Epigraphic explorations of Athens

Being an epigrapher – someone who studies inscriptions – definitely means that I pay a lot more attention to the different kinds of writing that I see as I walk around a city, and that happens even more when I’m learning a language and so trying to practice reading as much as possible. While walking around Athens during my recent stay there, I found myself thinking a lot about the similarities between the kinds of inscriptions I was seeing and classical Greek and Roman inscriptions — particularly when it came to graffiti, which is something that Athens has a LOT of, and of which quite a lot of ancient examples also survive, mainly from the Roman cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Ostia. Here’s one of the nicest (most optimistic) graffiti messages I saw in Athens, which reads “Αθήνα η πόλη της τέχνης και της ελπίδας!!” (Athina i poli tis tehnis ke tis elpithas) — “Athens, the city of art and of hope!!”

P1100078 (2)

Ancient graffiti is particularly interesting to researchers because it’s one of the few contexts in which writing by non-elite people survives – people who would not have written literary texts, political or legal speeches, etc. It’s not certain how many people in ancient Greece or Rome would have been able to read and write – there wouldn’t have been anything like universal literacy, but at least some non-elite people might have been able to read but not write, for instance, or write basic things but not elaborate prose, or read certain important words but not full sentences, or any other point on the literacy spectrum. Potentially, then, graffiti might be able to give us a way of seeing how people who weren’t, e.g., Cicero, wrote – and so how they spoke.

Linguists will be particularly interested in things like non-standard spellings, or variation in the way people spell things, which might be evidence for class-based linguistic differences (the average Roman on the street wouldn’t have spoken like Cicero either) and/or language changes in progress (which more educated writing, by people who’d learned fixed spelling conventions, would be more likely to resist representing). Multilingualism is also an important topic in ancient linguistics at the moment – inscriptions can show people writing in more than one language, or predominately in one language but with influence from another, and of course they may also use more than one writing system (e.g. if writing in both Greek and Latin). Of course, the content of graffiti, whether it’s personal (‘X was here’) or political (‘vote for So-and-So’ is the basic message of a lot of Pompeiian graffiti), is also valuable information for historical reconstructions of ancient societies.

So what could I find in contemporary Athens that a linguist or historian a thousand years from now would be interested in? Well, just like in Pompeii, a huge amount of the graffiti is political – not direct election slogans, but expressing a variety of mostly left-wing political views, from which a historian could infer first of all a strong left-wing political presence and secondly a strong opposition/conflict between the political left and right wings:

Bottom left: a popular slogan, ΞΥΛΟ ΣΤΟΥΣ ΦΑΣΙΣΤΕΣ (xilo stous fasistes), literally ‘wood to the fascists’, i.e. ‘let’s beat up the fascists’. (To be clear, I’m not condoning beating up anyone, even fascists). Bottom right: here’s some multilingualism – a message in English, ‘our cities turn into commodities’, whose intended effect is made clear from the fact that the building it’s written on is the tourist information office near the entrance to the Acropolis – highlighting the importance of understanding the context of an inscription’s placement as well as its content and language. Presumably, the choice of English here is a deliberate one aimed at visiting foreign tourists, whereas the anti-fascist slogans (seen in less touristic areas) are generally aiming at a local, Greek audience.

The top photograph has some more evidence for multilingualism – an inscription in French, this one personal rather than political: “[heart] à Clem, 1982 même avant – à toujours” — “[love] to Clem, 1982 [and] even before, for always”. Is this a visiting French speaker, or a Greek who has learned French? Right next to it, but clearly written by a different person, is a more political message in Greek: Ο ΦΟΒΟΣ ΕΙΝΑΙ ΚΑΝΟΝΙΚΟΤΗΤΑ | Ο ΕΡΩΤΑΣ ΕΙΝΑΙ ΡΙΖΟΣΠΑΣΤΙΚΟΣ (o fovos ine o kanonikotita | o erotas ine rizospastikos): “Fear is normality, love is radical”. I can’t tell which of these two was written first, the French or the Greek, but I like to think the Greek one is a response to the French declaration of love – or perhaps the Greek statement inspired the French declaration as a radical act. Either way, inscriptions don’t just exist on their own in a vacuum – they can respond to other inscriptions around them, and whatever the original order of writing or the intentions of their authors, their juxtaposition still affects the way that later readers may view them.

Finally, I mentioned the borrowing of words from English into Greek in my last post, and here’s another example: the word for ‘parking/parking lot’, πάρκινγκ (parking) and ‘I park’, παρκάρω (parkaro).

I learned both of those words as being (by now) entirely Greek – they’re firmly in the dictionary, phrasebooks, etc – so I was a bit surprised when I saw the top left graffito, which reads “ΟΧΙ ΣΤΟ ΝΕΟ PARKING” (ohi sto neo parking), “No to the new parking lot” – with ‘parking’ left in the English alphabet, not the Greek. I wondered whether this was a deliberate choice on the part of the writer – was this new parking lot somehow associated with foreigners, rather than with Greeks? Was using a different alphabet reflecting the writer’s dislike of parking lots? I soon realised I was reading far too much in to this, when I started noticing plenty of other signs with ‘parking’ written in English characters – like the top right picture, which has a sign saying “ΑΠΑΓΟΡΕΥEΤΑΙ ΤΟ ΠΑΡΚΙΝΓΚ ΟΛΟ ΤΟ 24ΩΡΟ” (apagoreuetai to parking olo to 24oro: “parking forbidden 24 hours a day”) and below a sign that starts “PARKING…”. It looks like for many Greek speakers this word is just still sufficiently English/foreign to be written in English characters – a nice lesson in the dangers of making assumptions based on too few examples (which is of course a problem that ancient epigraphers face a lot, since only a tiny proportion of inscriptions of any kind survive from the ancient world), as well as the fact that what the dictionary says isn’t necessarily the same thing as what people actually say and/or write.

