Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.03.12

Kathryn Lomas, Rome and the Western Greeks, 350 BC - AD 200: Conquest and Acculturation in Southern Italy. London: Routledge, 1993. Pp. xiii + 244. ISBN 0-415-05022-7.

Reviewed by William M. Owens, Ohio University (

Kathryn Lomas's Rome and the Western Greeks aims to tell the story of Magna Graecia from the point of view of the region itself, rather than the point of view of Rome. In other words, the author has attempted to write a history in non-Roman terms that is both skeptical of the ancient Romanocentric sources and places Rome, not Magna Graecia, at the margin of the story. L.'s emphasis on regionalism and local conditions reflects the influence of our own recent experience, in which the force driving events is no longer the center-stage competition between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. but localized passions and rivalries being played out in dozens of smaller arenas. Similarly in Magna Graecia, L. argues, local factors may often have been more important than the influence of Rome in shaping events.

L. carries her emphasis on regionalism to the point where she is often hesitant to generalize about Magna Graecia as a whole, preferring to distinguish between larger sub-regions, such as Campania and the South, or among the individual poleis. Thus, L.'s approach gives the reader some notion of the diverse economic, political, and cultural character of the region -- perhaps at the cost of imparting a sense of Magna Graecia as a whole. L. focuses our attention on individual tesserae rather than the whole mosaic. This may be appropriate; despite the existence of a common Italiote League, L. argues that there is little reliable evidence indicating what sense the inhabitants of Magna Graecia themselves had of a communal regional identity. The term Magna Graecia itself was elastic in meaning. At one time embracing the whole of the Greek world, Magna Graecia, or Megale Hellas, progressively shrank until in the Roman period it came to indicate the Greek inhabited areas of Italy from Cumae to Tarentum, the sense of the term that L. makes the object of her study. L. notes that this construction of Magna Graecia as a region may have been conditioned more by Roman perceptions than regional self-assertion. This complicates the premise of the book, for it is no mean task to describe Magna Graecia from the point of view of the region, that is from a non-Romanocentric point of view, if Magna Graecia itself existed largely as a matter of Roman perception. On occasion L. herself adopts a Romanocentric point of view where an alternative is possible. For example, she argues that eastern mystery cults do not appear to have had much of an impact on Magna Graecia because of greater Roman circumspection after the Bacchanal scandal -- and not because of religious sensibilities peculiar to the region itself.

L. invites us to consider her book more as an "histoire des mentalites," focusing on cultural, political, and socio-economic structures, than an "histoire des evenements," a narrative of events. In fact, L. has written both kinds of history. After the Introduction, the first five chapters provide the historical narrative, reviewing the history of the region from the period of earliest colonization to Augustus. In this section L. attempts to read through the pro-Roman biases and topoi that affected the mainly historical sources. The final five chapters focus on a number of discrete cultural, economic, political and social topics. Here, L. is able more successfully to counteract the Romanocentric nature of the sources with evidence made available by archaeologists, epigraphers, numismatists, and linguists. Her insights and observations here regarding the nature of the endurance of Greek cultural institutions offer the reader a rich appreciation of interplay of cultures in southern Italy.

The main sources of L.'s narrative account are familiar enough -- the texts of writers such as Livy, Polybius, and Appian. What is new is L.'s non-Romanocentric point of view. While I am not a specialist in any of these authors, L. appears to offer a plausible reexamination of these texts in the context of local conditions in Magna Graecia. L.'s revisionism is particularly apparent in her reading of Roman-Tarentine relations during the period of Roman conquest. In a Romanocentric view, Rome was confronted by unremitting hostility from Tarentum.1 In contrast, L. argues that Rome was not a significant factor in determining Tarentine policy until after 320, with the opening of a second front against the Samnites in Apulia, when Roman consolidation of the South made the challenge to the Tarentines clear. Lomas explains these events in their immediate context rather than as part of a wider pattern, depicting Tarentine policy as a series of discrete Realpolitik confrontations with Rome rather than a consistent anti-Roman policy. Thus, in 326 when the Tarentines used a ruse to break up a developing Roman-Lucanian alliance, Lomas sees a natural Tarentine desire to maintain influence in the area rather than a grand anti-Roman strategy. And in 320, when the Romans faced the Samnites near Luceria in Apulia, the Tarentines did not join the Samnites against the Romans. Instead, they offered to act as honest brokers between the two disputants.

