BMCR 2010.08.29

Material Culture and Social Identities in the Ancient World

, , Material Culture and Social Identities in the Ancient World. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. xv, 339. ISBN 9780521767743. $99.00.


[The table of contents is listed at the end of the review.]

Tamar Hodos’s contribution introduces the premise of the book. The volume concentrates on various strategies for the construction of identity, from race and ethnicity to the more contemporary vision of the struggle between local and global perspectives. The production and consumption of material objects plays a more active role in identity-construction insofar as choices are made on both sides of the transaction. Neither the producers nor the consumers dictate the appearance of a given cultural artifact. Rather, the two parties negotiate with one another. This affects the way people present and represent themselves, and it alters the way we read cultural dominance in material remains.

Carla M. Antonaccio reinserts ethnicity into our analysis of identity. The discourse of ethnicity from a colonial and/or essentialist perspective is polemic. Racially deterministic conclusions led many scholars to abandon the category altogether. Antonaccio contends that ethnicity can be incorporated progressively through an exploration of the performative practices of production, consumption, and presentation of culturally specific objects. Antonaccio examines the pottery trade between Greeks and locals in Archaic Sicily. The success of ethnically Greek versus local consumables can be gauged through the degree of hybridization or persistence of forms. Locals adopted Greek elements or insisted on making and trading familiar products. Similarly, Greeks may have chosen to acquire local products and trade them elsewhere as valued commodities. The biggest problem still remains in contextualizing the performative element. In most cases, our context for understanding the exchange of goods and the construction of identity via consumables is tenuous at best.

Richard Hingley reviews many of the inherent problems with applying Romanization. Studies concentrated on the so-called other must recognize the elite source of the evidence under consideration. Scholars must acknowledge the paucity of evidence for marginalized populations. Additionally, Hingley suggests that archaeologists need to work towards de-sanitizing the effects of Romanization to include exploitation, slavery, and violence. In exploring the Batavi on the frontier of early Roman Empire, Hingley cites a high degree of Latin literacy coexisting with a rejection of other Roman practices such as urbanization. Batavia remained underdeveloped. However, the Batavi were valued members of the Roman army. Hingley sees this as a case of Roman exploitation. But one can also see mutual exploitation. Latin was useful to Batavi fighting for loot and land alongside other provincials; building Roman cities was not useful for this rural-based society.

Corinna Riva explores the active and purposeful construction of ethnic identities for economic reasons among the elites in Etruria. Riva composes a world of Etruscan patrons, craftspeople, and merchants strategically co-opting Greek myths and outward displays of affluence as strategies for courting Greek consumers in the region. Riva’s study features two bucchero drinking vessels found in tumuli from San Paolo, Italy. The tombs contained locally manufactured objects and products of foreign provenance. One olpe in question contains a scene from the Jason myth. Riva claims that producers used a story about Greeks in search of techne as a mythical reference to an economic reality: the Greeks sought the metals mined in Etruria. Additional references to Demaratus, Daidalos, and even Hephaistos advertised Etruscan ownership and proficiency with metals. Riva’s view empowers the local population and shows Etruscan patrons as shrewd manipulators of culture for personal gain.

Michael Sommer examines the identities used by Phoenicians around the Mediterranean. The role of Phoenician identity is especially problematic because it was constructed by non-Phoenicians. However, Sommer contends that the identity projected onto Phoenicians was advantageous to trade. Greek texts portray Phoenicians as an identifiable group in the Iron Age and Archaic Period. The author reassesses material evidence to characterize Phoenicians as a commercial collective that cleverly networked the Mediterranean by producing and trading widely coveted goods. A broad audience of elites bought luxury goods from Phoenician traders throughout the ancient world. Sommer describes Phoenician colonies as “middle grounds” for cultural hybridity and economic opportunity. The populations were ethnically mixed but bound together by mutual economic interests. These varied peoples were allied to a political system that was profitable for members. According to Sommer, the Phoenicians took advantage of hybrid cultures in their efforts to engage numerous peoples in a globalized marketing strategy.

Petya Ilieva reconsiders interpretations of the ethnic identity of Archaic-age Samothracians. The culture produced on Samothrace was defined by early Iron Age Thracians and redefined by late Iron and Archaic Age Samian settlers. Ilieva conceives of a hybrid culture that was influenced by Ionian Greeks as well as Thracians. Her reexamination of textual sources considers inscriptions in Thracian executed with Greek letters. One cannot verify whether a Greek used Thracian for this particular dedication or whether a Thracian applied the Greek alphabet to his native language. This blurred boundary reveals the hybrid nature of Archaic Samothrace. Her examination of Samothracian architecture, pottery, and other material remains verifies this mixture. Moreover, Ilieva suggests that the Samians that arrived in Thracian-settled Samothrace were not supported by their mother city and therefore could not construct a traditional apoikia, a step that often led to ethnic and cultural dominance. Consequently, the once-homogenous Thracian Samothrace of the early Iron Age became hybridized with Ionian Samians.

Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones examines fifth and fourth century BC scaraboid seals from Anatolia in an effort to show one example of hybridity occurring in a “middle ground.” Scholars tend to define the culture of Asia Minor and the ethnicity of its population in terms of degrees of Greekness or Persianness. However, Llewellyn-Jones contends that the frontier of the Persian Empire was a complex landscape replete with Greeks, Persians, local Anatolians, and other ethnic presences from the Achaemenid Empire. In particular, the author compares women represented on Anatolian scaraboid seals to those found in Greece and central Persia. Llewellyn-Jones finds a distinction in Anatolian taste. Unlike the Greek and Persian preference for slender, even boyish, female bodies, the Anatolians showed full-bodied women upon their seals. The seals are one example of a larger phenomenon of hybridity affecting the region. The local population did not passively adopt Greek or Persian culture. Instead, these Anatolians were actively appropriating Greek and Persian elements to complement or even enhance their own native concerns.

