Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.04.04

Madalina Dana, Culture et mobilité dans le Pont-Euxin. Scripta antiqua, 37.   Bordeaux:  Éditions Ausonius, 2011.  Pp. 608.  ISBN 97823561304952.  €25.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Kostas Vlassopoulos, University of Nottingham (

The study of Greek culture and identity has always been a favourite subject among ancient historians, but it has acquired new momentum in the last two decades as scholars have tried to put aside essentialist assumptions and examine the processes that created Greek culture and identity as well as their multiformity and variability.1 At the same time, social and economic historians, dissatisfied with the limitations of polis-based approaches, have been searching for alternative methodologies and analytical tools; the concept of the network and the study of mobility have become increasingly popular in recent years.2 It is therefore particularly welcome that the study of Greek culture and identity and the study of networks and patterns of mobility have recently been brought together in a number of works: 2011 saw the publication of Irad Malkin’s A Small Greek World: Networks in the Ancient Mediterranean3 and the present work by Madalina Dana.

What is important about these works, and especially applicable to the book under review, is the challenge they put to traditional attitudes among Greek historians. The studies that constitute paradigm changes and define the field in Greek history almost always focus on the centre, normally Athens and/or the Aegean. Books about the ‘periphery’, the wider Greek world, are written by specialists and read by specialists: the Black Sea, the periphery par excellence, has suffered in particular from this widespread attitude. This brilliant book puts the lie to such attitudes and should set a new trend.

Its subject might sound traditional: the study of the practices and institutions which constitute the cultural life of the Greek communities of the Black Sea; what the Greeks defined as paideia. The book covers the full range of practices that constituted Greek paideia, from athletics, religious and dramatic performances to education, philosophy and art, as well as the institutions that maintained these practices, such as gymnasia, schools and festivals. The comprehensive character of this examination is already a great achievement. Its utilisation of the full range of literary, epigraphical, archaeological and numismatic sources follows in an exemplary manner the tradition established by Louis Robert, while its chronological coverage, stretching from the archaic period to the third century AD, is truly impressive. We do not have any comparable study of any other region of the Greek world, and this book should form a model of how such studies should be written.

But what makes the book even more important is the insertion of the Greek culture of the Black Sea communities within the networks of mobility that created the unity of the Greek world. Black Sea communities attracted artists, teachers, actors and athletes from outside the Black Sea; in the opposite direction, Black Sea communities created and maintained links with the Panhellenic sanctuaries of the Aegean, or with cultural centres like Athens, while many Black Sea intellectuals, professionals or more generally pepaideumenoi were trained or pursued their careers outside the Black Sea. The detail with which Dana studies the interconnection between the formation of Greek culture in the Black Sea and the networks of mobility into and out of the region is captivating.

The book consists of eight chapters, a long bibliography and detailed indexes of sources, personal names and place names; thirteen maps illustrate the spatial extent of the phenomena examined, such as the distributions of theatres and gymnasia. Chapter One (23-54) is devoted to the practices and institutions of Greek education in the Black Sea. It examines the evidence for schools and the teaching of literacy, as well as the organisation of the gymnasia and the athletic and religious practices associated with them. Particularly interesting is the exploration of the evidence for the voyages of the Black Sea youth to educational centres outside their community. These centres ranged from the great educational centres with Panhellenic attraction like Athens, to centres closer to the Black Sea and with primarily local attraction, like Cyzicus.

Chapter Two (55-85) examines the cultural life of the Black Sea cities through their festivals and other public performances. Dana discusses the dramatic and musical performances associated with the theatre and the evidence for the importance of the theatre in Black Sea communities, alongside the cultural significance of the religious festivals.

Chapter Three (87-144) provides an excellent illustration of the networks of mobility that maintained the cultural life of the Black Sea communities and their connection with the wider Greek world. The first part examines the relationship of Black Sea communities with Panhellenic sanctuaries like Delphi and Olympia, as well as with other important sanctuaries and oracular centres of Aegean Greece, like Samothrace and Epidaurus. These relationships included dedications, theoric participation and the consultation of oracles. The second part examines the relationship of the Black Sea to the networks of mobility that maintained the athletic circuit of the Greek world. Black Sea athletes participated in local athletic festivals, of course, but the chapter also explores the participation of outsiders in those local Black Sea competitions, as well as the participation of Black Sea athletes in the athletic festivals of the wider Greek world.

Chapter Four (145-72) examines the evidence for the importance of culture and education in the self-presentation of the Black Sea Greeks. The chapter examines the references to cultural activities in funerary epigrams and the iconographic repertoire of Black-Sea funerary monuments which illustrate such activities. It discusses the extent to which the depiction of papyri rolls and people in the act of reading should be seen as evidence of the professional activities of the deceased as teachers or authors, or should be rather seen as a more general illustration of the cultural achievements and pretensions of the deceased.

