Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.01.24

Luisa Moscati Castelnuovo (ed.), Identità e Prassi Storica nel Mediterraneo Greco.   Milano:  Edizioni ET, 2002.  Pp. 216.  ISBN 88-86752-20-2.  EUR 36.00.  

Contributors: Anna Simonetti Agostinetti, Francesca Berlinzani, Eugenio Bonacci, Luisa Moscati Castelnuovo, Federica Cordano, Mario Denti, Stefania Fuscagni, Pier Giovanni Guzzo, Carlo Marcaccini, Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood, Gabriella Vanotti

Reviewed by David G. Smith, University of Tennessee (
Word count: 3255 words

This volume contains eleven essays that investigate the identities of various poleis and Greek and non-Greek ethne in the Greek Mediterranean in the first millenium BCE: Reggium and Locri, Siris and Metapontum, Metapontum and the Lucanians, Dyme, the Elymians, the Illyrians, the Sicels, the Brettians, the Macedonians, and Alexander's colonial settlements. As the editor states in the introduction (19), this book does not enter the theoretical debate on the nature and types of identity in the Greek world but rather observes its concrete manifestations in "historical practice," adducing as evidence those elements which, from time to time, have been used to articulate group identities or have been perceived from outside to have been connotative of group identity. This is an accurate, if general, characterization of the commonality of the various topics and approaches taken by the contributors. Indeed, the volume's great strength is its diversity of methodological approaches -- covering literary and archaeological evidence, numismatics, epigraphy, and art history -- which demonstrate clearly that identity can be found in everything from musical legends to artistic motifs to letter forms. Beyond this, however, it is not possible to assess whether or not the volume as a whole is "successful," since no overarching purpose or goal is anywhere stated as the volume's raison d'être.1 Therefore, it remains simply to evaluate each of the essays in turn, and then to offer a short statement (in lieu of the volume's absent conclusion) on what impact I believe this collection of essays may have.

A short introduction by the editor, "Quale identità?" states the assumptions, presumably shared by the other contributors, made here about the often vague concept of "identity." Their conception of identity is interdisciplinary in origin, being a result of tension between unification and diversity in response to globalization (and, presumably, such analogous processes as Hellenization). Specifically, however, she sees an anthropological approach that emphasizes the formation of identity at marginal locations and on frontiers as most useful for investigating identities in the ancient world. Thus, the focus of the volume is narrowed specifically to polis and ethnic identities as opposed to other possible rubrics of identity articulation, such as gender. Such identities are reaffirmed, in line with the current interdisciplinary consensus, as being discursive rather than objective, fluid rather than fixed; thus, "their deconstruction and reconstruction are more important than their affirmation and postulation" (16). These excellent precepts encourage us to dive directly into the case studies, where good progress can be made in the study of group identities without too much wheel-spinning on abstract theoretical apparatus.

The key element that distinguishes good from bad in these studies of identity and historical practice will be seen to be the extent to which each essay genuinely distances itself from positivistic and falsely essentialist group definitions and embraces group identities as rhetorically charged, historically contextualized subjective constructions. The subsequent essays embody these principles to varying degrees. The first three deal with polis identities, the next four with the identity of non-Greek ethne, the next two with Greek ethne, and the last with the question of Hellenization.

In "Leggende musicali e dinamiche territoriali: Reggio e Locri nel VI secolo," Francesca Berlinzani inquires into the extramusical themes in and motives for the legend of the musical agon between Ariston of Rhegium and Eunomus of Locri. A short summary of the legend before discussion of its significance would have helped those unfamiliar with the story, but the outline can be gathered from the later discussion and the notes: Eunomus tries to exclude Ariston from a musical contest at Delphi based on the fact that the cicadas on the Rhegian side of the Halex river do not sing, but those on the Locrian side do. Ariston's counter-argument is that his countrymen are descended from Delphi. B. concludes that Eunomus is referring to Stesichorus and therefore that the context of the legend is a sixth-century border dispute involving the river in question. Provided that the stemmatic relationship hypothesized by the author between the references to the legend is not otherwise, the conclusion she draws -- that there were times when the representation of political communities could be based around musical identities (30) -- is certainly true in this case, and in any event the agonistic quality of Greek musical and poetic performances should encourage us to see in these stories analogies to the processes of community self-definition against neighbors and rivals.