Elena Isayev analyzes the assumptions that arise from applying the concept of hybridity to perceived social groups, in this case the Lucanians. Like many of the regions addressed in this volume, southern Italy is a “middle ground” that plays host to hybrid phenomena. But hybridization only occurs with the encroachment of a hegemonizing Roman force. This also implies that Lucanians were a clearly homogenized ethnic group prior to the occurrence of hybridization. Isayev tests this assumption by examining textual and archaeological evidence from pre-Roman Lucania. Texts referencing the region offer a myriad of contrasting descriptive characteristics and behavior for Lucanians. Lucanians became an identifiable homogenous ethnic group at onset of the Hannibalic War, as Rome and Carthage recruited allies. In this way, outsiders assigned Lucanians their identity. Isayev focuses on religious structures in her analysis of Lucanian archeological remains. Specifically, Lucanian sanctuaries appear to be native structures that persisted into the Roman age. These cult complexes rejected eastern temple architecture. But while the architecture remained local, votive deposits contained Greek and Greek-style pottery, statuettes, and other luxury artifacts. Moreover, the gods worshiped included the native Mefitis as well as the Greek Herakles. All of the evidence points to an artificially constructed identity for Lucanians fashioned by outsiders. In reality, pre-Roman Lucania was a complex hybrid—a purposefully chosen mixture of local and foreign concepts, practices, and aesthetics.

Shelley Hales reanalyzes a Vespasianic monument from Noricum—the Grave Altar of C. Tertinius Stratutus and Catrona Severra. The altar features an inscription flanked by friezes depicting a man and a woman. The man holds a stylus and a tablet, while the woman carries a mirror. Scholars concluded that the women on such grave altars were servants due to their native costumes. Hales contends that these are representations of elite Roman women. The deviations from Roman models came from a desire to construct an identity that recognizes Roman and local conventions. Additionally, much of what Catrona recognized as Roman was informed by neighboring provinces rather than from the capital itself. These provincial elites at once show themselves as Norican through their clothing and Roman in their use of Latin and employment of Roman funerary monuments. The ‘tricks’ Catrona plays require a complex reading of the use of the mirror in a Roman funerary context. To Romans, mirrors were both deceptive and revelatory. A mirror could reflect an image as well as enhance or transform it. The viewer is captured by the image in the mirror, captured by identity constructed and reflected by Catrona upon the grave altar. Catrona’s mirror presents herself as a Roman from Noricum, playing off Romanness emerging from the center and as well as surrounding provinces.

Annetta Alexandridis reexamines honorific statues of elite women popular from the late Republic to the early Empire. These statues were considered neutral by some scholars due to their lack of iconographic specificity and reduced to homologous types. Alexandridis believes that the statues possess more specific meanings and that they functioned in a heterogeneous fashion around the Roman Empire. Although these representations are based on Greek models, the Roman Empire provided a vehicle for the spread of the practice of honoring women of status. It also provided the infrastructure for their regularized appearance. Despite these factors, there was always a potential for localized distinction in their production and consumption. The performative act of commissioning Greek-style sculpture to represent the ideal Roman matriarch is particularly important. Although commissions were modified to include Roman accessories, we are ultimately dealing with a Greek-style sculpture imaging Roman ideals. It is the repetition of commissioning, displaying, and viewing that naturalizes and reinforces the perceived image of the ideal Roman woman. Each new group of people that appropriated these types shifted characteristics to adhere to their needs, even as they remain typologically Greek and heterogeneously Roman.

David Mattingly’s afterword summarizes the views presented in this volume. He approves of the flexibility and broad range in the uses and definition of “identity.” Mattingly sees identity as a promising alternative to Hellenization and Romanization, concepts that were concerned with degrees of homogeneity in the ancient world. Alternatively, scholars employing identity look for the presence of heterogeneity in the clash between global phenomena and local attitudes. He makes note of the fact that Romanization fell out of favor in recent years. More scholars are opting to explore notions of identity in their research. But Mattingly warns that the use of identity requires scholars to rigorously define the term and its uses. Identity also requires case studies to secure lasting success. If we fail in either of these arenas, identity will suffer the same fate as Romanization and be discarded as yet another ill-defined and marginally useful postmodern concept.

This volume certainly addresses Mattingly’s concerns; it is a necessary addition to the current discourse on the value of identity.

Table of contents: 1. T. Hodos, “Local and Global Perspectives in the Study of Social and Cultural Identities”
2. C. M. Antonaccio, “(Re)Defining Ethnicity: Culture, Material Culture, and Identity”
3. R. Hingley, “Cultural Diversity and Unity: Empire and Rome”
4. C. Riva, “Ingenious Inventions: Welding Ethnicities East and West”
5. M. Sommer, “Shaping Mediterranean Economy and Trade: Phoenician Cultural Identities in the Iron Age”
6. P. Ilieva, “Samothrace: Samo—or Thrace?”
7. L. Llewellyn-Jones, “The Big and Beautiful Women of Asia: Ethnic Conceptions of Ideal Beauty in Achaemenid-Period Seals and Gemstones”
8. E. Isayev, “Unintentionally Being Lucanian: Dynamics Beyond Hybridity”
9. S. Hales, “Tricks with Mirrors: Remembering the Dead of Noricum”
10. A. Alexandridis, “Neutral Bodies? Female Portrait Statue Types from the Late Republic to the Second Century CE”
11. D. Mattingly, “Cultural Crossovers: Global and Local Identities in the Classical World”