Eight Greek inscriptions

I love ancient inscriptions. They provide a connection to people of the past, they provide an insight into how people thought, and they demonstrate how the experience of writing has changed over the past five thousand years or so. Here are eight Greek inscriptions and documents that interest me – some historical, some religious, and one mathematical.


Six of the eight inscriptions

1. The inscription that is no longer there, 480 BC

Our first inscription was inscribed at the site of the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC), where Leonidas and his 300 Spartans (plus several thousand allies) died trying to hold off a vastly superior Persian army. The inscription no longer exists (though there is a modern copy at the site), but the wording has been preserved by Herodotus (Histories 7.228.2):

Ω ΞΕΙΝ ΑΓΓΕΛΛΕΙΝ
ΛΑΚΕΔΑΙΜΟΝΙΟΙΣ ΟΤΙ ΤΗΔΕ
ΚΕΙΜΕΘΑ ΤΟΙΣ ΚΕΙΝΩΝ
ΡΗΜΑΣΙ ΠΕΙΘΟΜΕΝΟΙ.

Phonetically, that reads:

Ō ksein’, angellein
Lakedaimoniois hoti tēide
keimetha, tois keinōn
rhēmasi peithomenoi.

I’ve always thought that there was a degree of sarcasm in this laconic epigram – after all, the Spartans had declared war on the Persians (rather informally, by throwing the Persian ambassadors down a well), but then stayed home, leaving Leonidas and his personal honour guard (plus the allies) to do the actual fighting. My (rather free) personal translation would therefore be:

Go tell the Spartans,
Stranger passing by,
We listened to their words,
And here we lie.


The battle of Thermopylae, 480 BC (illustration: John Steeple Davis)

2. The Rosetta Stone, 196 BC

The rich history of the Rosetta Stone has always fascinated me (and I made a point of seeing the Stone when I visited the British Museum). The Stone records a decree of 196 BC from Ptolemy V, inscribed using three forms of writing – Egyptian hieroglyphs, Egyptian demotic script, and a Greek translation. The Stone was therefore a valuable input to the eventual decoding of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Romance practically drips off the Stone.


The Rosetta Stone in the British Museum (photo: Hans Hillewaert)

3. The Theodotus inscription, before 70 AD

The Theodotus inscription in Jerusalem was located in a 1st century synagogue near the Temple (this dating is generally accepted). It reads as follows (with [square brackets] denoting missing letters):

ΘΕΟΔΟΤΟΣ ΟΥΕΤΤΕΝΟΥ ΙΕΡΕΥΣ ΚΑΙ
ΑΡΧΙΣΥΝΑΓΩΓΟΣ ΥΙΟΣ ΑΡΧΙΣΥΝ[ΑΓΩ]
Γ[Ο]Υ ΥΙΟΝΟΣ ΑΡΧΙΣΥΝ[Α]ΓΩΓΟΥ ΩΚΟ-
ΔΟΜΗΣΕ ΤΗΝ ΣΥΝΑΓΩΓ[Η]Ν ΕΙΣ ΑΝ[ΑΓ]ΝΩ-
Σ[Ι]Ν ΝΟΜΟΥ ΚΑΙ ΕΙΣ [Δ]ΙΔΑΧΗΝ ΕΝΤΟΛΩΝ ΚΑΙ
ΤΟΝ ΞΕΝΩΝΑ ΚΑ[Ι ΤΑ] ΔΩΜΑΤΑ ΚΑΙ ΤΑ ΧΡΗ-
Σ[Τ]ΗΡΙΑ ΤΩΝ ΥΔΑΤΩΝ ΕΙΣ ΚΑΤΑΛΥΜΑ ΤΟΙ-
Σ [Χ]ΡΗZΟΥΣΙΝ ΑΠΟ ΤΗΣ ΞΕ[Ν]ΗΣ ΗΝ ΕΘΕΜΕ-
Λ[ΙΩ]ΣΑΝ ΟΙ ΠΑΤΕΡΕΣ [Α]ΥΤΟΥ ΚΑΙ ΟΙ ΠΡΕ-
Σ[Β]ΥΤΕΡΟΙ ΚΑΙ ΣΙΜΩΝ[Ι]ΔΗΣ.

In translation:

Theodotus, son of Vettenus [or, of the gens Vettia], priest and
archisynagogue [leader of the synagogue], son of an archisynagogue,
grandson of an archisynagogue, built
the synagogue for the reading of
the Law and for teaching the commandments;
also the hostel, and the rooms, and the water
fittings, for lodging
needy strangers. Its foundation was laid
by his fathers, and the
elders, and Simonides.

