Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.04.24 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.04.24

Anna Kouremenos (ed.), Insularity and Identity in the Roman Mediterranean.   Oxford; Philadelphia:  Oxbow, 2018.  Pp. 208.  ISBN 9781785705809.  $55.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Erica Angliker, Institute of Classical Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London (

Insularity is a paradigm that has impacted the identities of various populations of the Mediterranean, a region characterized by a great many islands lying in relative proximity to each other and continental masses. The islands have traditionally been viewed as places simultaneously isolated and engaged in multiple networks. In recent years, however, scholars working on insularity have gone beyond this contradiction to examine other features of these islands, which they now regard as dynamic sites continuously shaped by multiple processes. Within this context, insularity is no longer a phenomenon that is uniformly applied to every island, but an open subject that is culturally constructed. The present volume of essays, whose origins lie in a session presented at the Roman Archaeology Conference panel organized by Anna Kouremenos at the University of Reading in 2014, contributes a great deal to the research on islands by presenting several cases studies on the relationship between insularity and identity. To this end, it has brought together a group of archeologists and historians working on different islands.

Its ten essays open with a preface by Kouremenos (Chapter 1), in which she defines the principal objective of the project, namely, to investigate insularity and identity in the Roman Mediterranean through the study of specific island groups within the interconnected world of the Roman Empire. Explored in the volume are question such as: what does it mean to be an island? How did insularity shape ethnic, cultural, and social identity in the Mediterranean during the Roman period? And how were the islands connected to the mainland and other islands? Given that the Roman period has traditionally been regarded as one that caused significant disruption on the various islands of the Mediterranean, the volume also poses the crucial question as to whether insularity led to the isolation of these islands or whether they participated in a common Roman culture.

In Chapter Two, Jody Michael Gordon questions the traditional view of Cyprus as an isolated and provincial backwater during the Roman period. Through careful analysis of archaeological remains, generally neglected by scholars due to their uniformity, the author shows that diverse local identities flourished on the island throughout this period. The author argues that the physical size of Cyprus (the third largest island in the Mediterranean) meant that the island was home to a wide range of topographical features (the Troodos Massif in the west, the Pentadaktylos Mountain in the north, the Mesaoria Plain on the east, as well as 600 km of coastline) that not only affected the way in which its inhabitants perceived insularity, but also provided it with abundant and varied natural resources. Gordon also shows how these resources, paired with the island’s strategic location at a hyper-connected crossroads, enabled Cyprus to participate in the networks of the Roman period.

In Chapter Three, Anna Kouremenos investigates insularity and identity on Crete in the Roman period, which she interprets by discussing the notions of Cretan insularity during the Archaic period and as presented in the epic tradition. Before presenting her argument, she first discusses the concept of insularity with great care. Given the multifaceted meaning of this concept, Kouremenos’ clarification is highly opportune. She then shows how the location, climate and economic activities of Crete, as well as its mythological/historical past, gave form to its identity and corresponding insularity. As in Gordon’s chapter, so here, topographical features are presented as being important to the shaping of the island’s identity. Kouremenos points out, for example, that the mountains dividing the island at its center led to the formation of subcultures that explored various natural resources. With the Roman conquest, Crete became part of the empire and was thus able, she argues, to export greater quantities of its products through the latter’s ample network. She also points out that in addition to trading its natural resources, Crete took advantage of its famous mythological past to promote tourism on the island.

In Chapter Four, Alkiviadis A. Ginalis uses the Northern Sporades (Skiathos and Skopelos, which were known in antiquity as Paparethos and Alonnesos, or Ikos), to demonstrate the diachronic shift from insularity (Roman Republican) to “islandness” (Imperial period). With the help of written documents and ceramic evidence, the author shows that the proximity and relationship of these islands to the Thessalian coast had a direct impact on how they perceived their insularity. During the Republican period, when the Romans regarded them as strategic steppingstones in their expansion eastward, the islands were highly insular and possessed an independent identity through which they attempted to preserve their sustainability. During the Imperial era, they developed regional and supra-regional trade within the networks of the Roman mare nostrum. This economic participation in the Roman Empire led to a change in identity and a population that perceived itself as isolated.

In Chapter Five, Sophia Zoumbaki examines the Ionian islands. Here geography once again played a key role in insularity. The author observes that the islands’ proximity to the mainland and crossroads in Adriatic waters meant that their inhabitants never perceived themselves as absolutely insular; indeed, on various occasions they joined forces with the mainland. By examining each island separately, Zoumbaki shows that though all of them participated in maritime trade and the networks promoted by the Romans, the interaction between them and Rome was not uniform.

