Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.07.13 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.07.13

Sebastian Schmidt-Hofner, Claus Ambos, Peter Eich (ed.), Raum-Ordnung. Raum und soziopolitische Ordnungen im Altertum. Akademiekonferenzen, 18.   Heidelberg:  Winter Verlag, 2016.  Pp. 441.  ISBN 9783825364298.  €48.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Benedikt Eckhardt, Universität Bremen (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The volume presents the contributions of a conference held at Heidelberg in March 2011. It aims to show how scholars of the ancient world can contribute to discussions triggered by the “spatial turn”, i.e. the general tendency in social and cultural studies to see space not just as a naturally given reality, but as a product of human actions and perceptions. The editors on pp. 9-13 concisely introduce this shift in focus without privileging a specific theoretical concept. There is nevertheless another introductory contribution by Marc Redepenning, who presents several concepts of space currently discussed in social geography (23-43). Unfortunately, his competent remarks on container space, network space, fluid space and movement space are not at all adapted to historical purposes; the examples and problems discussed relate to decidedly modern phenomena. The volume thus starts off on the wrong foot, particularly because the categories and concepts discussed here do not reappear again in any of the case studies.

The volume is organized in four sections. The first one deals with built space, i.e. architecture, and its potential to illuminate socio-political structures. Rachele Dubbini discusses the emergence of public space in Archaic Corinth, with a strong focus on spatial order as a representation of claims to power (47-69). Through analysis of monuments and (mainly) sanctuaries and their relation to other complexes, she traces a gradual development leading from Bakchiad rule (focusing on the extension of public space and its connection to a mythical past) to the Cypselids, when public and domestic areas became somewhat more distinct. The general point that social inequality can be expressed through spatial inequality (61) is valid though somehow self-evident; it would be interesting to know what the results would have been if we knew neither of the Bakchiads nor of the Cypselids. This is the situation presupposed in the following two papers, by Noach Vander Beken on Minoan Crete (71-110) and Ulrich Thaler on Mycenaean palaces (111-139). Vander Beken somewhat laboriously introduces the concept of “performative space” that shapes “social solidarity” while at the same time promoting hierarchies; this is applied mainly—and interestingly—to a reconstruction of how people moved through built space at the tholos-tombs or in the palace of Knossos. Thaler reaches similar conclusions on processions and access regulations as promoters of social inequality, using the palaces of Pylos and Tiryns as his main examples. But he justly points out the methodological problem that such reconstructions can only uncover potentials. Normative expectations can perhaps be deduced from uniformity across the Mycenaean world (132-134), but as Thaler himself has noted, not many cases can be discussed with the same confidence as Pylos. Some caveats remain in the absence of written evidence.

The second section assembles four articles on territorial conceptions of space and its implications for the political order. The first two focus on the ancient Near East. Camille Lecompte offers a concise discussion of urbanization in Sumer (143-174). She highlights the continuous vitality of villages in Southern Mesopotamia; the emergence of cities did not deplete them, but was based not least on interactions between urban and rural spaces. Lecompte links urbanization to the centralization of political power, but modifies too-simple distinctions by emphasizing building projects and religious festivals that connect cities and the surrounding areas: new concepts of political power led to a rapprochement of originally distinct spatial arrangements. Hervé Reculeau describes how Mesopotamian concepts of power underwent a gradual change in the course of the second millennium BC (175-213). Originally, a “patrimonial” pattern was widely accepted that saw a kingdom as the ruler’s household, focusing not on territory but on people. The emergence of superpowers led to new administrative concepts with mediators of power and zones controlled by vassal kings; power came to be defined as power over territory—a point convincingly illustrated with the development of the “land of Assur”. Filippo Carlà-Uhink introduces Rome into the volume by discussing the conception of borders and frontiers in Roman imperialism (215-250). He argues for a two-tier system in Roman thought that developed as early as the third century BC: while boundaries could mark the end of a province, the empire as such did not have an end because it had a frontier, a fluid zone with allies and client kings that was always regarded as part of the imperium. This is an altogether plausible view, but open to criticism due to its somewhat static picture—e.g., one would like to know how the eventual transformation of most client kingdoms into provinces changed prevalent conceptions, and the claim that no states were recognized beyond the frontier (224) would be interesting to test in light of later Roman-Sassanid relations. Peter Eich closes the section with a study of provincial realignments in the time of the tetrarchy (251-280). Eich notes that some provinces were apparently split in or around the year 303, reunited under Constantine after 312 and split again in the later phase of his reign. His preferred explanation for these measures is the persecution of Christians from 303 onwards, which was easier to carry out in smaller administrative units; these would then have seemed unnecessary after the persecutions ended, but were ultimately reintroduced out of practical considerations (or in fact, as Eich tantalizingly hints on p. 275, because Constantine’s own religious policies now took a similar course). While this will undoubtedly be debated, Eich’s further notes on the territorial dimension of Rome’s imperial self-perception (269-275) form an interesting contrast to Carlà-Uhink.

