Calling All Classicists – or – Dial E for Epigraphy!

by John Holbo on June 26, 2009

OK, I’m fact-checking one last bit from my Plato book. I’m discussing the famous legend that over the door of Plato’s academy there was an inscription: ‘no non-geometers allowed’. Here’s a page that contains a bit of background if you are unaware of this legend (which is pretty weakly sourced to a commentary on a commentary on Aristotle, I think it is. So who knows.) Anyway, I mention in the text that there are religious overtones, which is most certainly true. But here’s my problem. I read somewhere that over the doors of Greek temples, or at the boundaries of certain holy areas – sites forbidden to those who are unclean, by the terms of Drako’s Law – ‘no unclean persons allowed’. I distinctly recall reading, specifically, that the unclean bit was ‘unjust’; that is, (I presume) ‘adikaios’. So take Plato’s ‘ageometros’, swap it out and plug in ‘adikaios’ and – bob’s your uncle – you’ve got the thing you might read over a temple door. Trouble is: I went back to footnote this bit and it wasn’t where I thought it was. So I’m wondering whether what I have in my book is strictly accurate. Are there surviving inscriptions that are almost like the one Plato is supposed to have put over his door, with only one word different? Or are there reliable reports of the existence of such inscriptions? It’s not a big deal, because the general point about religious overtones stands: the inscription forbids the ‘impure’ from entry, as Drako’s law forbids access to ‘the holy things’ to those who are presently ritually unclean (for whatever reason). But I don’t want my book sullied by the impure inclusion of an epigraphic untruth, Zeus forbid!



Kip Manley 06.26.09 at 6:13 am

Googling for further background I discover this post not even an hour old is already the third result of the whole wide internet for “Drako’s Law.”


John Holbo 06.26.09 at 6:28 am

Well, I hope that’s due to the fact that Drako’s Laws, plural, would be the more usual search term. But in this case I meant to reference one bit of the whole Draconian code. (Sorry for wasting your time, Drako’s Law wonderers of the future!)


John Holbo 06.26.09 at 6:31 am

Or ‘code’ or ‘constitution’, or Draco-with-a-c.


Nigel 06.26.09 at 6:51 am

If ‘adikaios’ inscriptions do turn out to have been common, then an ‘ageometros’ version could have been a playful joke as well as having more earnest religious overtones. Having said that, I don’t remember any playful jokes in the dialogues I’ve read, so maybe it’s less likely Plato would have wanted students to smile as they entered his academy.


bad Jim 06.26.09 at 8:20 am

The threshold insignias I’m familiar with tend to run along the lines of “Arbeit macht frei” or “Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’intrate” although there was the story of the basketball coach whose doorway cautioned, “If you can walk in here without stooping, don’t” and the Far Side cartoon “You must be at least this tall to attack the city.”


dominic 06.26.09 at 9:57 am

There’s a story that at one point they built a new library at the university of Hull, where Philip Larkin was librarian, and someone on the committee in charge suggested that perhaps a line from one of Larkin’s poems might be inscribed over the entryway. The suggestion was shelved after someone suggested a well-known line from “The Less Deceived”, namely “Books are a load of crap”.

Sorry, John, we’re not helping much are we?


John Holbo 06.26.09 at 10:36 am

It depends what you mean by ‘help’. (I’ve also emailed a friend who is something of an expert and may be able to be helpful in a different way than all of you are being.)


Preachy Preach 06.26.09 at 11:29 am

John> That’s a very tactful redefinition of the meaning of the word ‘helpful’.


rea 06.26.09 at 11:45 am

I don’t remember any playful jokes in the dialogues I’ve read

Well, that whole comedy routine with Alcibiades in Symposium . . .


Stuart 06.26.09 at 11:57 am

Sanctuaries and the sacred in the ancient Greek world By John Griffiths Pedley p92 says:

This place was called the abaton, literally “not to be trodden on”, that is, not to be entered by the unclean, off limits.

Probably unrelated, but only thing I could find in a quick search.


