On Pledges Carved in Stone

Ed Miliband and his inscription

Milistele unveiled

Yesterday, just four days before the election, the Leader of the UK Labour Party, Ed Miliband, unveiled an eight-foot limestone slab, carved with his six main election promises.  Reviews were mixed, but it was a delight to all  who regularly get to look at ancient inscriptions: political texts in stone have become so rare!  Enough to bring me back to blogging after a long hiatus.

The media faced quite a dilemma: They weren’t actually sure what to call such an object.

Most went for ‘stone monument’, but some plumped for tablet (way too big for that!), monolith (technically correct), obelisk (wrong shape), plinth (no, a plinth is a base for something) or tomb stone (ominous!). Even the term ‘statue’ was used (it’s definitely not a statue!). And there is the inevitable hashtag #edstone.

Since there is no proper technical term for this kind of monument in English, let’s use the Greek term, as experts do when they talk about ancient inscriptions. This is definitely a stele (pronounced STEE-lee, plural stelae – STEE-lie) – a flat slab of stone, usually with carved decorations and/or letters on it.  I propose to call the object #milistele. It’s got a certain ring to it, doesn’t it – and perhaps the fact that we don’t have a modern word for it shows how outlandish this object really is in the context of a British general election.

But what’s more, this is as good a time as any to think about those letters carved in stone. What does such a stele actually tell us?

In many cultures, an inscription is a sign of power and wealth: rulers set up monuments with inscriptions, and wealthy people invest in lasting tomb monuments recording their names (and, in the case of the Romans, lengthy CVs).

The Decree of Aristotle

But in ancient Athens, inscriptions were indeed a sign of democratic accountability: important decisions of the democratic assembly were inscribed and set up in the city, as were the city’s laws, to make it possible for all to check those texts and to observe whether officials and citizens stuck to these decisions. So in this respect, Miliband’s pledge stele is not so far off the mark, although he really should set it up in a public space, not behind the walls of Number 10 (if he ever gets there, and if planning laws don’t get in the way).  The stone’s size reminds me less of the decrees of the Athenian assembly (which were usually smaller), but of the massive towering stelae listing the tribute pressed from Athens’ ‘subject-allies’, a sign of imperialist pride rather than humble accountability.

But there is one inscription which, I think, provides a particularly apt comparison for Miliband’s promise in stone: it is the Decree of Aristotle (merely a namesake of the philosopher, no connection), issued in 378/7 BC.

This document was issued by the Athenian assembly at a time when Athens was desperate to gain allies again, despite the memories of a few decades earlier, when the city had turned from an ally to a rather heavy-handed hegemonic power. The Aristotle decree is the prospectus of a new interstate collaboration – a kind of leaflet in stone – guaranteeing a very different regime, particularly with a promise that no tribute would be charged and that the allies’ status as independent states would be respected. More details and a translated text can be found here.

City names on the decree

A few of the city names on the Aristotle Decree

This stone also shows what may have happened with promises carved in stone:  perhaps it was not all that hard impossible to change one’s mind even after the text was inscribed. A drawing of the text with details highlighted is here. Large images of the inscription are available at Oxford’s Centre of Ancient  Documents website.

The stele used to record Aristotle’s decree was designed for additions to begin with, since the names of the new member states were inscribed at different times and by different hands – presumably as they decided to join in the years following the issue of the decree. Did Miliband leave space for additional pledges?

But the text itself was also changed. Just look at this part of the stone:

Erased text on the decree of Aristotle

You can see that a part of the text was erased: remains of letters are still visible at the bottom of the erasure. Experts have managed to guess what is missing  (read text with restored passage): the Athenians originally promised to make sure that the new alliance adhered to a peace treaty concluded with some forceful prompting from the Persian king: but at some point, the Athenians clearly changed their mind on this matter. One of the names of the member states on the side of the stone was also erased. So, if the Milistele really ends up in Number 10, watch out for people arriving with chisels and leaving erased pledges in their wake.

Another way of changing one’s mind is re-interpretation. The Athenians’ cast-iron promise not to charge tribute (phoros) was kept. However, they asked for ‘contributions’  (syntaxeis) instead.

Finally, looking at the state of the stone, the stele may have been smashed in the end – perhaps when the Athenians were finally forced to dissolve the league (probably by the Macedonians in 338BC). This is how decisions carved in stone could be dissolved: smash the stele and the text on it is null and void.

But there are various things that can happen to a stele once its text is no longer relevant, and Ed Miliband should give some thought to the afterlife of his stone monument, too. What happens to it if he never gets to install it in Number 10, or, if he does become Prime Minister, once his term of office is over?

Many ancient inscriptions were re-used. A nicely flat stone can be very useful in walls, as thresholds or lintels, and as paving slabs.

Ephesus: reused inscriptions. Left: inscription of all the victories of an athlete (framed in wreaths) built into a wall. Right: tomb inscription cut to size in the floor of the basilica of St Mary

Perhaps the Milistele will find such a use eventually. Re-used inscriptions are often better preserved because they are protected from the weather and further destruction: six pledges for May 2015 preserved for posterity. What will future archaeologists say?

But Ed Miliband should probably be very careful to dispose of his inscription very safely – because sometimes posterity plays games with such texts, and subverts their original meaning.

Here is an example from the Cathedral at Pisa:

these few letters, reading IMP(erator) CAESAR, neatly cut out of a monumental Roman inscription, have been set into the wall upside down, carefully at a level where you simply cannot miss them. It is set in a wall of stone quarried for the purpose: this one block was not used because it happened to lie around. I am not entirely sure what exactly this meant in medieval Pisa – but perhaps one might guess at a not-so-subtle verdict on the rulers of the Holy Roman Empire who were still using those titles, or perhaps it is a comment on Christianity overcoming ancient Roman secular power.

An even more worrying cautious tale can be found here, where the strategic removal of a few letters has turned Mussolini into an ass.

And this kind of mockery, set in stone, too,  lasts a lot longer than a few jokes in yesterday’s papers … or even this blog post.

(Addition, 9th May 2015: here is an excellent post from Peter Kruschwitz, suggesting a whole range of recycling options for inscriptions)



Image sources:

  1. Miliband:  Independent
  2. Decree of Aristotle: http://drc.ohiolink.edu/handle/2374.OX/186435
  3. Letters of names: cropped from detail picture at target=”_blank”>csad.ox.ac.uk
  4. Erasure: cropped from detail picture at csad.ox.ac.uk
  5. Ephesos pictures:  (c) A. Rupp, 2012.  (with thanks to Kaja Harter-Uibopuu.
  6. Pisa: my own photograph.


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One Response to On Pledges Carved in Stone

  1. Pingback: Recycle for Britain | The Petrified Muse

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