Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.02.25

Catherine Morgan, Early Greek States Beyond the Polis.   London/New York:  Routledge, 2003.  Pp. xii, 326.  ISBN 0-415-08996-4.  $80.00.  

Reviewed by Silke Knippschild, Historisches Institut, Universität Potsdam (
Word count: 2523 words

Catherine Morgan (henceforth M.) aims to explore "the different tiers of identity by which mainland Greek communities constituted themselves" (p. 1). The time scope ranges from the Early Iron Age and the Archaic period down to 480 B. C., occasionally including the fourth century B. C. as well. The author concentrates on the following regions: Thessaly, Phokis, East Lokris, Achaia, and Arkadia, ones frequently neglected by modern scholarship. In order to broaden the base of available data, M. undertakes frequent excursions to other regions of Greece. In these, areas like the Corinthia and sites like Olympia feature prominently.

1. Introduction (1-44)

In this monograph, M. endeavours -- as her title indicates -- to avoid centring her attention on the poleis: "In focusing on the different kinds of identities to which communities attach political salience ... it [the book] sets the polis within a fuller and rather different political context than do traditional analyses" (p. 2). After stating her goals, M. moves on to two specific sections: "Ethnos and polis" (4-10) and "Ethne, ethnicity and tribalism" (10-16). Here she defines the terminology she uses and explains the concepts she employs. In addition, she offers succinct overviews of the history of scholarship on the specific subjects, concentrating on hallmark works of past research and the latest trends of investigation. Instead of providing sets of rules on interpreting concepts such as "ethne", she emphasizes the range of meanings the terms could take on. As result, M. suggests we should stick with the ambiguity we encounter than resort to forcing definitions on evolving concepts, thus neglecting the fact that processes of long duration are involved.

In the following part, "Archaeology and early Greek ethne" (16-18), she explains her method of combining historical and archaeological data, with a focus on the latter. M. briefly refers to the respective problems involved in the study of this evidence in the period concerned. She goes on to introduce the regions treated in her study: Thessaly (18-24), Phokis (24-27), East Lokris (28-31), Achaia (31-38), and Arkadia (38-44). In each of these sections M. sets out by defining the territory and the borders of the area concerned, followed by a vivid description of its landscape. She points out different character traits within each area and differences between the regions, splitting zones characterized by their diversity, such as Phokis, into smaller subsections. M. goes on to treat the settlements and the political organizations of the respective areas. In addition, she refers to the archaeological excavations and surveys undertaken in each area.

2. Big Sites and Place Identities (45-106)

M. endeavours to characterize big sites in the regions investigated, considering their impact on social and economic structures as well as their role in forming identities. She reminds us of the problems involved in defining the character of settlements relying solely on archaeological data. The starting question, "Big sites or urban entities?" (47-54), takes her into a discussion of the concepts involved with the idea of urbanism. Further, she recapitulates the difficulties of conclusions about settlements and their social structure on the basis of architectural evidence, especially if it is as sparse as in southern and central Greece. "Questions of scale" (54-69) is the heading of the following section. M. points out that inferences drawn from what is known about the size and structure of a given settlement can be highly informative with respect to, for example, social organization. In order to illustrate this, she puts the cases of early Corinth, Argos, and Athens to good use. "Place identities" (69-71) treats the emergence of the poleis and the various attempts at dating the phenomenon. In the past, these attempts have been landing us on both sides of the nonexistent gap between Bronze and Iron Age. M. moves on to investigate specific functions of settlements in "Economics, subsistence and production" (71-73), starting her investigation by considering the question of the agricultural exploitation of the territory of a given settlement. Another focus of attention in this section is specialized craftsmanship, e. g. that of the potter or the smith, treated in conjunction with production and consumption of the goods. M. opens the section "Political statements in big sites" (73-76) with references to the perception of the concept of city by Weber and by Durkheim and discusses the setting apart of communal space and the construction of communal buildings such as bouleuteria. M. uses the cases of Olympia and Elis in order to caution against arguing on frail evidence. "Symbols of authority" (76-85) involve the process of decision making by an elite as witnessed by the emergence of coinage and of inscriptions. She emphasizes the function of legal inscriptions in stabilizing communities and goes on to look at the role of sanctuaries in respect to the display of the texts. Thessalian and Arkadian coinage, along with the issues of the Phokikon, are the focuses of the second part of this section. The author then investigates the case of "Thessaly" (85-89), until quite recently deemed to lack large settlements before Classical times. M. refutes this theory by referring to the well established feuds of aristocrats and their respective cities in Archaic times. Evidence of large scale architecture and sculpture strengthen her argument. Next, M. goes on to discuss the archaeological record of the important sites of "Larisa" (89-91), "Pherai" (92-95), and "Dimini, Sesklo and Volos" (95-102) in greater depth. The following section, "Thessalian geography and the Catalogue of Ships" (102-105), briefly treats the problems involved in the study of the Homeric list of places and people before going on to analyse some tell-tale omissions. M. emphasizes the value of the Catalogue of Ships as a source for political processes that are not easily encountered (let alone cross-referenced) in the archaeological evidence of Thessaly. A very brief "Conclusion" (105f.) marks the end of the chapter. According to M., there were plenty of big settlements around. As far as she is concerned, they did not function as economic centres in the time between 1200 and 800 B. C. (108).

