Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.06.05 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.06.05

Gabriel Zuchtriegel, Colonization and Subalternity in Classical Greece: Experience of the Nonelite Population.   New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2017.  Pp. xii, 272.  ISBN 9781108419031.  £75.00.  

Reviewed by Nino Luraghi, New College Oxford (


This book is based largely on the author’s and other scholars’ fieldwork at Heraclea Lucaniae, the colony founded by Tarentum in 433/2 (date according to Diod. 12.36.4) on the site of the ancient Ionian colony of Siris (modern-day Policoro) after the end of the war with the Thurians. It is a thought-provoking interpretive essay with an explicit political agenda. Subalternity, a category ultimately derived from the political philosophy of the Italian political thinker Antonio Gramsci, is redefined through the filter of post-colonial studies to include (although not exclusively) groups whose marginality would have been defined by the actors in ethnic terms—those we nowadays somewhat clumsily tend to call ‘the non-Greeks.’ A Greek polis surrounded by a non-Greek hinterland becomes accordingly an ideal case study for Zuchtriegel, whose definition of subalternity is however not merely ethnic but includes also social marginality and gender difference.

A very eclectic product, Colonization and Subalternity engages at one end of the spectrum with familiar scholarly debates and figures from Anglo-American cultural studies such as Edward Saïd, while at the other addressing critically the work of German archaeologists like Wolfram Hoepfner and Ernst-Ludwig Schwandner, whose 1986 edited volume Stadt und Haus im klassischen Griechenland (second edition in 1994) is taken as exemplary of a ‘top-down and text-driven approach’ to archaeological evidence which Zuchtriegel attempts to reverse (3ff; further criticism of Hoepfner and Schwandner at 46-7, 51-3). For all that he engages explicitly with methods and questions from cultural theory, Zuchtriegel is refreshingly empirical in his arguments, and even readers who will be less than impressed with his broader conclusions will profit from his discussions of materials, contexts and topography.

The opening chapter sets out the goals, methodology and evidentiary basis of the volume. The first ten pages or so are devoted to what I called the political agenda of the book: Zuchtriegel intends to approach Classical Greece from a non-classicist angle, focusing on the voiceless, the marginal, all those whose life experience tends to fall outside the scope of ancient Greek written sources. For these groups, Zuchtriegel uses the term ‘subaltern’, for him interchangeable with ‘nonelite’, the latter an unspecific and somewhat unhelpful term that Greek historians have been using more and more often in the last decades, especially in North America—the present reader wonders whether Gramsci would have approved of this terminological slippage. Zuchtriegel intends to look for the places inhabited by these groups, quite literally, in the material record of the colonial areas. Methodology is dispatched in two pages, of which less than half actually refer to what Zuchtriegel plans to do in the rest of the book. By contrast, the better part of the chapter is dedicated to establishing the importance of fifth- and fourth-century colonization. Zuchtriegel compiles an overview of known cases of poleis founded in this period that takes up two thirds of the chapter.

With chapter 2, the search for subalternity begins. Zuchtriegel is keen to establish that the vision often propagated by archeologists, and especially by his bêtes noires Hoepfner and Schwandner, of regular grid plans and standardized houses roughly equal in size and layout as characteristic of the early phases of new foundations, is either wrong or misleading. Regular grid plans are indeed attested, directly or indirectly, but when it comes to houses, the situation according to Zuchtriegel was different. Pointing to the examples of Priene, Kamarina, Thurioi and Amphipolis, he argues that in fifth-century colonies evidence for domestic architecture is all but absent for decades after the foundation date. The same appears to happen in Heraclea. For Zuchtriegel, at least the first generation of colonists actually lived in huts made of wood and straw. In this precarious situation, the absence of well-defined spatial differentiation within the urban settlement would have undermined the enforcement of social hierarchy and gender roles by way of spatial segregation within the household that was typical of Greek urban settlements. In any case, ‘architectural standardization was not necessarily a direct result of the foundation of a colony,’ (55), where the qualifiers (‘necessarily’, ‘direct’) rather undermine the force of the statement.

Chapter 3 switches attention from the dwellings of the living to those of the dead. If much of chapter 2 was devoted to disproving Hoepfner and Schwandner’s vision of the egalitarian Typenhäuser, here 20 pages are devoted to undermining their notion that classical burial practices were marked by ‘a high degree of modesty and uniformity’ (75): no Typenhäuser, no Typengräber. The discussion is largely based on the evidence from Heraclea, of which only about 20% is published. The Tomb of the Policoro Painter receives pride of place, and Zuchtriegel has interesting observations on the coexistence of extraordinary burials like this one and a rather less striking general pattern, where even burials which presumably belonged to the political elite are not terribly rich in terms of assemblage. In Heraclea, the trend appears to go from burials with few grave goods in the earlier phases to richer assemblages towards the end of the fourth century. Zuchtriegel insists on the diversity of colonial cemeteries, and of Greek cemeteries of the classical period in general.

