Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.03.11

Anthony Molho, Kurt Raaflaub, Julia Emlen (edd.), City States in Classical Antiquity and Medieval Italy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992. Pp. 662. $59.50. ISBN 0-472-10286-9.

Reviewed by Paul Pascal, University of Washington.

The city-state1 is by nature a kind of microcosm, perhaps the most useful type of subject for historical analysis. The study of the city-state, ancient and medieval, is still in the stage of establishing definitions and general principles, and it lends itself very well to comparative methods. Accordingly it was a stroke of inspiration that led Brown University's Thomas J. Watson Jr. Institute for International Studies to plan a conference on the subject of the city-state. This was held in May of 1989 in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Association of Ancient Historians. A stellar international panel of archeologists, ancient and medieval historians, art historians, political scientists, sociologists, and others, was invited to deliver papers on set themes relating to their disciplines, centering on four specific city-states: Athens and Rome in antiquity, and Florence and Venice in the late medieval period. The product of the conference is this splendid volume. The organizers could not have asked for a finer reward for their efforts.

The conference was clearly the beneficiary of extensive and thoughtful planning, as detailed in the Editors' Preface.2 Introductory remarks by Wilfried Nippel, largely dealing with the pioneering work of the sociologist Max Weber in the early part of this century, and concluding reflections by Guido Clemente provide a frame for twenty-four papers, organized under six rubrics: CONSCIOUSNESS AND REPRESENTATION (papers by Nicole Loraux, Timothy J. Cornell, Chiara Frugoni, Alison Brown; commentary by Carmine Ampolo, Giovanni Ciappelli); CITIZENS AND POLITICAL CLASSES (David Whitehead, Diego Quaglioni, Walter Eder, David Herlihy, Riccardo Fubini; Christiane Klapisch-Zuber); POLITICS AND CONFLICT (Erich S. Gruen, John M. Najemy, Thomas J. Figueira, Giorgio Cracco; Harry W. Pleket, Ronald F. Weissman); URBAN AND ARCHITECTURAL FORMS (Tonio Hölscher, L. Richardson Jr., Franek Sznura, Juergen Schulz; Edmond Frözouls, James Ackerman); SYMBOLS AND RITUALS (Adalberto Giovannini, Keith Hopkins, Franco Cardini, Patricia Fortini Brown; Glen W. Bowersock, Marino Berengo); and TERRITORY, EXTERNAL RELATIONS AND EMPIRE (Kurt Raaflaub, Giorgio Chittolini, James S. Grubb; Hartmut Galsterer, Anthony Molho). Generally there is one paper for each of the four designated cities under each rubric, but there are many variations in the pattern.3 Some of the rubrics are adequately self-explanatory; others, clearly by intention, are rather vague, even cryptic. Giovanni Ciappelli, refers (approvingly) to the nebulous quality ("undefined" is his word) of the rubric CONSCIOUSNESS AND REPRESENTATION as "a kind of provocation."

One editorial gap in the volume calls for comment. Readers of this journal may be expected to be familiar with the American classicists represented, and they will correctly conclude from that sampling that the standards for participation in this conference were very high indeed. But there are scholars in many fields and from many countries4 represented in the volume. The editors acknowledge (p. 14) that these are scholars "who share many interests and problems but, strange as it may seem, do not spend much time talking to each other." True enough. It is hardly to be expected then that many readers of the volume will be acquainted with more than a fraction of the authors represented, eminent as all of them are in their own fields and on their own home ground. A case in point is Franek Sznura, who contributes a superb essay on "Civic Urbanism in Medieval Florence." Professor Sznura is far from unknown in this country, having enjoyed scholarly affiliations with the Newberry Library in Chicago and with Harvard and Brown Universities. Still, there will surely be many classicist readers of this volume who will be unfamiliar with him and his work. Who would guess from his name alone that he was born and educated in Florence, is now on the faculty of the university there, and has devoted a brilliant career to minute researches into the medieval institutions of that city? It would have been highly desirable to provide the reader with a modicum of identification -- at the very least, the contributors' academic affiliations and specialties. The publication, however, leaves us absolutely without a clue. 5

