Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.02.11

Thomas Heine Nielsen, Arkadia and its Poleis in the Archaic and Classical Periods. Hypomnemata 140.   Göttingen:  Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2002.  Pp. 680.  ISBN 3-525-25239-0.  EUR 94.00.  

Reviewed by Nino Luraghi, University of Toronto (
Word count: 2031 words

[[The reviewer apologizes for the lateness of this review.]]

Historians, especially but not only of ancient Greece, have a number of reasons to be grateful to the Copenhagen Polis Centre, to its spiritus rector Mogens Herman Hansen and to its staff. From this reviewer's perspective, one of the main reasons is the massive amount of research in the Greek political world besides Sparta and Athens generated by the Centre. T.H. Nielsen's (hereafter N.) work on Arcadia, culminating in this book, is a case in point. Apart from the excellent but rather scattered works of J. Roy in the late sixties and early seventies, Arcadia had not received sustained scholarly attention, in spite of a substantial corpus of evidence and of its obviously crucial role in Peloponnesian politics. Thanks also to Roy's new researches on Elis, from now on no investigation of the political relations in the Greek world between the late archaic age and the end of the fourth century will be allowed to overlook the complex and delicate balance of power that enabled Spartan control of the Peloponnese. A new understanding of this crucial period in the history of Greece is now possible.

However, N.'s goals are of a different order. As set out clearly in the introduction, his book is 'an investigation into the number and identity of poleis in Arkadia in the Archaic and Classical periods.' In other words, in spite of its size, this book is not a general history of archaic and classical Arcadia but a much more thematically focused work. What N. is looking for is evidence for the existence of poleis in Arcadia at different times, and almost everything else in the book is subordinated to this goal. As for the definition of what a Greek polis is and what a Greek author means when he uses the word, N. applies rigorously the criteria elaborated by Hansen in the framework of the Polis Project.

After an introductory chapter setting out goals and methodology, the book opens with three thematic chapters. The first of them (Chapter II) deals with the perception and self-perception of the Arcadians as an ethnic group in antiquity. Myths on the origins of the Arcadians and stereotypes associated with the Arcadians are discussed and N. insists on the lack of a political dimension to Arcadian identity before the fourth century BCE. In the majority of cases, it does not seem possible to distinguish in the sources myths that involved the Arcadians from myths that belonged to them: in other words, it is mostly unclear whether we are dealing with what the Arcadians thought of their origins or with non-Arcadian constructions that may or may not reflect Arcadian self-perception.

Chapter III discusses the geographical concept of Arcadia, its extension, nature and origins. N. identifies some interesting cases of border communities that became Arcadian at different points during the classical age, with consequent extension of the geographical concept of Arcadia. The chapter ends with the statement that the geographical concept of Arcadia was essentially residual, emerging when more and more areas around acquired fixed borders and a specific identity of their own; according to N., this peculiarity in the formation of the geographic concept of Arcadia is a result of the fact that Arcadia, unlike her neighbors, was not a political entity at any time during the archaic period.

The lack of a political dimension of Arcadian identity is one of the key elements in N.'s view of Arcadian history, and it runs like a red thread through the first chapters of the book. Chapter IV problematizes Arcadian identity, showing that underneath this overarching layer of shared identity there were more local identities, tied to poleis or to other sorts of political organizations and therefore politicized, unlike Arcadian identity. In this chapter N. discusses and discards the little evidence that could suggest a political dimension to Arcadian identity in the archaic and early classical periods, especially the fifth-century coinage with the legend ARKADIKON. Two interpretations are put forward by N., in part building on the work of previous scholars: either this coinage was in fact minted by Tegea and expressed this city's aspiration to pan-Arcadian leadership, or we have to do with a coinage minted by the sanctuary of Zeus Lykaios in connection with the festival of the Lykaia. The first explanation seems by far the more attractive, since the coinages that can be plausibly connected with religious festivals come nowhere near the ARKADIKON coinage in terms of size; however, cf. p. 514, where N. comes down explicitly in favor of the religious interpretation of the ARKADIKON coinage.

Chapters V through IX proceed roughly in chronological order from the archaic period to the end of the fourth century. In Chapter V the evidence for poleis in Arcadia in the archaic period is reviewed. Coinages, archaeological evidence for settlements and temples, inscriptions and the scattered information provided by literary sources are sifted carefully to identify political communities in archaic Arcadia and to define their nature. The evidence for the existence of poleis increases during the sixth century, especially in the second half of the century. By the end of the archaic period, Arcadian political communities appear integrated in the polis-culture that included most of the Greek world.

Chapter VI is based on one of the most successful of N.'s preparatory studies, his investigation of the emergence of Triphylia. N. shows very convincingly how the geographic concept of Triphylia emerged in the last decades of the fifth century, essentially out of the aspiration to independence of a number of small poleis located in the southern part of the territory controlled by Elis. Triphylia turns out to have been a small federal state composed of poleis, with double citizenship and an ethnic identity of its own, clearly artificial in some sense, that merged into Arcadia after somewhat more than half a century of independent life. After the Triphylians became Arcadians, the name Triphylia survived with a purely geographic meaning.