If Typenhäuser and Typengräber are phantom created by the eye of the beholder, the locus of colonial equality, it turns out, was land distribution, addressed in Chapter 4. The settlement pattern that emerges from the study of Heraclea and its territory reflects the egalitarian ideology of Classical Greek colonists. Leveraging especially the psephisma of Lumbarda (Syll. 3 141), Zuchtriegel argues that in Classical colonies equality of land allotments was the norm. Whether such an egalitarian model really existed in the archaic period, Zuchtriegel finds debatable (117). Based on a very persuasive combination of survey evidence, cost-distance analysis, and carrying capacity calculations, Zuchtriegel suggests that early Heraclea was an Ackerbürger-polis with a population of some 17-18,000 (117-22). He then discusses evidence for land division at Kamarina, Chersonesos and Pharos, estimating the size of land plots and the possible numbers of citizens. Throughout, equal lots are taken to indicate egalitarianism and democracy. A higher density of evidence allows for a more detailed discussion of the case of Metapontion (130-6), where evidence from the chora shows a drop in the number of farmsteads between 525 and 475, while the ekklesiasterion by the agora was built around 550-500 BCE and renovated around 500-450. Zuchtriegel concludes that a redistribution of land occurred, creating a hoplite citizen body of Ackerbürger, while the wealthier elite owned large estates in the territory of Siris. The redistribution of land was part of a project that included the construction of an incredibly extensive drainage system, a truly gigantic enterprise which must have been very expensive, too.

Based on the size of the lots, Zuchtriegel concludes that equality in new-founded colonies was at the level of subsistence, i.e. every holder of a plot was guaranteed basic livelihood for his family, but the whole family had to work on the plot (hence increased female agency). Inequality was there from the beginning, resulting from differences in chremata among first-generation colonists. One problem here is the difference between egalitarian and democratic. Consider for example Metapontion: was the reformed city of the late 6th century democratic? Or was it simply egalitarian in the distribution of the land closer to the urban center? Was Heraclea democratic, for that matter?

In any case, colonial egalitarianism was short-lived, as suggested by the evidence for farmsteads discussed in chapter 5. From c. 350 BCE onwards, differentiation in the countryside of Heraclea becomes archaeologically more visible. Rural dwellers emerge, some with small farmsteads, and these will be poorer citizens who tried to increase their productivity by moving closer to their workplace (and maybe some non-citizen and indigenous groups, but the author does not make it clear why he allows for this possibility). With reference to evidence for the Policoro area after World War II, Zuchtriegel offers the intriguing thesis that ancient peasants would be prepared to walk 8 km from the urban center to reach their fields, but if they lived close to the fields, they were much less likely to walk 8 km to reach the urban center and participate in the political process. Hence the widespread notion in classical authors that living in the countryside involved social downgrading (Zuchtriegel’s word, 155) and exclusion from the political process. The rich evidence from the chora of Chersonesos provides an additional perspective. Here, the land was divided into regular plots, with no rural burials but some 140 sites, typically around towers, while the land farther away was littered with farmsteads with their own burial sites, documenting Greek and non-Greek rituals and goods: clearly, the ethnic, economic and cultural structure of this borderland was different from that of Chersonesos itself. Summing up (162-3), for Zuchtriegel the emergence of farmsteads removed from the urban settlement indicates the failure of the egalitarian model. At the same time, the sub-urban farmers did not develop a class consciousness because they were not clearly distinguished from the Ackerbürger, who did exactly the same job but lived in the city and therefore participated in the political process.

Chapter 6 starts with the problem of the economic symbiosis between mountains and coast. Zuchtriegel points to a gap from about 450 to 350 BCE in the archaeological evidence for communities in the Lucanian mountains overlooking the coastal plains. When settlements reappear, the material culture is completely different: these are the Lucanians, Zuchtriegel concludes in the footsteps of previous scholars. The Lucanian oppida, hilltop fortified settlements, were surrounded by scatters of farmsteads from the very beginning (i.e. the farmsteads here do not emerge as a result of a process of marginalization of formerly urban dwellers). In the farmsteads lived middle-class men, buried with bronze belts, weapons and strigils—the body of the Lucanian armies in future decades. Apart from specific items, especially weapons found in graves, the material culture of the Lucanian settlements is largely indistinguishable from that of the Greeks further downstream. They all use Italiote red-figure pottery, no longer a mark of social distinction. On the other hand, roof tiles distinguish Greek from Lucanian rural settlements with surprising clarity: Laconian for the Greeks, flat for the Lucanians (resulting in more complex and technologically more advanced roofs). Based on the shape and distribution of loom-weights, it would appear that Lucanians followed the traditional household production model, while in Heraclea wool was apparently produced for trade, using round loom weights. At the same time, since the territory of Heraclea, mostly coastal and flat, did not have much space for sheep, it is likely that the wool was bought from the Lucanians. More broadly, the relationship between Heraclea and the Lucanians appears to have been one of economic interdependence. During the fourth century, this symbiotic system appears to have brought prosperity to both parties.

