Among the first things one notices when approaching the Gennadius Library is the large inscription on the architrave of the neoclassical building, built by the American School of Classical Studies (ASCSA or the School hereafter) in 1926 to house the personal library of John Gennadius. It reads: ΕΛΛΗΝΕΣ ΚΑΛΟΥΝΤΑΙ ΟΙ ΤΗΣ ΠΑΙΔΕΥΣΕΩΣ ΤΗΣ ΗΜΕΤΕΡΑΣ ΜΕΤΕΧΟΝΤΕΣ, that is, GREEKS THEY ARE CALLED THOSE WHO SHARE IN OUR EDUCATION. It is a line taken from Isocrates, Panegyricus 50.

The Gennadius Library. Postcard printed in the 1990s.

In the School’s Archives there is extensive correspondence between the Chair, Edward Capps, and the Secretary of the Managing Committee, Edward D. Perry, concerning this choice of passage. Both men were distinguished classicists: Capps (1866-1950)­ was a professor of Classics at Princeton and one of the three original editors of the Loeb Classical Library, and Perry (1854-1938) taught Greek and Sanskrit at Columbia University for several decades.

The original guidelines from the architects of the building, John Van Pelt and W. Stuart Thompson, limited the length of the inscription to twenty letters; in addition, the architects insisted on placing two rosettes to the left and right of the inscription.

The discussions about the inscription began in late 1922, as soon as the School had secured funding from the Carnegie Corporation for the construction of the library. “The book plate of [John] Gennadius contains: ΚΤΑΣΘΕ ΒΙΒΛΙΑ ΨΥΧΗΣ ΦΑΡΜΑΚΑ [buy these books, which are the medicine of the soul]. I think you could get up something better for the frieze over the entrance” Capps teased Perry on October 29, 1922. [1]. To which Perry answered: “I have been thinking over the matter a good deal, but so far have hit upon nothing that pleases me. As he [John Van Pelt] says ‘an inscription some twenty letters long’ I feel a good deal crammed. I will send him, as a mere suggestion to work with, the following, taken with slight changes from Aeschylus’s Prometheus, line 460: ΣΥΝΘΕΣΕΙΣ ΓΡΑΜΜΑΤΩΝ ΜΝΗΜΗ ΑΠΑΝΤΩΝ [“the combinations of letters, memory of all things”] which is thirty letters long” (AdmRec 311/3, folder 5, November 3, 1922).  

The bookplate from the library of John and Florence Gennadius. The motto on their bookplates comes from John Chrysostom’s ninth homily on the Epistle to the Colossians.

In early January of 1923 Perry offered four more options, for the School had solicited the opinion of other classical philologists on the matter of the inscription (AdmRec 311/3, folder 5, January 1, 1923). Paul E. More (1864-1937), a classicist but more famous as a literary editor and a proponent of the New Humanism, proposed a line that he thought was inscribed on the Library of Alexandria: “ΓΡΑΜΜΑΤΑ ΙΑΤΡΟΣ ΨΥΧΗΣ [“literature is a healer of the soul”].” It puzzled both Capps and Perry, however, because they did not know its origin. “Do you know what writer gives this?” Capps asked Perry, who answered “I don’t know where [it] comes from… nor does [Larue] Van Hook.” One more reason not to use this line was that it was already (and is still) used by the American Philological Association (now Society for Classical Studies) as: ΨΥΧΗΣ ΙΑΤΡΟΣ ΤΑ ΓΡΑΜΜΑΤΑ.  

More also suggested a line from Plato (Republic 549b): ΛΟΓΟΣ ΜΟΥΣΙΚΗΙ ΚΕΚΡΑΜΕΝΟΣ [“argument mixed with music”]. Perry had suggested an English version of the same line as a motto for the new building of the American Academy of Arts and Letters on Audubon Terrace in Upper Manhattan. (Perry’s suggestion was not adopted since the inscription on the Academy building reads: HOLD HIGH THE FLAMING TORCH FROM AGE TO AGE.)

The inscription on the epistyle of the American Academy of Arts and Letters

Perry rejected More’s suggestion to use the line from Plato’s Republic because it referred to music: “I should hesitate to use this, on account of the connotation which ΜΟΥΣΙΚΗ inevitably brings up nowadays –though perhaps this is a poor reason.” He preferred More’s other suggestion ΓΡΑΜΜΑΤΑ ΙΑΤΡΟΣ ΨΥΧΗΣ, which Capps discovered “was on the Library at Thebes and ran ΙΑΤΡΕΙΟΝ ΨΥΧΗΣ, according to Diodorus,” but there were objections because “it suggested too strongly the diseased souls” (Adm Rec Box 311/3, folder 6, February 5, 1923).

