Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.04.10

Philip J. Smith, The Archaeology and Epigraphy of Hellenistic and Roman Megaris, Greece. BAR International Series; 1762.   Oxford:  John and Erica Hedges Ltd., 2008.  Pp. xii, 276.  ISBN 9781407302126.  £53.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Peter Liddel, University of Manchester (
Word count: 1192 words

P. J. Smith identifies three important gaps in the modern scholarship on the ancient Megarid: (a) the absence of any serious study of Megarian inscriptions since that of Dittenberger in IG VII of 1892; (b) the very preliminary nature of published topographical surveys (the 1972 work of Sakellariou and Pharaklas is said to be 'not very thorough because of circumstances in Greece at the time' (1)); (c) the tendency of modern historical studies of Megara to concentrate on the period to the end of the fourth century BC. This useful study of the topography, archaeology and institutions of the Hellenistic and Roman Megarid goes some way in addressing gap (b).

The publication, based on a McGill dissertation of 2000, is divided into five chapters. Chapter 1 is a short survey of the geography and geology of the Megarid. Chapter 2 is of a catalogue of 47 known Megarian sites. Some of these (like Megara, Aegosthena and Pagai) are well-known, but most of them are obscure rural fortifications or tower sites. The catalogue, which lies at the scholarly heart of this study, is clearly organised, giving the modern name of the site, its location, a bibliography, a report of visible remains and their dating, and an overview of the ceramic material and inscriptions at each site. There follows in each case a discussion of their identification (many of them are impossible to locate with certainty: an Appendix and series of maps are dedicated to the identification of Nisaia and Minoa (153-66) and another to the identification of Ereneia (167-72)). This is followed by a brief discussion of the settlement patterns from the Neolithic to the Roman period. Smith identifies two sudden increases in the number of sites: a lesser one in the Middle Helladic period and one in the Classical period. He observes that the Hellenistic period saw a slight increase in the number of sites from 42 to 43 (80); the Roman period saw a substantial drop, but most of the lost sites were military installations no longer needed under the Romans (2). There is a short note on the main roadways, signalling and defence systems in the Megarid, and Smith draws the conclusion that, in the fourth century, the whole Megarid was well served with interstate lines of communication (92).

Chapter 3 consists of a summary of ancient Megarian history. Smith emphasises Megarian 'would-be neutrality' (105) and commercialism, suggesting that the city of Megara in the archaic period exported clay cultic figurines to its colonies 'as a religious connection to the cult centre' (98). Chapter 4 draws on epigraphical texts to survey the Hellenistic and Roman political and religious institutions of Megara and to sketch the relations she enjoyed with other states in the same period. This chapter performs several useful services. The overview of Roman and Hellenistic magistracies is unprecedented in its level of detail; Smith also proposes a reconstruction of the Megarian cultic calendar on the basis of comparative evidence from Megarian colonies and other Doric states (143: it is a great shame that the process of typesetting has mangled the transliteration of Greek at this point) and makes a good case for the Apollo as the most important deity to residents of the Megarid. The collection of data on Megarian interstate relations from the beginning of the Hellenistic period is also unique and leads to some interesting points on the impact of Megarian commercialism on its diplomatic habits. A survey of honorific decrees (unfortunately Smith fails to discuss Urban's controversial redating of Megarian proxeny decrees to the era of Demetrius Poliorcetes1) and the evidence for Megarian dikastai as interstate arbitrators leads Smith to suggest that the Megarians were 'perhaps the first nation in history' to pursue a 'policy' of neutrality (129). One wonders, however, whether neutrality was really a passive reaction to larger external pressures rather than a substantive policy. The section on the Roman period highlights changes and continuities in Megarian political and religious institutions; Smith offers the idea that Megara's position as a commercial centre and route hub allowed her to maintain the level of prosperity that is suggested by the evidence for frequent dedications of honorific statues (which are usefully catalogued at 146-7) in the first four centuries of the Imperial period (133).

Chapter 5 offers some important conclusions: importantly, Smith observes that the number of inhabited settlements in the Megarid remained unchanged at 15 between the Classical and Hellenistic periods (149). As Smith points out much earlier (2), the number of attested settlements and/or cemeteries increased from 15 to 20 between the Hellenistic and the Roman periods. Such a conclusion militates against the literary impression of a decline in the vitality of Hellenistic and Roman Greece: in the case of Megara, it may be the case that the infrequency with which Megarian affairs postdating Alexander are mentioned in the literary sources is an upshot of her neutrality rather than her decline. The pattern should also be compared with the results of recent archaeological surveys that have pointed to an overall drop in the number of attested rural settlements in the later Hellenistic period whilst recognising regional deviations.2 Caution, of course is necessary, as the sample from Megara is very small. An appendix reproduces the texts of inscriptions cited, but Smith offers no new readings and does not appear to have autopsied the material.

The main scholarly contribution of this work is the catalogue of sites; the account of political and religious offices and the considerations of the honorific epigraphy of Megara are also welcome. The maps which illustrate these sites must be among the most detailed ever published for the Megarid. This is a book based on careful scholarship;3 the topographical surveys draw on previous studies and personal autopsy were carried out by Smith in 1996. However, in many senses, this is a preliminary publication: the scanty nature of the evidence leads Smith to remind us of the many difficulties in reconstructing Megarian history (he is cautious about his own reconstruction of the Megarian calendar, given that Megara, Aegosthena and Pagai may have used separate calendars and the possibility that the Megarians did not give names to some or all of their months (150)). One therefore eagerly awaits further work on the ancient Megarid, in particular that of Adrian Robu at the Université de Neuchâtel (on the relations between Megara and its colonies) and ongoing archaeological publication. The inscriptions of ancient Megara still await a modern edition. Some of Smith's broader conclusions need reworking: in particular, his ideas about the Megarian 'policy' of neutrality ('much like Switzerland' (150)) would benefit from reconsideration in the light of recent scholarship on the nature of Greek interstate relations. Smith's collection of material for the Megarid as a whole also offers a potential case-study for thinking about the ways in which Greek communities functioned in clusters other than the polis. The data collected in this publication requires integration in the broader picture of epigraphical and documentary habits and settlement patterns in Hellenistic and Roman central Greece. It should also be said that the standard of production frequently disappoints in terms of formatting, transliteration, typography, and reproduction of photographs.


1.   R. Urban, Wachstum und Krise des achäischen Bundes. Quellenstudien zur Entwicklung des Bundes von 280 bis 222 v. Chr., Weisbaden, 1979, 66-70.
2.   See Shipley, G., 'Between Macedonia and Rome: Political Landscapes and Social Change in Southern Greece in the Early Hellenistic Period' ABSA 100, (2005) 315-330, at 328-30 and Oliver, G., War, Food, and Politics in Early Hellenistic Athens, Oxford, 2007, 108-9.
3.   One item of relevant bibliography not mentioned is Lohmann's survey of shepherds' precincts in the Megarid: H. Lohmann, 'Antike Hirten in Westkleinasien und der Megaris: Zur Archäologie der mediterranen Weidewirtschaft', 63-88 in Walter Eder and Karl-Joachim Hölkeskamp (eds.), Volk und Verfassung im vorhellenistischen Griechenland, Beiträge auf dem Symposium zu Ehren von Karl-Wilhelm Welwei in Bochum, 1.-2. März 1996, Stuttgart, 1997.

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