Mario Denti's contribution, "Linguaggio figurativo e identità culturale nelle più antiche communità Greche della Siritide e del Metapontino," posits that the figurative style of a region's artists can act as a vehicle for the expression of a community's political identity (37). D. specifically looks at Siris-Poleion and Incoronata, early (seventh to sixth century) settlements superseded by those at Siris and Metapontum, asking questions of the iconographic repertoire which he believes original users of these vessels would also have asked: What regional traditions do their decorations reflect, and therefore what regional identity are their producers and users trying to project? After positing that the character of colonial ceramic styles is often "eclectic" and that the mixing and blending of motifs is common (38), a detailed art-historical analysis of motifs recurring on vessels from this region leads D. to suggest that the stylistic physiognomy of these vessels most closely reflects an Ionian interpretive mode originating in the region of the eastern Aegean and microasiatic islands. Although some may continue to doubt that an individual artist's choice of style must necessarily reflect the political identity of his entire community, the minutiae of D.'s comparisons seem convincing (yet here specialists must be the judges). Less so is their significance. What percentage of the ceramic iconography of this region do the fragments under discussion (and well-represented by nine pages of photographs) represent? Quantification seems desirable, if the significance of D.'s comparisons is proportional to the number of artists and vessels represented by the iconographically significant sherds recovered.

The last contribution in the polis section of the volume is Eugenio Bonacci's unfocused "La difesa di una polis: Metaponto e i Lucani tra V e IV secolo a.C." Starting with the observation that the Italiote cities generally tried to avoid involvement in the events of the Sicilian expedition (64), B. affirms that this must have been due to the fact that the Greeks in Italy, in particular the Metapontines, were busy dealing with the recent threatening expansion and organization of the Lucanians on their inland borders. Since early literary evidence for this interaction is non-existent, B. turns to numismatic and archaeological evidence, which he interprets as identity-generating responses to Lucanian aggression and, later, Tarentine expansionism. Complicating this picture, there is both considerable disagreement as to the significance of Metapontum's attitudes towards Taras in this context and some good evidence for peaceful interaction with the Lucanians (such as the integration of Lucanian mercenaries into the Greek communities in the fourth century). But the essay breaks off rather abruptly, confirming a suspicion that B.'s analysis has been difficult and poorly structured throughout. While there is certainly a wealth of good information in this long essay, one may doubt that its expansiveness constitutes a focused contribution to the question of identity and historical practice.

The discussion of non-Greek ethne begins with Gabriella Vanotti's "L'identità etnica degli Elimi e le ragioni della politica." V. closely compares accounts by Thucydides and Hellanicus in order to argue that the ethnic significance of the Elymians at the end of the fifth century in Athens was not merely antiquarian but was, rather, fiercely political (93). Alcibiades (voicing Thucydides' own opinion) argues that the Segestans are Trojan refugees, hence not fully barbarian. This means that the Athenians should honor their alliance with them and launch the expedition. Nicias voices an opposing tradition from Hellanicus, possibly promulgated by Alcibiades' enemy Andocides, that the Trojan refugees joined with Odysseus and settled in Latium, and only after having become barbarized in Italy did they emigrate to Segesta -- therefore, as barbarians, the Segestans should not be helped. Hellanicus himself has both opinions, and so his personal point of view as a supporter or critic of Athenian politics is irrecoverable. V.'s argument is subtle and complex, and will perhaps not be accepted by sceptics with opposing views either on the textual tradition of Hellanicus or on what constituted a "barbaros" in this context, but it excels at demonstrating the great strength of this volume: how ethnic identities -- beyond the broad sweep of Dorians and Ionians -- could be and were manipulated by contemporary actors to influence political action. This approach, as opposed to using amassed evidence to define groups and call the result an "identity," is clearly the most rewarding type of investigation that can be done into these questions.

