Tuesday, May 18, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Nikos Litinas, Greek Ostraca from Chersonesos, Crete: Ostraca Cretica Chersonesi (O.Cret.Chers.). Tyche. Supplementband; 6. Wien: Holzhausen, 2008. Pp. 81, [3]; 45 p. of plates. ISBN 9783854931645. €39.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Patrick James, The Greek Lexicon Project, University of Cambridge

Table of Contents

Litinas presents an admirable edition of ninety Greek ostraca from Chersonesos on Crete and dated to the second or third century AD. Photographs for every ostracon are included. These texts are of interest not least because they represent the first archive of documents written in ink to be found within "today's Hellenic territory" (p. 5). The comprehensive introduction is particularly valuable for its thorough examination of the context of these ostraca, the questions that they raise, and the data that they contribute for the study of numismatics, palaeography and scribal practices, onomastics (and linguistics generally), and the economy of Roman Crete. Litinas' treatment of all of these subjects will be discussed in turn.

The texts themselves represent records, in two formats (Text-types A and B), of quantities of an unspecified commodity associated with nine individuals. As such, the texts are short to the point of obscurity and might seem of very little use. Type A contains only a Roman date (usually without a month), personal names in the nominative, a number of units of the commodity, an abbreviation for that quantity, the number repeated in alphanumeric form, and a total. The fifteen type B ostraca contain only a Roman date, the names of either or both of two persons in the nominative or (rarely) the dative (nos. 79-81), and then amounts of currency. Only no. 31 has a type A text on one side and a type B on the other. There is no clear socio-economic context and the internal evidence presents some puzzles, such as the abbreviations με() in type A and X (struck-through) and χ in type B, as well as the identity of the commodity itself. Also, short texts do not offer much evidence for the morphology or syntax of Koine Greek. Nevertheless, Litinas' examination of these ostraca is a thorough, cautious, and well-documented example of how such texts should be studied and the significant contributions they can offer. My few comments are intended to reinforce the value of this archive and the quality of Litinas' treatment.

Litinas plausibly dates the archive to the period from 150 to 250 AD (or to 300 or 350 AD, although he considers these later dates to be less likely) by drawing together the evidence of the archaeological context (inconclusive beyond 100-300 AD), the Roman dates and (imperial) names, numismatics (denominations and purchasing power), and palaeography. The discussion of letter forms makes up the bulk of this section and of the Introduction (five pages of a thirty-page introduction, with a further two on attributing the ostraca to different scribes).

Litinas stresses the value of this collection for our knowledge of Greek minuscule handwriting outside Egypt in the Roman period and, as such, palaeography deserves to be treated more prominently than in a subsection. His conspectus of written (not inscribed) Greek texts from within "today's Hellenic territory" (pp. 25-26) highlights the value of these ostraca. Since some of the items he lists are from the Hellenistic period and others are short inscriptions on amphorae (not ostraca), the value of the Chersonesos archive is self-evident. It is therefore important that many of the ostraca not only are in a good state of preservation, but also are reproduced clearly in the plates. Many provide very good material for anyone wanting straightforward examples with which to practice reading Greek minuscule (10, 12, 15, 17, 23, 32, 38, 46, 47, 56, 76, 78, 79, 81, and 86). However, it is regrettable that a sizeable proportion of the images are quite pixelated (II 4; III 6; IV; XIV 28; XVI 31r and v; XXI 41; XXIII 44; XXX 59; XXXI; XXXII 62; XXXIII 64; XXXV 71; XXXIX 82; XL 84; XLII 87; XLIII 90; XLV 4+71). Nos. 7 and 61, at least, are clear in their joined form in plate XLV.

