BMCR 2008.10.29

Atti del convegno di studi. Incontri tra culture nell’oriente ellenistico e romano, Ravenna 11-12 marzo 2005

, , Atti del Convegno di studi Incontri tra culture nell'Oriente ellenistico e romano : Ravenna, 11-12 marzo 2005. Milano: Mimesis, 2007. 261 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 9788884836182. €22.00.

Most of the essays included in this volume originated as papers given at a conference at the University of Bologna / Ravenna that took place in March 2005 and was organized by the editors. The current volume consists of eleven contributions (all in Italian) dealing with the now popular subject of cultural exchange in the Hellenistic and Roman East. Even if the main emphasis of the book is on the Hellenistic-Roman period, some papers about Late Antiquity are included as well. The discussed subjects range from politics and economy in Hellenistic-Roman Babylon, Egypt and Asia Minor, to royal self-representation in Commagene, to Roman Palmyra and to the interaction between Pagan and Christian culture in Late Antiquity. In fact, the aim of the book is, as the editors state in the brief introduction, to offer a survey of different approaches on the topic of cultural interaction and of their various methodologies and categories of evidence. Thus, despite its lack of cohesiveness, the volume keeps its promises by providing an interesting overview of the different ways cultural exchange can be understood and analysed.

The heterogeneity of the book and above all my lack of expertise in the Near Eastern fields do not allow me to comment the results of each one of the detailed and exhaustive papers. What follows must therefore be treated as a brief summary of the content of each chapter, with greater emphasis on the contributions that can be more familiar to Classicists.

Cinzia Bearzot’s “Autoctonia, rifiuto della mescolanza, civilizzazione: da Isocrate a Megastene” opens the volume with a discussion of the myth of autochthony in Classical Greece and of its evolution at the beginning of the Hellenistic age, when the necessity of the exchange with other cultures became more pressing. Autochthony myths were often used by Greek cities in order to claim independence, to legitimate hegemony and to strongly reject every form of integration with both foreigners and ‘barbarians’. As myths of “identity” and not “integration”, they rapidly became old-fashioned in the new political order of the Hellenistic age; yet an attempt to adapt them to the new situation was sometimes made. Bearzot discusses the example of Megasthenes’ Indika. She argues that in this work the concept of autochthony and thereby of cultural autonomy is no longer incompatible with the acceptance of foreign influences: the isolation of the earthborn inhabitants of India is shown as broken by the arrival of Dionysos and Herakles and by their civilizing action.

In “Babilonia e i Diadochi di Alessandro: staticità asiatica e dinamismo macedone”, Franca Landucci Gattinoni compares Greek and Babylonian sources about the presence of Seleucus I in Babylon. After an in-depth analysis of the Greek historiography (especially Diodorus), of the Diadochi Chronicle for the years 311-308 BC and of the Babylonian astronomical diary for 309 BC, the author points out that Babylonian sources accurately describe the battles between Antigonos and Seleucus that took place in this period and their consequences for city and temple, whereas Diodorus for the most part ignores these events, preferring to focus on the more ‘dynamic’ international scenario. Landucci Gattinoni also discusses the possible traces of pro-Seleucid attitude in Babylonian documents, and finally mentions the Borsippa cylinder as proof of the perfect integration of Seleucus’ son, Antiochus I, in Mesopotamian traditions of royal self-representation. The whole article is rich with interesting remarks. One doesn’t understand, however, why the evidence discussed should lead one to conclude, with the author, that the “Macedonian dynamism” of the title contrasts with the immobility of the Babylonian society and finally “crystallizes” inside it, adopting its unchangeable and exclusive cultural expressions. That the Babylonian chronicle, compared to Diodorus’ work, was more focused on local history doesn’t really surprise, especially since it was, as Landucci Gattinoni (quoting Del Monte) herself states, “tutta di origine templare”. Moreover, one can remark that cultural exchange is not a one-way communication, as Mario Mazza reminds us in the Epilegomena of this volume (p. 230). The complexity of the (necessary) interaction of Greco-Macedonian kings with various, long-established powers and the existence of various forms of reciprocal cultural influences is something that has been frequently pointed out in recent studies.1