A second non-Greek ethnos is discussed by Stefania Fuscagni and Carlo Marcaccini in "Illiri, hostes communes omnium: l'immagine de una conquista." The Illyrians were commonly known as pirates, and according to this essay that identification was a result of Roman views (i.e. Polybius and Cicero) after the Illyrian Wars of the third century. It was the necessity of constructing Illyrian piracy as an affair of concern to the Romans that led to the identification of the Illyrians as pirates. Thus, when the Illyrians defended their actions by saying that piracy is an idion rather than a koinon affair, the Romans responded by saying that it was their custom to make private injustice a public matter, in spite of the fact that the Romans actually had a long history of officially condemning piracy but allowing (not to say encouraging) it as a day-to-day matter. Thus, it was the growth of Roman power which inexorably changed Illyria's position in the Mediterranean: no longer was their location between the Greek and Roman worlds one where piracy could be carried out as a local and private matter, but rather their piracy became a public and juridically defined matter which fell completely within Rome's growing sphere of political power. This essay shares the strength of Vanotti's, in that it shows how the contestation and imposition of identity by external powers can significantly alter our understanding of the historical role played by the group being defined. The identity of the Sicels is treated by Federica Cordano's "Le identità dei Siculi in età archaica sulla base delle testimonianze epigrafiche," which reveals the extent to which a review of difficult and marginalized evidence can challenge commonly held but loosely constructed views of group identity. Toponyms and various types of contact (be they peaceful or hostile) known from the literary evidence define the zone of Sicel habitation as the eastern interior of Sicily from Aetna to Camarina (118). On the basis of these identifications, the argument is developed in the following way: cultural elements found in these areas which do not correspond to Greek elements must therefore be Sicel in nature; if these elements -- architectural, funerary, cultic, religious, or dedicatory -- are found in other areas, then C. assumes that those communities shared some aspects of Sicel identity (119). The discussion of the epigraphic evidence, such as it is, then follows by region. C.'s analysis concludes that there was no "top-down" adoption of the Greek alphabet for a single language, since individual Sicel communities adopted the Greek alphabet at various times for various purposes, often related to their particular modes of interaction with the Greek communities on their borders. Thus, the evidence for the various Sicel centers (see the helpful review on p. 130) indicates that unity and identity were aspects of the Sicel ethnos much earlier than the "moment of Ducetius" in the mid fifth century and C. concludes that Ducetius merely rejoined homogenous ethnic groups which were already aware of their cultural homogeneity yet were governing themselves autonomously with respect to their politics towards the Greek cities.

Pier Giovanni Guzzo offers a contribution on the Brettians, the last in the section on non-Greek ethnic identities, entitled "L'identità contraddittoria." G. seeks to understand the contradictory valences given to Brettian identity regarding their secession from the Lucanians in 356 BC (138): were they fugitive slaves and brigands, or quiet pastoralists whose hard life led to their military strength? What was their identity before their violent revolt?2 G. finds it significant that the Brettians' revolt required a Lucanian leader, indicating to him that Brettian identity was not positively constituted at that time (141). Although the Brettian ethnonym seems to have existed in the fifth century, there is no indication that it was a political, rather than purely ethnographic, label. However, Diodorus' notice that they achieved a koine politeia suggests otherwise. Nor is it possible to identify the Brettians clearly in the archaeological record, except with the help of the toponyms provided by the historical record. Numismatically speaking, the Greek legend on Brettian coinage may be an international proclamation of non-Italiote/Lucanian identity, but what about the non-issuing Brettian centers? Similar problems arise with the apparent bilinguality of the Brettians -- does it indicate differentiation and identity or homogeneous belonging? This mass of confusing and contradictory evidence, as G. sees it, is conditioned by the context of the historical record where it is found: no one seems to have been interested in the Brettians per se, but only as actors in the greater conflicts of the Lucanians and Romans. To this extent, the interpretation of the Brettians takes its flavor from their position as allies or enemies (150). Thus G. concludes that while the Brettians did constitute a geographically defined ethnonym, we must remain highly skeptical about the development of any independently recognized Brettian political identity.

