BMCR 2011.03.58

The Dance of the Islands: Insularity, Networks, the Athenian Empire, and the Aegean World (reprint of 2007 edition)

, The Dance of the Islands: Insularity, Networks, the Athenian Empire, and the Aegean World. Oxford Classical Monographs (reprint of 2007 edition). Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. $45.00 (pb). ISBN 9780199591176.

Table of Contents

When the hardback edition of Constantakopoulou’s The Dance of the Islands came out in 2007, Robin Osborne hailed it as important contribution to a topic that until then had lacked representation in Anglophone scholarship ( 2008.02.22). Yet he also pointed in his review to several shortcomings in the book, which lacked a systematic consideration of forms of connectivity (i.e., economic) other than religious and political. The paperback reprint of the book affords us an opportunity to consider how Constantakopoulou’s valuable study might produce more comprehensive results. This is the aim of the present review, and I refer readers looking for a systematic summary of the book’s contents to Osborne’s review, which I could hardly hope to eclipse in this respect.

Foundational to any study of connectivity is terminological precision: this broad concept can often mask important distinctions between various modes of connectivity, such as cabotage, commercial activity, religious interaction and diplomatic exchange. These distinctions are especially important when describing a set of interactions as a “network.” Yet Constantakopoulou uses this as a blanket term to describe all types and levels of exchange. Without a clear definition of what a network is in the introduction, readers are left to their own devices to imagine the kind of interaction that qualifies as a network.

The work itself suggests different answers to this question. The discussion of the amphictionies at Calauria and Delos (chapter 2) implies a center-periphery model of connectivity, yet the summary of this chapter in the Conclusion posits “a certain degree of interaction between the Aegean islands” that “must have consolidated relations between participants and may have created the context for ‘peer polity interaction’” (256). Participation in these island cults, then, led to a more diffuse network of communication among the islands. The only trouble is that this is the first clear expression of such an idea in the book. In chapter 2 Constantakopoulou presents no evidence of any interaction between islands, only between a given island and Delos. While this is an important point in showing the continuity between Delos’s importance as a regional sanctuary and its selection as the focal point for the 5th century Delian League (chapter 3), it does not by itself suggest connectivity among the other islands with each other. Surely this occurred, but further evidence is needed to support such a claim, and to determine when it happened. The early dominant presence of Naxos (and later Paros) on Delos seems to preclude a widespread network until the later archaic period.

Chapter 6 also vacillates between a center-periphery model (the focus is on large islands who control their smaller neighbors) and an understanding of connectivity that involves multiple points of contact. This is especially evident in the excellent discussion of the importance of ferrying ( porthmeia) in connecting the communities of the Aegean. Constantakopoulou limits the implications of this practice to the smaller networks that she has just discussed, but the evidence itself points to interaction beyond the scope of these “mini-networks.” As Osborne observed, this select treatment illuminates the limitations of Constantakopoulou’s decision to examine only formal (in this case political) interaction. This choice is even more peculiar given that most of the evidence in this chapter is from the Hellenistic Age, a period rich in epigraphical attestations of interaction of a less “formal” nature, such as treaties (both political and economically-minded), foreign arbitration, and asylia recognition (mentioned but not fully explored).

Constantakopoulou demonstrates in her seventh chapter that the subject of island connectivity is incomplete without a consideration of contact between islands and the mainland. She emphasizes the point by discussing the peraiai that seven islands controlled, as well as one mainland city, Miletus, who controlled several islands. I find the point well made, but I also wonder, first of all, why Constantakopoulou chose to separate her discussion of dependent islands from dependent peraiai. The two types of control seem to me better discussed in conjunction, and I found it difficult to construct a unified history of Samian (or Chian or Rhodian) expansion without flipping between chapters. At the same time, this chapter calls into question the distinction between coastal settlement and island. Constantakopoulou, in her Ιntroduction, illuminates the way in which the line between island and coastal settlement was often blurred: peninsulas in Chalkidice were called islands and large islands like Sicily were not. The implication of this is not just that island stereotypes (smallness, remoteness) determined what was an island as much (or more) than literal definitions. The evidence that she marshals here also suggests, both conceptually and in practice, that the world of island connectivity was not limited to what we would call islands. Her identification of a mainland-island dichotomy in the sources, on the other hand, merely implies that we need to differentiate between communities whose livelihood was tied to the sea and those whose livelihood was tied to land. A study of insularity, then, should not limit itself by, for instance, downplaying the presence of mainland communities in the Calaurian and Delian cults in order to emphasize the sanctuaries’ island character.

