BMCR 2008.02.02

Transferts culturels et politique dans le monde hellénistique. Actes de la table ronde sur les identités collectives (Sorbonne, 7 février 2004). Historie ancienne et médiévale – 86

, Transferts culturels et politique dans le monde hellénistique : actes de la table ronde sur les identités collectives (Sorbonne, 7 février 2004). Histoire ancienne et médiévale ; 86. Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 2006. 1 vol. (188 p.) : ill. ; 24 cm.. ISBN 2859445544 €19.00.

[A Table of Contents is given at the end of the review.]

In an important paper published in 1985 and in other subsequent studies,1 the historians Michel Espagne and Michael Werner used the term “transfer” to indicate intercultural dialogue between France and Germany in the 18th and 19th centuries. This concept, stemming from psychoanalysis, primarily refers to the cultural changes brought about by the introduction of material objects belonging to a given culture into another. Taken in a broader sense, the notion of cultural transfer has been usefully employed by medieval and modern historians to analyze the movement of cultural, political and social ideas across different human civilizations. The volume under review collects the papers delivered at a “table ronde” held at Paris’ Sorbonne University in 2004, where for the first time a number of eminent scholars of Graeco-Roman antiquity were invited to apply the concept of cultural transfer to their field of study. The ancient Mediterranean might easily stand out as the scene of major and vital cultural transfers, which are indeed implied in terms such as “Hellenization” and “Romanization”, most notably during the Hellenistic age, when old and new Greek towns, the newly established monarchies and the non-Greek centres of powers, represented the three political poles of a prolific dialogue between cultures and societies.

The analysis of the political effects of cultural transfer is in fact one of the key themes linking the six essays presented in this book. This is divided into three sections, concerning politics and institutions, politics and law, politics and religion.

A long essay by J.-C. Couvenhes and A. Heller on the transfers between cities and kingdoms (pp. 15-52) opens the first of these sections and serves as a general introduction to the whole work. Political institutions are presented here as cultural products, which in the Hellenistic age were objects of a complex process of contamination. The new image of the sovereign created by Alexander the Great, and subsequently reinterpreted by the Hellenistic dynasts, reflects very clearly this effort of synthesis between Graeco-Macedonian and external influences, justified by the need to present the monarch as the legitimate ruler of diverse populations, with long-established political traditions (17-27). The divine attributes of the monarch, therefore, are surely influenced by Eastern interpretations of the figure of the ruler, but they also reflect the Greek idealisation of the “good king”, from Xenophon’s Cyrus to Isocrates’ Evagoras. The “poliadisation”, or the more or less formal adoption of Greek civic institutions by non-Greek communities, is a particularly interesting example of political-cultural transfer. The authors mention the case of the Phrygian village of Toriaion, which Eumenes II raised to the rank of politeia (28-30).2 This enabled the community to appoint magistrates and a council, and to hold civic assemblies. Such administrative autonomy, however, should not be understood as a sign of independence from central power: the status of politeia was a political endowment from the sovereign, who, by granting it, reaffirmed his authority over the newly-branded “polis”. In the 2nd century B.C., therefore, poliadisation was a channel of cultural transfer and political control, which in Greece worked as an important vehicle of Romanization (40-47). Greek political institutions were a “shell” (35), which could encapsulate and confer a higher degree of regulation to alien cultures. The establishment of politeumata in a number of towns of Hellenistic Egypt, for instance, enabled the local Jewish communities to protect their cultural and religious peculiarities by using Greek juridical traditions, which were known and respected in the Lagid kingdom.

Whereas Couvenhes and Heller concentrate on the use of the Greek juridical-political heritage to strengthen the ascendancy of ruling elites, the following essay by N. Istasse analyzes the presence and role of non-Graeco-Macedonian “experts” at the Seleucid court (53-80). In the 3rd and 2nd centuries, a number of “barbarians” were active in central and local government and served as ambassadors and military officers. Some became influential members of the intellectual circles of Antioch, but these represented the exception rather than the norm. The highest positions of the Seleucid administration and at court were occupied by members of the Graeco-Macedonian elite. From Istasse’s statistical survey, the Iranians appear to have enjoyed even less influence than the Jewish Palestinians. The great legacy of Babylonian science did not fail to influence the culture of the ruling elites (64), as eminently witnessed by Strabo.3 The evidence coming from Antioch, however, seems to confirm that the Hellenistic world constantly relied on the Graeco-Macedonian experience in constructing the cultural and institutional apparatus, and gathering the personnel, through which political authority was endorsed and controlled.

B. Legras’ essay on the administration of Egypt under Cleomenes of Naucratis (83-101), which opens the second part of the collection, brilliantly explores the complex influence of the Greek political tradition in the Hellenistic world. Ancient Egypt provides plenty of material to the student of political-cultural transfers. Alexander presented himself as the legitimate heir of pharaohs (83-84); at the same time the establishment and the legitimization of his rule were also prompted through the foundation of two poleis, Naucratis and Alexandria. Legras analyses the information concerning Alexander’s voyage through Egypt featured in Plutarch and in Arrian and other sources on the organization of Alexander’s Egypt,4 intriguingly suggesting that Cleomenes might have played a major role in choosing the site of the ancient Marea for the foundation of Alexandria and, no less importantly, in institutionalizing the status of the Greeks of the Egyptian chora (96-99).