Adam Roberts 06.26.09 at 12:54 pm

My sense is that all sorts of things were inscribed on Greek temples, especially details of to whom the temple was dedicated, who built it, who gave big gifts etc (see this book by Clemente Marconi for instance). I don’t know that there was ever a particular inscription saying ‘no adikaios allowed’ over the door; would that really be needed? But I’m ready to be corrected by people who really know this stuff.

The classic study of Greek religion is still Burkert’s, I guess. There might be something relevant in there. If I weren’t too idle to check for you.

According to (sorry, link doesn’t want to embed in an ahref for some reason)
at the threshold of the temple of Olympian Zeus ‘there were two jars, one containing good, the other evil.’ I don’t know if that’s concentrated essence of good and evil (like at the end of the Time Bandits) or just some good and evil stuff: honey, say; slugs.


Bostoniangirl 06.26.09 at 1:36 pm

oudemia at unfogged might know, though I don’t think that philosophy or Greek religion is her expertise.


kid bitzer 06.26.09 at 1:56 pm

“adikaios” n’existe pas.

“dikaios” is the positive, true. but the privative is “adikos”.


John Holbo 06.26.09 at 1:58 pm

“I don’t know that there was ever a particular inscription saying ‘no adikaios allowed’ over the door; would that really be needed?”

I’m obviously not going to try to solve this problem by deduction, but given that it would actually be a crime to be on the wrong side of the line, if you were in a certain state or condition, it would make a certain sense to mark the line and put a formal notice of warning up. (Beyond the obvious possibility that sometimes ritual stuff isn’t obviously ‘needed’.)


ajay 06.26.09 at 2:04 pm

I am now trying to imagine the equivalent in a post-literate society like ours: what symbol would you put inside the red circle to indicate “NO UNCLEAN PERSONS PAST THIS POINT”?


Glen Tomkins 06.26.09 at 2:05 pm

I would think that “impure” would be akatharos, not adikaios. Adikaios, while mostly juridical, could mean “sinful”, and therefore perhaps “impure” by extension, but really akatharos would be the adjective applied to the impure, and definitely the ritually impure.

My other suggestion is that the seats of the mysteries were more likely to want to exclude the impure than standard Greek temples. Are you sure this inscription enjoining the impure not to enter wasn’t on the Eleusinion, or some such specific temple, and not Greek temples in general? If you could narrow it down, that might help with searches. I have a pressing errand and can’t look myself just now.


John Holbo 06.26.09 at 2:08 pm

““dikaios” is the positive, true. but the privative is “adikos”.”

Ah, thanks. I was actually going to check Perseus about that but it’s down today (at least I can’t get it to load) so I got lazy and didn’t check the old paper dictionary. My bad.


John Holbo 06.26.09 at 2:12 pm

“I would think that “impure” would be akatharos, not adikaios.”

Well, that’s another reason why I wanted to check. I distinctly remembered that the inscription said ‘unjust’, which is a bit weird, although not totally incomprehensible. I had a distinct memory of this all being in Harold Cherniss “The Riddle of the Early Academy”, but it turns out: not.


kid bitzer 06.26.09 at 2:32 pm

there are two anecdotes in diogenes laertius (6.39, 6.50–or perhaps one floating anecdote, with different details) that suggest that private persons sometimes wrote “let no evil thing [kakon] enter” over the doorway of their own private home.

aristophanes acharnians line 725 suggests that at the opening of a market-day one might sometimes say, ritualistically, “let no [various words for evil-doers] enter here.” but that’s spoken ritual, not inscription.

aeschines in timarchum 21 quotes an earlier athenian law saying that male prostitutes might not enter public temples, and the law uses a similar “let him not enter” formula, but again this is a law rather than an inscription.

plato (or the fictional representation of his uncle, critias) himself discusses temple-inscriptions at charmides 164-165, but says nothing about an inscription like this. and plutarch the platonist wrote an entire treatise on an a temple-inscription (on the ‘e’ at delphi) and never mentioned inscriptions of this kind.

there may be other evidence of temple-inscriptions saying ‘let no one [evil, unjust, unaware of all internet traditions, etc.] enter”; it’s a big corpus out there. these are just a few negative indications that come to my non-specialist mind.

that’s where a real classicist like oudemia can help out. let’s hope she weighs in.


