It’s a natural human impulse to want to inscribe our names into the historical record for posterity—and that desire was around long before modern-day graffiti and Instagram. Even the ancient Greeks weren’t immune, and scholars now have an artifact to prove it: a 2,000-year-old stone tablet that bears the names of a group of young Athenian men who had just finished the equivalent of graduate school.
The stone tablet has been in the collection of the National Museums Scotland for more than 100 years, reports the PA News Agency. The inscription was recently translated as part of an initiative to publish “English translations of inscriptions from ancient Athens held in UK collections,” the agency reported.
The young men listed on the tablet, including names like Attikos, Anthos, Herakon and Theogas, according to Arkeonews’ Leman Altuntaş, were members of the ephebate, a class of 18-to-19-year-old youths in ancient Greece who had to undergo two years of military training.
Inscriptions on the tablet indicate it was made during the reign of Roman emperor Claudius, who ruled from 41 to 54 C.E. Rome had only recently conquered Greece—and as the tablet shows, Greeks still clung to their traditions despite Roman rule.
“This discovery represents an important new source of information about Athenian society in the mid-first century C.E.,” writes the National Museums Scotland’s principal curator of the ancient Mediterranean, Margaret Maitland, in a blog post. “This was a crucial period for Athens as it adapted to its place under the Roman Empire, which had conquered the Greek peninsula in 146 B.C.E.”
The practice had been around for hundreds of years by the time Attikos and his friends finished their education. Starting around 335 B.C.E., young men readying to become citizens of Athens were obligated to undergo ephebic training, which was designed to prepare them to defend their country, obey its laws, and uphold its traditions.
At first, the institution was largely limited to the wealthy, but that shifted over time. By the third century B.C.E., it was no longer mandatory and limited only to one year. Two hundred years later, foreigners could participate, too, and the training began to include literature and philosophy. The practice began to die out around the third century C.E., roughly 150 years after the creation of the tablet.
The stele’s inscription sheds light on how ancient Greeks going through this process under Roman rule may have viewed themselves, says Peter Liddel, a historian at the University of Manchester, tells the Greek City Times.
“It is a really interesting inscription, partly because it’s new but also because it gives us new names and a bit of insight into the sort of access or accessibility of this institution which is often associated with elite citizens,” he says.
A detail on the top of the tablet—an oil amphora—symbolizes athletic competition. Physical training was an important part of preparing for Athenian citizenship. Like other ancient Greek athletes, ephebi would have rubbed themselves with olive oil before training in the gymnasium.
When academics first set to work on the English translation, they were convinced that the tablet was a cast of one held by Oxford University’s Ashmolean Museum. But when researchers realized it was made of marble and not plaster, they eventually determined that the Scotland-held tablet was its own entity.
The names inscribed there only represent a small selection of the cohort, about 30 people compared with a full class of 100 to 200 graduates. The inscriber, Attikos, son of Philippos, “presents himself as the central figure of his privileged social circle,” Maitland writes. Many of the people mentioned on both tablets were part of the Athenian elite.
Still, the inscription offers some of the “earliest evidence for non-citizens taking part in the ephebate,” Liddel tells the PA News Agency.
It also shows the humanity behind a group of people who can feel so distant in time as to be remote. The ancient Greeks valued friendship and community just as much, if not more, than we do today—and the tablet the young men left behind has a close equivalent in contemporary life.
“It’s the ancient equivalent of a graduate school yearbook,” Liddel tells the PA News Agency, “although this is one which is created by a number of individuals who wanted to feel like they had come together as friends.”