As a matter of fact, Triphylia is a case study in a kind of political structure peculiar to Arcadia, the tribal state or, as N. rightly urges us to call it, the sub-ethnic federation, that is, a federal state whose components seem to have been mostly small poleis, all Arcadian, provided with a political structure and identified by an ethnic name. Cases of this kind of political organization are the Mainalians, Eutresians, Kynourians, and Perrhebians of Arcadia, discussed in Chapter VII, which constitutes in the present reviewer's view the most innovative and successful part of N.'s book. N. convincingly suggests that the sub-ethnic federations, far from being survivals of a more archaic tribal form of state, may have emerged from the need of the smaller poleis to protect themselves from their more powerful Arcadian neighbors, a suggestion that seems to be reinforced by the evidence for the existence during the fifth century of small hegemonial leagues controlled by Tegea and Mantineia respectively.

Chapter VIII sets out the evidence for poleis in fifth-century Arcadia and their characteristics. N.'s investigation of the hegemonial leagues that apparently centered around Mantineia and Tegea is particularly illuminating. Some pages (345-50) are devoted to the existence of dependent poleis, that is, non-autonomous poleis that existed inside what was technically the territory of larger and stronger poleis.

The discussion in Chapter IX is dominated by the foundation of Megalopolis, arguably the most momentous event in Arcadian history. N. scrutinizes the evidence for the process of inclusion of various smaller Arcadian communities into the new Big City and then moves on to consider the Arcadian league and its structure. The strong sense of Arcadian ethnicity that underpinned the league is acknowledged but not analyzed (p. 510).

Finally, Chapter X summarizes the main results of the investigation. N. suggests perceptively that for the smaller communities of Arcadia it might have been advantageous to be part of the Peloponnesian league. In general, the political relations with Sparta turn out to be the main external factor that determines political developments in archaic and classical Arcadia.

The list of breakthroughs achieved by N. is impressive. This reviewer is particularly struck by the totally new understanding of Peloponnesian politics that N.'s reappraisal of Arcadian political history makes possible. Spartan priorities during the fifth century appear in a completely new light now that we are in a position to better appreciate the very complex and delicate relations between the Spartans and their most crucial and powerful, if often recalcitrant, partners, the Arcadians. But there is much more to the book than this. N. successfully replaces somewhat vague notions of the Arcadians as a tribal state or ethnos-state with a completely new picture, one made of small and larger poleis interacting and competing for hegemony at all levels, from the local to the regional. Surprisingly, Arcadia turns out to have been a world full of poleis, certainly peculiar but not really out of place in the landscape of the polis-culture.

As for N.'s interpretation of Arcadian history, the main question that emerges is, if there was no political unity in Arcadia before the foundation of the Arcadian league in the fourth century, what made the Arcadians feel Arcadian in the first place? N. is very careful to question the few pieces of evidence that could suggest political cohesion before the sixth century, and his skepticism may well be justified, but what we get in exchange for the Arcadian ethnos-state is not completely clear. N. seems to think that the Arcadians came to think of themselves as Arcadians only because, and after, all their neighbors started to think of themselves as something else, that is, acquired distinct ethnic and political identities. However, this rather attractive suggestion has to come to terms with the existence of Arcadia, with at least some characteristic elements of what will later be Arcadian identity, already in the Catalogue of Ships. The discussion of the relationship between Arcadian ethnicity and the many political communities in Arcadia is not completely satisfactory. N.'s abolition of Arcadian unity during the archaic period may not be the last word on this: perhaps a more moderate solution will emerge in due course, but certainly N.'s investigation will be the most important factor that will make it possible.

This reader's only reason for unhappiness with the book is its lengthiness. True, N. marshals an impressive amount of evidence, but too many arguments are reduplicated, in some cases literally. The discussion of the use of tribal ethnic names recurs almost identically at p. 266, n. 177-6 and p. 274, n. 20-24, while the portion of text between n. 177 and n. 189 at pp. 267-8 is repeated verbatim, including the footnotes, between n. 38 and n. 51 at pp. 276-7. Apart from acute cases such as these, one would have thought that the presence of ten appendices, where all the evidence is listed and commented upon, could have allowed N. to be much more allusive and succinct in the main text. The book would only have gained by such streamlining. It could also have used a better set of maps. The reproduction of Madeleine Jost's map of Arcadia is especially unsatisfactory. Being printed across two facing pages, a strip some two or three kilometers wide has been swallowed in the center by the binding of the book, and as a result e.g. the polis of Heraia has disappeared. At p. 436, SGDI 4648 (a.k.a. IG V 1, 1429B) is described without comments as a proxeny for a citizen of Phigaleia, although no ethnic appears in the iscription.

To conclude, this reviewer must acknowledge his mixed feelings about the book under review. While the amount of raw research offered to the reader is truly impressive, the packaging could have received more attention. In view of the size of the book, one would have wished that N. had been more thorough in avoiding repetitiveness. On the other hand, the sheer amount of new insights repays the reader for the effort required to work through more than five hundred pages of text and more than eighty pages of appendices. Even experts in Peloponnesian history will find much to learn here and have many of their views transformed by N.'s work.

Read Latest
Index for 2004
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:29:04, Friday, 03 April 2009