Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.12.11 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.12.11

Sujatha Chandrasekaran, Anna Kouremenos (ed.), Continuity and Destruction in the Greek East: The Transformation of Monumental Space From the Hellenistic Period to Late Antiquity. BAR International Series, 2765.   Oxford:  British Archaeological Reports, 2015.  Pp. vii, 102.  ISBN 9781407314297.  £28.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Rolf Strootman, Utrecht University (

Continuity and Destruction in the Greek East brings together five archaeologists and two historians to consider questions of identity and acculturation in the Middle East 'after Alexander'. In a brief Introduction, Sujatha Chandrasekaran defines the ‘destruction’ and ‘continuity’ of the title as respectively "abrupt change" and "slower, long-term change" (p. 1). The equation of continuity with transformation is interesting. Though the editors follow Miguel John Versluys’ idea that the cultural landscape of the Near East in the Hellenistic and Roman periods is characterized by its inherent pluralism and fluidity of identities,1 the classification of the 'East' as 'Greek' in the volume’s title seems a curious slip of the pen. The volume aims to shift "focus towards the role of the local element as the formative factor for identity" by focusing on changes in monumental space in a number of archaeological sites.

The opening essay by John Ma, 'Space and/as conflict in the Hellenistic period', begins by highlighting continuity and change, conflict, and cultural interactions as key issues of Hellenistic scholarship, pointing out both the long-term and the 'global' nature of these issues. What earlier generations of Hellenistic scholars considered typically Hellenistic often can be traced back to the Classical/Achaemenid period, while the geographical span of the Hellenistic world is now commonly thought to extend in space not only to Central Asia but to the western Mediterranean as well.2 Using the urban landscape of Priene as a testing ground, Ma then suggests three approaches to sudden processes of change in the built environment of cities: conflicts in space, and about space, may be found by looking at the organization of urban space (1) as the outcome of social conflicts, (2) as a complex of meaningful loci for identity, and (3) as something that is shaped by socio-political institutions.

In the first case study, 'Public squares for barbarians? The development of agorai in Pisidia', Rob Rens explores the architectural development of agorai in eight Pisidian cities in Hellenistic and Roman times.3 This is one of the more successful pieces. Rens concentrates on the agora’s function as a contact zone for local citizens, the inhabitants of the wider region, and visitors from abroad. He correctly rejects the post-colonial theories of creolization and hybridity found in older studies of cultural contacts in the ancient world; for these theories insist on 'native' cultures as pure and bounded entities that are thought to become impure through 'non-native' cultural dominance.4 Rens' summary of the recent understanding of 'Romanization' as "transforming cultural contact though a more dialectal process that may have multiple outcomes depending on the specific location and social situation" (p. 11) to my mind also sums up current thinking about 'Hellenism', and is moreover in line with trends in empire studies and colonial archaeology in general. Rens argues that the monumentalization of agorai in Pisidia aimed at achieving the status of urban center in competition with other communities in these cities' vicinity, and vis-à-vis the Roman Empire. This was realized by combining local Anatolian architecture (in particular market buildings) with 'international' building forms from the Aegean world, such as stoai and bouleuteria; later, also Roman imperial influences (e.g. porticoes) emerged at some sites.5 The agora may count as one of three pivotal architectural and institutional elements of a 'global' Hellenistic urban culture that connected cities from Baktria to Sicily.

The next study is ‘From performance to quarry: The evidence of architectural change in the theatre precinct of Nea Paphos in Cyprus over seven centuries’ by Craig Barker. Barker takes on another architectural feature connecting cities across political and cultural boundaries: the stone theater.6 Using the theater of Nea Paphos (Cyprus) and its precinct as a case study, he aims to chart changing uses of public space over many centuries: from the first construction of a theater around 300 BCE until its abandonment in the later fourth century CE as the result of seismic and Christian activity. Barker shows how the various building phases reflect Nea Paphos' incorporation in a network of maritime routes, as well as the city's connections with its two successive imperial 'mother cities', Alexandria and Rome.