L. argues in general that local events and concerns were often more important in determining the policy of the Italiote cities than any premonition of Rome's destiny. Typically the Italiote cities were buffeted by internal stasis and pressure from neighboring Italians. In the case of Tarentum the picture that L. develops is less a consistent and well defined confrontation between two powerful states than a confused series of localized quarrels characterized by local passions and issues, a Bosnia rather than a Cold War era confrontation.

Especially interesting is L.'s suggestion that even in the epochal struggle between Rome and Carthage local concerns continued to play a role in shaping events. Italians seemed more ready than the Greeks to defect from Rome; the Greek cities of the South were more likely to break with Rome than those in Campania. L. suggests that reasons for this may have been the greater political stability of Campania and its longer association with Rome, where, for example, the loyalty of Cumae might be explained by its peculiar position on the fringes of both the Italiote and the Italian spheres. Even the defection of Tarentum was not necessarily motivated by inveterate hostility to Rome, though in this case L. may be pressing her point, given Rome's garrisoning of Tarentum and Thurii in 218 right after the outbreak of hostilities. Elsewhere the pressure to break with Rome could come from internal stasis or local Italian pressure rather than Carthage. Lomas notes that after Croton broke with Rome, the exiled, pro-Roman Crotoniates went to Locri, allied with Carthage, rather than a city still in the Roman sphere.

L. completes her historical survey with an examination of a number of topics related to Rome's settlement of the region after the Hannibalic War down to the end of Augustus' reign, a period ordinarily associated with the region's decline. L. rejects this picture, and follows Brunt in the view that the economic devastation of the Hannibalic War was temporary.2 Again, L. is inclined to see events in their local context. The foundation of numerous Roman colonies, which in the conventional view hastened the decline of the Italiote cities, in L.'s view had varying effects, revealed in part by archaeology. For example, Paestum went into decline after it was bypassed by the Via Annia Popillia; other cities continued to thrive, particularly in Campania. The appearance of Italiotes on inscriptions in the eastern Mediterranean has been interpreted as evidence for decline and emigration;3 L. suggests that such inscriptions may in fact indicate prosperity and trade. Nor, according to L, was the lack of Italiote participation in the Social War evidence of the region's decline; L. suggests that continuing Italiote hostility to the Oscans and their Greek disinterest in Roman notions of extended citizenship may have weighed against joining the revolt.

In the second half of the book L. continues her case against the view of the region's decline, challenging it in ad hoc fashion as the relevant evidence is brought into her discussion. L. reminds us not to generalize about the region. Indeed, microeconomic data supplied by archaeology suggest that the fortunes of individual cities varied: some, like Tarentum, declined while others continued to prosper, like Naples. However, sometimes L. presses her revisionism too far, especially in cases where the evidence is thin enough to admit explanations contrary to hers and perhaps as plausible. For example, in the 170s craftsmen could not be found who were able to replace the roof tiles looted by Fulvius Flaccus from the Crotonian shrine of Hera Lacinia. Was this an index of poverty or decline? L. says no, suggesting instead that the incident reveals that the sanctuary was still wealthy enough to be plundered. But Fulvius' theft of the roof tiles may also suggest that everything else worth taking was gone. L. may also be stretching a point in her discussion of J. R. Patterson's analysis of the incidence of municipal building as an indication of the prosperity and influence of the elite of Samnium.4 The elite of Magna Graecia does not fare as well by this criterion. An index of poverty or decline? L. says no, suggesting that because Magna Graecia had already been urbanized, it did not need new municipal building on the same scale as Samnium. The weakness of this argument is its assumption that public euergetism was motivated more by municipal need than the aristocratic desire for self-promotion. Another example of special pleading may be in L.'s contention that few gentes from the region achieved senatorial status not because of economic decline, but because of "the gradual process of marginalisation of the whole of southern Italy as the centres of economic and political power shifted northwards." (p. 160) It is difficult to see how this 'economic and political marginalization' of the region differs from the notion that much of Magna Graecia may have, indeed, been rather poor.

