Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.11.34 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.11.34

Javier Velaza (ed.), Insularity, Identity and Epigraphy in the Roman World.   Newcastle upon Tyne:  Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017.  Pp. 348.  ISBN 9781443847049.  £64.99.  

Reviewed by Randall Souza, Seattle University (

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

This volume contains a number of papers delivered at an international conference on insularity held at the University of Barcelona in November 2015, along with a few later additions. Its fourteen chapters touch upon islands across the Mediterranean, though with a decided focus on those of the West. The “Roman world” of the title is broad: chronologically, the papers cover a period from Phoenician and Greek settlement of the western Mediterranean to Byzantine rule there, approximately eighth century BCE to eighth century CE.

Velaza raises a number of interesting questions in the half-page Preface, which is unfortunately the only metatext for the book’s succession of chapters. He asks: “What was an island in the Ancient world? Did the Greeks and Romans have a concept of insularity that had practical consequences for the political, economic and social life of the Empire? Was being related to an island an externally or internally distinctive feature? Can a tension between insularity and globalization be detected? Is there an insular material culture, an island-based approach to sacredness, or an island-based category of epigraphy?”

I read those words with great enthusiasm and relish, but must report that none of these evocative threads of inquiry are sustained throughout the volume, and many of the contributions do not address any of them. With few exceptions, insularity as a concept remains basically unexplored, and identity is ascribed to various groups in a cavalier manner that does not reflect the work of the past generation. A fuller introduction could have provided a scholarly framework for the papers, communicated some of the fruits of the 2015 conference, or more generally tied the themes, approaches, and evidence of the various contributions to the questions raised in the Preface.

The cursory preface is one of several shortcomings common to edited volumes also present here. Some papers lack a substantive conclusion, or any conclusion at all. Translations into and compositions in English often fail to communicate the nuance required, and there are some errors of typography and production.1 None of these are fatal flaws, but reader beware: you will work to identify and extract the valuable material.

Still, there is value in this book. The contributors represent an impressive range of disciplines from literary analysis to political history, topography, archaeology, iconography, and of course epigraphy. In what follows I review what I consider to be the highlights.

The first chapter, by Attilio Mastino and Raimondo Zucca, serves as an introduction insofar as it does actually if briefly discuss insularity and islands on a broad, theoretical level. Mastino and Zucca reprint Lucien Febvre’s “celebre pagina...sovente citata” (4) on the opposition between islands that act as conduits to other peoples or places, and those that prevent such communication (the île-carrefour and the île-prison).2] Yet their sympathy lies with those who reject the dichotomy, Carmine Ampolo and Stephane Gombaud in particular, and they conclude that the insular identity of each island “evolves in relation to the anthropological and natural dynamics that define the historical passage” (5). They review the ancient canon of islands, and the history of islands in the changing boundaries of the Roman provinces. Their discussion of the mosaic map from Haidra, which depicts a number of islands related to the worship of Venus, was exciting but too brief for me. Important questions about the perception of insularity and the historical assimilation of island names with their major settlements go unasked, and this seems like a missed opportunity.

Nikoletta Manioti (Chapter Three) convincingly reads late Republican anxieties about isolation and exile in Roman versions of Ariadne’s abandonment on Dia. In Catullus 64 and Ovid’s Epistulae 10, Ariadne takes stock of her situation as both deserted (by Theseus) and deserter (of her family), and comes to recognize both her geographical isolation and her social remoteness. Paraphrasing Ep. 10.63-64, Manioti writes that “Ovid’s Ariadne...explains that even if she had the means to cross the sea, she would not be welcome on Crete because of a change in her identity brought about by her earlier actions” (57). Manioti argues that these versions of Ariadne articulate the fears of contemporary Roman exiles in a period when exile did not yet actually entail confinement on a nearly empty island. As she puts it, “we can detect in Ariadne’s view of her situation a close affinity to the exiled contemporaries of Catullus and Ovid, even if her self-presentation is intentionally blown out of proportion” (65). Manioti makes only passing allusion to Ovid’s own exilic experience, but this is a welcome decision as it allows her to develop original ideas about real and imagined island exiles. Her exploration of how physical and social dislocation interact in island settings is stimulating and makes a good case for further work. Alejandro Díaz Fernández (Chapter Four) demonstrates rather conclusively that in Sicily and Sardinia, simple praetorian imperium for provincial governors was the rule rather than the exception. Against a conventional understanding that governors were normally proconsuls, Díaz Fernández conducts a review of the literary and epigraphic evidence for Roman commanders, and finds that “Sicily and Sardinia constitute two representative instances of the malleability of the provincial command developed by the Roman Republic, based on the circumstances and needs of each province and each time and not on a systematised norm or law” (74). The argument is basically sound, but assuming proconsular imperium is no longer conventional; Díaz Fernández himself cites the work of a number of scholars, such as Hurlet, Vervaet, and Ferarry, who had already made this point. Further, neither the epigraphic nor the literary records of Sicily and Sardinia are extensive or certain enough to support a positive claim about the normative status of their governors. Still, this essay is effective in continuing the discussion about improvisation in Roman administration of overseas provinces and in setting the stage for a broader comparative study.