Mrs Tilton 06.26.09 at 2:34 pm

The great and amusingly named American judge Learned Hand had his own idea for the inscription over the doors of important buildings. It had religious overtones, of a sort, as well as overflowing jugs of irony.


John Holbo 06.26.09 at 2:42 pm

I just got an email back from my classicist friend who would know. Thumbs up on the religious overtones. Question mark on the inscriptions. And confirmation that ‘unjust’ as opposed to ‘unclean’ or – here’s a third ‘ – ‘uninitiated’ into the Mysteries seems a bit odd. So I’m going to scrub it, unless I have a sudden bolt of recovered memory about where I read it.

Oh wait, Glen suggested ‘uninitiated’, too. Well, anyway … yes. You are right, Glen.


Salient 06.26.09 at 2:58 pm

what symbol would you put inside the red circle to indicate “NO UNCLEAN PERSONS PAST THIS POINT”?



Adam Roberts 06.26.09 at 3:00 pm

I’m obviously not going to try to solve this problem by deduction, but given that it would actually be a crime to be on the wrong side of the line, if you were in a certain state or condition, it would make a certain sense to mark the line and put a formal notice of warning up.

I don’t know: this doesn’t feel right to me (intuitively speaking, rather than dusting off and actually standing upon my Classics degree). Wouldn’t you say that a temple that wanted nothing to do with menstruating women, and that wrote NO MENSTRUATING WOMEN across the door, would be sort-of, even in the expression of a negative, be inscribing the very thing it wanted nothing to do with in its sacred place? The analogy would not be with a ‘no naked flames’ situation in a petrol station; these sorts of impurity prohibitions are, you know, superstitious, miasmic, magical, not practical.


kid bitzer 06.26.09 at 3:08 pm

i wonder what landed my comment in moderation….


Adam Roberts 06.26.09 at 3:10 pm

Clearly not any reference to menstruation it may or may not have contained.


John Holbo 06.26.09 at 3:16 pm

To clarify: in answer to Adam’s question, yes actual inscriptions like this in religious settings would (my friend thinks) be common enough. He could think of at least one definite (late) case offhand. Just not (until I remember better) the specific ‘let no unjust person enter’ formula. So even if I find out that there was indeed a ‘let no unjust person enter’ formula that was jut a word away from Plato’s formula (if we were even sure what that was), I wouldn’t be warranted in speculating that he was playing of it (as opposed to the ‘no unclean’ or ‘no uninitiated’ ones).

My friend mentioned that the boundary stones of the market were generally understood to mean – but were not inscribed to say – ‘no atimoi [disenfranchised persons] allowed’.


John Holbo 06.26.09 at 3:24 pm

Thanks for the comment, kid. I have no idea what landed you in moderation. (No one knows what those boundary stones we put up mean.)


Anderson 06.26.09 at 3:25 pm

Flipping through Burkert, I see an inscription “over the entrance to the Asklepios sanctuary at Epidaurus,” “Purity is to think pious things” — temple inscription, but not a prohibition.

Water basis at the entrances of temples generally conveyed the notion that one must be purified to enter. Burkert cites one J.W. Hewitt, “The major restrictions of access to Greek temples,” TAPA 40 (1999) 83-91, which might well have something if you can find that volume.

Burkert discusses Plato and geometry but doesn’t mention the legendary inscription.


Anderson 06.26.09 at 3:25 pm

Sorry, “basins” not “basis.”


y 06.26.09 at 3:40 pm

The boundary stones of the agora in Athens are still to be seen, and they have a large, clearly-written, simple inscription–words to the effect of “I am the boundary of the agora”. Presumably this was regarded as sufficient to warn those forbidden to enter.

As far as joking goes, I think it’s pretty clear that Plato had a weakness for paronomasia. However, that doesn’t get us any closer to deciding whether the whole thing is apocryphal or not.


Adam Roberts 06.26.09 at 4:49 pm

…in answer to Adam’s question, yes actual inscriptions like this in religious settings would (my friend thinks) be common enough.

Interesting; I stand corrected.


tweedyprof 06.26.09 at 6:12 pm

Pedantry dept.: I always thought the alleged inscription read “mêdeis ageômetrêtos eisitô”, ageometretos, not ageometros. Meaning: unschooled in geometry, “ungeometrized”. Not having my trusty 40-year old copy of Liddell and Scott to hand (my son doing his ph.d. in linguistics at Penn has it), I can’t say if the word “ageometros” is attested.