The third section is the most conventional as it tackles rituals and the sacred—undoubtedly the thematic area where spatial considerations are most established in the study of ancient societies, not least because the sources themselves usually offer a fairly developed set of spatial distinctions. Claus Ambos gives an overview of temporary ritual installations made (inter alia) of flour and reed in Mesopotamia (283-299). These could be built spaces like huts, but also simulations of natural elements like rivers or mountains; dwelling in—or ritually crossing—the spaces thus created was supposed to remove (or dilute) impurity. Ambos draws on van Gennep’s rites de passage to explain both the rituals and the constructions of space—a method that always leads to idealizations and simplifications, but the evidence adduced does indeed fit this model remarkably well. Following Ambos’ clear-cut presentation of evidence and interpretation, Gebhard Selz’s article on space and socio-political identities in early Mesopotamia is a much more difficult read (301-324). In a rather fragmented and sometimes incoherent form, Selz traces a number of important spatial, but also social distinctions that shaped Mesopotamian society. The main takeaways here will be the observations that a) the city as an idealized space of identity (distinguished from uninhabited land) could, as a corollary effect, demand the application of rather rigid purity distinctions (see, e.g., the purge of the impotent in Lagas [309]), and b) that religious topography could be reconfigured to fit new political alliances, e.g., through restructuring of the pantheon or new processions. We then jump from here to Cicero and a very clear exposition by John Noël Dillon of the way Verres is portrayed as guilty of sacrilegium in Verr. 2 despite the fact that the category was legally applicable only when Roman gods had been harmed at Rome (325-350). Cicero’s terminology for both deities and religious structures suggests that while he is aware of the distinction and in fact strengthens it in many cases, he consciously blurs it in others, particularly when it comes to the sanctuaries of Syracuse. This is perhaps not an argument that presupposes the “spatial turn”, but it nevertheless draws attention to possible manipulations of socially constructed spatial distinctions, particularly in the field of religion.

The final section on spatial imagery and normative discourses contains two excellent papers. Sebastian Schmidt-Hofner studies the agglomeration of semantics tied to Attica—both as an abstract concept and a concrete landscape—in the political discourse of classical Athens (353-391). He points to autochthony, Attica as a place of asylum, as the origin of human grain cultivation and lieu de mémoire after the Persian wars, and explains how all these concepts could be employed, in changing configurations, in forensic speeches of the restorative phases of the fourth century (Lys. 2 and 7; Isokr. 4; Lycurgus Against Leocrates). Attica was attractive as a polyvalent symbol that could be employed with different aims (albeit the examples adduced all seem to put it to fairly similar uses); it was an emotionally appealing argumentative device that—an important observation—also strengthened normative pretensions by tying them to a “natural” order (384-385). Mihály-Loránd Dészpa then leads us back, for the third time, to Roman conceptions of empire, this time through the eyes of Tacitus (393-438). Faced with a long tradition of arguments against Roman imperialism (Sallustius et al.), Tacitus drew on some of them (Agricola 30). But his actual view on empire was rather different and resulted in two novelties: An integrative conception of the empire as a common possession of all inhabitants, independent from the person of the emperor (developed in Cerialis’ speech [Hist. 4.74]); and a development of Sallustius’ arguments on Roman decadence after Zama into a general argument on human nature: peace and tranquility foster inactivity and hence internal corruption; virtus cannot be legally prescribed, but has to be created in warfare (developed in the Germania). This allows for an anti-Domitianic reading; the interpretation of a largely imagined space (Germany) can thus be understood as a somewhat normative statement of a Roman aristocrat on the pressing question where to take the principate at the beginning of Trajan’s rule.

