Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.08.07 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.08.07

Giorgos Papantoniou, Religion and Social Transformations in Cyprus: From the Cypriot Basileis to the Hellenistic Strategos. Mnemosyne supplements. History and archaeology of classical antiquity, 347.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2012.  Pp. xxiii, 604.  ISBN 9789004224353.  $226.00.  

Reviewed by Philippa M. Steele, University of Cambridge (


This work is an unusual and welcome addition to the literature on Hellenistic Cyprus, approaching the transition to Ptolemaic rule on the island from an archaeological perspective and via an integrated methodology that is much more common in studies of pre-/proto-historic periods than those of such a relatively late historical period as the Hellenistic. This novel approach to material that has been well studied, but never well assimilated to the overall picture of Cyprus at this time, provides an important new framework for understanding social change and continuity during a period of historically attested political upheaval.

The book contains five main chapters, of which the first two focus on theoretical issues surrounding the research topic, while chapters 3 and 4 apply the theory to particular case studies, and chapter 5 consists of concluding remarks and some recommendations for future research. There are also two appendices giving tables of data and further bibliographical information about ‘Landscapes’ (i.e. spaces dedicated to religious practice such as sanctuaries) and ‘Portraits’ (i.e. statues often assumed to be of individuals).

Papantoniou’s main focus is on the transition from the period of multiple Cypriot city-kingdoms, each ruled by a Basileus, to the political unification of the island effected by the Ptolemies, who eventually introduced local rule by a Strategos. However, this is not, as he specifically states, a book about the fourth century BC (p. 371); rather, it takes a diachronic view of changes and continuities, in some cases going as far back as the Late Bronze Age and as far forward as the Roman era, but chiefly concentrating on the developments of the period around the seventh to second centuries BC. The main aim of the research is to consider the impact of the political changes on the ‘socio-cultural infrastructure’ of Cyprus (p. 1-2), channelled through a study of one particular aspect of cultural practice, namely religion. Religion is taken here not as an isolated phenomenon, but one that reflects many areas of social expression, identity, elite and non-elite behaviour and particularly social power. Although some specific case studies are used, there is a general emphasis on taking an island-wide view of social change and continuity.

The very broad evaluation of social and cultural structures attempted necessitates a lengthy exposition of the theoretical framework within which Papantoniou is working. There are multiple aspects to his methodology, and chapter 1 (‘Setting the Scene’, p.7-72) reviews previous scholarship and comments on the problematic nature of some of the techniques and terminology that will feature in the work. This includes a critique of concepts such as hellenisation, material koine and hybridity, and tailored definitions of two particularly important recurring terms: ‘archaeology of religion’ and ‘social power’. Chapter 2 (‘Sacred Landscapes’, p. 73-162) deals with further terminological and theoretical concerns, specifically those surrounding the discipline of landscape archaeology, and also with the incongruous nature of evidence drawn variously from excavation or survey, which becomes problematic when attempting to understand the existence and usage of sanctuary sites over the whole island. The chapter also features some more specific, though brief, studies of particular sites, for example the Nymphaeum at Kafizin, and considers the ways in which they relate to the general impression of religious continuity and change. Overall, it is necessary to take ‘a holisitic approach and interpretation’ when studying sacred spaces in ancient Cyprus (p.76).

The wide-ranging critique of approaches taken in previous studies of ancient Cyprus, alongside the reassessment of theory and terminology, has an unfortunate side effect of emphasising all the things we do not know about the island. We cannot be sure of the number of Cypriot city-kingdoms at any one time, nor of the extent of their territories and locations of their boundaries. We do not know exactly how many sanctuary sites existed in ancient Cyprus, nor indeed whether we have identified all the ones we know about correctly, and we usually have no information about the circumstances of the foundation or abandonment/destruction of such sacred spaces. Rather than undermining Papantoniou’s investigation, his appreciation of the limits of our knowledge allow him to draw sensible and measured conclusions from the data, which in turn makes them all the more convincing.

