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The List as Treasury in the Greek World



The List as Treasury in the Greek World


Athena E. Kirk

Doctor of Philosophy in Classics

University of California, Berkeley

Professor Leslie V. Kurke, Chair

Some of the earliest written records in the greater ancient world are lists of objects: we find catalogues of gods, kings, jewels, archaic vocabulary items, and exotic birds in Sumerian, Egyptian, Akkadian and Hittite, and many scholars surmise that a penchant for this kind of record-keeping fueled the very invention of writing. The Greeks, however, have long been considered distinct from other literate peoples both for their innovations with regard to the writing system they borrowed from the Phoenicians and for their application of that system, as they (a) were the first to denote vowels with stand-alone symbols, and (b) seem to used the alphabet to record poetry, not archival information, before anything else. In fact, it is not until several hundred years after these first `literary' texts that the alphabetic Greeks begin to produce the government inventories, war memorials, or tribute lists akin to those of their Near Eastern and Mycenean predecessors.

In this project, I study these kinds of official epigraphic written lists alongside lists from Archaic and Classical Greek literature in an effort to reorient the discourse surrounding the Greeks' literacy and use of writing, and its purported uniqueness. I work specifically with those lists that enumerate physical objects, beginning from the assertion that we can trace a tradition of listing objects in the Greek world that exists independent of the literacy versus orality binary invoked by most scholarship for the last several decades. By looking at, e.g., a catalogue of gifts in the Iliad alongside an inventory of dedications from an Athenian sanctuary, I suggest that lists themselves are the salient phenomenon to be identified and analyzed, rather than the medium (written or oral) in which we find them.

My central thesis is that Greek object-lists in their disparate contexts--oral poetry, narrated prose history, publicly displayed records, performed drama--all share a common function vis-à-vis the objects they represent, namely, that when they are presented to their various audiences, they serve as surrogates for the objects in question and in many cases take on an authority beyond that of any physical collection, which ultimately perishes. In their role as extant text-monuments, I argue, they embody and preserve the details of remote times and spaces.

I present four case studies of texts that contain lists from the archaic through the classical period, and one later example of the same tradition. The chronological progression emphasizes how the Greek literary and documentary traditions build upon and interact with one another, and by attending to the two together, I begin to build a more comprehensive portrait of the listmaking meme.

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