Ildikó Csepregi, 'Christian transformation of pagan cult places: The case of Aegae, Cilicia', discusses not only the Christian appropriation of a pre-Christian cult place but also the Christianization of the pagan ritual of incubation sleep. Temple sleep was a deeply rooted tradition with a practical aim: healing. It was not easy for the Church, according to Csepregi, to ban this practice. A variety of saints therefore appeared to the ill in dream visitations, including Thekla, Kosmas and Damian. The incubation miracles performed by these saints typically took place at pagan healing sanctuaries. At the sanctuary of Asklepios at Aegae two Christian healer saints, Zenobius and Zenobia, allegedly were martyred. This prefigured the more influential legend of the sibling saints Kosmas and Damian, who were martyred there as well. Martyrdom of healer saints known for incubation miracles legitimized the construction of memorial building on the original pagan sites. What is not sufficiently addressed, however, is the issue of agency. Were these Christian cults really superimposed top-down by the Church, as the author assumes, or were they (also) the product of changing local beliefs?

Elizabeth Brophy, ‘Lords of two lands, statues of many types: Style and distribution of royal statues in Ptolemaic and Roman times’, identifies different styles of ruler statues in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt. Brophy distinguishes four different statue styles: Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and 'mixed' (p. 59). Of these, the Egyptian-style portrait probably was most numerous, with 48 provenanced examples. Most of these are from temples in Lower Egypt and they all date to the Ptolemaic period. Interestingly, this type of statue is absent from the Fayum region. The Greek-style portraits of the Ptolemies comprise 11 examples from five sites in Lower Egypt and 5 examples from Alexandria. The five sites in Lower Egypt are all administrative centers and/or garrison towns. It remains an open question whether this type of statue represented the Ptolemies' 'Greek' character, as the author maintains (p. 65), or their multicultural, imperial 'face'. Roman-style portraits obviously date to the Roman period and are typically found in Upper Egypt, as well as in Alexandria (respectively 10 and 9 examples). The last category, Egyptian statues with Greek-style or Roman-style features, again are found in Egyptian temples above all.

Gaëlle Coqueugniot, ‘The Hellenistic public square in Europos in Parapotamia (Dura-Europos, Syria) and Seleucia on the Tigris (Iraq) during Parthian and Roman times’, again turns to the agora as a typical feature of the koine of interconnected cities in the Hellenistic east. She points out the late Hellenistic tendency of increasing 'specialization' of public squares, especially the appearance of separate places for commercial and political activities. She then compares developments in Seleukeia-on-the-Tigris and Dura Europos.7 Despite a substantial difference in size between the provincial town Europos and the megacity Seleukeia, the agorai in both cities underwent a similar development. The main trend was indeed a movement toward a more specialized political and administrative function, evidenced in the archaeological record by, among other things, the appearance in both cities of prominent buildings for fiscal administration and the complete absence of religious constructions. The latter is remarkable notably in Europos, where despite the town's relative small size no fewer than nineteen sanctuaries have been excavated.

The last contribution to the volume is by Claudia Bührig and is entitled ‘Development, change, and decline of urban spaces: Gadara (Jordan) from the 2nd century BC to the 8th century AD as demonstrated by the theatre-temple-area’. Focusing on the temple area in the northwestern part of town, Bührig outlines the urban development of the city of Gadara in present-day Jordan from its earliest archaeological attestation in the third century BCE to the city's abandonment under the Umayyads. Though probably a new Hellenistic foundation, the area in which the city was located shows evidence of continuous settlement since Prehistory. Strategically located at a crossroads of long-distance routes, Gadara in Hellenistic times served mainly as a military stronghold. Gadara's history is as violent as the history of the Hellenistic World itself, as the fortress was frequently fought over by Ptolemies, Seleukids, Nabataeans, Hasmoneans and Romans. After incorporation in the Roman Provincia Syria in 64/63 BCE, the focus of building activity shifted from military to civic architecture. Most conspicuous was the monumentalization of the Late Hellenistic sanctuary precinct and the construction of a large theater facing that sanctuary. Under the Empire the city was a hub in a network of trade routes. Thanks to Roman promotion of urbanization (which involved the construction of a ca. 150 km long water supply system), Gadara reached it greatest extent in the third century CE. In Late Antiquity the city flourished as a diocese, but the temple area had by that time already been abandoned.