Papantoniou’s approach to a chronological framework is also worthy of note. He advocates ‘abandoning the concept of linear time in favour of multi-temporality’ (p. 4). This is a way of recognising the complexity of processes, which can be observed to have taken place but not necessarily pinned down to a particular date or period; for example, the historical record may give us some information about the date of the fall of the city-kingdoms or the administration of the Ptolemies, but alongside it the discontinuity of use of some religious spaces and sanctuaries is more difficult to anchor in a chronological progression. This appreciation that we often must look at the longue durée in order to understand an event or process is undoubtedly a strength of the work, and follows in the footsteps of scholars such as Maria Iacovou, who has demonstrated through many publications that what we think of as ‘breaks’ between periods in fact display considerable continuity, and has therefore advocated a macrohistoric approach.1

The Preface to the book, however, will perhaps seem at odds with the promotion of macrohistoric and multi-temporal approaches: here, the Hellenistic period is cast as one of well-defined boundaries, following the chronological scheme proposed by Einar Gjerstad in the publication of The Swedish Cyprus Expedition (p. xiii). Papantoniou further proposes a division of the Hellenistic period on Cyprus into two sub-periods, bounded by fixed dates: Hellenistic I would begin with the traditional date of the death of the last Cypriot Basileus in 310 BC and end in 217 BC, the date of the earliest evidence of the Ptolemaic Strategia; the Hellenistic II period would begin in 217 and end with the death of the last members of the Ptolemaic dynasty in 30 BC. The division is a useful one, especially if studying the historical record of Hellenistic Cyprus; however, it is not easy to apply it to the material record. It is perhaps unsurprising, considering Papantoniou’s broader approach to social change and continuity over time, that the division features little in the conclusions he draws from the archaeological evidence.

Papantoniou acknowledges a debt to many scholars throughout his work, both theoretically (e.g. Pierre Bordieu, François de Polignac) and materially (e.g. Anja Ulbrich, Joan B. Connelly, Roland R.R. Smith). His aim is not to present new data, but to reanalyse known and published data via a new methodology, synthesising the results of many other studies in order to form a new appreciation of the transition from city-kingdoms to Ptolemaic rule on Cyprus. In chapter 3 (‘Case Studies: Change and Variation’, p. 163-294) he applies this methodology to two case studies of particular locations, using the published material from two sites to examine the evidence for continuities and ruptures in religious practice: the Cholades temples at Soloi and the sacred spaces identified at Amathous. In chapter 4 (‘Cypriot Portraits’, p. 295-354), he then turns from specific locations to an island-wide survey of portrait sculptures and their relation to social and political power.

The case study of Soloi-Cholades (p. 166-208) proves an insightful demonstration of the continuity of Cypriot religious practices across the period of often assumed discontinuity. This was a new site that grew up in the mid-third century BC, probably half a century or more after the fall of the city-kingdoms, and yet its architecture was modelled on the classical Cypriot temenos structure. There is significant evidence for ‘religious syncretism’ at the site, and it is also clear that Ptolemaic power is being exercised in this case not by imposing new practices but by forging connections with old Cypriot religious traditions, a sort of manipulation of ‘social memory’ (discussed as an important concept also at p. 128-141 in chapter 2).

