Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.02.22

Christy Constantakopoulou, The Dance of the Islands: Insularity, Networks, the Athenian Empire, and the Aegean World.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2007.  Pp. xiii, 330.  ISBN 978-0-19-921595-9.  $120.00.  



Reviewed by Robin Osborne, King's College Cambridge (ro225@cam.ac.uk)
Word count: 1398 words

Of all relations with adjacent disciplines it is that with geography which Anglophone classicists and ancient historians have most neglected. While French historical geographers have long taken an interest in the Aegean, both in recent times (cf. E. Kolodny La population des îles de la Grèce: essai de géographie insulaire en Mediterranée orientale [1974]) and in antiquity (P. Brun's work, above all Les archipels Égéens dans l'antiquité Grecque (5e-2e siècles av. notre ère) [1996]), Anglophone literature can boast little more than Cyprian Broodbank's recent An Island Archaeology of the Early Cyclades (2000) and the various illuminating observations in Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell's The Corrupting Sea: a study of Mediterranean History (2000).

Constantakopoulou's book represents a brave attempt to take seriously the role of geography in classical Greek history. Taking the Aegean as her unit of analysis, C. looks at the way in which both the idea and the fact of insularity influenced the shape of historical events. Not of least value in the discussion is the demonstration that insularity is an issue. Islands might seem to be exceptionally easy to define, but C. has no trouble showing that islands are not, for fifth-century Greek writers, simply land masses surrounded by water. Various places which are not cut off by water are treated as if they are islands, and large land masses are more or less disqualified from the class. C.'s most detailed and vivid demonstration of what was and was not thought to be an island comes in a discussion of Thucydides' treatment of Sphacteria and of Sicily. The former is referred to by name only once in Thucydides (at 4.8.6), and subsequently is referred to simply as nesos (38 times in book four alone), being so identified even when more than one island is being discussed and the reference is potentially ambiguous. Sicily, by contrast, is referred to just twice as an 'island', and otherwise (on 135 occasions) is always referred to as 'Sicily'. Thucydides' comment that Sicily is almost mainland (6.1.2) is no casual comment -- its insularity is clearly for Thucydides, and surely for his contemporaries also, simply technical. Similarly, Euboea as a whole is not treated as an island, though the city of Karystos may be.

This initial discussion of what constituted an island is the first fundamental move in the re-orientation of fifth-century history which C. proceeds to effect. The second comes in the second chapter where C. looks at religious networks in the archaic Aegean and discusses the Calaurian and Delian amphictyonies. Taking the Calaurian amphictyony as her model -- where, the ever problematic membership of Orchomenos excepted, the coastal situation of member states is basic -- and emphasising the way in which the myth of Poseidon's exchange of Delos for Calauria makes the two sanctuaries equivalents, C. insists that we need to take seriously the religious nature of these networks and so not simply equate displays of dedications or building at Delos with bids for political control. For the archaic period what this affects, above all, is what we come to think about Naxos, but in Chapter Three this insight is played out for our understanding of the fifth-century 'Delian League'. C. argues that this must be seen not as a league of Ionians but as a league of islanders. When Athens moves the treasury of the League to the Acropolis, she is primarily demonstrating, C. suggests, 'control over the common religious and festival background that united the subject allies' (p.73). C. shows by analysis of Herodotus and Aristophanes, as well as of Thucydides, that there was a clear conceptual equation between islanders and subject allies. That conceptual equation emerges as not a matter of simply treating the core allies as the ideal type of all allies but a matter of how being a subject turned a city into an island (the progress of Scione from being treated like an island [Thuc. 4.121.2, cf. 120.3] to becoming an island [Thuc. 1.122.5; cf. Arrian Anab. 1.9.5] is illuminatingly charted by C.).

C. explores how insularity relates to imperialism further in Chapter Four, beginning with discussion of the way in which Athenian fifth-century seapower got retrojected into lists of thalassocracies. Particularly important is her insistence that control over islands was an integral part of thalassocracy and that the link between islands and sea power can be traced back to the Iliad. She then details the various commonplaces about islands -- that islanders were 'feeble' (with special reference to Seriphos) despite a number of islands being in fact rich, 'dangerous' (for mainland powers) but also 'safe' (since only those who had control of the sea could attack), capable of being exhaustively searched (so-called 'nettings') but good places to condemn people to. The point of all these commonplaces is the way in which they are the product of island subjugation, of an ideology that both enabled and was enabled by Athenian fifth-century imperialism. Imperialism builds upon the same common qualities of islands that lay behind their joining together in a religious league, and insists on an ideal type of island, constructed according to those aspects of insularity which a mainland power with or without naval domination has to address, in the face of island diversity.

C. completes her examination of the idea of insularity and its relation to imperialism in the fifth century by investigating the commonplace of Athens itself as an island. She draws attention to the association between imperialism and insularity marked by the mistaken tradition that Themistokles was responsible for the building of the Long Walls and to the gap between the presentation of Attica as evacuated during the Archidamian war and the reality of continued occupation of the countryside, and she suggests that Herodotus' own articulation of the idea of island safety was influenced by Athenian island imagery during the early years of the Peloponnesian War. She further explores the way in which Athenian insulation from its own countryside turned their allies' territory into their own chora and the political tensions which this caused (most conspicuously in the Acharnian reaction but also more generally in the destruction of Athenian unity hinted at in Aristophanes' plays). She juxtaposes this discussion to an analysis of the Atlantis myth in Plato, stressing the way in which Atlantis has many of the features, including the abundant availability of the produce of the earth, of utopian constructions of Athens as an island.

To this highly coherent and enlightening excavation of the inter-relationship between island realities, island ideologies, and ideas of insularity, on the one hand, and Athenian imperialism, on the other, C. adds two further and rather different chapters. Chapter Six looks at relations between large islands (Chios, Samos, Cos, Rhodes) and their smaller neighbours, noting that only islands which have established a single political centre manage to rule neighbouring islands. C. suggests that security was the major motive for seeking control of small islands, but also investigates the importance of 'goat islands' (with a lengthy discussion of the case of Herakleia, made famous by Louis Robert). Chapter Seven looks 'beyond insularity' to islands which control portions of the mainland opposite (Thasos, Samothrace, Tenedos, Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Rhodes), and particularly at the political role that such mainland territories play as refuges for exiles. Although ideas from earlier in the book are deployed here, these chapters seem to hint at a rather different project, more strongly addressed to the varied realities of island life and less to ideas of insularity.

These hints at the possibilities of a very different book about islands both successfully indicate how much more remains to be investigated and draw attention to what this book itself does not do. In particular C. displays little interest in economic geography and at no point attempts to quantify the varied size and resources (human and otherwise) of the islands under discussion. As a result the ideas of insularity which form the core of this book remain rather disembodied, informed by and informing political decisions but more or less unaffected by economic supply or demand. If we are to understand fully how religious and political networks operate we need to be able to put very much more substance upon economic networks. C. must be right in thinking that getting ideas of insularity clear is the priority, and there is much that is attractive to her opening dance, but this dance of the islands needs to go on.

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