Dave Roth 06.26.09 at 6:22 pm

I’m not an epigraphist, so I can’t recall any relevant inscriptions off the top of my head.

However, it seems to me that, if there were inscriptions with some sort of “let no x person enter” formula, they wouldn’t be over the temple door but would be at the border of the temple precinct, since, if the inscription were above the door, by the time anyone read it they likely would have already entered the precinct.

So I think you’d most likely find an inscription like this on herms or other sorts of boundary markers.


Abelard 06.27.09 at 1:02 am

euthydemus is the great neglected comedy of antiquity.

Not to derail, but since someone mentioned symposium: at the conclusion of that dialogue, Plato writes that the genius of comedy is the same as that of tragedy, and that the writer of tragedy should be a writer of comedy. So I have always wondered, which dialogue might be considered Plato’s tragedy?


John Holbo 06.27.09 at 1:07 am

“However, it seems to me that, if there were inscriptions with some sort of “let no x person enter” formula, they wouldn’t be over the temple door but would be at the border of the temple precinct”

I keep seeing the phrase ‘at the threshold’ in the texts I read that make passing reference to these things. I’m thinking maybe: on the step leading up to the porch of whatever building (if it is a building). On a boundary stone if it’s a different sort of area.


Brad DeLong 06.27.09 at 1:25 am

Re: #5 Bad Jim: “The threshold insignias I’m familiar with…”

I must live in a happier alternate universe. The threshold insignias I am most familiar with are: “Enter to grow in wisdom” and “Leave to better serve thy country and thy kind”…


Oudeis 06.27.09 at 2:06 am

No answer for you, but perhaps a couple of leads (happen to be working on katharsis in the Phaedo right now). Give Parker’s Miasma a look:

“Every sacred precinct and every festival had its own distinctive rules; of precinct rules we have some knowledge through surviving examples of the inscriptions set up at the entrances, while for festival rules we are dependent on chance allusions in literary sources. (176-177). citation to H.J. Stukey TAPA 67 1936 286-95. Don’t have access to that.

And for “impure” it may or may not be a privative like akathartos. It could be a general term, miaros, agos, enages, or it could be a narrow term lexous (having given birth!– about which Parker has an interesting appendix “‘Enter pure from. . . ‘ requirements in sacred laws” which considers questions about sacred laws that require purity apo lexous (from having given birth), certain foods, contact with death, birth pollution, abortion, defloration, menstruation, sex–though he seems to be concerned with the degree of contamination of impurity in these laws.

I take it that Draco’s law is the exclusion of homicides? (Here looking at Moulinier Le Pure et l’impure 43 of which there seems to be some evidence in a 5th century mutilated epigraphic copy (?) and later oratory.)

Looks like Lois sacre’es des cite’ss greceques might be a place to look (Sokowlowski 1969), perhaps a reference there will point to an inscription.

Don’t see a lot of obvious references, in the several general scholarly works I have sitting here, to something specific like “No Shirts, No Shoes” signs–though there seems to be good reason to believe that they existed. So I’d guess–and I’m only guessing–that the reference would be later . It sounds more like the kind of thing later sources would claim was true. But that there were exclusions of a wide and varied category of the “impure” probably having more to do with contact with death and sex than justice seems likely. But, I’m not looking at the relevant collections of inscriptions.. (Can you search PHI? ( I’ve never used it, but perhaps it might work–and I don’t really know that much about this, just have a couple of relevant books sitting right here.


nnyhav 06.27.09 at 2:32 am

This put me in mind of Alan Bennett’s sermon:

… Words very meaningful and significant for us here, together, tonight. Words we might do very much worse than to consider. And I use this word ‘consider’ advisedly. Because I am using it, you see, in its original Greek sense of ‘con-sid-er’, of putting one’s self in the way of thinking about something. I want us here, together, tonight to put ourselves in the way of thinking about … to put ourselves in the way of thinking about … what we ought to be putting ourselves in the way of thinking about.