The borderland turns out to be an area where ethnic boundaries blur. According to Zuchtriegel, Greek and Lucanian farmsteads would have been scarcely distinguishable from one another due to their sharing basically the same material culture (but what of the roofs?). Greeks living in the eschatia where suspiciously close to the Lucanians and far away from the participatory practices of the polis (gymnasia, for one). If they tried to be involved, they needed to be away from home for longish periods of time, in which their wives took over as heads of household, which would have seemed like an un-Greek trait.

In chapter 7, the distribution of early Lucanian and Apulian red-figure pottery brings Zuchtriegel to the observation that no Classical colony has yielded any evidence of specialized craft production during the early years of its life, with the exception of Kamarina. From 350 BCE onwards, on the other hand, in Heraclea pottery production is documented over large parts of the city. According to Zuchtriegel, there was no place for craftsmen in the early phases of a Classical colony: citizens were poor (they lived in huts), so craftsmen found no customers, and ideologically citizens wanted to be Ackerbürger, so even if craftsmen had been present among the settlers, they would have given up their trade in order to become peasant-citizens. In the 8th and 7th centuries, raw materials and craftsmen would have been indispensable for the new colonies, but by the 5th century the city-states had become highly effective and interconnected administrative organizations, and a new foundation could live without craftsmen, importing all specialized products from the metropolis and paying in grain. In the case of Heraclea, this means especially that the metropolis Tarentum appears to have provided the newly-founded colony with a number of specialized productions. Stone walls at Heraclea were made of Tarentine carparo stone, with marks similar (according to Zuchtriegel, but the images are less straightforward) to the ones on the walls of Tarentum from the mid-fifth, and pietra tenera capitals from the mid-fourth still betray the Tarentine background of the stonemasons.

While 5th- and 4th-century colonies were dependent on their metropolis in their early phases, some never developed into completely self-sufficient systems. Issa and Pharos, originally peasant colonies of Syracuse and Paros, remained peasant cities even after the links with the founding cities had been weakened, because they traded with the indigenous communities of the hinterland. Kamarina on the other hand appears to be a total exception: graves were often very rich, there were kilns located outside the settlement, farmsteads are attested from the beginning, in other words there was specialization and division of labor. Correspondingly, the ties to the metropolis of 461 BCE, Gela, were clearly rather weak. Amphipolis may correspond to the same model: Thucydides says that many citizens lived in the countryside and on the other hand, ties with Athens were rescinded soon and Sparta was in no position to provide the kind of support that would allow Amphipolis to be an Ackerbürger polis.

The conclusion opens with a lucid statement on subaltern groups and their role in the colonies, the threat of hybridization, and the way that in fact marginalization confirmed the cultural hegemony of Greekness. A discussion of utopian divisions of the citizen body theorized by 5th-century Greek political thinkers and then canonized by Plato and Aristotle leads Zuchtriegel to the conclusion that the specific colonial experience of the Classical period had a key role in the development of central aspects of Classical Greek political thought. The conclusion is summed up in one paragraph (232): if Aristotle could imagine the ideal polis as formed of landowners and warriors, this is because that was the ideological image projected by Classical colonies. In Zuchtriegel’s own words (page 235), “in practice and theory, Classical colonization has laid the foundations for the systematic concealment of exploitation and subalternity through the abstract space of the political.”

As the summary above tried to make clear, Colonization and Subalternity provides abundant food for thought to the reader. It points to bodies of evidence that have not always formed part of debates they have a lot to contribute to. Whether or not its attempt to bring back to life the marginal will be deemed successful, it is certainly a book that shifts focus away from the adult, male, Greek full citizens who take up (too) much of the attention of Greek historians well into the 21st century CE. Zuchtriegel is so far from being Athenocentric that he does not even feel the need to stress the limiting influence of Athenocentrism—one of several ways in which the book reveals its origin outside of the Anglo-Saxon Athenomaniac debate. First and foremost, however, this is a book that engages with evidence from the ground level of the ancient Mediterranean world, pointing to the many urgent questions that such evidence poses to the interpreter.

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