In the end, I was more impressed by the arguments in favor of the notion that the period after the Roman conquest was one of at least relative decline. Nonetheless, L. has done a service by reopening the debate and bringing archaeological data into the discussion which complicates the picture of decline and suggests that prosperity and decline could have prevailed in different parts of Magna Graecia.

L. has made a valuable contribution in the second half of the book to our understanding of what it meant to be an Italiote Greek. She approaches this question from a number of perspectives: the nature and significance of the contacts between the Italiotes and the rest of the Greek world; the role of cult and religion; the nature of political life and civic administration in the Italiote cities; the question of acculturation and civic identity. There is more inscriptional and archaeological evidence available for the questions addressed in these chapters; therefore, L. is able to come nearer to her goal of a non-Romanocentric history because this evidence is largely provided by the inhabitants of Magna Graecia themselves. L. shows that some cities in the region continued to manifest aspects of their Greek origins as late as the second century AD. This latter period of hellenism reveals a pattern of accommodation and adaptation to the political and cultural impact of Rome.

Of course, the hellenism of Magna Graecia was originally the natural expression of the culture of the Greek colonists and their descendants. L. notes that in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, the region made important contributions to Greek intellectual and cultural life. There was a strong tradition of contacts between the western colonies and the Greeks of the eastern Mediterranean. In particular, L. notes that Italiote victors in pan-Hellenic festivals and Italiote dedications at major sanctuaries such as Delphi by inhabitants of the region are indices of Magna Graecia's early importance and prosperity.

L. documents a number of these manifestations of Greek identity that continued after Roman conquest. Naples and Velia are among the respondents to a Coan inscription from 242 recording embassies from the Asklepeion to seek the right of asylia. A Velian inscription recording the presence of an Aeginetan priest as curator sacrorum at the sanctuary of Athena shows that some contacts with the eastern Greek world continued into the first century AD. Most evidence for contacts between the Greeks of Italy and the rest of the Greek world after 270 concern individuals rather than states. Characteristically, L. refuses to see in this a symptom of the region's decline, noting that for the Greek world in general at this time there is increased evidence for the relationship between states and individuals, as recorded in proxeny decrees. L. notes epigraphic evidence that Italiote Greeks were active in the eastern Mediterranean as traders, professional athletes, musicians, and mercenaries. Inscriptions from this period also indicate that a small number of Italiotes registered their sons in the ephebe lists of Greek cities in the eastern Mediterranean. Participation in the ephebia of Athens and other Greek cities suggests that a sense of Greek cultural identity was still alive in the second century BC; it may also indicate, I suggest, that the observance of traditions such as the ephebia had become weaker in Magna Graecia itself.

The most interesting part of L.'s book is her depiction of the survival of hellenism in Magna Graecia, particularly in the Bay of Naples region, under the aegis of the Roman elite.5 One aspect of this patronage involved the sponsorship of Greek games, such as the Sebasta at Naples, in whose success Nero was instrumental. In the second century Greek culture and institutions received a further boost from Hadrian, whose Panhellenion provided a focus for all cities of proven Greek origin. L. argues that under Roman patronage the region came to play a unique and pivotal cultural role in Roman hellenism and she considers the impact this had on the inhabitants of the region.