Chapter Five (173-218) explores the groups of professionals on which the cultural life of Greek cities depended and their mobility. The chapter examines the professionals who provided education and training; the professionals employed for their know-how, such as doctors and architects; and artists, such as sculptors and painters. Chapter Six (219-61) examines the evidence for the careers of intellectuals originating from the Black Sea. Alongside the evidence for poets, orators, grammarians, mathematicians and philosophers, the chapter examines the considerable information for the writing of local history and its practitioners, and discusses the participation of Black Sea notables and orators in the Second Sophistic movement.

Chapter Seven (263-338) turns its attention to the mobility of Black Sea intellectuals and their presence and role in the wider Greek world. The cultural centre of Athens long attracted intellectuals from the Black Sea, and particular attention is given to the participation of Black Sea thinkers in the philosophical schools that flourished in Athens for centuries. Equally interesting is the presence of Black Sea intellectuals in royal courts and other centres of the Hellenistic world, while the chapter also examines the patronage offered to intellectuals by Black Sea rulers, from the Bosporan kingdom and Thracian kings in the north to tyrants like Clearchus of Sinope and Mithridates Eupator in the south.

Finally, Chapter Eight (339-93) examines the variegated ways in which a regional cultural identity was constructed. Dana discusses the stereotypes attributed to people from the Black Sea by external observers from the classical period to the third century AD, and she explores the identities constructed and assumed by the people living in the Black Sea, from their kinship relationships with their Greek metropoleis to their changing relationships with the non- Greek populations. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the extent to which regional unity and regional identity took hold among the Black Sea communities.

Reading this book raises a large number of questions and future desiderata. We now possess a comprehensive documentation of the mobility of artists, artisans, athletes and other professionals into and out of the Black Sea. This leads to the question of the effects of that mobility on the particular forms that Greek culture and identity took over time in the Black Sea. Can we link this mobility to particular artistic or cultural changes? Can we link the spread of artistic styles or the adoption and modification of cultural practices to the presence of Greeks from outside the region or to the experiences of local artists and professionals from their travels outside the Black Sea? Dana’s study of the diffusion across the west coast of the Black Sea of the iconography of the funerary monuments of Byzantion, depicting the deceased holding a papyrus roll, is a good example (162-9), but more work will need to be done in this direction.

A second important question concerns the particularity of the Black Sea region and the explanation of the patterns that emerge. It is striking to observe the almost complete lack of evidence for dedications and theoriai by Black Sea communities in Panhellenic centres like Delphi and Olympia during the archaic and classical periods. Why is it only in the Hellenistic periods that one starts to find such evidence, and still only to a limited extent? This phenomenon becomes even more striking if one considers the heavy investment of Greek colonies from the western Mediterranean at Delphi and Olympia. Perhaps one might think that distance provides an explanation, but given the strong interconnection that existed in the classical period between the Black Sea and Athens,4 this does not seem so convincing; after all, Massalia was not closer to Delphi than many of the Black Sea cities were, but while there was a Massaliot treasury at Delphi, no Black Sea community ever built one.

The same applies to the origins of Black Sea intellectuals and professionals: there is a patent asymmetry between the overwhelming preponderance of communities from the southern coast and the limited numbers from those of the north. How is one to explain this pattern? Is it created by the nature of our sources, or does it reflect a real phenomenon? Even more, one gets the impression that the overall number of poets, philosophers or athletes originating from the Black Sea is small, and that the relevant numbers from, for example, Macedonia would be significantly higher. Until we have equivalent studies for other areas of the Greek world nobody will be able to give a precise answer. But if this impression is correct, should we perhaps accept as relatively accurate the external stereotype examined by Dana, that the Black Sea was a peripheral and rather backwater area? Should we see the Black Sea as an area where economic profit or survival in a hostile environment was more important than the prestige acquired by erecting a treasury at Delphi or winning a race in Olympia (i.e., were Black Sea communities akin in this respect to Caribbean colonies in the eighteenth century)? Perhaps we should differentiate between different periods: in fact, there is a long tradition of differentiation between the prosperity of the south and the travails of the north Black Sea during the early empire. While the author is very attentive to regional and chronological variations in discussing particular issues, the absence of an overall diachronic discussion makes it more difficult to give an answer; the comments in the short Conclusion (395-9) are certainly helpful, but more study will need to be done.

But these are all questions that will occupy us for a long time to come, and this important work has provided a solid and stimulating foundation. A final word about the series in which it appears: the Scripta Antiqua have published a large number of very important studies over the last decade, some also relating to the Black Sea. While they are well-known and respected among specialists, they deserve the attention of the wider Anglo-Saxon audience.


1.   See e.g. C. Dougherty and L. Kurke, eds., The Cultures within Ancient Greek Culture: Contact, Conflict, Collaboration, Cambridge, 2003; T. Whitmarsh, ed., Local Knowledge and Microidentities in the Imperial Greek World, Cambridge, 2010.
2.   See e.g. I. Malkin, C. Constantakopoulou and K. Panagopoulou, eds., Greek and Roman Networks in the Mediterranean, London and New York, 2009.
3.   Oxford, 2011.
4.   A. Moreno, Feeding the Democracy: The Athenian Grain Supply in the Fifth and Fourth Centuries BC, Oxford, 2007, 144-208.

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