The inscription is interesting in a number of ways. Along with other similar inscriptions, it demonstrates the existence of Greek-language synagogues in 1st Palestine. The title ἀρχισυνάγωγος (archisynagōgos) also occurs in the New Testament (nine times, starting at Mark 5:22), so is clearly a title of the time-period. Some scholars have suggested that Theodotos was a freed slave, who had made his fortune and returned from Italy to the land of his fathers (in which case there is a very slight possibility that the synagogue with the inscription might have been the “synagogue of the Freedmen” mentioned in Acts 6:9).


The Theodotus inscription in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem (photo: Oren Rozen)

4. The Delphi inscription, 52 AD


The Temple of Apollo at Delphi (photo: Luarvick)

The Delphi inscription is a letter of around 52 AD from the Roman emperor Claudius. It was inscribed on stone at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi (above), although it now exists only as nine fragments. Of particular interest is this line (see also the photograph below):

[IOU]ΝΙΟΣ ΓΑΛΛΙΩΝ Ο Φ[ΙΛΟΣ] ΜΟΥ ΚΑ[Ι ΑΝΘΥ]ΠΑΤΟΣ …

Phonetically, that reads:

[Jou]nios Galliōn ‘o ph[ilos] mou ka[i anthu]patos …

This is a reference to Lucius Junius Gallio Annaeanus, who was briefly proconsul (anthupatos) of the Roman senatorial province of Achaea (southern Greece) at the time:

Junius Gallio, my friend and proconsul …

This same anthupatos Gallio appears in the New Testament (Acts 18:12–17: “Γαλλίωνος δὲ ἀνθυπάτου ὄντος τῆς Ἀχαΐας …”), and therefore provides a way of dating the events described there.


One of the fragments of the Delphi inscription, highlighting the name ΓΑΛΛΙΩΝ = Gallio (photo: Gérard)

5. Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 29, c. 100 AD

I have written before about Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 29. It contains the statement of Proposition 5 of Book 2 of Euclid’s Elements, with an accompanying diagram (plus just a few letters of the last line of the preceding proposition). In modern Greek capitals, it reads:

ΕΑΝ ΕΥΘΕΙΑ ΓΡΑΜΜΗ
ΤΜΗΘΗ ΕΙΣ ΙΣΑ ΚΑΙ ΑΝ-
ΙΣΑ ΤΟ ΥΠΟ ΤΩΝ ΑΝΙ-
ΣΩΝ ΤΗΣ ΟΛΗΣ ΤΜΗΜ[ΑΤ]ΩΝ ΠΕΡΙΕΧΟΜΕΝΟΝ
ΟΡΘΟΓΩΝΙΟΝ ΜΕΤΑ Τ[Ο]Υ ΑΠΟ ΤΗΣ ΜΕΤΟΞΥ
ΤΩΝ ΤΟΜΩΝ ΤΕΤ[ΡΑ]ΓΩΝΟΥ ΙΣΟΝ ΕΣΤΙΝ
ΤΩ ΑΠΟ ΤΗΣ ΗΜΙΣΕΙ-
ΑΣ ΤΕΤΡΑΓΩΝΟΥ

However, the actual document (image below) uses “Ϲ” for the modern “Σ,” and “ω” for the modern “Ω”:

ΕΑΝ ΕΥΘΕΙΑ ΓΡΑΜΜΗ
ΤΜΗΘΗ ΕΙϹ ΙϹΑ ΚΑΙ ΑΝ-
ΙϹΑ ΤΟ ΥΠΟ ΤωΝ ΑΝΙ-
ϹωΝ ΤΗϹ ΟΛΗϹ ΤΜΗΜ[ΑΤ]ωΝ ΠΕΡΙΕΧΟΜΕΝΟΝ
ΟΡΘΟΓωΝΙΟΝ ΜΕΤΑ Τ[Ο]Υ ΑΠΟ ΤΗϹ ΜΕΤΟΞΥ
ΤωΝ ΤΟΜωΝ ΤΕΤ[ΡΑ]ΓωΝΟΥ ΙϹΟΝ ΕϹΤΙΝ
Τω ΑΠΟ ΤΗϹ ΗΜΙϹΕΙ-
ΑϹ ΤΕΤΡΑΓωΝΟΥ

This manuscript is important because, being from 75–125 AD, it dates to only four centuries after the original was written in 300 BC – most manuscripts of Euclid are twelve centuries or more after (in fact, it pre-dates the alterations made to the work by Theon of Alexandria in the 4th century AD). The manuscript also contains one of the oldest extant Greek mathematical diagrams. The text is identical to the accepted Greek text, except for two spelling variations and one one grammatical error (τετραγώνου for τετραγώνῳ on the last line, perhaps as the result of the mental influence of the preceding word in the genitive):

