Archaeologists working in Turkey have unearthed an inscribed marble tablet from the ancient city of Teos with a disturbing message. The stele describes the lease of a stretch of land and all the property on it — including slaves.
Some 2,000 years ago, Turkey’s western coast was dotted with Greek cities. One of these, known as Teos, was built on a shallow isthmus and is a modern archaeological hotspot. Archaeologists have found hundreds of inscribed stone tablets — or stele — here, giving us an unprecedented peek into the life and bureaucracy of a thousand-year-old civilization.
The most recent find is a 1.5 meter (4.9 feet) long marble stele found by archaeologist Mustafa Adak from Akdeniz University. The 58-line long text carved into the rock describes a tract of land and the property on it given to the Neos by a wealthy citizen. The Neos were 20-30-something-year-old men associated with the city’s gymnasium — a campus with facilities for exercise, public games venue, and body of higher education for the wealthier citizens. So they were roughly equivalent to a syndicated college-graduate body, holding internship-like jobs in administration or politics.
The Neos, while arguably important socially, were often pretty poor themselves (until they would advance in their careers, at least). Along with the land, the donor gave the Neos all the property on it, including several slaves. There was a shrine built on the plot, so it was classified as a holy place and couldn’t be taxed. But because the Neos couldn’t afford to pay the property’s maintenance costs, they leased the property — with many stipulations.
They reserved the right to use the shrine three days every year, to inspect the property at any time to make sure it was maintained properly, and, according to Adak, a large part of the text describes punishments for renters who violated the agreement. There’s also some mysterious legal terms in the text.
“Almost half of the inscription is filled with punishment forms. If the renter gives damage to the land, does not pay the annual rent or does not repair the buildings, he will be punished. The Neos also vow to inspect the land every year,” he told Hurriyet Daily News.
“There are two particularly interesting legal terms used in the inscription, which large dictionaries have not up to now included. Ancient writers and legal documents should be examined in order to understand what these words mean.”
The text offers some pretty important insight into the going-ons in Teos. The land, for example, was leased at auction, and the renters needed guarantors, whose names are also included in the agreement. Among them is the name of the renter’s father and several of the city’s dignitaries — as the gymnasium was training the future ruling elite of the city, it’s likely that the administration took particular interest in what the students did, which is why they co-signed on the lease.
It’s the most detailed and intact lease document of this era discovered in the Anatolian region, and it shows just how much of the Greek legal system carried over to modern western systems. Luckily, I’ve never had to lease slaves to pay for my college tuition, though.