BMCR 2020.04.27

Accommodating the individual: identity and control after Alexander

, Accommodating the individual: identity and control after Alexander. Hellenistische Polis als Lebensform, Band 8. München: Verlag Antike, 2017. 478 p.. ISBN 9783946317142

This book is a slightly revised version of Heitmann-Gordon’s PhD thesis defended in 2016 at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich. The goal of this study is to investigate the early Hellenistic period “at a social level as a period of productive reconfiguration of individual and collective norms through narrative” (p. 15). The competitive interaction between individual and collective agency, and the organization of personal leadership that was related to it, is explored through four case studies of different length, spanning various aspects of the intellectual and social life of Greek cities (esp. Athens and Rhodes) and royal courts in the 4th and 3rd centuries.

The book is opened by two dense chapters expounding the methodological perspectives adopted in the book. Heitmann-Gordon provides a well-learned overview of the recent contribution of social sciences to the study of the processes of consensus making. These chapters, together with the final glossary of technical terms (p. 421-426), are not only fundamental for the reader to follow the arguments in the book, but can be useful for historians interested in strengthening their analysis of social interactions with the contribution of contemporary research in social sciences.

In his introduction, Heitmann-Gordon rightly dismisses as obsolete an approach to the place of the individual in early Hellenistic societies focusing on the personal achievements of larger-than-life monarchs and on “intentional empire building” (p. 18). Rather, the author draws attention to the need to explore the socio-political models and norms of behaviour.  These constituted the background of individual agency and the grammar in compliance with which not only kings, but all individuals, contemplated action and turned it into practice. After reviewing the scholarship on changes and developments in the social articulation and governance of Hellenistic cities, Heitmann-Gordon considers the ‘Weberian turn’ of negotiation in recent scholarship concerning the interaction between kings and poleis, identifying two weak points inherent in this perspective. The first is an uneven balance between individual and collective agency, the latter having often been neglected or handled without taking into proper account the complexity of processes related to consensus-making in bottom-up initiatives. The second concerns the opacity of charisma, a Weberian key concept often evoked in scholarship as a self-evident category when it comes to describing processes of monarchic legitimation in the Hellenistic period. The author then turns to evaluating network approaches (which have met with growing success in recent scholarship on Hellenistic courts), acknowledging their usefulness but also drawing attention to the need to fine-tune the hermeneutic power of this category by moving from an intuitive use to one empowered by the methodology of current social-network-analysis.

In Chapter 2, Heitmann-Gordon draws a compelling methodological lesson from cognitive theories and successful micro-analyses of the way relations between social entities interacting in a network can change and be re-functionalized under the initiative of an individual or a collective agent. In this respect, a fundamental and recurring concept in the book is the definition of an actor’s status as the ‘obligatory passage point’ (OPP) within a social network. A leading individual (or group) imposes himself “as a central point of reference and an instance of control” (p. 53) for the members of his social network(s), not only by providing a unique access to the satisfaction of the other members’ needs, but also – and this is the aspect on which the book focuses – at the discursive level, by guiding the community in the definition of a shared set of values, helping the group identify societal risks and enrolling individuals for a cause which is perceived as fundamental for the common interest. Another central component of Heitmann-Gordon’s analysis is related to the interaction between individual and inter-subjective social identities. Identities are multi-centred and dynamic networks defining, for each individual and group, “sets of expectations, encoded in memory, and both generated and adapted through interaction” (p. 73-74). Identities therefore participate in the process by which an actor can establish himself as a leading figure within a social network inasmuch as this actor manages to manipulate social expectations and to adapt them to a common purpose, over which he exerts control. Summing up all these tools, Heitmann-Gordon portrays social interactions (in general first, then in relation to the early Hellenistic period) as the competition of actors (individuals and groups) for the manipulation of narratives of power about societal risks and the actions that must be undertaken to provide common solutions.

Starting from these premises, Chapter 3 interprets Theophrastus’ Characters in relation to the dynamics of interaction between inclusion and exclusion in the civic group in Athens during a period of intense change and socio-political instability. Traditional observations about the historical figure of the author, the structure, date, and style of the work, as well as on the history of scholarship, are followed by reflections on the way Theophrastus’ narrative typecasts social characters whose conduct could prove disruptive for social cohesion. Behavioural deviations from the norm define e contrario the social expectations dominating the public life of a good citizen: his physical appearance, his governance of the oikos as his ‘distributed self’ (money, properties, family members), his relationship with institutions, his peers, and the gods. Reciprocity, shame, and prestige provide society with traditional tools of cohesion which do not imply the use of new technical (philosophical) resources, but rather reflect the contemporaneous attempts of civic elites at reinforcing the collective bonds within the polis by reducing access to citizenship via census restrictions.

