Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.10.17

Hans-Ulrich Wiemer, Krieg, Handel und Piraterie: Untersuchungen zur Geschichte des hellenistischen Rhodos. Klio. Beiträge zur Alten Geschichte, Beihefte, Neue Folge Band 6.   Berlin:  Akademie Verlag, 2002.  Pp. 416.  ISBN 3-05-003751-2.  EUR 69.80.  



Reviewed by Alfonso Moreno, Magdalen College, Oxford (alfonso.moreno@classics.ox.ac.uk)
Word count: 1219 words

Wiemer's book on war, trade, and piracy in the history of Hellenistic Rhodes is a revised version of his Habilitationsschrift of 2000 for the Philipps-Universität Marburg. It comes in the wake of important recent work on Mediterranean piracy (P. de Souza, Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World, Cambridge 1999; and, brilliantly, P. Horden and N. Purcell, The Corrupting Sea, Oxford 2000), and Rhodian economy and society (V. Gabrielsen, The Naval Aristocracy of Hellenistic Rhodes, Aarhus 1997), to mention only monographs. However, anyone expecting from the title, publisher or appearance of this book to find a substantial addition to our knowledge of its subject, or (at least) a constructive dialogue with its predecessors, will be disappointed. This is, instead, a narrow and tedious re-narration of Rhodian political history from 408 to 164 B.C., in eleven chapters: Introduction; Examination of the Literary Sources; From the Synoikismos to the Repulse of Demetrios Poliorketes; Rhodes and the Ptolemies in the Third Century; Rhodes and Piracy; the First Cretan War; the War Against Philip V; the Rhodian Hegemony; the War Against Perseus and the End of Independence; the Second Cretan War; Conclusion.

The Introduction (which, like chapters 2, 4 and 11, feels like -- and actually is: see p. 12 -- a mere appendage to the original Habilitationsschrift) spells out the purpose and central argument of the book: W. will attempt to demolish what he identifies as the prevailing consensus of "modern scholarship" on the history of Hellenistic Rhodes. (Here and throughout the book -- including its back cover -- the use of the monolithic term "die moderne Forschung" completely obscures the speed and considerable debate with which the field of ancient economic history, especially on the Hellenistic period, has developed since Rostovtzeff). Current consensus, W. claims, views Rhodes as a peaceful trading state ("friedlicher Handelsstaat") that saw a balance between the great powers of the Mediterranean ("das Gleichgewicht der Mächte") as its principal goal in foreign affairs. Instead, W. proposes that Hellenistic Rhodes was often ruthlessly opportunistic in her foreign policy; placed no intrinsic or particular value on trade or neutrality; and was hostile to piracy only for the sake of propaganda, while being happy to practice it against her own enemies (or in order to increase her own resources). The presence on Rhodes of a lucrative trade in slaves, supplied largely by war and piracy in which Rhodes itself participated (see pp. 160, 358), is one example of what W. presents as a major finding of his work.

The main problem with this is that the idea of a selflessly pacifist Rhodes is an absurdity believed by no one; to pass it off as the consensus of modern scholarship is sheer travesty, if not worse. I give the most prominent example: W. (p. 7) critically quotes R. Berthold (Rhodes in the Hellenistic Age, London 1984) as the most recent author of a comprehensive history of Rhodes to propose that "'the basis strategic objectives of the island in the eastern Mediterranean [were] the suppression of piracy, the promotion of peace, and the preservation of a balance of power among the great monarchies.'". Incredibly, W. omits Berthold's crucial qualification of this statement, found just further on the same page: "the goal was to maintain, so far as possible, friendly and thus profitable relations with all its neighbors and in the event of a conflict to apply itself according to its own interests" (Berthold, p. 58, my emphasis). This seems no innocent omission, as Berthold further states: "The maintenance of a balance of power was not an end in itself, but only the means to the island's ultimate goals: the protection and development of its commerce and its influence in foreign affairs" (Berthold, p. 123; see also p. 144). Similarly, W. has selectively ignored that Rhodes as Realpolitiker shows up frequently in cited works, e.g., in Gabrielsen (supra, pp. 48-50) and S. Ager ("Rhodes: the Rise and Fall of a Neutral Diplomat," Historia 40, 1991, pp. 13-8); or that Rhodes as the ambivalent scourge/abettor of pirates in trade and war already features, e.g., in Gabrielsen (id., pp. 90-1, 108-11) and de Souza (supra, pp. 86-92). The state of modern scholarship on W.'s subject (if such a generalization were possible) appears in an excellent article that W. might have consulted: V. Gabrielsen, "Economic Activity, Maritime Trade and Piracy in the Hellenistic Aegean," REA 103.1-2 (2001), pp. 219-40: "the merchant, the pirate and the naval prostates were tangled into an intricate relationship of mutual dependence." A succinct summary of the war-trade-piracy nexus in wider Mediterranean history, entirely ignored by W., appears in Horden and Purcell, supra, p. 58: "Piracy is the continuation of cabotage by other means."

I address some further, specific points. W.'s minimalizing of the role of trade in Rhodian politics (pp. 20-33) is not only unconvincing but also refuses to grapple with the important work of Gabrielsen. To state simply that Rhodian politics was concerned with "andere Faktoren" besides trade is much too vague and (again) misleadingly suggests that modern scholarship considers the opposite as true (see p. 32). Furthermore, W.'s attempt to dissociate Rhodian politics from trade (sidestepping discussion of Strabo 14.2.5, an interesting and important passage on the nature of Rhodian democracy), which is essentially inspired by Hasebroek, is methodologically outdated and excessively positivist in its interpretation of newer evidence: (see, e.g., pp. 30-1: "mehr als die Hälfte der für die Amphorenproduktion verantwortlichen Personen Fremde waren, die in der rhodischen Volksversammlung keine Stimme hatten.").

Similarly unsatisfactory is W.'s dismissal of balance of power as a relevant factor in Hellenistic politics (pp. 33-6, 353-6). To justify this by pointing to the concept's absence from ancient sources, expressed in modern doctrinal terms, is far too narrow and positivist. Polybius (at 1.83.3-4) came closest to formulating an idea of balance of power, W. grants, because his generation witnessed its destruction by Rome (p. 34). But this unconvincing argument completely disregards the fact that David Hume (and many other great intellects since him) considered the idea of balance of power as central to Greek political thought long before Polybius, for example in Thucydides (see Hume, Of the Balance of Power). E. Badian, for example, comes under fire from W. for writing about the Hellenistic world in these terms (p. 35, n. 15) -- but note that W.'s bibliography (p. 365) does not even give the correct title of Badian's book!

The agenda set out in W.'s Introduction vitiates the rest of his book, a long and disappointing histoire événementielle of Hellenistic Rhodes that cannot be recommended. The central insights of this book have no originality whatsoever, and their roots go much further back than W. believes. The dissociation of war, trade and piracy, he claims, had historical currency "bis weit ins 20. Jahrhundert " (p. 111); but W. of course overlooks five lines uttered by Goethe's Mephistopheles, anticipating this book and its title by almost two centuries: "Man hat Gewalt, so hat man Recht./ Man fragt ums Was? und nicht ums Wie?/ Ich müsste keine Schifffahrt kennen./ Krieg, Handel und Piraterie,/ Dreieinig sind sie, nicht zu trennen." (Since might is yours, you'll have the right./ You ask not How but What is done./ If I know aught of life at sea,/ War, trade, and piracy are one,/ An indivisible trinity.) (Faust II, Act 5, ll. 11184-8, [Penguin trans.]).

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