Lucia Criscuolo’s article (“Gli egiziani e la cultura economica greca”) discusses the interaction between Greek and Egyptian economic culture in Ptolemaic Egypt. In particular, Criscuolo focuses her attention on the assumed persistence of the use of grain as a means of payment in Hellenistic Egypt. She carefully analyses documents commonly cited as a proof of this practice, reaching the following conclusions: though they refer to the “thesaurization” of grain or other products, the papyri actually do not prove the monetary value of grain. On the contrary, they show how Greek monetary culture had gained importance in the Egyptian economic system: this cultural exchange and the confrontation with the new Ptolemaic power “non solo introdussero costantemente il parametro monetale nella misurazione e nella valutazione della produzione agricola, ma trasformarono i comportamenti e la mentalità encorii” (p. 69).

The next contribution is Biagio Virgilio’s “Sui decreti di Metropolis in onore di Apollonio”, that also appeared, after the conference, in Studi Ellenistici XIX.2 The paper deals with the two honorific decrees for Apollonios from Metropolis in Ionia, published in 2003 by Dreyer and Engelmann and particularly relevant for the reconstruction of the city’s attitude toward Rome during the revolt of Aristonicus. Virgilio’s aim is to contribute to the reconstruction of these important texts. After a deep epigraphical analysis, he proposes various convincing restorations and new interpretations of some words and passages of the inscriptions.

The fifth essay is “La rappresentazione dei Parti nelle fonti tra II e I secolo a.C. e la polemica di Livio contro i levissimi ex Graecis“, by Federicomaria Muccioli. The author starts with Livy’s polemic (IX 18, 6) against Greek historians praising the Parthians contra nomen Romanum to define the aim of his paper: to investigate the Greek historiographical traditions about the Parthian empire and the interactions between Greek and Parthian culture. In his stimulating analysis, that includes also the discussion of fragments of Apollodoros of Artemita and Alexander Polyhistor, Muccioli succeeds in finding traces of a positive representation of the Parthians in Greek tradition. He also reconstructs how the Parthian power in the East, ‘legitimated’ through a typical scheme of translatio imperii, could have been set by Greek historians against the Roman supremacy in the West.

Antonio Panaino (” τύχη e χαρακτήρ del Sovrano tra iranismo ed ellenismo nelle iscrizioni di Antioco I di Commagene”) discusses the Iranian and Greek elements in the inscriptions of Antiochus I of Commagene, after remarking once again on the reciprocity of the cultural influences in this territory: “l’ellenizzazione dell’elemento autoctono, anche iranico, ma, di converso, l’iranizzazione, almeno parziale, dell’elemento ellenistico” (p. 120). Various terms and expressions in the inscriptions of Antiochus are acutely analyzed and set in the context of their Iranian cultural and religious milieu.

The brief contribution of Andrea Gariboldi (“Antioco I di Commagene sulle monete”) is the only one which was not part of the original conference. The author discusses the coins of Antiochus of Commagene. He argues that the representation of Antiochus wearing the Armenian tiara was intended to emphasize the king’s Armenian-Achaemenid descent, as the analysis of the Nemrud Dag reliefs seems to confirm. Gariboldi also discusses the problems in dating these coins and rejects Wagner’s hypothesis that ascribes them to the first years of Antiochus’ reign.

John Thornton’s essay (” Nomoi, eleutheria e democrazia a Maronea nell’età di Claudio”) is dedicated to the dossier from Maroneia, published by Clinton in 2003. After the return of an embassy sent to the Emperor Claudius, which had successfully defended the rights of the city, Maroneia voted a decree, approved by the whole community (including the resident Romans) and intended to remain unchanged, authorizing all citizens to rapidly appoint themselves ambassadors in case of necessity, without further approval of boulé and demos. Thornton dissents from Michael Wörrle’s theory, which, insisting on the irregularity of the procedure, sees in the dossier the proof of a Roman intervention on the city laws and of the transformation of the local boulé into an ordo resembling the Roman senate. The author, after an analysis of the concept of freedom and autonomy in Greek cities of the Roman Empire, argues that the Maroneia decree may have been actually intended to protect the city’s autonomy from possible interferences of Roman governors or citizens.