Litinas helpfully compares the letter forms with those from Egypt and elsewhere in the Eastern Roman Empire (on the grounds that a standard handwriting style existed), but not, curiously, with those of contemporary papyri which originated in the West (e.g. BGU II 423 from Misenum). He comments on the lack of professionalism of the scribal hands and notes the distinguishing features of the different scribes involved. He distributes some texts between six distinguishable scribes and others are gathered into groups showing similar features. The remainder are not grouped. It would be clearer to have this analysis tabulated by ostracon and scribe and/or group as well as having the lists of the texts sorted by their scribe or group: the ungrouped texts would be more readily identified. Litinas notes in passing some similarities with Latin script. (Comments about how the scribes used the ostraca are found earlier in the Introduction, p. 10.)

Litinas presents a cautious account of what is currently known, or may be plausibly inferred, about the function of these ostraca in their Cretan context in the hope that firmer conclusions will be reached as further evidence comes to light (p. 35). He acknowledges how little is known from epigraphy and literature about the Cretan economy in this period. By correlating the persons named (i.e. when and how often they are mentioned and the amounts associated with them) and the days and months (which fall into seasonal groups March-April, June, and November-December), Litinas concludes that the ostraca are private records and tentatively considers the roles of these persons (some full time, others part-time) either in the production of olive oil or wine in an agricultural setting or in trading these commodities in an urban one. Although his sketch is plausible, it is noteworthy that this archive lacks references to the period of the vintage (late August to early September, as Litinas explains, p. 36). This absence of records for these months might weaken the argument for viticulture, if the archive is in fact representative in its reflection of a production process.

The texts are presented in temporal sequence (as reconstructed and within each month) with translations. The commentary is confined generally to matters of orthography and palaeography (especially abbreviations). Litinas is rightly cautious in his restorations (e.g. about the name Eutyches in 26.3), although this caution is not reflected in the translation.

In regard to the ostraca as linguistic evidence, Litinas' examination concentrates on the nine personal names, although he does make a few other observations.

Three of the names are addenda onomasticis in the forms attested: Ἠβολῆς, Κονπῆς, and Πυπίων. Litinas weighs up several options. The first could represent a Latin gentilicium Ebul(l)ius (with η for Latin <e>) or a personal name E(u)bulus or Abulus. Alternatively, it could be a variant of a Greek name, such as Εὐβουλᾶς or Ἀβοῦλις. Κονπῆς is perhaps a Latin cognomen, Compes, or relates to the profession of a κομπαστής "one who rings wine-jars to test their soundness". Either interpretation is intriguing as we try to understand the sitz im Leben of these texts. Litinas notes that the nasal ν is never assimilated to μ before the labial π in this name, just as there is no example of a comparable assimilation in Δεκένβριος by the scribe to whom Litinas attributes most of the ostraca. The third of these names could reflect the Latin gentilicium Pupius (normally transcribed Πούπιος and here with a Greek termination -ίων), the cognomen Pupio, or a gentilicium Fufius or Pufius (Cretan inscriptions are cited to corroborate φ for the conventional transcription π). Since Litinas' discussion of these names and the more familiar ones is measured, stimulating, and thoroughly referenced, it could form a good introduction to the application of onomastic evidence (e.g. p. 38 and note 81 on the status of these nine men as free(d) or slaves).

Litinas' other linguistic comments are made in passing. A summary, especially of points relating to the transcription of Latin names, would be welcome. Litinas discusses the rare use of the dative and considers the possibility that the variation between the nominative and the dative in the type B texts (both occur in 81) may reflect the demise of the dative. He notes, without elaboration, that it is not possible to determine whether the personal names in the nominative in the type A texts function as the person to whom the quantities were given or from whom they came (pp. 11-12). Litinas' assertion that Πυπίω in 27.3 should not be read as a dative of Πύπιος (a name not attested in the archive) because the other two names in 27 are in the nominative does not hold in itself. No. 81 provides an example of names in both cases.1 It would be safer to argue for the nominative on the basis that a final nasal was often not written in texts of this period (if this archive provided examples of this phenomenon).2 Litinas suggests that masculine ἕνα could be a mistake for the neuter μέτρον as a resolution of με(). This "mistake" should be situated within the evidence for the well-attested use of this masculine for the neuter in Koine documentary texts.3