J. M. Modrzejewski’s study of the matrimonial practices in the Hellenized Jewish community of Herakleopolis (103-118) presents the interesting case of an encounter between Biblical religious-juridical norms and Greek notarial models. According to him, the information emerging from the Herakleopolis papyri illustrates an important feature of Hellenistic world: (117-118) the convergence of different civilizations did not always bring about the birth of new “mixed” cultures: the example of the Jewish community of Egypt demonstrates the permeability of some traditions to the dominating Greek model.

A similar question is posed at the beginning of the last section of the volume, dealing with Hellenistic religion and politics: did religious transfers create new forms of faith? F. Dunand (121-140) is particularly concerned with the development of dynastic cults. Her extensive study moves from the analysis of three models of relationship between autocratic rule and divinity (122-129): the Greek treaties peri tes basileias of the fourth and third centuries describe a monarch who is endorsed to rule by the gods. In Egypt, on the other hand, the king is indeed a god, who is responsible for the order of kosmos rather than that of society. Finally, the Persian Great King is the minister of the cult, not the object, a mediator between the humans and the Zoroastrian pantheon. The different influences operated by these three models are clearly discernible in the peculiar characters of Seleucid and Ptolemaic monarchies (129-139): whereas in Egypt the indigenous and Greek forms of cult of the sovereign were maintained and worked in parallel, the king being represented as the offspring of Olympian blood as well as the heir of the Pharaohs, in Seleucid Asia monarchic cult was inspired by the Greek idealization of the figure of the sovereign, borrowing very little, if anything, from the previous Achaemenid tradition.

Epigraphic evidence reveals the divine image of the monarch as a crucial element of political propaganda: the new royal cults and official religion in general relied extensively on the symbolic, formulaic and iconographic repertoire of the Greek tradition. Politically, the cases of assimilation of local gods with those of the Olympian pantheon, like that of the Sidonian cult of Eshmun-Asclepius, analyzed by C. Apicella (141-19), reflected the need to strengthen the links between peripheries and central power by adapting local religious practices to the forms of institutional religion.

This is an interesting and very well crafted book. The wide range of topics and sources discussed in these six essays will hopefully reach an ample readership, and inspire lively debate. The main problem, especially in a volume counting less than 200 pages, might be a certain lack of balance between chapters, like those by Couvenhes-Heller and Dunand, which deal with more general issues and stand out for their programmatic character, and others focusing on very specific topics. This is particularly evident in the section on politics and religion. Also, it would have been interesting to extend the investigation to mainland Greece, and to the encounter between the democratic tradition of Athens and the new political models through which the Macedonians established their rule over the world of poleis. Credit is nevertheless due to Jean-Christophe Couvenhes and Bernard Legras for having realized a thought-provoking volume, whose main merit is that of photographing a lively and ongoing dialogue between different disciplines and scholarly perspectives. The two editors have certainly been successful in raising important questions, pertinent to the work of every student of the Graeco-Roman Mediterranean.


Jean-Cristophe Couvenhes, Bernard Legras, Introduction, p. 5.


Jean-Christophe Couvenhes, Anna Heller, Les transferts culturels dans le monde institutionnel des cités et des royaumes à l’époque hellénistique, p. 15.

Nathaël Istasse, Les experts barbares dans le monde politique séleucide, p. 53.


Bernard Legras, Kathaper ek palaiou. Le statut de l’Égypte sous Cléomène de Naucratis, p. 83.

Joseph Mélèze Modrzejewski, La fiancée adultère. À propos de la pratique matrimoniale du judaïsme hellénisé à la lumière du dossier du politeuma juif d’Hérakléopolis (144/3-133/2 av. J.C.), p. 103.


Françoise Dunand, La problématique des transferts culturels et son application au domaine religieux. Idéologie royale et cultes dynastiques dans le monde hellénistique, p. 121.

Catherine Apicella, Asklépios, Dionysos et Eshmun de Sidon: la création d’une identité religieuse originale, p. 141.

Jean-Marie Bertrand, Quelques mots de conclusion, p. 151.

Bibliographie, p. 157.

Index des sources, p. 173.

Index général, p. 181.


1. See in particular M. Espagne and M. Verner, “Deutsch-französischer Kulturtransfer im 18. und 19. Jahrhundert. Zu einem neuen interdisziplinären Forschunsprogramm des CNRS, Francia”, Forschungen zur Westeuropäischen Geschichte 13 (1985), 502-510; id. (eds.), Trasferts. Les relations interculturelles dans l’espace franco-allemand (XVIIIe-XIXe siècle) (Actes du colloque international, Göttingen), Paris 1988.

2. One of the three letters from Eumenes to the citizens of Toriaion is reported at the end of the paper, unfortunately not in the original Greek.

3. Strabo 16.1.6.

4. Plut. Alex. 26.4-7; Arr. An. 3.1.4-5, 5.2-5; Alexander Romance 1.32.6.