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Stone inscription celebrating Athenian military academy

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Researchers have identified a marble slab bearing an ancient Greek inscription, which has been stored in the National Museums Scotland (NMS) collection for more than a 100 years, as a previously unrecorded ephebic list from the mid-1st century AD.

It commemorates the friendships forged between a group of young cadets (ephebes) inducted into an Athenian military academy.

Dr Margaret Maitland, Principal Curator of the Ancient Mediterranean at the NMS, with the newly discovered marble stele. IMAGE: © National Museums Scotland.

The discovery comes as part of a four-year project, sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, aiming to publish English translations of inscriptions from ancient Athens held in UK collections.

When Professor Peter Liddel from Manchester University enquired about the stele, which had been donated to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1887, he assumed from the object’s description that it was a plaster cast of an ephebic list housed in the Ashmolean Museum.

Upon examination, however, experts confirmed it to be a genuine Athenian inscription from the reign of the Roman Emperor Claudius (AD 41-54).

The stele lists the names of a group of friends inducted into the ephebate, an academy that provided a year of military and civic training for young men typically aged around eighteen years old. Ephebic training, a practice that existed from around the 4th century BC, was intended to prepare young men for life as adult members of society.

The inscription conveys a sense of camaraderie among this ephebic cohort. Attikos, son of Philippos, presents himself as the central figure of the group, inscribing their name in the prescript alongside that of the ephebate’s superintendent, before listing those he counts as ‘fellow ephebes and friends’.

Professor Liddel described the stone as the ‘ancient equivalent of a graduate school year book’.

It was also found that the newly discovered inscription belongs to the same year and cohort as the Ashmolean example, though it lists only a small subset of the class.

The names of ephebes – young men inducted into an elite Athenian military academy – are listed on the stele. IMAGE: © National Museums Scotland.

The stele has also provided some of the first evidence of non-citizens, such as foreigners and former slaves, being inducted into the Athenian education system during the early Roman period – a crucial time for Athens as it became an independent city-state under the Roman empire.

In earlier and later examples of ephebic lists, non-citizens are labelled as ‘foreigners’ or ‘secondary enlistees’. This list, however, is more discreet, indicating the difference in status by separating the names, recording those of non-citizens below.

According to Professor Liddel, the list offers insight into the accessibility of the ephebate, which is often recognised as an elite institution.

An annotated translation of the inscription has been published online by the Attic Inscriptions in UK Collections project.