3. Communities of Cult (107-163)

The author opens this chapter by summing up archaeological evidence for continuity or rupture in cult practice between the twelfth and the eighth centuries B.C., emphasizing the change at the latter end of the time span. She points out that sanctuaries played an important role as economic centres. M. studies the archaeological record of Isthmia in the Corinthia, marking the sanctuary as a rather exceptional case. "The cult systems of Phokis" (113-134) treats the process of forming a common ground in respect to cult in a region characterized by its diversity, topographically as well as in its cult history. The main focuses of research are Delphi in the south and Kalapodi in the north. M. argues that Kalapodi was a sanctuary with a geographically quite limited radius of influence. Nevertheless, the archaeological record demonstrates lively activity in Late Helladic III B2 and C as well as in Proto-Geometric times, thus setting the site apart from many contemporary places. The role of Kalapodi as pan-Phokian sanctuary after the Phokians defeated the Thessalians is a further point of concern. In the following part M. moves on to treat Delphi. Although the site appears to have been a prosperous place in Late Helladic III B and C, there is as yet no record of a post-Bronze Age sanctuary. From the early eighth century onwards Delphi sported a shrine with a rapidly growing sphere of influence. The range of votive offerings reflects the international connections of the sanctuary. M. considers the issue of the first Sacred War and its elusive written and archaeological sources. She emphasises the economic importance and effects of the removal of Delphi from Phokian control and of the amphictyony's creation. "The spread of cults" (135-142) is examined, utilizing Phokis as an example for the regional interaction of cult organizations. Again M. emphasizes the important economic role of sanctuaries, which she deems to be much more important than that of large settlements. She goes on to investigate the diffusion of the cult of Thessalian goddess Enodia, perhaps as far as Macedon. In the following section, "Temple buildings" (142-155), M. broaches the much-debated question of the time when temples started to make an appearance. She investigates possible motivations for the construction of temples, i. e. their actual functions. In the case of Isthmia, she pinpoints storage as one such function. "The economic role of sanctuary authorities" (149-155) treats the evidence of dining in early sanctuaries such as Isthmia, Olympia, the Amyklaion, Kalapodi, and Mende Poseidi. The administrative and practical processes involved in providing the prerequisites of such dining are, according to M., even more important than the well known cohesive effects of meals taken in common. The managing of metal in respect to resources, distribution, and collection by sanctuary authorities is a further item in this section. The situation in "Arkadia" (155-162) is, according to M., characterized by individual shrines that are not part of a region-wide cult system, nor do they feature a deity with region-wide status. Within this particular region, M. highlights the situation in the neighbouring sites of Pallantion and Asea. She chooses the first because of the rather exceptional number of four temples the small polis constructed on its acropolis. Asea, on the other hand, gets investigated for the sake of its differing archaeological record: the minimal evidence of the acropolis is contrasted with five rural sanctuaries. In a brief "Conclusion" (162f.) M. recalls the differing results of her study of Phokis, Thessaly and Arkadia and once more emphasizes the economic importance of sanctuaries. She relates votive offerings to status and group identity.

