BMCR 2019.11.35

Megarian Moments: The Local World of an Ancient Greek City-State. Teiresias Supplements Online, 1

Philip J. Smith, Hans Beck, Megarian Moments: The Local World of an Ancient Greek City-State. Teiresias Supplements Online, 1. Münster: Teiresias Supplements Online, 2018. 292. ISBN 9781770962231

Online access

This is the first volume of Teiresias Supplements Online, which complements with a wider area of focus the journal Teiresias. Online Review and Bibliography of Boiotian Studies. It derives from an international workshop at McGill University (May, 2016), under the aegis of the Parochial Polis Network, which is committed to studying ancient Greek localism.

Megara interests chiefly for three reasons: it was a prominent colonizer, a target of its neighbors’ aggression, and the ostensible home of Theognis. The Theognidean corpus draws attention as early homoerotic poetry, as a distillation of archaic normative thought, and as a refraction of archaic elite poetry through the lens of Athenian opponents of late 5 th – century democracy. The 1970s-80s experienced a boomlet of Megarian studies.1 The recent revival of interest has been spearheaded by Philip J. Smith, an editor of the volume reviewed here, and Adrian Robu. Smith published his dissertation as The Archaeology and Epigraphy of Hellenistic and Roman Megaris, Greece (Oxford 2008). Robu published both his thesis, Mégare et les établissements mégariens de Sicile, de la Propontide et du Pont-Euxin. Histoire et institutions (Bern 2014) — cf. my review, CR 67 (2017) 205-7 — and co-edited with I. Bîrzescu Mégarika. Nouvelles recherches sur Mégare, les cités de la Propontide et du Pont-Euxin (Paris 2016). These works are more significant contributions than this volume.

The opening piece: Hans Beck, “‘If I am from Megara.’ Introduction to the Local Discourse Environment of an Ancient Greek City- State” (15-45), provides a valuable exegesis of certain newer methodologies; however, the rest of this collection is singularly traditional in its approaches, and the occasional sallies into new analyses mostly miscarry (see my comments on the chapters of Ager and Solez, below). I wonder whether this singularly ill-fitting opening might constitute an aspirational manifesto for the Parochial Polis Network rather than introducing the actual studies below. It does grapple, however, with the subject of the local vs. pancultural, although his use of the word ‘global’ may not strike exactly the right note (not to mention the semantic atrocity ‘glocal’). I miss here many of the real challenges of epichoric history as actually practiced by ancient historians. I was, moreover, struck by cases where specific points seemed obscured rather than illuminated by their theoretical setting (e.g., the itinerary of Neaira, Phocylides fr. 4, regional ethnogenesis and other regionalization, Athens for Meleager of Gadara, and Megarian ‘farce’). I did, however, enjoy this provocative chapter as a challenge to my own views on local historiography. It might perhaps merit a separate review for its far-reaching analysis.

The two essays following Beck’s introduction reflect a synthetic outlook. They seem less successful than the contributions that follow, perhaps through inadequate inculcation in previous scholarship. Sheila Ager’s “Mythic Highways of the Megarid” (47-75) offers systematic citations of myth. First, the tradition of stelae demarcating the Isthmian dialect boundary is presented; then a rendition of Pausanias’ account. However, there is not enough attention to recovering the historical contexts within which Megarian storytelling was shaped. Ager intends to demonstrate the Megarid’s status as a “highway”. However, Megara could just as well represent a resource-poor borderland surrounded by expansionary states, forever forced to answer claims or try to hijack them in myth-historical or ideological terms. This contribution is not a notable advance over earlier scholarship; indeed, it struck me as rather old-fashioned in its approach.

Kevin Solez in “Megarian Myths: Extrapolating the Narrative Traditions of Megara” (77-96) tries a methodological innovation by applying Conceptual Metaphor theory, which tries to explain how “the physical structures of the brain that encode sensory-motor experience are recruited by the brain for cognition about all abstract things” (p. 77), a process creating a “Local Discourse Environment”. Any methodology is validated or invalidated by its explanatory force. Conceptual Metaphor theory does not transcend idiosyncrasy here. However, the author’s insights (by no means unworthy), for example, about Megarian struggles establishing autonomous myth-history, do not depend on his theoretical starting point. For many helpful observations in particular about the mediate character of Megara it seems unclear whether Solez’s theoretical approach was truly necessary. Also his interpretation of 6 th -century Megara is dependent on dating Theognis, where his approach is too historicizing; the corpus is quite fluid chronologically and free from geopolitical fixation points.