The final section of the book turns to Greek ethne. The editor contributes an article on Dyme, "Dyme achea ed epea," which confronts the identity of the Dymeans from the same perspective as Guzzo and Vanotti approach their subjects -- how can we make sense of conflicting traditions or contradictory information in the historical record of a group's identity? Although Morgan and Hall have suggested that the synoikism of Dyme is coincident with the demographic formation of its urban center and belongs properly to the fifth century,3 C. rightly points to the Peloponnese and to Thucydides' comments (1.10) that synoikism could coexist with communities arranged kata komas and could often be more about the organization of the khora than the arrangement of an urban agglomerate and suggests that the formation of Achaean Dyme took place during a conflict with Elis in 668 over the administration of the Olympic games. The second half of the essay investigates Hecataeus' remark that Dyme was once the home of the Epeans, an obscure ethnic group often confused and/or conflated with the Eleans and Aetolians. Sorting out the mythological and historiographical variants with extreme perspicuity, C. makes a convincing case that the myths of succession between these people are in fact a result of their being distinct ethnic groups who shared the same territory and both claimed epic descent. C. cleverly sees an attack by Heracles and the Epean Dymeans against Elis as a likely mythological reference to the war between Dyme and Elis in 668, after which Dyme is identified as both Epean and Achaean (170).

Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood makes the only non-Italian contribution to the volume with "Greek perceptions of ethnicity and the ethnicity of the Macedonians." S.-I. states clearly that her question is not "Were the Macedonians ethnically Greek?" but "How was their ethnicity perceived?" In her initial sections, she attempts to put forward views on identity theory, Macedonian religion, and Macedonian material culture which are, as she herself notes, "superficial," adding that full discussion would require "at the very least one full book" (176-178). One is inclined to agree, and it is hard to avoid the feeling that those pages would best have been left unwritten.4 But the essay then turns to a more detailed discussion of Macedonia's Greekness from a number of different points of view, starting with the mythological ancestry of the Macedonians. Not being descended directly from Hellen would, under a certain paradigm, exclude them from being true Greeks.5 However, S.-I. makes a convincing, if brief, case that descent from Hellen was not required for Greek identity and, on the contrary, that Macedon's mythical descent from Thyia ties its identity closely to Delphi, Apollo, and central Greece. The author then somewhat arbitrarily assigns "fundamental importance" to the Hellanodikai's acknowledgement of Macedonia's Greekness (192). The essay concludes with a revisionistic review of the evidence from Thucydides and fourth-century oratory, concluding that "descriptions of the Macedonians as non Greeks in rhetorically charged contexts can radically distort what we would consider to be historical reality" (197). This quotation is indicative of the primary logical breakdown of S.-I.'s argument: an assumption that identity consists of an essential set of historical determinables that can be separated from rhetorical constructions.6 On the contrary, questions of Macedonian identity should take as their starting assumption the obvious point that the Greekness of the Macedonians was the fluid subject of a debate which has had at least two sides from the very beginning, and move on to make contributions -- as other essays in this volume do -- not by simply taking sides in the ancient debate but by tracing the historical ramifications of the tension in the debate itself.