Epigraphy indicates that three Italiote cities, Naples, Velia, and Rhegium, preserved use of the Greek language and Greek institutions well into the second century AD. Inscriptions tend to illuminate select aspects of the life of an ancient city, in particular its religious, administrative, and civic institutions. It is difficult to assess the nature of personal cultural assimilation through the lens of public inscriptions; other data for private acculturation, such as ethnic identification or private language use, are sparse. It is fascinating to speculate on, but probably impossible to determine, in what aspects of their lives the elites of the region considered themselves Romans or Greeks. At Velia, for example, while Greek was actively promoted and continued to be used in honorific decrees, personal funerary dedications tended to be in Latin. It is tempting to conclude from this that the Velian elite considered themselves Roman in the context of private life; however, even such personal funerary dedications were public statements, so we cannot know for sure. And it is even more difficult to assess the nature of acculturation for those outside the elite. L.'s approach is conservative and avoids speculation about the nature of private acculturation, tempting as this may be. Even without such speculation she provides a fascinating picture of the artificial hellenism that survived in these cities through the first two centuries AD.

Strabo observed (5.4.7) that Naples retained Greek language and social practices after 90 BC. This is confirmed by Neapolitan inscriptions revealing a wide variety of Greek magistracies and institutions, apparently honorific in character. Similarly at Velia Greek was actively promoted and continued to be used for ceremonial purposes; at Rhegium the formula ek tou idiou in association with the magistracy of prytanis indicates that the original office had become a liturgy, most often filled by families of Roman extraction, a pattern which is observed throughout the South.

L. considers this data in a cultural context and sees a complex picture of cultural accommodation and assimilation. In general, Greek magistracies were retained, and the Greek language continued to be used, for purposes of elite euergetism and public display, in particular, the celebration of Greek festivals and the granting of public honors. Another significant aspect of the Greek revival was its archaism; for instance, Neapolitan phratries, originally kinship groups of archaic origin, were revived as elite clubs that served as a focus for social relations for the Neapolitan elite and included prominent Romans among their members. Thus, the survival of hellenism in these cities shares the characteristics of euergetism and archaism notable in the hellenic revival in the Greek East. L. offers a compelling illustration of the process of acculturation with an AD 71 decree honoring Tettia Casta, a priestess, probably of Demeter at Naples, and possibly the wife of Domitius Lepidus. L.'s discussion reveals the complex intertwining of Greek and Roman cultures; the Greek language, form, and content of this dedication and the Roman names of the principals -- the honorand, Tettia Casta, Domitius Lepidus, and the archon and antarchon, Julius Laevinus and Tranquillus Rufus -- suggest a complex cultural product of a romanized but self-consciously hellenizing elite. L.'s judgment that the Roman revival of hellenism in Magna Graecia was an artificial cultural phenomenon reflecting Roman notions about Greek culture rather than the genuine survival of that culture in Italy itself should not be surprising -- after all, the Romans had been accommodating Greek culture to their needs for almost four centuries.

This is a useful book in which is assembled an impressive range of data, evidence, and secondary scholarship. L.'s narrative account offers a plausible and interesting rereading of the region's history from a non-Romanocentric point of view. Her depiction of social and cultural life in the region contributes to our understanding of Roman hellenism and the impact Rome made on the social and cultural institutions of the Greek cities of Italy. While L. herself conservatively avoids speculation, the evidence she has carefully assembled allows us better to imagine what role the notions of "Greek" and "Roman" came to mean in the lives of the inhabitants of Magna Graecia.


  • [1] Cf. M.W. Frederiksen, Campania, ed. N. Purcell (London, 1984).
  • [2] P.A. Brunt, Italian Manpower (Oxford, 1971).
  • [3] Cf. L. Moretti, "Problemi di storia tarantina," Taranto nella civiltà della Magna Grecia. Atti di 10o Convegno di studi sulla Magna Grecia (Naples, 1971).
  • [4] J.R. Patterson, "Settlement, City and Elite in Samnium and Lycia," in J. Rich and A.F. Wallace-Hadrill (edd.), City and Country in the Ancient World (London, 1990).
  • [5] Cf. John D'Arms, Romans and the Bay of Naples (Cambridge, Mass., 1970).