ἐὰν εὐθεῖα γραμμὴ
τμηθῇ εἰς ἴσα καὶ ἄνισα,
τὸ ὑπὸ τῶν ἀνίσων τῆς ὅλης τμημάτων περιεχόμενον ὀρθογώνιον
μετὰ τοῦ ἀπὸ τῆς μεταξὺ τῶν τομῶν τετραγώνου
ἴσον ἐστὶ τῷ ἀπὸ τῆς ἡμισείας τετραγώνῳ.

It is really just a geometric way of expressing the equality (x + y)2 = x2 + 2xy + y2, but in English it reads as follows:

If a straight line
be cut into equal and unequal [segments] (x + y + x and y),
the rectangle contained by the unequal segments of the whole (i.e. (x + y + x)y = 2xy + y2)
together with the square on the straight line between the points of section (+ x2)
is equal to the square on the half (= (x + y)2).

The proof of the proposition is missing, however, and there are no labels on the diagram. I suspect that the manuscript was a teaching tool of some kind (either an aide-mémoire or an exam question). Alternatively, it may have been part of an illustrated index to the Elements.


Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 29 (photo: Bill Casselman)

6. Rylands Library Papyrus P52, c. 140 AD

Papyrus P52 is a small fragment written in a similar style to Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 29, but is dated a few decades later (to around 140 AD). In modern Greek capitals, it reads:

ΟΙ ΙΟΥΔΑΙ[ΟΙ]· ΗΜΕ[ΙΝ ΟΥΚ ΕΞΕΣΤΙΝ ΑΠΟΚΤΕΙΝΑΙ]
ΟΥΔΕΝΑ. ΙΝΑ Ο Λ[ΟΓΟΣ ΤΟΥ ΙΗΣΟΥ ΠΛΗΡΩΘΗ ΟΝ ΕΙ]
ΠΕΝ ΣΗΜΑΙΝΩ[Ν ΠΟΙΩ ΘΑΝΑΤΩ ΗΜΕΛΛΕΝ ΑΠΟ]
ΘΝΗΣΚΕΙΝ. ΙΣ[ΗΛΘΕΝ ΟΥΝ ΠΑΛΙΝ ΕΙΣ ΤΟ ΠΡΑΙΤΩ]
ΡΙΟΝ Ο Π[ΙΛΑΤΟΣ ΚΑΙ ΕΦΩΝΗΣΕΝ ΤΟΝ ΙΗΣΟΥΝ]
ΚΑΙ ΕΙΠ[ΕΝ ΑΥΤΩ· ΣΥ ΕΙ O ΒΑΣΙΛΕΥΣ ΤΩΝ ΙΟΥ]
[Δ]ΑΙΩN;

The reverse side also has writing:

[ΒΑΣΙΛΕΥΣ ΕΙΜΙ. ΕΓΩ ΕΙΣ TO]ΥΤΟ Γ[Ε]ΓΕΝΝΗΜΑΙ
[ΚΑΙ (ΕΙΣ ΤΟΥΤΟ) ΕΛΗΛΥΘΑ ΕΙΣ ΤΟΝ ΚΟ]ΣΜΟΝ, ΙΝΑ ΜΑΡΤΥ-
[ΡΗΣΩ ΤΗ ΑΛΗΘΕΙΑ· ΠΑΣ Ο ΩΝ] ΕΚ ΤΗΣ ΑΛΗΘΕI-
[ΑΣ ΑΚΟΥΕΙ ΜΟΥ ΤΗΣ ΦΩΝΗΣ]. ΛΕΓΕΙ ΑΥΤΩ
[Ο ΠΙΛΑΤΟΣ· ΤΙ ΕΣΤΙΝ ΑΛΗΘΕΙΑ; Κ]ΑΙ ΤΟΥΤΟ
[ΕΙΠΩΝ ΠΑΛΙΝ ΕΞΗΛΘΕΝ ΠΡΟΣ] ΤΟΥΣ Ι[ΟΥ]
[ΔΑΙΟΥΣ ΚΑΙ ΛΕΓΕΙ ΑΥΤΟΙΣ· ΕΓΩ ΟΥΔ]ΕΜΙ[ΑΝ]
[ΕΥΡΙΣΚΩ ΕΝ ΑΥΤΩ ΑΙΤΙΑΝ].