The final essay in the volume addresses the question of Hellenization. Anna Simonetti Agostinetti's "Coloni greci nell'Asia orientale: problemi di identità negli insediamenti coloniali creati da Alessandro Magno" makes a clear and superbly argued case for a reconsideration of Alexander's motivations in settling his Greek mercenaries on the borders of his conquests. Rather than for the "noble" reason of bringing Greekness to the border regions, or even for the decent reason of protecting the edges of his conquests, a close reading of the sources shows clearly that Alexander settled his Greek mercenaries in these remote regions because he realized that they were one of the greatest threats to his power. A. backs up her insights on Alexander's motives not only by pointing out his cautious use of Greek mercenaries as mere reserves in the early battles but also by pointing out that Alexander strongly felt and well understood the effects of the fourth century Greek mercenary crisis. Isocrates (5.120) had first suggested to Philip that an invasion of Asia might relieve the social dangers posed by unemployed mercenaries in Greece, and Alexander feared that discharging the mercenaries in his service would return Greece to a state of chaos and so settled them far off where they could do no harm, and perhaps some good. Mercenaries were transformed into landowning proprietors and guardians of the land, its borders, and its trade routes. Whenever reports of his death reached them -- whether falsely in 325, or truly in 323 -- they revolted, "desiring their Greek culture and way of life" and with a well-founded fear of losing their Greek identity, whether linguistic, geographical, religious, cultural, or political, to the Asia Minor of the Hellenistic world (212-214).

In short, reading the wide variety of subjects and approaches is a historiographical lesson unto itself. Furthermore, each of the individual essays is, in its own way, extremely well-documented with primary and secondary sources, and so regardless of their idiosyncrasies they will function as excellent points of entry or re-entry for those interested in the identity of the groups under discussion. But, most importantly, these essays demonstrate the payoff of the successful argument about identity and historical practice: a re-evaluation of the historical effects springing from the contested nature of group identity rather than a simple positivistic definition of group traits.7


1.   For the benefit of the curious: rather than guessing at the origins of the volume I took the liberty of contacting the editor and asking her if she would like to elaborate. She kindly informed me that the book grew out of informal conversations between colleagues interested in the same issues and approaches. A dedication expresses the sentiment "Alla memoria di David Asheri," who was both a friend and influence on the editor.
2.   As Berlinzani's essay would have benefitted from a short summary of the musical agon, so Guzzo's complex argument also would have been clearer if some small space had been devoted up front to a brief summary of the Brettian revolt. For the former, the most accessible narrative is Strabo 6.1.9. For the latter, readers might first wish to consult Diod. Sic. 16.15 and Strabo 6.1.4.
3.   Morgan, C. and J. Hall, "Achaean Poleis and Achaean Colonisation" in M.H. Hansen (ed.), Introduction to an Inventory of Poleis. Acts of the Copenhagen Polis Centre, 3. Copenhagen 1996: 186-189. 193.
4.   By way of example: some forethought would have assured that her paragraph on material culture (177-178) did not include 19 lines of disclaimer followed by only 12 lines of actual discussion. Fairly speaking, I hold reservations only for S.-I.'s editorial rhetoric, not her content.
5.   Especially Hall, J., Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1997.
6.   Rather, the modern study of group identities -- to differentiate it from the simple definition of groups as practiced in the past -- is predicated upon a complete rejection of 'historical reality' in favor of sociological and anthropological constructedness, subjectivity, and contradefinition. Furthermore, the assumptions upon which S.-I. winds up relying are specifically rejected not only by the editorial introduction (15-16) but also by the theoretical introduction in S.-I.'s own contribution (pp. 173-174).
7.   The book is handsomely produced, with the following exception: a visually continuous and unbroken left margin is an inexcusable and unnecessary attack on a reader's sense of visual propriety. Paragraphs simply must be marked with either an indentation or a blank line. Typographical errors are not serious: 37 n. 20, "Regional" for "Regionale"; 92 and n. 5, "Sicheli" for "Siculi"?; 94, "18, 1, 2" should read "6, 18, 1-2"; 108, "Polybius" for "Polibius"; 167-168, "Piracme" for "Pirecme"?; 208 n. 16, italicize whole word "existimans"; 176, "rigourous" for "rigorous"; 182, comma after "Thessaly" if not after "Boeotia" as well, no period after note (38) in the text, in note (35) "West" need not be capitalized and "at" should stand between "Apollo" and "Delphi"; 185, the sentence starting "Though we cannot reconstruct..." is stunningly and ironically unclear; 195, "to whom... refers to" and "had ran away" need correction.

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