The ancient city of Teos is located on an isthmus stretching from the west coast of Turkey to the emerald green waters of the Mediterranean Sea. More than 2,000 years ago, it was one of many Ionian Greek cities that dotted the coastline and islands here. Today it’s an archaeological gold mine, but not just for its crumbling temples and amphitheatre. Scientists have unearthed hundreds of stelae, or inscribed stone tablets, that give us a glimpse into the bureaucracy that governed this city for centuries. Even the most mundane documents, such as a 58-line lease recently unearthed by Akdeniz University archaeologist Mustafa Adak, reveal a lot about this ancient culture. Some may even be disturbing to modern humans, as it contains down-to-earth clues about how mercenary slaves should be treated.
Carved into a 5-foot-long marble stela, the document goes into detail about the property and its amenities. We learn that it is a piece of land that was given to the Neos, a group of men aged 20-30 who are associated with the town’s gymnasium. In ancient Greece, a gymnasium was not just a place for exercise and public games – it was a combination of a university and a professional training school for wealthy citizens. Neos were novice citizens who often held internship-type jobs in city government or politics. The land described in the lease was given to the Neos by a wealthy citizen of Teos, in a gift that was probably half generosity, half tax write-off. Because the land contained a shrine, it was classified as a “sacred” place that could not be taxed. Along with the land, the donor gave the Neos all the property on it, including several slaves.
Like many recent graduates of today, the Neos may have been destined to join the privileged classes, but were temporarily quite poor. They didn’t have the money to maintain a bunch of nice houses and slaves, so they rented the land to different people over the years – with many conditions. The Neos claimed the right to use the shrine three days a year and to inspect the property at any time to make sure tenants were treating it well. According to Adak, who is leading the excavation at Teos, much of the stela’s text is devoted to punishments for tenants who violate the agreement. “Nearly half of the inscription is filled with penal forms. If the tenant causes damage to the land, fails to pay the annual rent or does not repair the buildings, he will be punished. The Neos also promise to inspect the land every year,”, he told the Hurriyet Daily News. There is also a legal mystery. “Two particularly interesting legal terms are used in the inscription, which major dictionaries have so far failed to include. Ancient writers and legal documents need to be examined to understand what these words mean,” he said.
Overall, the lease gives us a much stronger sense of everyday life in Teos. We learn that when the land was leased from the Neos, it was done at auction. And the tenants needed guarantors, so the agreement also includes the names of the tenant’s father and a number of city dignitaries. Because the gymnasium was the main training ground for new members of the city’s ruling elite, the city government took a keen interest in what the students were doing, which is probably why they co-signed this lease. It’s probably also why a wealthy man donated land in the first place, almost as an alumni gift to the Neos.
This is an incredibly rare document in the Anatolian region. Never before have we unearthed such a detailed and complete lease from this era, and it confirms that some aspects of our legal and educational systems in the west are curiously similar to those of ancient Greece. That said, I’ve never been asked to make a tax-deductible donation of slaves to my alma mater. That’s another reason to appreciate the twenty-first century.
List image by DHA