Litinas notes non-standard orthography in his commentary, and there is little to surprise here. The name Κονπῆς is often spelled Κονπεῖς (76, 82, 83, 87, 88, and 90), but there are few other itacistic spellings. The dative of this name is sometimes Κονπήτῃ reflecting a Latin dative Competi. There is an example of gemination in καλλανδῶν (no. 32) and various examples of the spelling τέσαρες. One intriguing point, not noted by Litinas, is the rendering of the Latin adjective Novembris (no. 58) as Νοέμβριος, that is, without the Latin [w] represented by ου, as was standard, or by β (attested in the this archive in the name Βῆρος, Verus).4 Although an editor may not be obligated to comment on standard forms within Koine Greek (especially with only a single example in this archive), the use of the standard, but intriguing, transcription here stands in contrast to the variety of renderings of this adjective and related words in papyri and inscriptions5 and the non-standard orthography attested elsewhere in this archive. It might add to our understanding of the rendering of Latin loanwords by Greek speakers.

The volume concludes with indices, a concordance of the publication and inventory numbers, a bibliography (which would be of general interest), a conspectus of the letter forms, and finally the plates of the ostraca. There are indices of references to months and the named days (Kalends, etc.), the personal names, numbers, digits (in dates and sums), symbols, and abbreviations. Every ostracon is represented in the plates, as are three pieces whose writing has been erased or is now illegible (Plate XLIV). The final plate shows the two examples of joins of ostraca (4 + 71 and 7 + 61) in this collection. This results in a very useful and accessible edition of these ostraca.

This volume is generally very well produced (apart from the pixelated images in the plates mentioned above), and reads easily. I noticed a few typographic errors in passing: pp. 11-12 the sentence which runs over the page should read "it is difficult to say whether the [persons received or paid the amounts, because the nominative could be equivalent] either to the dative τῶι δεῖνι or to the prepositional ἀπὸ τοῦ δεῖνος";6 p. 18 "before of after he added them up"; p. 23 "until 1.13 meters in depth"; p. 25 note 47 "Para/ssglou" (although the name is accented on p. 78 of the bibliography, it is not on p. 79); p. 29 note 56 "21, 25. 29 etc." (a period for comma); p. 35 "to write a general account and each conclusions on the context..." (probably read "[r]each"); and p. 38 line 3 "we might imagine of a landowner". Plate XLIV refers to note 86, where a page reference would help, since this note alone is located outside the Introduction (in Concordances, on p. 73).


1.   Cf. also Litinas' commentary on 28.3 where he restates this assertion.
2.   Gignac, F.T. A Grammar of the Greek Papyri of the Roman and Byzantine Periods, Volume I: Phonology, Milan: Istituto Editiorale Cisalpino 1976, pp. 111-114.
3.   Gignac, F.T. A Grammar of the Greek Papyri of the Roman and Byzantine Periods, Volume II: Morphology, Milan: Istituto Editiorale Cisalpino 1981, pp. 183-185.
4.   See Threatte, L. The Grammar of Attic Inscriptions, I: Phonology, Berlin and New York: De Gruyter 1980, pp. 444-445, who explains that ου was the standard before 100-150 AD, when β became common and υ itself is sometimes attested. The transcription Βῆρος could thus add further evidence (only according to Attic standards), if needed, for a date after the second half of the second century.
5.   For this purpose, "standard" means the form given as a headword in Liddell-Scott-Jones (the Greek adjective was not included until the Revised Supplement of 1996). The expected transcriptions are found in the papyri and inscriptions: Νοουέμβριος in, e.g., SB XVI 12659.2 (Byzantine) and Νοβέμβριος in, e.g., IG XIV.250.4. I am grateful to Moreed Arbabzadah for discussing my questions about the transcription of Latin loanwords and supplying me with relevant bibliography.
6.   Litinas informed this reviewer of the supplement and that an erratum notice has now been added.

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