Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.07.53 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.07.53

D. Graham J. Shipley, The Early Hellenistic Peloponnese: Politics, Economies, and Networks 338-197 BC..   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2018.  Pp. xxxii, 355.  ISBN 9780521873697.  £90.00.  

Reviewed by Aaron L. Beek, University of Memphis (


In this work, Shipley asserts the early Hellenistic Peloponnese as under-examined, a fault no doubt rectified by this work, supplemented by several others in the last year, particularly Kralli 2017.1 In terms of the economic side of things, Rostovtzeff 1941 was and is still a standard work, so this is a contribution both welcome and long overdue. As Shipley notes, there has been a fair amount of highly localized and specialized epigraphic, numismatic, and archaeological work in the Peloponnese in recent decades, requiring a slightly broader work like this to present those findings. The result is a cautious presentation of a large quantity of evidence, much of it new. In any case, this excellent volume serves a most valuable role in bringing specialized archaeological research to the eyes of researchers in other specialties. In turn, this research does much to update our views on how the cities of the Peloponnese interacted in Hellenistic politics and economics more generally, and emphasizes that the Peloponnese rarely, if ever, acted as a unified region in this period.

The chronological aims (and bookends) of 338-197 BCE are clear and traditional. Shipley does not present the Peloponnese as a unified whole, of course, but in each chapter proceeds around the Peloponnese, covering Argolis, Korinthia-Sikyonia, Achaia, Eleia, Triphylia (often merged with another region), Arkadia, Messenia, and Laconia. The five chapters of the book are not divided chronologically but rather into particular areas of interest (if I may over-summarize, chapter divisions are an introduction and geography, warfare/international politics, local politics, economics, and regional networks). Many of the ensuing conclusions are necessarily tentative, for the evidence is frequently suggestive rather than definite or indicative. They are nevertheless important, however, as they frequently pose counternarratives to Plutarch and Polybius, rather than reinforcing them.

In Chapter 1, “The Acropolis of Greece”, Shipley first examines the question: Was Old Greece a backwater in this period? If not, why don’t we have more interest in it? If it was, why were later ancient leaders so interested in it (if Plutarch’s Lives are any indication)? In this writer’s opinion, Shipley’s assessment of the lack of study may reflect a chiefly pedagogical trend rather than a strictly academic one, as many a Greek history survey ends with Alexander, with the future history of the eastern Mediterranean returning in Rome-focused studies. Shipley argues that the apparent Peloponnesian disengagement from the forefront of international matters marks a clear story of quiet prosperity, not desperate poverty. The historic literature for the period is limited, but the numismatic and epigraphic records remain reasonably strong. The second half of the first chapter includes generally clear and thorough geographical distinctions, though in some cases the distinctions are drawn in terms of relief and movement; in other cases in terms of produce.2 Both are important distinctions, but in combination they cause the terms to occasionally fall short in clarity in later chapters, when less precision is given. The local topography was clearly important strategically and economically (whether in terms of agricultural or mineral resources), and Shipley convincingly presents this topography as crucial to understanding the inter-regional relationships. These two questions, (that of the nature of Hellenistic Peloponnesian wealth, and that of how to piece together local regional relationships from our archaeological evidence), dominate the discussions of the next four chapters.

The aim of the second chapter, “Warfare and Control”, is to reexamine the impact of Macedonian and Spartan power on the (rest of the) Peloponnese and present a new narrative of the period. Shipley starts with a narrative of classical and Hellenistic history, the Spartan hegemony, early Macedonian domination, revolt against the Macedonians, and Macedonian intervention in situations of stasis followed by the evidence for an anti-Macedon alliance and the semi-resurgent Sparta. This situation resolved itself into a Macedonian-Achaean alliance against a Sparta-Aetolian alliance near the end of the period under study. In essence, the history of the late third century appears dominated by attempts at keeping both Spartan and Macedonian hegemony at bay, while the Macedonians appear more interested in Peloponnesian quiescence than Peloponnesian conquest.

Chapter 3, “Power and Politics” paves a different path through much of the same evidence. Here, the discussion of hegemons and poleis now truly focuses on the development of different political systems. While the traditional tripartite distinctions of aristocracy, monarchy and democracy are present, Shipley questions this division, given the amount of variability and experimentation in government. In particular, he shows that the rise of tyrannies in the Peloponnese cannot be laid squarely at the feet of Macedonian impositions. Polybius considers the Greek cities to have succumbed to Macedonian force (p.116 cf. Polyb. 38.4.3), but might not tyranny be newly popular in the Peloponnese on its own merits? As has been frequently observed, and reinforced again here, the Polybian theory of anacyclosis does not match history well. Moreover, whatever the initial impact of Macedonian hegemony, there is little evidence of Macedonian ‘management’ of their supporters, and its intervention in stasis had more to do with states’ foreign policy than in ideology. And while stasis is generally framed as democrats vs. oligarchs in the historical sources, there is little enough similarity between democratic regimes or between oligarchic regimes—functionally, these are labels rather than ideologies.