Given the diversity and complexity of the subject, any single reviewer of this volume must incur the charge of foolhardiness. To some degree, however, a reviewer is exempted from the necessity of attempting a critical review by the acute commentaries that appear after every group of papers. These constitute a kind of built-in review, and an excellent one. Some of the commentaries are substantial contributions in their own right. In fact the reader may find it helpful to read the commentaries before the papers. Notably Glen Bowersock, commenting on the section SYMBOLS AND RITUALS, takes issue with no less a worthy than Keith Hopkins, whose contribution is a thought-provoking and open-ended paper entitled, "From Violence to Blessing: Symbols and Rituals in Ancient Rome." 6

The volume constitutes a kind of survey of an extremely learned variety, and it would serve well as an overall introduction to the subject of the city-state for any reader, academic or other. The individual speakers were evidently charged with presenting to their colleagues in sometimes quite remote fields the fundamentals of their own specialties. There is no trace of popularizing, but the presenters often (and surely in many cases quite rightly) assume no particular expertise in their own fields on the part of their colleagues in other fields.7 Many of the papers would serve to illustrate this point; among the best examples is the one by Lawrence Richardson Jr., "Urban Development of Ancient Rome and the Impact of Empire." The paper is truly magisterial in the best sense, and without a wasted word. While it breaks no new ground, it constitutes the best, the most readable, and, for its scale, the fullest systematic introduction to its subject that I know.8

It is worth noting that while the subject of the conference was perforce a man's world, many of the papers and commentaries were delivered by women scholars, mostly European. There are only ten references to women in the index -- generally referring to halfhearted efforts to make their role in public life appear more prominent than it was -- compared to, for example, twenty-four for slaves, and ninety-six for citizens and citizenship. 9

One would hardly expect any kind of unified view to emerge from a conference like this. In fact the overall impression that is left by a reading of the papers is of stimulating and provocative loose ends, of attractive opportunities for further research in virtually every area that is touched upon. The participants themselves, while they were presented with a reasonably rigid overall formula for the conference, evidently were under no constraint to coordinate with one another, and they repeatedly comment on the preliminary nature of their findings and interpretations and on the inevitable incompleteness of the survey. The reader is left with no sense of any issues being settled definitively .

Further exploration of specific topics is promised for a follow-up conference to be held in Florence "in the near future" -- a most alluring prospect, about which no more definite word seems to be available yet. Let us hope that it will come to fruition, and that it will produce another volume as excellent as this one.


  • [1] The preferred form "city-state" (with hyphen) is used uniformly throughout the volume, except on the title page and in the cataloging information on the copyright page, which unfortunately must be taken as providing the official form.
  • [2] The excellence of the Preface is slightly marred by an etymological blooper in its first sentence, which asserts that "polis," in addition to giving us our words for "politics" and "politicians," is also the source of "polite."
  • [3] In fact, sometimes the arrangement of the papers invites us to speculate on the editors' intentions. What can be the reason for the sequence of the papers under POLITICS AND CONFLICT (Rome-Florence-Athens-Venice)? Nothing is said in the text about this chronological dislocation.
  • [4] This circumstance is reflected in the fact that there is one paper translated from French, one from German, and no fewer than ten from Italian. The translations are all remarkably smooth and readable.
  • [5] It is a pleasure to report that Julia Emlen, one of the editors, responded most cordially when approached by the reviewer to remedy this deficiency. But even she was no longer able to provide full information.
  • [6] Professor Bowersock deserves special mention also as being responsible for the only touch of levity in the entire volume.
  • [7] One of the participants may go a little far, however, when he thanks one of his colleagues for his remarks on his paper by saying (p. 289): "The usefulness of comments entirely innocent of any real knowledge of classical history cannot be underestimated (sic), as they are particularly helpful in eliciting the preconceptions with which the work of a historian is approached."
  • [8] One stricture: the article would have been much enhanced by the addition of a map. The other three articles in this section are so provided; the one on Athens by Tonio Hölscher has two of the well-known elegant maps by John Travlos.
  • [9] It should be noted, however, that one of the most interesting and substantial references to women is missing from the index altogether (commentary by Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, p. 243).