And finally, the third sign – which is an actual sign, not graffiti – shows a nice instance of bilingual misspelling, reading “ΕΙΣΟΔΟΣ | ΕΞΟΔΟΣ | PARGINC” (isothos | exothos | parking: “entrance/exit/parking”). Obviously the similarity of the ‘k’ and ‘hard g’ sounds in English, the use of ‘c’ in English for a ‘k’ sound in some situations (‘cat’), and probably also the similarity of the shapes of C and G, all caused some confusion in switching writing systems for this writer. Misspellings that show which letters may have represented similar sounds, or that reveal something about the process of writing (in this case, possible influence from similar letter-shapes), are again a very important feature of ancient inscriptions for telling us more about how people may have spoken, and perhaps even how they may have learned to write or what their level of literacy, in one or more languages, may have been like.

If this post has made you interested in learning more about ancient graffiti, here are a couple of news articles (1; 2) about the Pompeiian graffiti; you can also have a look at the Ancient Graffiti project, which has a database of graffiti from Pompeii and Herculaneum, or the Ostia Graffiti project (which does what it says on the tin).


Author: Anna P. Judson

Classics researcher at Cambridge

14 thoughts on “Epigraphic explorations of Athens”

  1. Very interesting article! I am fond of exploring how one language interacts with another. Your understanding of parking/πάρκινγκ is correct but you may find my little bit of personal experience interesting. The phonetical transcription πάρκινγκ was very common in late 70s and the 80s when English literacy in Greece was way less common than today. If I recall correctly it was during the 90s when extensive use of the English spelling amidst sentences in greek became common. And of course since this is the Greek language we are talking about (where everything is complicated) the “official” word is still στάθμευση (στάθμευσις in kathareyousa) as almost every more or less “official” document will testify.


    1. Interesting – so the word was borrowed into Greek orthography and then went back to being written in the English alphabet! (I’ve never even come across στάθμευση before but am not surprised because as you say Greek is complicated!)

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      1. Of course me being no expert I could be mistaken but these were my personal observations. Greek language is a hotbed of debate (a rather interesting one) that quickly escalates into politics and people have actually died in related debates.


        1. When it comes to modern Greek linguistics I’m hardly an expert either! It’s unfortunate that linguistic debates can often get out of hand since language is often so closely connected to social/political identities

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              1. Yes and although it’s not a mainstream thing it has never gone away. There are still a couple of publishers that publish contempprary books with the ancient-style accents. The debate has been rekindled mainly due to the financial crisis. There are quite a few people that blame modernization of society (and language of course) as the underlying cause of the crisis.


                1. Presumably people who want to bring back ancient-style accents don’t really know that the accent system has changed? So that there really would be no actual benefit to it?

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                  1. No they know full well that they are only for “decorative” purposes accent-wise, they believe the accents are an integral part of spelling. It is more of an ideology rather than scientific view.

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                    1. Of course – but usually ideologies for reforming writing systems at least claim to have some basis in actual use (e.g. people who want to reform English spelling to make it more consistent and therefore easier to learn/use) – it’s interesting to learn about one that doesn’t even claim to be useful for writers! Definitely adding that to my list of examples for when I teach students about cultural influences on writing systems.


                    2. It is surprising when you come to think about it. In Greece many of the academics in letters are usually very conservative people. They tend to fiercely resist changes in language, especially changes that drive the language away from ancient Greek (of course conveniently forgetting that accents are not exactly classical ancient). In 1943 an academic was accused and sent to court essentially for teaching the spoken form of language (dimotiki) and the futility of accents. This became known as “The trial of accents”.

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  2. – Inner-city graffiti has been practically monopolised by the Left for decades. Their prominence is not a reflection of their actual political prominence: some marginal leftist groups (anarchists, far-left activists) co-opt graffiti due to its visibility to maximize their voice versus a silent centrist (or indifferent) majority, and sometimes graffiti artists adopt a leftist rhetoric as a pose.
    – Many graffiti are sarcastic – a point obvious to locals, but often lost on outsiders. “Athens, the city of art” might be such a case. Some prominent cases of this sort of satirical graffiti were seen during the Documenta 14 exhibition in Athens.
    – Parking is a particularly tricky word – it’s often written in English on imported, ready-made signs, which is why the English version seems more obvious to use. It would be highly unusual to use the Latin alphabet to write any loanwords in a Greek written sentence. Regarding “Parkinc”, it made me laugh because it reminded me of the Etruscan confusion of the voiced g and the mute c.


    1. Of course, looking at contemporary graffiti is definitely also a reminder that you can’t straightforwardly interpret ancient graffiti either (e.g. political graffiti definitely don’t equal indications of voting patterns, but do potentially tell us something about particular kinds of political discourse, and of course satire/sarcasm/irony are always possibilities). “parginc” made me think of the same thing – in the case of Etruscan, it’s because the language actually doesn’t distinguish between those two, which Greek technically does, but since [g] is written not it’s easy to see why the confusion might happen!


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