Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.09.08 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.09.08

Paul J. Burton (ed.), Culture, Identity and Politics in the Ancient Mediterranean World. Papers from a Conference in Honour of Erich Gruen. Antichthon, 47 (thematic issue).   Canberra:  The Australasian Society for Classical Studies, 2013.  Pp. vi, 221.  ISBN 00664774.  AUD55.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by C. L. H. Barnes, Brooklyn, NY (


In September of 2011, a conference was held in Canberra, Australia, to honor Professor Erich Gruen, whose numerous publications and wide-ranging interests are alluded to by the title of the present volume. Of the original seventeen papers read and discussed, twelve were included here and cover topics from Persian influence in Ionia to the Euphrates as a boundary between Rome and Parthia. As is so often the case with collections of this kind, the quality of the contributions varies. Even so, I found the majority of the papers made for stimulating and informative reading.

Editor Paul J. Burton’s ‘Introduction’ (i-vi) describes the conference and how Gruen, ‘in typical Gruen fashion, asked the first and most incisive questions, forcing speakers to dig deeper and think more carefully about their cherished hypotheses and guiding assumptions’ (i). More importantly, Burton offers short summaries which contextualize each contribution. His enthusiasm occasionally leads to judgments I found somewhat inappropriate.

As Burton notes, the volume is organized thematically according to Gruen’s major areas of research. The first two papers, including that of the honorand, deal with ethnic identity.

1. Gruen’s own contribution, ‘Did the Romans have an ethnic identity?’ (1-17), is less concerned with answering that question than with arguing that the Romans did not possess ethnic prejudice. He assembles a useful catalogue of source material ranging chronologically from Plautus to Tacitus and Juvenal which furnishes evidence of Roman attitudes towards Greeks, Phoenicians/Carthaginians, Germans, Gauls, Egyptians, Jews and Syrians.

2. Margaret Miller’s ‘Clothes and Identity: The Greeks in Ionia c. 400 B.C.’ (18-38) begins with the subject of barbarization at Ephesus c. 408 B.C. This quickly turns to distinctions between Lydian, Ionian and Persian dress and the archaeological evidence for these, including sarcophagi dating 550-470. Four plates with six figures in color, generally of good quality, illustrate the discussion, although the first figure would have been more helpful had the procession in it been bigger and clearer. Given that ‘Clothes in Ionia’ serves as a page header, it is somewhat incongruous that Miller concludes by discussing names on an inscription from Ephesus dedicated in the very late first century B. C.

If Festschiften or conferences of this kind afford an opportunity to build upon or challenge the work of an eminent scholar, the next five papers all do so within the context of Roman Republican politics and society.

3. Ian Betts’ and Bruce Marshall’s ‘The Lex Calpurnia of 149’ (39-79) is the first paper to note some disagreement with the work of Gruen. Where the latter viewed the lex Calpurnia as resulting from the atrocities of Sulpicius Galba in 150, Betts and Marshall recount misdeeds committed by governors starting in 173 B.C. and do not see the actions of Galba as responsible for the new legislation. They further adduce the cases of four magistrates after the law’s enactment and question whom the law would have benefitted and how.

4. In a very lively paper, ‘Insulting Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi’ (61-79), J. Lea Beness and Tom Hillard begin with political invective—a topic of interest for Professor Gruen—and go on to cite the evidence of Pliny and Solinus that Cornelia was born with some kind of atresia.1 Such an unfavorable omen could have accounted for insults directed at a woman whose fecundity, and loss, rivalled Niobe’s. It did not, however, stop Tiberius from marrying Cornelia, nor the two of them from having a large number of children. One wonders about Roman attitudes to birth defects and how those hostile to the Gracchi found out about her atresia, and when.

5. In ‘Revisiting the Roman Alexander’ (80-100), Kathryn Welch and Hannah Mitchell discuss the topic of imitatio Alexandri . Particularly valuable is the stress they place on the importance of comparatio in ancient biography and historiography. With this kind of writing, there always had to be a winner. Furthermore, comparisons may not have always originated from Caesar or Pompey, but rather from advisers, friends and associates, or, presumably, those writing long after the fact. Figures of two coins, one in color, accompany the argumentation.

