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The 'metics' of classical Athens made up her large community of free non-citizens. It embraced, in unquantifiable proportions, (a) men and women who had actually immigrated into the city under their own steam and also - differentiated by aspects of private law - (b) manumitted slaves.
Long-established orthodoxy holds that the formulaic phialai-inscriptions, set up on the Acropolis during the years from 335/4 BC onwards, are relevant only to component b of the metic population. They are records of the dedication of more than 400 silver bowls (phialai); and the dedicators, it has been believed, were ex-slave metics who had successfully survived a dike apostasiou, a private prosecution for failure of duty toward their former masters.
Not so, according to Elizabeth Meyer (of the University of Virginia) in this welcome and thought-provoking book. She argues, instead, that these documents pertain to, and shed important light on, Athens' metic population as a whole. And the corollary of her case, if accepted, is that we have here neglected evidence for a softening of policy and attitudes - each, otherwise, notably severe - towards metics during the period.
The 'epigraphy' part of her sub-title is served most directly by Part II (81-144), which might, in fact, more appropriately have been placed first. This is, at any rate, a painstaking re-examination - the most thorough since those of D.M. Lewis in 1959 and 1968 - of the 33 fragmentary phialai-inscriptions themselves, conducted by Meyer during three periods of hands-on study in Athens. Since she appears to be an epigraphist of exemplary competence, the texts of this mini-corpus are now all brought together, here, in a state as good as it is ever likely to be (unless someone even more meticulous is repeating the task for the second edition of volume II of I(nscriptiones) G(raecae), currently in progress).
Are Meyer's texts therefore beyond challenge in every particular? Not at all. At certain key points where what is preserved on the stone gives way, perforce, to what she believes once stood there, observation ends and interpretation begins.
A crucial example of this occurs in the heading of her no.29 (IG II21578). Only the second halves of its two lines (of uncertain length) are extant, and the second of them opens with the end of a word: ]STASIOU. The standard restoration, for reasons given above, is dikai apo]stasiou. But Meyer's proposal is apo tôn graphôn apro]stasiou ("from the graphai aprostasiou"). And the differences, even that of a single letter between apro]stasiou and apo]stasiou, are absolutely vital. A dike apostasiou affected only that subset of metics who had once been slaves (my b, above), and it could be brought only by their redress-seeking former masters. A graphe aprostasiou fell into the category of "public" prosecutions (graphai) and, in this instance of aprostasion, posed a threat to any metic at all who sought to evade the defining and subordinating characteristics of his or her status.
What then were those 'characteristics'? In itself, the term aprostasion inevitably suggests a connection with the prostates, that enigmatic champion/patron/spokesman figure whom, according to the lexicographers (the late-antique scholars who commented on classical literature), all metics had to have. The term aprostasion, with its negative a-prefix, would plausibly mean a dereliction of that duty, with a prosecution by graphe aprostasiou as the risk if this came to light. Furthermore, the seriousness with which the Athenians took the offence is shown by the fact that conviction in such a trial led to the person concerned being sold into slavery.
It would have been open to Meyer, accordingly, to hold that what the people who have 'escaped' conviction prior to these dedications had been charged with was evasion of the duty to register with, and to live their lives under the supervision of, a prostates. In fact, she deploys an ingenious nexus of evidence and argument to seek to show that the actual charge against them here had more usually been an associated and analogous one (also punishable, for those convicted, by loss of liberty): not paying the metoikion, the metic's invidious poll-tax.
These phialai-dedicatees have - on any view - been found Not Guilty of the charge that has been brought against them, and Meyer argues that the obverse of their presumed relief was what befell the failed prosecutors. We know that the gravity of bringing a graphe, of any kind, was safeguarded in this era by a stipulation that prosecutors who obtained less than 20% of the votes of the (enormous) juries who heard the cases had to pay a fine of 1000 drachmas. Meyer envisages that a tithe of this, 100 drachmas per trial, provided the funding for the (always 100-dr.-weight) phialai.
Why should the Athenians have wanted to do this? Why be so pleasant to the metics in the years after 335/4, the epoch (coinciding with the reign of Alexander the Great) dominated by the aristocratic politician Lycurgus of Butadai? A central part of Meyer's answer to that question is to begin the period of relevance earlier, by drawing a distinction between the inscriptions and the actual dedications. The inscriptions do not, even on her revisionist hypothesis, antedate 335/4, but the dedications probably do. They were made at any time, she argues, from c.350 onwards, and probably to one of the cult-manifestations of Zeus (Eleutherios, Metoikios, Soter: see 53-55). Then, '[a]fter 335, Lycurgus' legislation moves these phialai [...] to the Acropolis, inventories them (and their information), and melts them down to create new processional vessels for Athena' (78).
This last element in the scenario is well-supported, by Meyer, with other strands of Lycurgus' known activity in the interlinked areas of religion and finance. Yet even more interesting, if she is right, is the added insight we get into the preceding twenty years as well. From the end of the Social War and the implosion of most of Athens' maritime empire in the mid 350s, the economic importance of a sizeable metic population became ever more self-evident, not only to armchair commentators like the elderly Xenophon but also, the signs are, to those who shaped actual decision-making in this area. Procedures could be changed, and - no less significant - messages of greater warmth and welcome than in the past could be sent out to metics (actual and potential).
As the author (long ago) of a monograph on Athens' metics, and thus someone with many settled views about them, I took on the review of this book in a sceptical mood, but I have become a convert. Meyer's study displays impeccable bibliographical depth and tremendous intellectual rigour and penetration, all on display in a wealth of detail that cannot be adequately conveyed in the space available here. The relative ease with which she is able to expose the many, often self-contradictory, flaws and problems which beset the orthodox understanding of the phialai-inscriptions (17-28) makes it all-but-impossible, in my opinion, to continue to take refuge in it, against the onslaught of her own, new model. Not all of the model's constituent planks, as she admits, can bear equal weight. Nevertheless, I say we should embrace it.