As I was on my way here tonight, I arrived at the station, and by an oversight I happened to go out by the way one is supposed to come in. As I was going out, an employee of the railway company hailed me. ‘Hey Jack!’ he shouted, ‘Where do you think you’re going?’. That, at any rate, was the gist of what he said. But you know, I was grateful to him because, you see, he put me in mind of the kind of question I felt I ought to be asking you here tonight: ‘Where do you think you’re going?’

But speaking of iconography


oudemia 06.27.09 at 3:24 am

Oh! I am just seeing this now, but it was called to my attention by someone who actually knows Plato and who is commenting. So tag; he’s it!


Oudeis 06.27.09 at 3:42 am

And, @ an earlier comment– “No shirts, No Shoes” no service is probably pretty close to a modern secular “purity” prohibition.


kid bitzer 06.27.09 at 3:52 am


phaedo, surely?


oudemia 06.27.09 at 4:24 am

39: Yes. (And 34, I love the Euthydemus, even though I have PTSD from an exam that had the whole bit at the end about the links in the chain on it and it’s all, like, passive -μι verbs.)


Oudeis 06.27.09 at 12:55 pm

@42 Ion you’re thinking?


oudemia 06.27.09 at 1:02 pm

43: Indeed I am. The E. was on the exam too though and as you can see the trauma was deep.


Gene O'Grady 06.27.09 at 8:43 pm

Just who entered Greek (as opposed to Roman) temples?

I think the person who wanted to place the inscription (if it existed) at the entrance to the precinct rather than the temple may have been on to something.


skia 06.27.09 at 9:48 pm

Agree with # 37: Search in R. Parker, Miasma (Oxford, 1983).


Gene O'Grady 06.28.09 at 3:53 pm

FYI, it apparently is ageometretos, not a ageometros/tres. According to LSJ revised (but remember that a- is by the less talented Scott, not Liddell) the latter word does not exist — and the former has only late attestations.

As to occurring only in a late commentary, the value all depends on who the commentator had open when he wrote — presumably some old German dissertation has speculation on the sources, but who knows where to look?


aa 06.28.09 at 6:39 pm

Cf. Fowler, The Mathematics of Plato’s Academy, pp. 199-204, for commentary and further references, which may help to further unsettle the matter. Two extracts:

(pp. 202-203) Sacred places sometimes had inscriptions such as “Let no unfair or unjust person enter”; and this [4th century] scholium implies that the author of Plato’s inscription had substituted ageometretos, ‘ungeometrical’, for anisos kai adikos, ‘unfair or unjust’, in the normal formula; also the scholium seems to indicate that the inscription was not put up by Plato.

p.204, and the last paragraph of the section:
I have dwelt on this story … at such length because it provides a convenient way of introducing what we find, time and time again, … the evidence for many stories cannot be traced back any earlier than a period five, six, seven, or even eight hundred years after the event, and we often have little indication of whether the stories are authentic, plausible, or misleading. It is now worth pursuing this question even further …


John Holbo 06.29.09 at 12:43 am

Thanks very much, aa, that’s reassures me that I was not just hallucinating about the ‘no unjust person’ bit. It’s always nice to think you aren’t crazy. Although – given the second point – whether it is worth speculating further on the possible significance of such a tenuous historical point …

I’ve never read Fowler, I don’t think, so I must have gotten it somewhere else myself.


Greg 06.30.09 at 12:29 am

John, it sounds like you’ve already got your answer, but I’m recalling something from Burkert on “anosios” (roughly, ‘unholy’) that seems relevant. OK, here it is:

“Yet if the boundaries are violated the tones turn shrill: the anosios draws the wrath of the gods; hence no one should have anything to do with him unless he is prepared to suffer harm himself. Above all the murderer is anosios (unholy), whereas whoever does just killing, be it in war or on the basis of a court judgment is hosios. Thus hosion assumes the general moral meaning of what is permitted, contrasted with adikon unjust; hosion and dikaion designate the duties towards gods and towards men, or the same duties in their divine and their civil aspect.” (Greek Religion, 270)

This makes “hosios kai dikaios” (or its opposite) sound like a set phrase. Could the thing Fowler is referring to be supposed to have “anosios” for “anisos”?

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