The other philologist that the School consulted was Paul Shorey (1857-1934), Professor of Classics at the University of Chicago and before that at Bryn Mawr College, who purportedly knew all 15,693 lines of the Iliad by heart. It was Shorey, who came up with the line from Isocrates’s Panygericus 50: “ΕΛΛΗΝΕΣ ΚΑΛΕΙΣΘΑΙ ΤΟΥΣ ΤΗΣ ΠΑΙΔΕΥΣΕΩΣ ΤΗΣ ΗΜΕΤΕΡΑΣ… ΜΕΤΕΧΟΝΤΑΣ,” which he modified to: “ΕΛΛΗΝΕΣ ΚΑΛΟΥΝΤΑΙ ΟΙ ΤΗΣ ΠΑΙΔΕΥΣΕΩΣ ΤΗΣ ΗΜΕΤΕΡΑΣ ΜΕΤΕΧΟΝΤΕΣ.” Capps liked Shorey’s suggestion, but there was a problem with the Isocratic line: it was too long (AdmRec Box 311/3, folder 6, Capps to Perry, January 20, 1924). In order to shorten it Capps and Perry suggested several alterations admitting that: “If Isocrates turned in his grave we couldn’t hear him” (January 23, 1923).  By December of 1923 the inscription had been condensed to: ΕΛΛΗΝΕΣ ΟΙ ΤΗΣ ΠΑΙΔΕΥΣΕΩΣ ΗΜΩΝ ΜΕΤΕΧΟΝΤΕΣ.”

Having settled on the Isocratic line, the issue of the Gennadeion inscription went dormant for more than a year, until the building was far advanced. After a meeting with Van Pelt, a concerned Perry wrote to Capps: “He [Van Pelt] had with him a drawing of the inscription (including the word άπαντες), in letters of the later type. His objection to the earlier type of lettering was that the oblique upper and lower lines of the Sigma did not harmonize with the severe horizontal lines of the architrave as well as the later type. Although like you I personally prefer the earlier letters I think there is some point to his argument” ( AdmRec Box 311/3, folder 6, September 22, 1924).

By now the inscription was slightly longer and read: ΕΛΛΗΝΕΣ ΑΠΑΝΤΕΣ ΟΙ ΤΗΣ ΠΑΙΔΕΥΣΕΩΣ ΗΜΩΝ ΜΕΤΕΧΟΝΤΕΣ, since Capps had added the adjective ΑΠΑΝΤΕΣ (all) after ΕΛΛΗΝΕΣ, “… to raise the phrase to the level of a great idea of Hellenism.” Perry suggested replacing ΑΠΑΝΤΕΣ with ΠΑΝΤΕΣ, just to cut one letter, but Capps objected to the use of ΠΑΝΤΕΣ because “it is not Isocrates.” Unhappy with their suggestions, they went back to Shorey’s original suggestion which was long (52 letters) but “more effective” and closer to the original Isocratic line. “Van Pelt thought it could be managed,” as he did, finding room for both the inscription and the rosettes on the Library’s architrave.

A close-up of the inscription on the architrave of the Gennadius Library

It is interesting, however, that Capps was approving the carving of an inscription that promoted “the great idea of Hellenism” just as the Greeks were forced to abandon their own “Great Idea” after the bitter loss of 1922. Of course, Capps’s Hellenism was addressing a different (Western) audience.

The Gennadius Library is the last public neoclassical building built in Athens. By the early 1920s Greek architects had abandoned that style and were experimenting with modernism as one can see on the many buildings in Athens between the two Wars. The poet Kostas Varnalis (1884-1974), who lived in the neighborhood and walked by the Library every day, found the building “άτονο και ανέκφραστο” (dull and expressionless) and said that the Neo-classical style wilted and died out in the Gennadeion (“σ’ αυτό ξεψύχησε ο νεοκλασσικός ρυθμός πεθαίνοντας από μαρασμό”). Would Varnalis turn over in his grave if he knew that his personal papers are housed in the East Wing of the Gennadius Library where the ASCSA Archives have been located since 2018? If he does, we can’t hear him!


  1. The Varnalis essay, titled “Το κυπαρίσσι,” was first published on August 3, 1944, and was republished by Nikos Sarantakos in Αττικά, 400 χρονογραφήματα του Κώστα Βάρναλη (1939-1958), Athens 2016.

2. An earlier version of my essay on the Gennadeion inscription appeared in The New Griffon 7, 2004, pp. 29-30.