6. Martin Stone’s ‘A Year of One’s Own: Dating the Praetorship of Marcus Crassus’ (101-117) argues that Marcus Licinius Crassus was elected praetor suo anno which he dates to 75 B.C. as opposed to the 73 advocated by Broughton (and Gruen). He proposes an aedileship for 78 as well as a thwarted candidacy for the consulate suo anno for 72. Stone’s attention to detail in the sources is laudable, his reconstruction of events certainly plausible, but the aristocratic competition he highlights raises many questions rather than establishes certainty, particularly in the absence of firm evidence from the sources.

7. Tom Stevenson’s contribution, ‘The Succession Planning of Augustus’ (118-139), seeks to build on Gruen’s ‘incomplete’ view that Augustus did not want to give the impression that the princeps was creating a Principatus. Stevenson sees autocracy and the desire for dynasty as being on Augustus’ mind from an early date, while he ‘adopted a pose of denial in respect of both’ (123).

The next two papers treat the topic of Jews in antiquity, yet another area of Professor Gruen’s expertise. They both begin with the sort of praise of the honorand one might have expected elsewhere in the volume.

8. In ‘Rethinking the Other in Antiquity: Philo of Alexandria on Intermarriage’ (140-155), Sarah Pearce draws attention to the prominence of Philo in Gruen’s own work. At issue is Philo’s commentary on two passages, LXX Deuteronomy 7:1-4 and LXX Exodus 34:11-16. Pearce detects Hellenistic influence, Plato specifically, as Philo interprets the passage for his historical reality. Her philological and philosophical points in this regard would be more convincing with additional support.

9. James McLaren’s ‘The Jews in Rome during the Flavian Period’ (156-172) assesses the impact of the Flavian commemoration of the Jewish Wars on the identity of Jews living in urbe at that time. For McLaren, Josephus, as a Jew resident in Rome, can help to fill the gaps in the evidence on this topic. Not to be viewed as pro-Flavian, Josephus, through his writing, sought to reaffirm the identity of the Jewish community in the wake of the destruction of the Temple and Flavian desire to terminate the cult.

The final three papers concern Roman Imperialism in very different ways. All serve to shed light on the importance of diplomacy in the ancient world.

10. Arthur Eckstein, Gruen’s former student, applies the concept of unipolarity to address his topic ‘What is an empire and how do you know when you have one? Rome and the Greek States after 188 BC’ (173-190)'. After discussing theories of formal versus informal empire, his principal argument is that the Romans established a ‘sphere of influence’ in the Eastern Mediterranean, but not a formal empire.

11. Peter Edwell’s ambitious contribution, ‘The Euphrates as a Boundary between Rome and Parthia in the Late Republic and Early Empire’ (191-206), reassesses the evidence for Parthian control along the northern and middle Euphrates. He finds that Dura Europus was under Roman cultural influence. Less successful is Edwell’s discussion of the development of the term imperium in association with the conflict between Rome and Parthia as well as the conclusion of the piece. While the final few pages are informative and interesting, more analysis is needed. This contribution features a map and two color photos. The map would have been more helpful if it showed more of the places mentioned in the text, although given the shifting boundaries under consideration I can imagine the decision was made not to try to depict territories.

12. Paul Burton ‘The International Amicitia between Athens and Rome’ (207-18) argues that Rome and Athens established amicitia most likely in 209 or 208 B.C. In so doing, he takes on the auctoritas of Holleaux and sees no need for annalistic invention to provide a pretext for a ‘just’ war with Macedonia. What needs elucidation is just what amicitia entailed and the extent to which the Romans were prepared to defend a ‘friend’ via actual military intervention.

I found relatively few typos, some more egregious than others. Among these, part of a translation is missing on page 94 and Phraates IV is listed as Phraates I on p. 200.

Overall, the papers selected for inclusion here are learned and engaging. If Gruen’s work is known for both a bold willingness to challenge accepted opinion and careful attention to detail, the majority honor him by working in the same spirit. My chief complaint is that some titles do not accurately reflect content. Another criticism is that some contributors raise as many problems as they solve and leave one wondering what the further significance of their arguments might be. For those lucky enough to have attended the conference, Professor Gruen (and the attendees), no doubt, had many an answer.


1.   Atresia is a condition in which a body orifice or passage in the body is abnormally closed or absent.

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