While Soloi-Cholades provides a relatively small and manageable set of data to examine, the case study of Amathous (p. 208-290) must incorporate evidence over a much broader period (Amathous being an eleventh-century BC foundation) and over several discrete sacred spaces, the most famous being the sanctuary of Aphrodite. The extensive material is handled well, with the inclusion even of a lengthy survey of coroplastic art from the site and its relation to the process of ‘religious syncretism’, which is already in evidence in the age of the city-kingdoms and not a new phenomenon of the Hellenistic period (p. 233-257). The discussion of a ‘hellenisation’ process, simultaneously treating Amathous and the rest of the island, is a little confusing, however, citing very briefly the sporadic use of the Greek alphabet (in conflict with the predominant usage of the Cypriot Syllabic script to write Greek) on the island as early as the sixth century BC as well as Brixhe’s discussion of dialect at Kafizin, (which in fact focuses on the mid-late third century BC2). This is an aspect that could be explained in more detail, and it is also worth bearing in mind that the hellenisation process at Amathous may have differed from that in other areas. Amathous, after all, was a city-kingdom set apart from the others on the island not only by language use (with Greek epigraphy very rare and Eteocypriot epigraphy prevalent up to the fourth-third centuries BC), but also by political decisions such as the non-participation in the Ionian Revolt.

The case studies of Soloi-Cholades and Amathous are not presented as representative of island-wide processes, but rather as ‘a window upon the religious system of the Cypriots in relation to their cultural and political ideologies’ (p. 290). The heterogeneity of processes of continuity and change at different sites is emphasised, and a further welcome conclusion is that while there are regional variations in the Cypriot material koine, they do not reflect ethnicity: there is no correlation, for example, between religious objects or architecture and language use. The rather different case study presented in chapter 4, looking at portrait sculptures from different sites across the island, demonstrates how a broader approach can illuminate power relationships in ancient Cyprus. Specifically, while a ‘typological approach’ can help us to identify portrait sculptures and associate them with the representation of royalty, an ‘ideological approach’ (incorporating elite-style as well as potentially royal portraiture) is more revealing of ‘issues of perception and cultural consumption’ (p. 353). This also allows us to appreciate similarities and differences between Cyprus and other areas of the Hellenistic world, emphasising the unique Cypriot response to a wider Hellenistic artistic and religious koine.

Papantoniou’s book is undoubtedly an important piece of scholarship, but its one weakness is the style in which some parts of it are written. There is a necessity to explain and critique many theoretical issues in order to expound an interdisciplinary and integrated approach to social processes, and in the main this is achieved with clarity. However, there is some tendency towards repetition and above all towards obscure statements. For example, the sentence telling us that ‘Religious temporality encapsulates a significance which goes beyond practical reality and linear time’ adds little to Papantoniou’s overall argument (p. 164). Or, again: ‘paradoxically, “material homogeneity” encompasses “heterogeneity”, which in a way is the “momentum” of this Mediterranean “poly-culture”’ (p. 360). Papantoniou’s book is by no means alone in this tendency, which can be observed in many works of archaeological scholarship. However, the period under consideration is one frequently dealt with by scholars of other disciplines, and so more accessible language could have been helpful.

The conclusions (chapter 5, p. 355-372) that Papantoniou is able to draw from his survey of theory and data are inevitably broad ones, but they are nonetheless important and will enhance the study of the Hellenistic period on Cyprus and its wider chronological context. The choice of religious practice and space as the material focus of the work proves a shrewd one, since it allows the observation of not only religion but also cultural practice and particularly attempts to exercise and maintain power through religious traditions, objects and architecture. Most importantly, the survey highlights that while the onset of Ptolemaic administration involved some cultural changes on Cyprus, these were related to long-term local processes that were already taking place in the age of the city-kingdoms. Papantoniou is to be congratulated on producing a well-illustrated volume that gives a genuinely new perspective on the Cypriot Hellenistic era, and his research will be an important addition to the literature on this period.


1.   E.g. most recently M. Iacovou, ‘The Cypriot syllabary as a royal signature: the political context of the syllabic script in the Iron Age’ in P.M. Steele (ed.) Syllabic Writing on Cyprus and its Context, Cambridge 2013, 133-152.
2.   C. Brixhe, ‘Dialecte et Koiné à Kafizin’ in J. Karageorghis and O. Masson (eds.), The History of the Greek language in Cyprus. Proceedings of an International Symposium Sponsored by the Pierides Foundation. Larnaca, Cyprus, 8-13 September, 1986 , Nicosia 1988, 167-180.

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