Some clever detective work has identified the fragment as being from a manuscript of the New Testament gospel of John (John 18:31b–33 and 18:37b–38), permitting the reconstruction of the missing letters. The fragment is from the top inner corner of a book page (books with bound two-sided pages were a relatively new technology at the time, with many people still using scrolls). The fragment dates from less than a century after the gospel of John was written (and possibly just a few decades), thus helping in dating that work. There is no indication of any textual difference from later manuscripts – even the text on the missing parts of the front page seems of the right amount. The only exception is in the second line of the reverse side – there’s not quite enough room for the expected wording, and it seems likely that the duplicated words ΕΙΣ ΤΟΥΤΟ were not present.

In English, the passage reads:

… the Jews, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.” This was to fulfil the word that Jesus had spoken to show by what kind of death he was going to die. So Pilate entered the Praetorium again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” …
… I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world – to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him.”


Papyrus P52 (front and back) in the John Rylands Library

7. The Akeptous inscription in the Megiddo church, c. 250 AD

The Akeptous inscription is one of a number of inscriptions found in the mosaic floor of a 3rd century church which was discovered in 2005 while digging inside the Megiddo Prison in Israel (the date is just slightly later than the Dura-Europos church in Syria). The Akeptous inscription reads:

ΠΡΟϹΗΝΙΚΕΝ
ΑΚΕΠΤΟΥϹ,
Η ΦΙΛΟΘΕΟϹ,
ΤΗΝ ΤΡΑΠΕ-
ZΑΝ {Θω} {ΙΥ} {Χω}
ΜΝΗΜΟϹΥΝΟΝ

Phonetically:

Prosēniken Akeptous, ‘ē philotheos, tēn trapezan Th(e)ō Ι(ēso)u Ch(rist)ō mnēmosunon.

In English translation:

A gift of Akeptous, she who loves God, this table is for God Jesus Christ, a memorial.

Brief as it is, the inscription has several interesting features. First, Jesus Christ is being explicitly referred to as God, which tells us something about Christian beliefs of the time. Second, the inscription uses nomina sacra – divine names (“God,” “Jesus,” and “Christ”) are abbreviated with first and last letter, plus an overbar (this is denoted by curly brackets in the Greek text above). Third, the inscription records the gift of a prominent (presumably wealthy) female church member (the feminine definite article shows that Akeptous was female). And fourth, the reference to the construction of a table suggests that there were architectural features in the church to support the celebration of Communion, which tells us something about liturgy.


The Akeptous inscription in the Megiddo church

8. The Codex Sinaiticus, c. 340 AD

Our final inscription is a portion of the Codex Sinaiticus, a 4thcentury manuscript of the Christian Bible, containing the earliest complete copy of the New Testament. This Bible is a century later than the Megiddo church, and two centuries after Papyrus P52. Unlike Papyrus P52, it is written on vellum made from animal skins, and is written in beautiful calligraphic script. I have selected the passage John 1:1–3a:

ΕΝ ΑΡΧΗ ΗΝ Ο ΛΟΓΟϹ,
ΚΑΙ Ο ΛΟΓΟϹ ΗΝ
ΠΡΟϹ ΤΟΝ {ΘΝ}, ΚΑΙ
{ΘϹ} ΗΝ Ο ΛΟΓΟϹ. ΟΥ-
ΤΟϹ ΗΝ ΕΝ ΑΡΧΗ
ΠΡΟϹ ΤΟΝ {ΘΝ}. ΠΑ[Ν]-
ΤΑ ΔΙ ΑΥΤΟΥ ΕΓΕΝΕ-
ΤΟ, ΚΑΙ ΧΩΡΙϹ ΑΥΤΟΥ
ΕΓΕΝΕΤΟ ΟΥΔΕΝ

In English:

In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things through him were made, and apart from him was not one thing made …

In the Greek, nomina sacra for “God” can be seen, together with a number of corrections (including, on the last line, an expansion of the contraction ΟΥΔΕΝ = “nothing” to ΟΥΔΕ ΕΝ = “not one thing”). Spaces between words had still not been invented, nor had punctuation or lowercase letters, which means that it is almost impossible to make sense of the text unless it is read aloud (or at least subvocalised). Fortunately, things have changed in the last seventeen centuries!


John 1:1–3a in the Codex Sinaiticus


6 thoughts on “Eight Greek inscriptions

  1. Pingback: Eight Greek inscriptions – The English Introvert

      • I think they’ll be mostly Hebrew, Judaeo Arabic or Aramaic but it is possible to search by Keyword so there might be some there in a language that you can decipher.

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