Priene Inscription

Athena Polias Temple in Priene after Society of Dilettanti 1880

Many inscriptions have been found in the ancient city of Priene, but only one of them is called the “Priene Inscription”. This inscription owes its fame largely to Alexander the Great and the story of Strabo.

Temple of Athena (Priene)‎ 2020 by O. Mustafin
Temple of Athena (Priene)‎ 2020 by O. Mustafin, CC0 via Wikimedia Commons

First of all, some archeology and geography notes on the subject:

  1. The subject of our article takes place in the new city of Priene1 with a Hippodamian (grid) plan in the Hellenistic period. The exact location of old Priene, which was originally a Carian settlement before the Ionians, is unknown.2
  2. This temple is one of the rare Hellenistic temples that have survived (not standing) to the present day without being renovated by the Romans.3
  3. Another outstanding feature is that the Temple of Athena Polias is the work of Pythius of Priene, who was also the architect of the Halicarnassus Mausoleum.4
  4. It is accepted that each city state embraced one or more protective god or goddess cults in the stony-metallic ages, archaic and ancient periods, and they opened temples and altar-function areas or built structures for them inside or outside the city. The goddess of Athens, Athena, is also the natural goddess of the city of Priene, which is said to be an Athenian colony, but Minerva is the counterpart of Athena in Roman mythology. Therefore, the “Athena Polias” and the “Minerva Polias” are the same temple.
  5. The subject inscription is not actually in Priene, but has been in the British Museum in London since the 19th century.5 6

An inscription from Athena Polias sanctuary at Priene

Judging by the Strabo narrative, the dedication by Alexander the Great of the new temple for Athena Polias in Priene is a rather interesting story. The translations are varied,7 but the story briefly goes like this:

334 BC: Alexander of Macedon, who inherited a large army from his father Philip II, after winning the battle with the Achaemenids8 on the banks of the Granikos River (modern Biga River) which opened the gates of Asia to his army, visits the nearby Troy. He asks for permission from the graves of the heroes of the Trojan war to bless the war he waged against the Persian domination in Asia Minor. From there, he proceeds his advance from the west coast to the south, and continues to repel the Persians and Persian defenders who stand in his way.

When he reaches Ephesus, he learns that a Temple of Artemis will be built. The story is that the previous Temple of Artemis was destroyed by fire on the very day he was born.9 He sends a message to the leaders of the city at once. He promises to pay all of the construction cost in exchange for the engraving of his name on the wall of the new temple to be built. His offer was wisely declined, saying, “It is not fit that a god should provide temples in honor of gods.” Flattered, Alexander says, “thank you” and goes about his business. The Ephesians would not have denied the honor of Augustus in a similar later situation.

Continuing his campaign, Alexander stumbles upon the construction of the temple of Athena Polias in Priene. He must not have given up on his wish to have his name inscribed on a temple wall.10 His offer will be accepted this time. According to epigraphic sources, Alexander gave Priene its freedom in 334 BC. “He showered gifts on the city and the temple”.11

Richard Chandler. Antiquities of Ionia Pt. 4 (1797)
Richard Chandler. Antiquities of Ionia Pt. 4 (1797)12

“After the temple was excavated in 1869–70 by the Society of Dilettanti, this block and several others from the adjacent wall were removed to London.”13 We learn from the publications that started with the book of Chandler in 1769 that the in situ location of the inscription block was one of the antae of the temple.14 15 Although it is still in the British Museum, it could not find a place for itself in one of the exhibition halls.

This inscription is also remarkable in that it is the first known example of the name Alexander the Great carved into history on a stone because such examples will become more numerous in the future, and even cities are named with him.16

The dedication inscription placed in the name of Alexander represents an innovation in the history of Greek architecture and religion.17 Temples were previously built by societies or individuals solely for the gods,18 and although there are exceptions, their walls are usually not inscribed with the names, images, human qualities (such as heroism) or frailty (such as arrogance) of mortals. In Hellenistic culture, there is the concept of heroon (hero cult) for this. People can be heroized, but not deified. The concept of deification should not to be confused with sublimation. It is true that temples were built for the gods. What leads to error is to interpret whether the tombs are temples or not, based on their external appearance. In Anatolia, the situation is just the opposite, and this inscription is not the only example attesting this.


  • I. Priene 156 19
  • CIG 2904
  • SIG 3 277 20
  • Tod 184
  • Rhodes–Osborne 86
  • Hicks-Hill 156
  • Botermann 1994
  • Bringmann and von Steuben 1995: 268
  • et al


  • Width: 120.5 cm
  • Height: 49.5 cm
  • Thickness: 48.25 cm
Priene Inscription Woodcut (processed)
Richard Chandler. Antiquities of Ionia Pt. 4 (1797)21





βασιλεὐς Ἀλέξανδρος
ἀνέθηκε τὀν ναὀν
Ἀθηναίηι Πολιάδι.


“King Alexander dedicated the temple to Athena Polias.”

