East) needs revision.
  • The ability to submit records (of often considerable age) along with appeals to the kings or Rome is one obvious reason for an elaborate system of record-keeping in the poleis.
  • Access to the records is, as in previous periods, certainly possible for the magistrates themselves, but also for publicly appointed functionaries such as foreign judges. Beyond that, nothing definitive can be made out.
  • Datings in the inscriptions are of even greater importance than in the Classical period: in handling external documents along with the internal ones, a combination of dating systems might have been necessary, which, in turn, required that magistrates have access to equivalency tables.
  • The plurality of archives (in service of the individual magistrates) remains throughout the Hellenistic period. The ‘Astynomoi Law’ from Pergamon (second century BCE, re-inscribed under Trajan or Hadrian), mentioning an archeion (of the strategoi[2]), is one elegant example (see p. 424).

Boffo works top-down, always with the aim to reconstruct the actual underlying systems in the archives and to describe as much as possible about the documents’ day-to-day handling and their physical features (headings, side-notes, redactions, etc.). As Boffo herself notes, this project cannot offer the final word on the subject. Nevertheless, her attempt at comprehensively capturing archival processes from the scattered and oftentimes all too imprecise sources deserves great appreciation. One aspect of the archives’ services for individuals (although not the focus of this book) is touched upon in Chapter 7, on the registration of citizens. The fascinating topic of the entanglement of public and private interests receives a well-balanced treatment there, along with—as in the previous chapters—a thorough review of the primary sources.

I end with a word on what Le poleis e i loro archivi is and is not. The book should not be mistaken for an introductory work on Greek archives. It is precisely what the title suggests: an in-depth account on Greek poleis and what can reasonably be determined about their habits of record-keeping. It isn’t an easy read, but it is exceedingly rich in information, valuable reconstructions and thought-provoking hypotheses, and will doubtlessly serve as a true treasure chest (or rather, a κιβωτός) to scholars working on law, economy and polis administration.



[1] Ἀρχεῖον, for instance, may stand for ‘archive’ from the Hellenistic period onwards, but never loses its primary meaning ‘magistrate’s office/quarters’. The pertinent interpretative problems are discussed pp. 31–2, n. 3.

[2] I follow the analysis of S. Saba here (The Astynomoi Law from Pergamon [2012] 84).