The majority of the following essays (more successfully in my view) choose a relatively narrow target, as so often in collections drawn from conferences. In “With and Without You: Megara’s Harbors” (97-127), Klaus Freitag starts from the agricultural potential of the Megarid, population estimates, and ship mobilizations. He notes Megara’s challenges, wedged between powerful Corinth and Athens. That observation invokes a theme of this book. It should be balanced here and elsewhere by observing that slightly more distant (and not inconsiderable) states like Argos, Sparta, and Thebes were attracted to and willing to utilize Megara’s predicament. One notable conclusion (p. 101): “In the Archaic and Classical periods, Megara was a wealthy naval power with a well-established sphere of maritime influence — including extensive trading networks — and was able to compete with Athens and Corinth.” This constitutes another common analytical thread in this book. Colonization and Pericles’ Megarian Decree provide its evidentiary basis. That would be undermined if Megarian colonization were discounted as dependent on Milesian patronage and if one concluded that the Decree was destructive precisely because Megara was so economically dependent on the commerce of the Peiraieus and Athenian agora (note Pericles’ quid pro quo was an end to Spartan xenēlasia ‘expulsion of foreigners’, here Athenians and their allies). Nonetheless, the core of this chapter is a consideration, succinct, but finely wrought, of what is known about the Megarian ports (Nisaia, Pagai, Panormos, and Aigosthena).

Elke Stein-Hölkeskamp in “Theognis and the Ambivalence of Aristocracy” (129-38) offers an overview of the Theognis-problem cleverly grounded in a comment of Nietzsche from his “school thesis”. Despite an understanding of interpretative conundrums, she perseveres to find evidence illuminating archaic Megarian society in the Kyrnos poems and associated material. Topics treated include social mobility and the symposium as elite space. This chapter breaks no new ground but does constitute a thoughtful thumbnail sketch. The author has not, on the other hand, considered my treatment of Theognis in “KHREMATA: Acquisition and Possession in Archaic Greece,” in Social Justice in the Ancient World, K.D. Irani & M. Silver, editors (Westport 1995) 41-60.

David Yates offers “This City of Ours: Fear, Discord, and the Persian War at Megara” (139-65). As part of his wider project on local responses to the Persian invasion, Yates discusses Theognis 757-64, 773-82 as illustrating such reactions in an atypically fearful manner. Megara stood quite vulnerable to harassment after Salamis and before Plataia. Yates notes thematic continuities between these poems and the general preoccupations of the Theognidea, such as fear of stasis and betrayal, observing how the 5 th -century predicament of Megara matched the tonality of these poems.

Next is Jonathan Reeves “οὐ κακὸς ἐῶν: Megarian Valour and its Place in the Local Discourse at Megara” (167-82), covering ground similar to the previous chapter. He starts with a competent, but hardly groundbreaking, discussion that juxtaposes the Herodotean account of Plataia with treatments of Diodorus (Ephorus), Plutarch, and Pausanias. Interest here lies especially in the examination both of a reinscription of a monument for Xerxes’ campaign ( SEG 31.383) and of the grave stele of Pollis ( SEG 41.413). However, the suggestion that the stiktai, the ‘tattooed’ who killed Pollis were Thebans, alluding to tattooing of Theban prisoners after Thermopylai, seems strained (Hdt. 7.233.2). Arguably, Pollis fell in a skirmish with Persian subjects who wore tattoos as an ethnocultural marker. Thus, the reference offers dramatic variatio for the denomination barbaroi (or something similar).

Daniel Tober, “Megarians’ Tears: Localism and Dislocation in the Megarika ” (183-207) begins with the proverbial definition of ‘Megarian tears’ as insincere and goes on to discuss 4 th -century/Hellenistic authors of Megarian local histories. There is useful commentary on Megarika, accompanied by ample direct quotation. However, if our main authority, Plutarch’s Greek Questions, is derived from the Peripatetic Constitution of the Megarians rather than the seemingly non-ideological Megarika, Tober’s analysis would be undermined (cf. Theognis of Megara 115-24, 264).