Philippe Tisseyre (Chapter Seven) brings his considerable familiarity with underwater archaeology to bear on the question of trade with and between the Aeolian Islands. A brief topographical and literary tour sets the stage for a review of the many shipwrecks recently discovered and excavated in and near Lipari. These shipwrecks demonstrate among other things that Lipari enjoyed rather close commercial contacts with Campania, at least until conditions both ecological (silting) and economic (competition from other ports) closed them down. At the same time, the Aeolian Islands’ relative absence from literary accounts of the fifth and sixth centuries CE can now be countered with good aqua-archaeological evidence for continued habitation and trade.

Marc Mayer Olivé (Chapter Twelve) attempts to get at aspects of insular identity in the Balearic Islands with a three-pronged approach. He first discusses the Roman concept of mare apertum and examines in detail two episodes related to the Baleares that illuminate the duration of the sailing season. Next he looks at the circulation of exotic marble into and through the Baleares, which reveals the islands’ place in Roman Mediterranean shipping routes. Finally he discusses mining operations in the islands and the scanty evidence for pottery production there. A lead anchor stock with the inscription “SES” may be the first physical evidence for the shipping operations of the Sestii, a famous Cosan merchant family known from other sources. Ultimately, Mayer Olivé demurs on the question of insular identities in the Baleares, pleading the homogenizing effects of “the process that is conventionally known as ‘Romanisation’” (256).

Javier Velaza and Víctor Sabaté (Chapters Thirteen and Fourteen) approach the question of insular identity in the western Mediterranean with a shared focus on epigraphy but rather different styles. Velaza reads a Celtiberian funerary inscription found on Ibiza, an Iberian inscription found in Cagliari, and a series of Latin inscriptions found on Majorca and Minorca as evidence of migrating populations from the Iberian and Italian peninsulae. Sabaté, on the other hand, reviews all the inscriptions identified as Iberian from the Balearic Islands and concludes that since only one of these is unquestionably Iberian, there is no reason to think that there was a significant population of Iberians there. Sabaté’s skeptical approach seems more prudent; Velaza is perhaps too ready to see major cultural phenomena in single testimonia, and to explain them by recourse to new populations without addressing the well-established difficulty of proving links between material culture and population makeup. The connections between the islands of the western Mediterranean and the nearby continental coasts are not yet well understood, but these chapters together make a start.

All in all, the volume finds its greatest coherence in this final section on the Balearic Islands. After ten chapters only loosely connected to one another, these final four admirably familiarize the reader with the Greco-Roman history of the Baleares as well as key archaeological and epigraphic finds. In my view, this constitutes the major success of the volume, in addition of course to the accomplishments of certain of the contributions. Beyond that, Velaza has collected a broad range of studies dealing with ancient Mediterranean islands, and while one might well wish for more synthesis, the individual papers may be worth a look.

Table of Contents

Preface vii
Part I. Islands and Identities
1. Identità Insulare (Attilio Mastino – Raimondo Zucca) 3
2. The Islands in Pliny the Elder’s Work: nuda nomina (Francisco Oliveira) 25
3. The View from the Island: Isolation, Exile and the Ariadne Myth (Nikoletta Manioti) 45
4. A Survey of the Roman Provincial Command from Republican Epigraphy: The Cases of Sicily and Sardinia (Alejandro Díaz Fernández) 69
5. Commercio e identità culturale: il caso delle cupae (Giulia Baratta) 93
Part II. From the Atlantic to the Aegean
6. The Mediterranean Inclination in the Archaeological and Epigraphical Profile of Tróia (Setúbal, Portugal) (Sílvia Teixeira) 111
7. La navigation antique dans les îles éoliennes: l’apport de l’archéologie sous-marine (Philippe Tisseyre) 129
8. Routes and Landing on the Cilento Coast: Licosa and its Surroundings from Mythical Suggestions to Archaeological Evidence (Salvatore Agizza) 147
9. The Theatrical Panorama of Republican and Imperial Sicily: Language, Identity and Culture (Víctor González Galera) 159
10. The Wine Trade of Roman Crete: Construction of Onomastic and Geographical Networks (Daniel J. Martín-Arroyo – Luce Prignano – Ignacio Morer – Guillem Rull – Manel García-Sánchez – Albert Díaz-Guilera – José Remesal) 177
Part III. A Case Study: The Balearic Islands
11. The Origin and Timespan of the Names for the Archipelagos, the Islands and the Cities of the Balearic and Pityusic Islands (Josep Amengual i Batle) 197
12. Shipping and the Movement of Materials and Products in the Roman Mediterranean, with particular reference to their reflection in the Balearic Islands (Marc Mayer Olivé) 221
13. Insular Epigraphy or Epigraphic Insularity? The Case of the Insulae Baliares (Javier Velaza) 259
14. Some Remarks on the Iberian Inscriptions from the Balearic Islands and Their Bearing on Questions of Identity (Víctor Sabaté) 273
Bibliography 285


1.   E.g. “oppidus” (pp. 33 and 34), “rately recordedin” (p.117), “Tindarys” (p. 139). The maps are nearly unreadable because of low resolution images, and a number of figures are never cited in the text. Chapter Seven contains two images, Fig. 1 and Fig. 3. In Chapter Thirteen, Fig. 3 is not a photo of CIL II 3677 as labeled, but of 3678, which is nowhere discussed in the text.
2.   Oddly, they do not actually give the numbers of those celebrated pages (264-266 in the 1922 edition of La Terre et l’evolution humaine).

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010