Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.01.39 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.01.39

Robert Garland, Wandering Greeks: The Ancient Greek Diaspora from the Age of Homer to the Death of Alexander the Great.   Princeton; Oxford:  Princeton University Press, 2014.  Pp. xxi, 319.  ISBN 9780691161051.  $35.00.  

Reviewed by Denise Demetriou, Michigan State University (


In the mid-sixth century BCE the Phocaeans made an unprecedented decision. Overnight, they “launched their fifty-oared ships, loaded their children and women and all their movable goods, all the statues from the temples … and set sail …” (Hdt. 1.164) in order to escape an impending Persian attack. The Phocaeans wandered for many years, eventually dispersing in settlements throughout the Mediterranean, some of which they had established previously – Alalia on Corsica, Massalia in France, Emporion in Spain, Elea in South Italy, even back in Phocaea in Asia Minor. What were the experiences of the Phocaeans, uprooted from their polis and settled both in familiar and unfamiliar territories? What were the consequences of their relocations for the history of both the Phocaeans and the Greek world more broadly? How were they regarded by their contemporaries? More generally, what was life like for deracinated Greeks?

Robert Garland’s latest book studies all “wandering” Greeks – the itinerant travelers, settlers, asylum-seekers, fugitives, deportees, evacuees, and economic migrants. As is typical of Garland’s work, his new book captures the often-neglected, quotidian experience of the ancient Greeks and does so in a highly accessible manner. Wandering Greeks collects for the first time the historical evidence on Greeks who were dispersed, relocated, removed, or even repatriated, forcibly or by choice, from ca. 800–323 BCE. As such, it brings to light Greek attitudes towards all those who moved permanently from one part of the Greek world to another and exposes how precarious their lives were before and during the move. Moreover, as Garland shows, migrants remained vulnerable even after relocation or repatriation. The book’s overall argument is that displacements of individuals, which led to increasing diversity within the Greek world, were central to the survival and viability of Greek societies (p. 14 and 197).

Wandering Greeks is a broad survey that will appeal to the wider public, but as a thorough study rich in evidence it will also appeal to scholars of the ancient world. The latter group might miss the more detailed references that footnotes or endnotes provide, which Garland replaces with select parenthetical citations and, at the end of the book, short bibliographic surveys covering the topics discussed in each chapter. These are not exhaustive, but they do offer the most up-to-date and relevant references. All ancient passages appear translated into English, and a glossary defines the few Greek words transliterated in the text. The book also includes six appendices: one on the terminology of diaspora; four catalogues (on Athenian cleruchies and colonies, groups of deportees, individual exiles, and communities enslaved); and one with a chronology of important events. Several maps and many images of coins from Greek city-states whose demographics or population changed significantly illustrate the discussion. These aids will be useful to all of Garland’s readers but are aimed especially at those outside the field.

The first two chapters establish the framework within which Garland works, the limitations of the sources, and the centrality and import of wandering in Greek history. Starting from some observations regarding modern or contemporary debates on immigration, the book draws a parallel between the modern and ancient psychological experience of people on the move. Garland generalizes about the equivalence of modern and ancient thoughts and emotions and at times speculates about the personal suffering of wanderers (e.g., pp. 81–82 imagine deportees watching helplessly as others fell by the wayside from exhaustion). Garland’s capacity for empathy is what allows him to write elegantly and with passion. Nonetheless, one should be wary of analogies between modern and ancient emotions – how humans experience emotions is contingent upon the categories, values, and judgments of a particular culture, and the quality of emotions, and our conception of them today probably differs markedly from that of the ancient Greeks.

Despite these analogies between antiquity and modernity, Garland’s treatment of the evidence is perceptive. And, the evidence on this subject is not easy to come by: it takes Garland’s keen eye to find the tidbits and references to individuals’ and communities’ perceptions of displaced persons, typically relegated to the marginalia of history. While most of the book concentrates on historical texts, Chapter 2 surveys Greek attitudes towards wandering as seen in non-historical texts (poetry, philosophy, oratory, etc.). It immediately becomes evident that views towards relocated individuals appear commonly in most literary genres. This short exposition, then, establishes Garland’s topic as a legitimate subject to study. It also serves to introduce the reader to the Greek terminology (and its lack of specificity) that describes different kinds of migrants, a topic further developed in the first appendix.