Chapter Six, by Danijel Dzino, discusses connectivity and insularity on central Adriatic islands by focusing on one particular cultural aspect of the exchange between these islands and the Roman world: the cult of Silvanus. The author shows that on these islands, Silvanus was represented with Pan’s attributes much as he was in Dalmatia. This image of Silvanus, the author argues, differs visually from the one found in other areas of the Empire. Based on this particularity, Dzino concludes that the islands were connected to the Dalmatian mainland and thus represented Silvanus in a manner common to Dalmatia. Nonetheless, this connection should not be interpreted as evidence of the cultural unity of these two places as the god was not a native divinity. Silvanus was, in fact, an Italic god worshipped by the local population. After aligning himself with more recent theories that have abandoned the traditional dichotomy—the local populations’ acceptance of or resistance to the Romans—Dzino proposes that the worship of Silvanus as Pan expressed both local cultic practices and connections to Dalmatia. As local cultic places traditionally associated with Silvanus became globally recognized symbols, connectivity, promoted by the Roman Empire, enabled these communities to participate in the creation of common images and symbols such as Silvanus.

In Chapter Seven, Maxine Anastasi explores the relationship between identity and industry on Malta. Her paper offers a good example of how to examine insularity by going beyond the information provided by literary texts. Instead of examining textiles—a product that made the island well known in Antiquity but is mentioned only in literary sources as it has left behind few archaeological traces—the author explores the production of wine and olive oil, which are not mentioned by ancient authors. Through a meticulous analysis of ceramics, Anastasi shows that wine consumption remained local, while olive oil was produced for exportation on a large scale. She also makes an important observation on the presence of imported ceramic fine ware, the use of which never outdid that of local ware. She concludes that given the purchasing capability of the Maltese, the preference for local wares may indicate a deliberate decision to promote local identity.

Moving on to Sardinia, Chapter Eight turns to the theoretical concept of insularity as a means of understanding Sardinian identity. Andrea Roppa, its author, argues that this island, which was relatively isolated despite its central location in the western Mediterranean, was characterized by a multifaceted insularity. In contrast to the Bronze and Iron Age, during which Sardinia developed a strong cultural identity, the Republican period saw the elite exploiting Mediterranean connectivity to participate in trade networks. Roppa demonstrates that though its communities retained some traces of their Punic cultural roots, they gradually submitted to change; by the early Imperial era, typically Roman material culture had penetrated all aspects of its life.

In Chapter Nine, Jean-Baptiste Mary discusses the insularity of Corsica, an island that has benefitted from little scholarly attention. His paper is a detailed and valuable survey that allows us to identify those places mentioned in ancient texts. After examining ceramic evidence, which includes a significant quantity of imported Greco-Italic items, the author concludes that though the island’s indigenous population never abandoned its culture, the presence of such imported objects indicates a desire to adopt certain Roman practices. Mary claims that the adoption of Roman culture was the consequence of internal divisions within local populations, which led to the rise of pro-Roman groups.

In the final chapter of the volume (199-205), Swii Yii Lim surveys the preceding chapters to present some general conclusions drawn from the volume as a whole. Highly valuable here are her suggestions for future research. Lim is absolutely correct in her observation that archaeological evidence offers the key to revising various earlier scholarly views of the islands. Indeed, Lim’s claim is confirmed by a recent publication on the Roman Cyclades in which archaeological and historical documents are combined to demonstrate that the common view of the Cyclades’ decline during the Roman period does not correspond with the material evidence and needs to be reevaluated.1 In the future, many misconceptions about the islands can be dismissed through studies of this type. Lim is also right to draw attention to the way in which the concepts of insularity and identity have been used, and the multiplicity of approaches and interpretations these constructs entail.

The present volume is an important methodological contribution for all those interested in insular studies more broadly, as many of the questions and problems raised therein can be applied to comparable contexts in various periods. Its essays show that the size of islands, their natural resources and geography, their location within maritime nodes, and their proximity to the mainland are all factors that influence particular configurations of insularity. However, such fixed factors can be manipulated by the populations of different islands to generate myriad identities within insular space. The volume also shows that insularity is not a fixed concept but one that varies by island, each of which has its own ways of constructing and negotiating identity. Finally, the volume will also be welcome by those interested in the Roman Empire in general. The essays contribute to the theory that the Romans did not transmit a uniform cultural package to the territories that they conquered. Instead, their culture was a multi-faceted globalized system in which cultural values were negotiated between imperial entities and local populations.


1.   Enora Le Quéré, Les Cyclades sous l'Empire romain: histoire d'une renaissance. Histoire. Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2015).

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