In “Megarian Local Adjudication: The Case of the Border Dispute between Epidauros and Corinth in 242-240 BCE” (209-16), Philip J. Smith argues that adjudication by foreign judges may not be as clearly distinguished from arbitration by polis ( contra Louis Robert). He points to Megarian efforts at maintaining neutrality from c. 400. Nonetheless, it is also possible the 151 Megarian judges here ( IG IV 2.I.70, 71) were selected for their record as politically engaged Achaeans, which helped establish their legitimacy as arbitrators.

Next is Alex McAuley, “From the Cradle: Reconstructing the ephēbeia in Hellenistic Megara” (217-36). This review of the documentation adopts the sensible position that an underlying ephebic system existed at Megara, which persisted fundamentally as the polis shifted between the Achaean and Boiotian koina. Suggestions about its deep roots are quite speculative (especially regarding Theognidean poetry). We ought not exclude Attic influences. For example, that would make, at least on the basis of this discussion, the equation of neaniskoi and ephebes in IThesp 29 more attractive than surmised here.

In “Megara and ‘the Megarians’: a City and its Philosophical School” (237-56), Matthias Haake reviews the scattered testimony about the Megarian philosophical school, or, perhaps, more aptly the participants in a tradition of philosophical discourse there, chiefly Eukleides, Ikhthyas, and Stilpon, attempting to place them in Megarian political life. The results are rather meager – few hints beyond finding oligarchic sympathies, probably class-based, and a reluctance to engage with Successors like Ptolemy and Demetrios Poliorcetes. This piece is heavily annotated with source criticism, contextualization, and review of earlier scholarship. Beyond commending this most judicious treatment, I note that one tradition seems to cry out for critical reevaluation: that Eukleides visited Socrates in female dress to avoid an Athenian prohibition (punishable by death) on Megarian presence in Attica.

In “Between Localism and Diaspora: The Sicilian Perspective on Megara’s World” (257-71), Franco De Angelis offers a view on Megarian colonization that runs counter to the main interpretative line here and elsewhere. He champions the position of Robin Osborne, who rejects the paradigm of polis colonization in favor of diasporic migration, placing initiative within bands of colonists rather than polis institutions. While such migration doubtless occurred, for example, in the Khalkidike and other Hellenizing settings in Thrace, it does not account for the polis replication processes we conventionally call ‘colonization’. For the Megarians, how we specify their implementation is a paramount question addressed by Robu and myself (see, most recently, “Modes of Colonization and Elite Integration in Archaic Greece,” in ‘Aristocracy’ in Antiquity: Redefining Greek and Roman Elites.”, N. Fisher and H. van Wees,” eds. [Swansea 2015] 311-45, esp. 325 on Megara). Although there may be fallacious framing of a critical argument in the role given to Sicilian grain exports back to the Megarid, De Angelis is correct to alert us to other contexts relevant for interpreting Megarian colonization in Sicily. Worth considering is his treatment in Megara Hyblaia and Selinous. The Development of Two Greek Cities in Sicily (Oxford 2003); also his Archaic and Classical Greek Sicily: A Social and Economic History (Oxford 2016), esp. 47-60.

Adrian Robu offers “What’s in a Name? Megarian apoikiai in the Black Sea: Common nomima and Local Traditions” (273-89). This study focuses on common religious and political features shared by homeland Megara and its colonies, which, even with our poor documentation, are substantial. Robu justifiably concludes that “This brief summary of Megarian nomima permits us to conclude that the main political and religious institutions of Megara were transferred into the colonies.” (p. 282). There is even some evidence for continuing contacts throughout the Classical and Hellenistic periods.


1. As the contribution of these works has not always been fully reflected in this volume, let me enumerate: Luigi Piccirilli, Megarika. Testimonianze e frammenti (Pisa 1975) on local historiography; Ronald Legon’s scholarship (e.g., Megara. The Political History of a City-State to 336 B.C., Ithaca 1981); and, on Theognis, Gregory Nagy’s and my Theognis of Megara. Poetry and the Polis (Baltimore 1985).