The next eight chapters tackle different categories of wanderers, namely (and in order), settlers, “portable poleis” (whole political communities that were uprooted and transplanted), deportees, evacuees, asylum-seekers, fugitives, economic migrants, and itinerants (intellectuals, physicians, mercenaries, seers, etc.). A final chapter deals with the issue of repatriation. This arrangement results in some overlap. For example, fugitives, discussed in Chapter 8 (see more on this chapter below), include runaway slaves – who were often asylum-seekers, the subject of Chapter 7. It is difficult to see how this could have been avoided, and, indeed, there are fewer repetitions than one might have expected. One gets the sense that these are different pieces of a puzzle that are gradually put together to form an overall image of the Greek diaspora in all its rich diversity.

Each chapter begins with a definition of the particular kind of displacement under discussion. Then follows some information on its causes or logistics, which often includes a description of the experiences of the wanderers. The remaining space is devoted to historical examples that lead to a deeper understanding of the displacement at hand.

By way of illustration, Chapter 4, on the portable polis, first describes the various occasions when a whole polis could be uprooted, as for example in case of war or through a synoecism. Then comes a section on relocation in early Greek history, followed by specific examples, a selection of which I will mention here. One of the more interesting cases is that of the Athenian fleet in 411, which while stationed at Samos, revolted as a group from oligarchic Athens and claimed that it represented the polis of Athens rather than the oligarchs in government. An expected yet informative example is that of the Phocaeans, who in the 540s moved their polis when threatened by the expanding Persian empire. Some of the other instances Garland mentions are the synoecism of Olynthus in 433/2, that of Halicarnassus in 377–367, and the resettlement of various cities in Sicily in the 400s by the tyrant Dionysius I. All these examples are chosen well and open up the discussion to broader issues. Their geographic and chronological range is important because it demonstrates concretely that mass migrations were not limited to the Aegean circle and that they were common throughout the span of Greek history. Further, the case of the Athenian fleet elevates the level of discussion from factual to ideological. The story of the Phocaeans, too, is particularly instructive because Herodotus provides not only the details of their long and arduous journey, but he also gives a rare glimpse of the toll this took on them when he mentions that they had a pitiful longing for their city and their ancestral customs (Hdt. 165; p. 62). Through these specific examples, Garland is able to tap into the variety of encounters and experiences available to transplanted Greeks and their poleis.

Likewise, Chapter 8, on fugitives, follows a similar pattern. The examples in this chapter, mostly Athenian, focus on laws that prescribe exile as punishment for a crime (e.g., homicide) or preemptive action to prevent stasis (e.g. ostracism); cases of high-profile exiled individuals, usually politicians (e.g. Themistocles, Alcibiades); and instances of runaway slaves. Here, again, both the variety of examples and the breadth of the evidence introduced to illuminate them are impressive. In the particular case of slaves, Garland adduces papyri from Ptolemaic Egypt that provide guidelines for rewards given to those who capture runaway slaves, literary texts (e.g. Lysias, Plutarch, ps.-Xenophon) that discuss how slaves could hide or where they could find asylum, and inscriptions that regulate provisions given to slaves in places of refuge (pp. 145–149). In this way, the harsh reality of life in exile for all levels of social strata from the elite to the subjugated is vividly described.

Wandering Greeks successfully accomplishes two goals: on the one hand, it elucidates the vagaries of individuals’ existence as members of a diaspora; on the other hand, it demonstrates how relocated Greeks were received in different communities. In service of the first goal, the book describes the chance nature of encounters that radically changed the course of individuals’ lives in foreign lands, the dangers and risks wanderers faced, and the choices or hardships that led them and their communities to relocate either by force or willingly. In service of the second, it shows how poleis tried to negotiate and regulate the presence of migrants in their midst either with laws or in practice. It is this give and take that lead Garland to conclude that “the brilliance of Greek civilization” (p. 199) was a result of the movements of Greeks crisscrossing the Mediterranean. This presumes that there is something inherently positive about Greek culture, but what this might be remains undefined in the book. Be that as it may, while Garland is effective in showing that the Greek world was the sum of interactions among displaced individuals, groups, and the communities that received them, the ways in which each of these entities and polities changed because of these interactions is not something discussed in detail or woven together into an overall narrative. A more analytical approach would have been necessary to achieve this. It would also require that Garland consider what role non-Greeks played in this process and how non-Greeks viewed the Greek wanderer.

In bringing together the varied evidence on this topic, Wandering Greeks makes a valuable contribution to the recent and significant trend in scholarship that emphasizes mobility and connectivity in the ancient Mediterranean. Anyone interested in these issues, as well as notions of identity, belonging, and citizenship in the Greek world, would undoubtedly benefit from reading this book.

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