4. Territory, Power and the Ancestors (164-205)

In this chapter the author investigates the relationship between a settlement and its territory. She recapitulates the varied archaeological approaches employed in order to specify the extension of territory pertaining to a given settlement. Rather than restricting herself to defining the extent of the area a specific settlement controls, M. means to investigate how activities were conducted and relationships built across that landscape. "Ethne in the landscape" (168-171) investigates the interaction and cooperation between individual groups across space in Arkadia, for example. "Community of territory?" (171-176) deals with synoikism in early Greece as a topos. According to M., this concept was used by ancient authors to bridge the gap between the heroic past and their present. She reviews contemporary scholarship and its approaches to the subject. After M. emphasizes "community of place" (176) as particularly important denominator in the creation of cohesion, in the section "Marginal areas and routes of communication" (171-187), she moves on to look for cases without centres. The author elects the Pharai valley in Achaia as a case study and demonstrates that complex structures can evolve in regions without a centre. "The territory of our ancestors?" (187-190) is dedicated to the study of myths of origin and their function in creating communal identities. The worship of heroes and cult at tombs attributed to ancestors of the respective community are further focal points of this section. Role and status of labourers, "Penestai" (190-192), have been considered important factors in the development of tomb cult, leading M. on to a brief investigation of this social group. "Burial and the past in Thessaly" (192-195) treats the relationship of ethnic status claimed on the basis of descent and the presumed shortage of ancestor cult in ethnos regions. M. refutes the latter by an analysis of the archaeological record of various cemeteries, mainly situated in Thessaly. "Beyond the boundaries" (196-205) is concerned with mobility and its role in defining ethnic identity by way of the contact with some kind of "other". Colonization and warfare as causes of movement of people are focal points investigated in this section. Achaia features prominently as a case study.

5. Beyond the Polis. Political Communities and Political Identities (206-225)

M. starts into the last pages of her book with a boiled down and concise presentation of the results of the previous chapters (206-213). Personally, I missed just such a text at the end of each chapter. A reference to this section of the book or even a revealing title along the lines of "Conclusion" or some such would have done the trick and helped the reader. In her following section, "Regional interconnections: the case of the Corinthian gulf" (213-222), M. returns to the question of the function of travel in defining identities. Her focus is on the importance of waterways in antiquity, in her view often neglected by modern scholarship. She attributes this to Pausanias, who chose to travel by land, and to contemporary investigators, who followed in his footsteps. M. revisits the sites along the Corinthian gulf, evaluating their situation with an eye to seafaring. "Envoi" (222-225) comprises a summing up of aims reached and of questions raised that remain, for the time being, yet to be answered.

A definite strong point of "Early Greek States Beyond the Polis" is the fact that M. completes explicitly what she initially set out to do. The subdivision of her chapters by individual headings are another welcome help for orientation. Shorter paragraphs would have facilitated reading even more. The definitions to be encountered especially in the introduction appear to me to be highly useful far beyond the area of her study. The book includes a generous supply of highly informative maps and plans, most of them created by C. L. Hayward, and photographs that give a rough idea of the kind of landscape one is confronting in each specific case. M. provides concise and helpful endnotes, an extensive and actually rather impressive bibliography (279-321) and an index (322-326). However, the necessary cross references are kept rather unspecific: M. merely points out in which of her five chapters a certain point will be further elaborated. I am well aware that references to specific pages of the published text are a lot of trouble, nevertheless, they do facilitate access to the relevant passages and are thus quite helpful for the reader.

The subject M. broaches in this highly learned and ambitious study is extremely complex and does not lend itself to simple solutions. M.' s command of the wide range of material she employs is impressive. She investigates her broad subject thoroughly and extensively, carefully avoiding generalizations. Her treatment of traditional perceptions and concepts of scholarship related to her area, checking their validity against recent findings, is an extremely welcome bonus. The questions she asks are pointed and of great interest. Nevertheless, from my point of view, the one minor disappointment in this book is that M.'s answers to her questions are sometimes elusive, though, considering the complexity of the subject, this is hardly to be avoided. Frequently, I found myself yearning for some straightforward statements that directly inform the reader, though. References to the pages 206-213 or a telling title of the section that actually does offer such answers could have remedied this. All in all, I consider "Early Greek States beyond the Polis" a highly admirable study that will surely prove to be invaluable to scholars and students researching Early Greece and may very well turn out to be an incentive to future investigations.

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