Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.06.14

Susan E. Alcock, Graecia Capta: The Landscapes of Roman Greece. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Pp. xxi + 307. $69.95. £40.00. ISBN 0-521-40109-7.

Reviewed by Antony G. Keen, University of Manchester.

Until recently, scholarship tended to view post-Classical Greece as not really worthy of study. Hellenistic and especially Roman Greece were shabby periods lit only by the dying embers of the Classical flame (a preconception exemplified in such classics as Grote, Busolt, Bury etc.). Graecia Capta, which has distant origins in a doctoral thesis (obvious from the abstract of chapters at pp. 7-8), very early expounds A.'s belief that this says more about scholars' prejudices than about the realities of Roman Greece and that Greece and its people are worth studying in the early Roman empire (by which A. means from Rome's expansion after the Hannibalic War to the reign of Severus). She is against the view that "the study of social change in the East is unnecessary because there was no substantial change."1

A. argues her position thoroughly and convincingly (though her case against warfare as a significant determinant in any depopulation [pp. 90-91] would be strengthened by observing that warfare was endemic in Greece long before the Roman period without the drastic effects claimed by some for the last three centuries BC). If there is a problem with the central thesis, it is that A. has confined herself to the single Roman province of Achaea. The Roman provincial boundaries were to a degree artificial; Classical Greece properly included the Aegean islands and the Asia Minor coast. These areas have been largely relegated to comparative notes and do not really start to impinge upon the text until the last chapter, which is a pity.2

In one respect this is a very difficult book to review adequately, because of the sheer breadth of A.'s scholarship. Glancing only at the first page of her bibliography (p. 262), the reader finds not only works on Roman and Greek archaeology but also on theories of the economic growth of towns and Hispanic empires in the Americas; the rest of the bibliography is full of similar pieces upon which A. has drawn for comparative material (on which she has always been strong3) or theoretical background. Moreover, judging from remarks in her notes A. has carefully read and absorbed almost every piece mentioned in thirty-four pages of bibliography (pp. 262-296). This humble reviewer can only be impressed.

In another respect, however, the book is very easy to review, for it is written in a laudably clear style. The subtitle automatically leads the reader to expect pages of modern archaeological theory, and they are there; but the theory does not dominate the text. The work is very much evidence-led (as it should be) and A. is at pains to explain theoretical matters carefully. This is a book written by an archaeologist who is up-to-date with modern theory, but for those who may not be as au fait.

Methodologically the work is a tour de force. A. is extremely cautious when dealing with the literary sources for the supposed decline in the Greek countryside (especially Strabo, for whom A. hardly seems to have a good word; note for instance p. 244, n. 4); these writers all had their own agendas, and as A. points out on Table I (p. 25) the sources that survive range from the second century BC to the second AD. A. rightly wishes to confirm or deny the literary picture with archaeological evidence (ultimately her conclusion is that there is a depopulation of the countryside and some cities, but that it is not as great as previously believed). She is equally cautious about this type of evidence, dividing all the survey data she uses into three categories, "A", "B" and "C", depending on the reliability of the data collection. It is a great strength of the work that, either through personal participation or through the generosity of others, A. has been able to draw on up-to-date field survey results, much of it unpublished.

Sometimes her caution slips, however, which would not matter had she not been so careful elsewhere. As it is, the reader whom she has educated to question every piece of evidence would like to know a little more about how the numbers in the histograms of sites weighted by the length of each chronological period on fig. 11 (p. 41) were arrived at and what the figures actually mean, and would like the grounds on which villas near Marathon and in Argive Thyreatis are identified as belonging to Herodes Atticus. The notes are not always as helpful as they might be in these matters as she has tended to amalgamate, so that one note will deal with a number of matters that have been covered in the preceding paragraph. This of course cuts down the number of foot notes, but it does not necessarily make for easy use.4

The book is generally well and appropriately illustrated, though fig. 45 (p. 130), a city distribution map of the Roman empire does not particularly illuminate either of the points in the text at which it is cited, and the decision to illustrate an ash altar on Mt. Apesas with a nineteenth-century drawing of the sanctuary of Zeus at Nemea in which Mt. Apesas appears in the background (p. 209, fig. 79) seems distinctly odd. Photographs come out best, being remarkably clear considering that they are printed on the text pages and not as plates. A number of institutions, particularly the Museum of Classical Archaeology of the University of Cambridge and the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, have been generous with the supply of photographic material. The book benefits, and the initially off-putting (though not unusual) price seems far more reasonable in this light.