Priene Inscription Transcript
Mockup with Polias Varia and other Esintype fonts


  • c. 334BC-330BC
  • Inscribed in letters 5.2–5.7 cm high
  • Each line ending with the end of a word
  • Inscribed on both sides in the ancient Greek language
  • Koine with Athena’s name left in “East Ionic” form22 23
  • Paleographic remarks of Gaertringen (parentheses are our additions):
    • Monumental script, some with thickened stroke ends, especially in the middle of the Ε (Epsilon)
    • Some of the characters are inclined slightly to the right, as in our cursive
    • Α (Alpha) with middle line descending a little to the right, as well as Η (Eta)
    • Β (Beta) with equal halves
    • The four points of the Ν (Nu) are aligned to the line (to the Cap Height and Baseline), as are Θ (Theta) and Ο (Omicron)
    • The middle point of the Σ (Sigma) is, corresponding to the Ε (Epsilon), equidistant from the left and right edges of the letter: hence the inner strokes are more slanted than the outer ones
    • Π (Pi) with straight corners, not yet protruding strokes
    • Ξ (Xi) with a very shortened middle stroke and vertical Hasta
    • Υ (Upsilon) still with strongly curved forked strokes
    • Some letters, especially Α (Alpha), Λ (Lambda), Δ (Delta), Ε (Epsilon), Σ (Sigma) could almost fit into a square frame
    • others, like Η (Eta), Ν (Nu) are narrower in build

Morison’s remarks: Monumental sculptured capitals; monoline with thin strokes; serifed with primitive, irregularly and illogically designed terminals to heads and feet, with exceptions as in the perpendiculars of B and E.24

Stanley Morison mentioned this inscription in one of his 1957 speeches from The Lyell Lectures, published a few years after his death:

The distinctive feature of this inscription consists of a consistent thickening towards the ends of perpendiculars and horizontals. This thickening is often very slight in dimension, but obviously always deliberate.” … In many respects, the lettering has the appearance of a free hand rather than a geometrically regulated inscription.25

We have not the right to say that the serif was invented for Alexander the Great’s inscription, only that this is its first datable appearance.

Admittedly, this is a very ambitious interpretation, but no matter how low or high its accuracy, it is highly possible to think that the mark it left on the history of typography is much greater than the marble block itself.


  1. Priene, Wikipedia ↩︎
  2. Roller, Duane W. (2018). A Historical and Topographical Guide to the Geography of Strabo. (Southern Anatolia and Cyprus, pp.786-846, p.790). Cambridge University Press. ↩︎
  3. Temple of Athena Polias (Priene), Wikipedia ↩︎
  4. Pythius of Priene, Wikipedia ↩︎
  5. British Museum, object 1870,0320.88 (temple; block; wall) ↩︎
  6. Smith, A.H. (1900). A Catalogue of Sculpture; In the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities; British Museum. Printed by Order of the Trustees of the Museum, Longmans and Co., Asher and Co., et al, London ↩︎
  7. Hamilton, H. C., Falconer, W. (1857). The Geography of Strabo (In Three Volumes, Vol. III). p.12 (Book XIV, Chapter I). Henry G. Bohn, London. ↩︎
  8. The first Persian empire. ↩︎
  9. Hicks, E.L. – Hill, G.F. (1901). A Manual of Greek Historical Inscriptions. pp. 293–294. Clarendon Press, Oxford. ↩︎
  10. Badian, Ernst (1967). Ancient Society and Institutions: Studies Presented to Victor Ehrenberg on His 75th Birthday. Alexander the Great and the Greeks of Asia (47–48), 37–69. Barnes & Noble, New York. ↩︎
  11. Heckel, Waldemar – Tritle, Lawrence A. (Eds.)(2009). Boris Dreyer, “Heroes, Cults, and Divinity” in Alexander the Great; A New History. p.226. Wiley-Blackwell. ↩︎
  12. Chandler, Richard (1797). Antiquities of Ionia, Pt. 4, Priené, Teos. (Plate I. Frontispiece. Perspective View of the Temple of Athene Polias Restored). Society of Dilettanti, London. ↩︎
  13. Cook, B.F. (1987). Greek inscriptions. pp.21–22. The British Museum Press, London ↩︎
  14. Chandler, Richard (1769). Antiquities of Ionia, Pt. 1, Priené, Teos. p.15. Society of Dilettanti, London. ↩︎
  15. Hicks, E.L. (1883). An Inscription from Prienè. The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 4, 237–242. ↩︎
  16. Naiden, Fred S. (2020). The Self-Definition of Alexander the Great. Mackil, Emily – Papazarkadas, Nikolaos (Eds.) pp.295–309. Greek Epigraphy and Religion (Papers in Memory of Sara B. Aleshire from the Second North American Congress of Greek and Latin Epigraphy) ↩︎
  17. Botermann, Helga (1994). Wer baute das neue Priene? Zur Interpretation der Inschriften von Priene Nr. 1 und 156. Hermes 122: 162–87. ↩︎
  18. Bremmer, Jan N. – Erskine, Andrew (Eds.)(2010). Fritz Graf, Gods in Greek Inscriptions: Some Methodological Questions, pp.55–80 in The Gods of Ancient Greece, Identities and Transformations (Edinburgh Leventis Studies 5). Edinburg University Press. ↩︎
  19. Gaertringen, Friedrich Hiller von (1908). Inschriften von Priene. Berlin, G. Reimer ↩︎
  20. Dittenbergero, Guilelmo (1960). Sylloge Inscriptionum Graecarum; a Guilelmo Dittenbergero condita et aucta, nunc quartum edita (Volumen Primum), p.488. Georg Olms, Hildesheim. ↩︎
  21. Ibid. (Woodcut 11. Dedication of the Temple of Athene Polias by Alexander the Great) ↩︎
  22. Rhodes, P.J. – Osborne, Robin (Eds.)(2003). Greek Historical Inscriptions 404–323 BC. pp.430–431. Oxford University Press. ↩︎
  23. East Ionia is Ionia in Anatolia. ↩︎
  24. Morison, Stanley – Barker, Nicolas (Ed.)(1972). Politics and script; Aspects of authority and freedom in the development of Graeco-Latin script from the sixth century B.C. to the twentieth century A.D. p.7, plate 2. The Clarendon Press, Oxford. ↩︎
  25. Ibid. ↩︎
Cover image

Athena Polias Temple in Priene after: “Plate XIV. General view subsequent to the excavations, looking east. Published by the Society of Dilettanti 1880.”