The core of the book is Constantakopoulou’s treatment of insularity in the Greek imagination, and this is where I found her argument most convincing and instructive. Particularly effective is her presentation in chapter 3 of numerous passages, mostly from Aristophanes and Thucydides, that show how Athens’ island allies became symbols for all of the city’s allies. She clinches her argument with the astonishing fact that only one-third of the allies who paid tribute were islands. Also fundamental for our understanding of insularity in the ancient mindset is Constantakopoulou’s thorough documentation of island stereotypes in chapter 4. But I was most fascinated by the way in which Athens began to imagine herself as island-like in the 5th century (chapter 5); or rather, I was struck by the implications of this revelation. In general, chapters 3-5 are highly Atheno-centric. Thucydides, the poets of tragedy and Old Comedy, the Old Oligarch, Plato, and the author of the Ath. Pol. all constitute the main sources upon which Constantakopoulou draws. As such, how much was the interplay between Athenian self-understanding and an Athenian conceptualization of insularity a two-way process? In other words, did Athens start to describe itself as island-like because the construction of the Long Walls (a physically imposed isolation) coincided with the increasing dependence of Athenian sea power on island control, as Constantakopoulou argues? Or it is also (or instead) the case that Athens’ self-image as isolated and reliant on the sea affected how its inhabitants conceived of the relationship between islands and sea power in general, and consequently of the relationship between islands and mainland?

The Athens-heavy nature of Constantakopoulou’s sources also raises the question: how did non-Athenians, islanders in particular, imagine islands in the 5th century? Perhaps this is unanswerable, but it is an important question to ask and could have led to a more refined discussion of who thought what about islands. More limiting to the book’s conclusions is Constantakopoulou’s failure to acknowledge that images of islands in Diodorus or Plutarch do not provide the same insight into a 5th century mentality as Thucydides or Aristophanes. Some additional historiographical discussion is required here.

In her introduction, Constantakopoulou justifies the inclusion of connectivity and insularity in one study by asserting that the “relationship, therefore, between insularity and island history may be complex, but at the same time interesting to investigate (9). Yet this relationship is never developed, and instead we read in the conclusion that “we need to differentiate between the world of the ‘islands,’ a world dominated by interaction and connectivity, and the world of the ‘island,’ an imaginary world of separation and exclusion.” (254) These two worlds, for Constantakopoulou, have very little interplay. I suspect, however, that an exploration of this relationship could prove more fruitful if, on the one hand, we can provide a more well-rounded perspective on how Greeks, not just Athenian intellectuals, imagined islands, and, on the other hand, if more is done to explore and specify the networks of interaction in the Aegean.

To this latter end, the kind of work that Constantakopoulou has more recently become engaged may prove extremely useful. Her involvement in an edited volume in which scholars apply social network theory to ancient contexts points to ways in which we can speak more meaningfully about networks.1 The framework that they propose allows for more precision when describing interaction as a network, and challenges us to broaden our perspective to consider political, religious, social, and economic ties together. Similarly, more serious use of the concept of ‘peer polity interaction,’ which Constantakopoulou briefly mentions, would have provided a framework that demanded evidence of specific activities (self-advertisement, personal and civic diplomacy, etc.) in order to justify the use of the term “network” in the way that she seems here to intend it.

The Dance of the Islands challenges us through its strengths and weaknesses to rethink both what we talk about when constructing a history of the Aegean and how we approach the task of construction itself. In this important regard the book will prove valuable to historians of the Classical period, regardless of their area of specialization. To those interested in any aspect of island history, or Mediterranean connectivity more broadly, the work is an essential read. Constantakopoulou’s arguments bring new possibilities for study to light, and her selection of evidence, while not comprehensive, provides a fundamental starting point for tackling the issues that she raises.


1. Malkin, Constantakopoulou, & Panagopoulou (eds.). Greek and Roman Networks in the Mediterranean. London: Routledge, 2009.