Maps also abound, most of them very useful, but there are one or two annoyances here. It is understandable that the map of sites in Achaea should give up the place of fig. 1 to a map of Achaea's place within the empire, but less so that both these maps are buried in the first chapter (at pp. 12 and 4 respectively) rather than being at the beginning of the work. It also seems unnecessary to have a numeric and an alphabetic key to fig. 2 (taking up more than two pages), especially as in the index each site has its map number added. The worst map, however, is fig. 36, an empire-wide map of marble sources confined to less than half a page. Of the twenty-three sources, fifteen are concentrated in the Aegean area, with the result that this section of the map is buried in symbols and numbers and difficult to interpret; the Aegean should have had its own inset.

Typographical errors are few (though a couple of references to Pausanias seem to be a section out) but there are a few further niggling annoyances (some so minor as to be not worth mentioning). A.'s reliance on Loeb translations inevitably leads to a number of potential pitfalls due to their nature. Compare with the Greek the translation of Dio 54.7.2-3 quoted at p. 214 or Plutarch, Sulla 26.3 or especially Moralia 667C-D quoted at p. 225 for how Loeb translations can distort the meanings of the original. The orthography of nomenclature in the work is idiosyncratic. In her Loeb quotes A. has "taken the liberty of transliterating Greek names ... to be consistent with my text as a whole", but in that text she varies without any seeming pattern between direct transliteration from Greek and Latinization (even to the degree of having the non-word "Lykurgan" at one point [p. 163]). It is all very well distinguishing between "Achaia" the Roman province and "Achaea" the area of the northern Peloponnese (though A. [p. 233, n. 17] speaks as if this is an actual distinction rather than a convenience she has devised), but am I the only one to find it odd to have "Euboea" and "Phokis" in the same sentence, or "Leukas" and "Phlius" in the same key? Better, as Cartledge and Spawforth do,5 to Latinize throughout.

Perhaps more important are a few infelicities of emphasis. When A. speaks of the major change caused in Greece by being unified under Rome (pp. 16, 129) one would like to know more about how this substantially differed from this situation Greek poleis and leagues faced in their relations with Hellenistic monarchs. In what manner, for instance, was the unity imposed on the Greeks as part of a Roman province different from that imposed by Philip of Macedon? Other phenomena, such as cosmopolitan elite net works, were hardly the novelty of the Roman period that A. seems to imply (pp. 88, 155).6 This is a topic A. begins to tackle late in the work (pp. 218-220), but not really in enough detail. I would also have liked to have seen more discussion of how violent disputes over territory between individual Greek cities under the empire (discussed on pp. 152-153) actually were, or at least a statement of why further investigation is not possible, and also a clearer signal of the difference in nature between the various leagues that existed under Roman rule (i.e., between the Amphictyonic League and the Boeotian League); A. (pp. 153, 165) treats one league as much like another. I also find it curious that she should chose to illustrate the process of synoecism with a Classical example, that of Megalopolis (p. 154).

All these, however, are minor quibbles, and should not be allowed to detract from the overall achievement of the work. The publisher's blurb concludes with the following sentence: "Both ancient historians and classical archaeologists will find this book of value to them." I can only concur; anyone with a serious interest in the archaeology of Greece or the Roman empire should own a copy of this volume. For one thing, the section entitled "A little history of Roman Greece" is as good a starting point for teaching the period as any I have seen, despite occasional infelicities that creep in due to compression (is it really true to say, as A. does [p. 16], that Achaea and Macedonia were joined to Moesia in AD 15, or simply that for a period the same legate held all three commands?). Even those scholars whose specialisms lie outside Roman Greece will find much of interest and use in the book. My final comment is a request to Cambridge University Press; give very serious thought to a speedy paperback issue of this work.7


  • [1] T. Gregory, "Cities and social evolution in Roman and Byzantine south-east Europe", in J.L. Bintliff (ed.), European Social Evolution (Bradford, 1984), p. 268, quoted by A., p. 2 (though she makes the source of the quote a little unclear). Gregory, like A., is arguing against such a view.
  • [2] Though it has to be admitted that survey data for Asia Minor comparable to that A. uses as the backbone of her study of Greece does not yet exist in sufficient amounts to allow a full comparison. Magna Gracia is, of course, quite a different matter again, and its omission is fully understandable.
  • [3] E.g., "Archaeology and imperialism", JMA 2 (1989), pp. 87-135.
  • [4] And a reference to "Spawforth, pers. comm." (p. 234, n. 26) omits to mention exactly what the comment was!
  • [5] P. Cartledge & A. Spawforth, Hellenistic and Roman Sparta (London, 1989) p. ix.
  • [6] Nor would the Roman road network in north-western Greece (p. 121) be entirely without relation to earlier routes (though in fairness this implication may be the product of compression).
  • [7] I am grateful to Frau B. Hoffman, Mr G. Smith and Dr S.J. Hodkinson for their comments.