Chapter 4, “Economies and Landscapes” then turns to examine the economic development of the Peloponnese, at heart arguing that the usual assessment that the Peloponnese was an impoverished backwater comes up short when the material evidence is considered.3 Shipley sharply calls into question numerous underlying assumptions about what sort of growth is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Here he describes how external factors such as natural disasters and military invasions or interventions had notable impacts, especially in the late fourth century, but not overwhelmingly so. A lack of movable wealth, especially a lack of precious metal, may be better seen as a relative lack of wealth in the larger context of an influx of eastern gold and silver into the eastern Mediterranean. While there are substantial changes in settlement patterns, the effects vary widely by region and, contrary to what past resources have led us to believe, the effects of warfare are described as at most a partial explanation for changes in urban and rural settlement. Trends that may fit a smaller region like Arcadia or Achaea rarely fit the Peloponnese as a whole. The fourth and third centuries produce over 500 known inscriptions, though over 60% of these fall within the territories of Arcadia and Argolis.4 Additionally, new and old archaeological surveys reveal many Hellenistic Peloponnesian poleis exhibit a fair amount of rebuilding or additional building on grid plans. At the same time, rural estates seem to grow somewhat larger (pp.194-195), while the discoveries of a late fourth-century boom in building projects suggests both military devastation and a resilient economic base. Similarly, while numerous interesting local observations arise from the study of pottery and numismatics, rarely can they be applied to the entire Peloponnese, aside from making Shipley’s point that the Peloponnese was no backwater, but an active participant in the Mediterranean economy.

Chapter 5 “Region, Network, and Polis” poses arguments for what the Peloponnese was truly like in terms of identity, and indeed, there was little to frame as a Doric or Peloponnesian identity. The Macedonian impact was significant, but Macedonian aims were more to prevent the Peloponnese from becoming a problem than to conquer it outright (with the possible exception of the strategic city of Corinth). The development of regional leagues and the subjugation of smaller settlements to larger ones may have made the Peloponnesian poleis more resistant to outside intervention, but even members of these leagues exhibited little display of ‘Arcadian’ or ‘Achaean’ identity. Studies of land routes within the Peloponnese suggest substantial interconnectivity, but the weight of the evidence suggests that the greatest agency appears to have remained at the level of the polis, though the seven larger poleis also dominated their local regions.

The frontmatter and backmatter are crisp, clear, and precise. The close-up regional maps are very useful for locating smaller settlements, but a complete map of the Peloponnese is lacking, and some regions are hard to examine (for instance, Argos, Epidauros, and Halieis are to be found on different maps).

The rigid limitation to the Peloponnese proper means that a few categories of studies seem to be lacking. For example, we a see a very respectable use of epigraphy located in the Peloponnese, but little to no epigraphy located outside the Peloponnese but with Peloponnesian interlocutors (as found on the Aegean islands as well as Attica), which would markedly strengthen the arguments of chapter five. So too are modern studies of the Aetolians underrepresented when discussing Peloponnesian conflicts with the Aetolians. And for some reason, Philip V’s further meddling with the koinon of the Cretans (an important homeland for the mercenaries hired by Nabis of Sparta) receives no mention, and indeed Crete generally appears as a primarily Ptolemaic pawn, despite Achaean interventions. Indeed, one might quibble that the study would have been enriched by the inclusion of slightly more territory, the northern shore of the Corinthian gulf—as these cities, particularly Naupaktos, almost certainly developed more closely in line with the Achaean cities than their inland Aetolian neighbors.) I mention such omissions more as a service to the reader who might be looking for such wider international networks than as a criticism of the book, which achieves its goals in focusing on the regions of the Peloponnese.

Even in the places where I disagreed with Shipley, I found the arguments reasonable, even enthralling, and generally, I found the evidence compelling enough to state some conclusions more forcefully. The end result is a substantial and useful update to the status quo perception of the early Hellenistic Peloponnese.


1.   Andrew Erskine, Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones and Shane Wallace (eds.), The Hellenistic Court: Monarchic Power and Elite Society from Alexander to Cleopatra, (Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2017); Henning Börm and Nino Luraghi (eds.). The polis in the Hellenistic world. (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2018). Maher, Matthew P. The fortifications of Arkadian city states in the Classical and Hellenistic periods. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). Ioanna Kralli: The Hellenistic Peloponnese. Interstate Relations. A Narrative and Analytic History, from the Fourth Century to 146 BC. (Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2017). Though Shipley’s book came out too late to make full use of the Kralli volume (as noted, p.xxiii), there is a solid last-minute effort to cite Kralli at the most pertinent points.
2.   For examples: the mountains around Messene create ‘no real bar to movement’, (p.14), the highlands of Arcadia can grow neither olives nor figs (p.23).
3.   Here we may consider Rostovtzeff 1941 (Rostovtzeff, M I., with Milne, J.G.; Blake, R. P.; Robinson, E.S.G.; and Waagé, F.O.; The Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1941) and Polybius the most salient modern and ancient proponents of this assessment (i.e., of Peloponnesian poverty).
4.   Kralli 2017 presents a more substantive (and more speculative) account of the epigraphic evidence.

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