Early Greek graffiti | Archaic inscriptions | Epitaphs and decrees | Catalogs of citizens | Contracts and laws

Next to literary texts, inscriptions (usually engraved on stone) constitute one of the most important sources for the history of Eretria on the political, institutional, social, and economic levels. It is true that these documents hardly appear before the 6th century BC (if we set aside a particularly rich and interesting collection of graffiti incised on ceramics, the earliest of which go back to the 8th century BC.


Early Greek graffiti

Some of the most ancient and numerous inscriptions in the Greek alphabet have been found in Eretria and in Pithekussai, a Euboean trading post on the island of Ischia (in the Gulf of Naples). These inscriptions date from the second half of the 8th century BC, and a few are even a little earlier. Most are engraved on small drinking cups and amphoras. About thirty are known in Eretria, twenty-six of which come from the Sanctuary of Apollo Daphnephoros. Is this simply because that is where excavations happen to have been carried out? It seems instead that the sanctuary and the rites practiced there provided conditions propitious for the early use of writing. These inscriptions helped personalize offerings or gave them value, but they may also have been made by the participants in sacrificial banquets in order to distinguish the vases from one another. Some bore the names of their owners ("I belong to so-and-so"), while other inscriptions may have designated a vessel belonging to the sanctuary.

>more information on early writing in Eretria


Archaic inscriptions

The first inscriptions are rarely public documents, being for the most part private dedications and especially epitaphs. We nonetheless have in Eretria a remarkable law dating from about 530 BC which refers to the control exercised by the city over navigation on the waters of the Euboean strait, from the southernmost point of Euboea (the Petaliai islands) to its northern extremity, formed by Cape Kenaion. Various documents complete the picture of Eretrian epigraphy in the Archaic Period (in the broadest sense of the term): an honorific decree that is among the most ancient in the Greek world, a few fragments of funerary or votive epigrams and, already toward the end of the 5th century BC, a fine dedication of a herm made by the association of the Aeinautai (literally, "perpetual navigators").

Law attesting to Eretria's control of the Euboean strait.
Ca. 530 BC. Eretria, Museum


Epitaphs and decrees

As of the beginning of the 4th century BC, the number of inscriptions increases significantly. Funerary stelai continue to constitute the greatest part of this material (to the point that we now possess, for this city alone, approximately 1,000 epitaphs, of which about a dozen -a proportion seldom attained elsewhere- concerns foreigners).

But we possess many more public documents of broader scope. The most concentrated series consists of the decrees of citizenship, honoring foreigners who have earned the city's gratitude and have been granted the titles of proxenos or euergetes. When the services rendered are described in any detail, these inscriptions make an enormous contribution to our knowledge of the history of the city from the 4th to the 5nd centuries BC.
The same can be said of the decrees approved by Eretrian voters ca. 100 BC to honor citizens who had served with dedication and generosity as gymnasiarchs or who had given the city funds to defray the cost of supplying oil for the gymnasium, an institution whose role was central to the social life of Hellenistic cities.


Catalogs of citizens

Catalogs of citizens, which date especially from ca. 300 BC, are also of considerable interest, despite their somewhat daunting appearance. They testify to the determination of the city's authorities, that is, the Council (boule), the Assembly of the people (demos), and the magistrates (archontes or, more specifically, probouloi), to carry out a census of all male adults in the civic population. It is essentially these documents which provide information regarding the subdivisions of the body of citizens and the organization of the territory, not to mention all they tell us about the very rich Eretrian list of proper names


Contracts and laws

Among Eretria's most famous inscriptions is the contract the city negotiated ca. 315 with the foreign businessman Chairephanes for the drainage of Lake Ptechai. This inscription has long been in the Epigraphic Museum of Athens along with a remarkable treaty (which used to stand at Amarynthos) concluded between Eretria and the city of Histiaea (northern Euboea) ca. 400 BC.

A law against tyranny proves to be the oldest Greek document of this type engraved on stone; it can be dated very precisely to the year 341-340, whereas the Athenian law known as the law of Eukrates, which is, along with its relief, one of the principal curiosities of the Museum of the Agora in Athens, goes back no further than 337-336.

Several Eretrian inscriptions belong to the category of religious laws, that is, regulations relating to the institution of a cult or the organization of a festival. This is the case for a law on the Artemisia of Amarynthos (ca. 340 BC) as well as for a decree concerning the Dionysia at a crucial date in the history of the city (probably ca. 285 BC, and not, as was formerly thought, in 309).

Another Eretrian law -but unquestionably of federal character, for it is a document concerning the responsibility of the Koinon of the island's four cities -enumerates in great detail the rights and duties of the Dionysian technites to be hired in order to enhance the splendor of the annual festivals in honor of Dionysos and Demeter.

Finally, let us mention that if most of the inscriptions that come from the city of Eretria were exhibited in that city or its territory, there were also some (particularly decrees for foreign judges) that were erected in foreign cities (for example, in Oropos, Miletos, Kos, and Magnesia on the Meander).

On the other hand, it is important to note that elsewhere in the Greek world -and not necessarily in the regions closest to Euboea- inscriptions mentioning Eretria and the Eretrians (or at least an Eretrian who had died abroad) have been found in Olympia, Delphi, Boeotia, the Cyclades, as well as in Asia Minor and in Egypt. These documents are, of course, particularly numerous in Athens. Thus our documentation may be enriched not only by local discoveries but also by random discoveries made at any other place in the eastern Mediterranean!

by Denis Knoepfler

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Graffito on the shoulder of a small jug discovered in the Sanctuary of Apollo Daphnephoros.
2nd half of the 8th c. BC.
The text must be read from right to left: ΛΕΒΕΤΟ [Σ ΕΜΙ], «Lebes owns me».

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