The volume is concluded by a brief afterword by Anna Kouremenos. She concludes that the abrupt destruction of monumental space was not common, as even in Christian times pagan or civic spaces were appropriated or gradually abandoned rather than deliberately erased from the urban landscape.

The volume's aim to give a more balanced view of "the power-play between Greeks and locals" and to shift "focus towards the role of the local element as the formative factor for identity", is laudable (p. 1). But does this really constitute a new approach? The foregrounding of local diversity and indigenous agency has characterized cultural studies concerned with the Hellenistic and Roman Near East since at least the 1990s, and it is questionable whether it can still be maintained that local societies are in danger of disappearing from view "against the overwhelming backdrop of Greek conquest and 'Hellenization'" (p. 1). Rather, it seems that 'Hellenism' as a concept has been disappearing from scholarly debates because of its perceived colonial overtones (though it is now making a come-back in discussions of elite identity in the Seleukid and post-Seleukid Near East, and more generally to denote a form of early 'globalization'). Also the strict dichotomy of ‘Greek conquerors’ and non-Greek subalterns seems somewhat out of date, and at odds with current thinking about cultural exchanges and imperial interactions. A strong theoretical underpinning or engagement with recent literature on cultural encounters in the Hellenistic world is lacking (but see the critical remarks on acculturation in Rens’ contribution to the volume). Also, the cohesion of the volume would have been improved if the contributors had been given opportunity to make use of Ma's useful suggestions for approaching urban development.

But these remarks aside, this richly illustrated book has much to offer for both archaeologists and historians interested in the religious and social history of the Near East in Hellenistic and Roman times.


1.   M. J. Versluys, ‘Exploring identities in the Phoenician, Hellenistic and Roman East’, Bibliotheca Orientalis 65.3-4 (2008) 342-356, especially 354. It is unfortunate that the introduction engages with no more pertinent works on culture and acculturation in the Hellenistic and Roman 'East', such as (to mention only a few important ones) F. Millar, The Roman Near East, 31 B.C.-A.D. 337 (Cambridge, MA, 1993); T. Kaizer ed., The Variety of Local Religious Life in the Near East in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods (Leiden 2008); L. Bricault and M. J. Versluys eds., Isis on the Nile: Egyptian gods in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt (Leiden 2010); L. Török, Hellenizing Art in Ancient Nubia, 300 B.C.-AD 250 and its Egyptian Models: A Study in 'Acculturation' (Leiden 2011); and E. Stavrianopoulou ed., Shifting Social Imaginaries in the Hellenistic Period: Narrations, Practices, and Images (Leiden 2013).
2.   See recently J. R. W. Prag and J. C. Quinn (eds.), The Hellenistic West: Rethinking the Ancient Mediterranean (Cambridge 2013); R. Mairs, The Hellenistic Far East: Archaeology, Language, and Identity in Greek Central Asia (Berkeley and Los Angeles 2014). Cf. the recent proposal of P. Thonemann, The Hellenistic World: Using Coins as Sources (Cambridge 2015), to see the Hellenistic world as a 'koine' of shared forms of coinage that extended even to ‘Celtic’ Europe.
3.   Adada, Ariassos, Kremna, Melli, Pednelissos, Sagalassos, Selge, and Termessos.
4.   See now O. Ette and U. Wirth eds., Nach der Hybridität. Zukünfte der Kulturtheorie (Berlin 2014); M. J. Versluys, Visual Style and Constructing Identity in the Hellenistic World: Nemrud Dağ and Commagene under Antiochos I (Cambridge 2017).
5.   These developments are described by the author as processes of partial "self-Hellenization" and "self-Romanization" (p. 29-30).
6.   The third architectural/institutional feature of transcultural Hellenistic urbanism, I would suggest, is the gymnasion.
7.   For convenience I will not follow Coqueugniot's, very defendable, preference for writing 'Europos-Dura' (or 'Europos in Parapotamia') to emphasize that the Aramaic name Dura is in all probability of a much later date than the city's original, Seleukid name 'Europos' (and perhaps to also expose the modern notion that what seems 'native' always must be older and more pure than what we think of as 'foreign').

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