No synthesis of content seems possible, but it should be stressed that the individual contributions are generally of very high quality. The organization of the volume is sensible (and preferable to a mere chronological order of contributions), but the editors could have made some effort to insert cross-references or compile some indices.

Both the book’s cover and the introduction suggest that the primary aim of the volume is to introduce scholars from other disciplines to the way scholars of the ancient world currently employ spatial concepts in their work. If there really is a market for such a project, it would probably need less specialized papers and the avoidance of untranslated Latin as well as other features that will be appreciated only by those already working in the field. The volume thus works best as an offering to scholars of the ancient world who are not normally thinking about space and its implications. As such, it works very well indeed, because it does not privilege theoretical discussions, but practical applications. The archaeological papers in the first section do employ some recent theoretical concepts (e.g., “performative space”), but most articles either do not refer to any theory at all or use those that have always been around. The dividing line is clearly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the presence or absence of written sources: where we hardly know a thing, theory is a welcome addition because it allows us to fill crucial gaps in our knowledge with (hypothetical, but) theoretically plausible scenarios. But where abundant evidence allows for extended discussions of the meaning of imperium or the symbolic significance of olive trees, there seem to be more important things to do. While this may appear as a problem to some, this reviewer has found the focus on the source material very useful. Clearly, no one needs to watch a bunch of ancient historians desperately trying to redescribe what they already know in more fancy terms. What scholars of ancient societies can usefully do is go back to their sources with an awareness of space as a social construct (a very basic idea indeed), and see what they find. The empirical data thus generated can then be introduced into a dialogue with the social sciences. This volume gives impressive testimony to the enormous potential an increased awareness of spatial conceptions may have for the study of the ancient world.

Authors and Titles

Raum-Ordnung—zur Einleitung
Marc Redepenning, Raum: Einige Bemerkungen zur Komplexität von ‚Raum‘ aus Sicht der Sozialgeographie
Rachele Dubbini, The Organisation of Public Space in the Emergent polis: the Example of Archaic Corinth
Noach Vander Beken, Performance, Architecture, and Community Building in Minoan Crete: a Diachronic Perspective on the Pre-, Proto-, and Neopalatial Periods
Ulrich Thaler, Eventful Architecture. Activating Potentials for Movement and Segregation in Mycenaean Palaces
Camille Lecompte, Urbanisierung, ländliche Siedlungen und die Entstehung der Staatlichkeit: das Territorium der sumerischen Stadt im 4. und 3. Jahrtausend
Hervé Reculeau, Claiming Land and People. Conceptions of Power in Syria and Upper Mesopotamia During the 2nd Millennium BCE
Filippo Carlà-Uhink, Borders, Frontiers and the Spatial Concepts of Roman Rule between Republic and Empire
Peter Eich, Raum als Strukturkategorie imperialer Administration. Provinzteilungen und Provinzzusammenschlüsse im frühen 4. Jahrhundert
Claus Ambos, Heiligtümer aus Mehl und Rohr: zur rituellen Konstruktion des Raumes im Alten Orient
Gebhard J. Selz, Raum, Raumordnung und sozio-politische Identitäten im frühen Mesopotamien
John Noël Dillon, Roman and Non-Roman Religious Spaces in Cicero’s Second Verrine Oration
Sebastian Schmidt-Hofner, Der Ölbaum-Prozess, oder: Attika und die Ordnung der Polis im klassischen Athen
Mihály-Loránd Dészpa, Die Grammatik des Reiches. Imaginierte Räume und imperiale Wirklichkeit bei Tacitus

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