The paper by Tommaso Gnoli (“Identità complesse. Uno studio su Palmira”) explores various aspects of the social and economic life in the important caravan city of Palmyra. Gnoli begins emphasizing the complexity of the cultural identity of the city, shaped by different contributions of the Aramaic, Arabic, Greek, Roman, Parthian and Persian culture. He then turns his attention to the carvings of the Temple of Bel showing a procession of veiled women, discussing them together with Tertullian’s mention of Arabiae feminae ethnicae, quae non caput, sed faciem quoque ita totam tegunt (De virg. vel. 17, 4). The next sections of the paper deal with the urbanization of the territory, with the importance of trade for the city, and with the relations of Palmyra to both Rome and the Parthians. Here Gnoli corrects the view of previous scholars, remarking that the common assumption that Palmyra was not yet a city in the late 1st century BC rested upon the forced interpretation of a passage in Appian (bell. civ. V 9), and that the rise of Palmyra as a caravan city was due more to the initiative of local elites than to Roman intervention. Gnoli’s analysis of Palmyrean inscriptions of Roman imperial age shows moreover that the city may not have been integrated into the Roman province of Syria, and that Parthian influences in Imperial Palmyra have often been underestimated.

Umberto Roberto (“Alessandro Magno e la repubblica romana nella riflessione di Giovanni di Antiochia”) investigates the use of the scheme of translatio imperii in the chronicle of the Byzantine monk John of Antioch, contemporary with the reign of Emperor Heraclius (610-641 AD). In John’s Historia Chronica the Roman imperial age is shown in a totally negative light; conversely, the Roman Republic is praised as the perfect model of political and military organization. Roberto argues that John of Antioch sees the Republican regime as the true heir of the empire of Alexander. If the superiority of the Republican institutions had led to the great political expansion of Rome, the coming of the Empire and the resulting loss of the citizens’ freedom marked for John the beginning of the decline for the Roman military supremacy. Concluding his accurate discussion of John’s work, Roberto proposes to see in the Chronica a contribution to the contemporary political and cultural debate: the praise of the Roman Republic and of its perfect balance of power was, in his view, intended to encourage the renewal of the monarchical regime after the difficult years of Phocas’s reign.

The final essay, Alba Maria Orselli’s “Migrazione di idiomi nel tardoantico cristiano”, analyzes the interaction between the communication codes of Christianity and Paganism from the 4th to the 6th century AD. After remarking on the reciprocal influences between Pagan and Christian culture, Orselli discusses in four brief paragraphs the reuse of some words or semantic areas, common to the political, philosophical or religious language of the Pagan culture, in Christian texts.

The book is closed by the Epilegomena of Mario Mazza. This contribution summarizes the content of most of the papers, sometimes giving space to the author’s considerations and criticism. Since the contributions, as I think this review has made clear, are dedicated to different subjects that relate in the most various manners to the topic of cultural exchange, the only other unifying trait being the Hellenistic and (Late) Roman East as a political or cultural setting, it is not the aim of the book to reach definitive conclusions about the dynamics of cultural interaction. Its aim is rather, as Mazza remarks in the last pages of the volume, to show how modern research has long since rejected the concept of the isolated superiority of Greek and Roman culture in order to dedicate itself, with various methodological approaches, to the more profitable investigation of specific phenomena of cultural exchange.

I could not find technical problems, such as grammatical errors or misspellings, in Incontri tra culture nell’Oriente ellenistico e romano. The book is well-structured from a technical point of view. However, if the lack of a general bibliography and of an index is maybe justified by the heterogeneity of the volume, an individual bibliography following each paper would have probably been useful to the readers interested in the different subjects.

To sum up, the book provides the reader with an interesting overview of some of the many ways cultural exchange in the Hellenistic and Roman East can be defined and investigated. As is normal for such a collection, some papers are more interesting than others; nevertheless, each contribution shows deep knowledge of the subject treated and some of the essays offer new and stimulating perspectives about open questions in their respective field. Everyone who is interested in one of the many subjects discussed, or in the wider topic of cultural exchange between Greeks, Romans, and the Eastern cultures, will find this book worth reading.


1. J. Ma, “Kings”, in: A. Erskine (ed.), A Companion to the Hellenistic World. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003, 177-195.

2. B. Virgilio (ed.), Studi Ellenistici XIX. Pisa: Giardini editori e stampatori, 2006.