After the city, Chapter 4 places the focus on Hellenistic courts. After a review of the rich and fast-increasing scholarship on this topic, the author (quite unexpectedly) mainly focuses on Xenophon’s Cyropaedia in order to explore how a rising leader constructs his court as a network of power within which he acts as the obligatory passage point for the courtiers’ access to protection, wealth and prestige. The analysis follows a sequence similar to that of the previous chapter: the presentation of the author and work is followed by a linguistic analysis of the referential categories defining the individual (family, nature, education, p. 213), the dualistic characterization of virtues and socially stigmatised behaviours, the places and occasions of interaction by which the actor places himself at the centre of the social group. The kingdom appears as a concentric ‘network of networks’, where the individual ‘distributed self’ of the courtiers, with their assets and ambitions, is put to the service of the collective and therefore hierarchically subjected to the king, whose aims virtually extend to unlimited world dominion. Of particular interest is the analysis of the social processes by which “the individuals collectivised, i.e. the philoi and the army, are ‘irreversibly’ enrolled in this collective and give up their potential OPP status in exchange for freedom from contingency” (p. 233). Only afterwards, excerpts from the fragmentary historiography about the Diadochi are taken into account in order to test the conclusions of the analysis of Cyropaedia in relation to the establishment of court networks in the Diadochi period. Two issues can be pointed out in this comparative method. First, due to the fragmentary state of Hellenistic historiography, the texts at our disposal are often too concise and too detached from their pragmatic context to allow for a convincing analysis of their purposes and strategies of interaction with their original audience. More precisely, the author seems to underestimate the filter of the late Hellenistic and Imperial authors who have transmitted these passages, and consequently the difficulty of disentangling their interests and agendas from the purposes of the original authors. As a consequence, these anecdotes of court life cannot provide a suitable counterpart to the detailed study of Cyropaedia, making the comparative effort of this chapter unbalanced. Second, if, admittedly, this comparison between a 4th-cent. Athenian reflection on monarchy and the sparse Hellenistic/Imperial fragments of historiography about the Diadochi works in many respects, I would argue that this happens because the theoretical model used by Heitmann-Gordon generally describes the rise of personal power in a large variety of possible historical contexts rather than, more specifically, the processes leading to the establishment of early Hellenistic courts.

Chapters 5 and 6 provide an analysis of these two worlds of polis and court in interaction. First, the author briefly focuses on royal collaborators, mediators between cities and kings, and on the alternative depictions of their activity as moved by trustworthy philia or by self-absorbed kolakeia. Alexander’s collaborator Harpalos, court hetairai, and the philoi of Demetrios Poliorketes are well-known characters of early Hellenistic Greece. However, Heitmann-Gordon’s foregoing analyses of the Characters and of court narratives offer the tools to provide fresh insights in the critical representation of collaborators in the civic discourse: the effective connections established by these figures between polis- and court-related networks are systematically overlooked by critical voices, turning royal collaborators into caricatures of depraved and marginalised citizens; hetairai are even more easily pushed to the margins of civic politics, morality, and religion, despite their active and multi-functional role in the rising Hellenistic courts. Finally, Chapter 6 explores the impact of city-king interaction at the collective level, by means of the case study of Rhodes in the 4th and 3rd centuries. This long chapter offers an interesting overview of the long process of consolidation of the Rhodian collective identity, in particular via its elites, from the foundation myths of its independent settlements to the synoecism of 408/7 BC, through the rise of the Hekatomnids and the legacy of Alexander, down to Demetrios’ siege of 305/4 and its aftermath. From this perspective, the erection of the Colossus is read as the embodiment of the Rhodian self-representation of a successful political community which proved able to face the dramatic political and military challenges of the Diadochi period by relying on a renewed sense of its internal social cohesion and external autonomy.

Evaluating Heitmann-Gordon’s book is difficult because it is rich in illuminating ideas but also unbalanced in its structure. It is innovative on the theoretical level and truly interdisciplinary thanks to the author’s capacity to adapt his methodological approach to the type of sources. In some sections, however, I would argue that the effort of theoretical modelling prevails over the analysis of the entanglement between the discussed sources and their specific historical context. The author displays his hermeneutical toolbox, with its technical jargon, throughout his analysis rather than limiting himself to evoking it in the methodological introduction. Even though this will probably make the book too dense and wordy for many historians used to more straightforward associations between sources, data, and interpretation, I think this attitude should be reckoned to the author’s credit as a proof of his intellectual honesty and rigour. On the other hand, at times, the reader has the impression that the author says too much, or too little. For instance, one would expect that the very detailed discussion of Cyropaedia would serve as prelude to a thorough discussion of the Hellenistic case studies, yet their treatment remains somewhat underdeveloped in comparison with the first part of the chapter. Moreover, although the reading of the Characters is convincing, I would argue that Theophrastus’ work can hardly provide a comprehensive interpretative model for the interaction between individual and collective in the early Hellenistic polis. Even if we limit ourselves to Athens, it would have been useful to test the conclusions of this chapter with another paramount medium of expression of the contemporaneous elites’ identity such as Menander’s comedies.

Even with these reserves, Heitmann-Gordon’s book succeeds in his purpose of demonstrating that in the early Hellenistic period the individual is indeed given greater space than before, “but at the same time its individualist tendencies are narratively curbed in various, partly innovative ways” (p. 419). Pretending that one book could explore all the forms and contexts of these collective efforts to cope with, and re-directing individual ambitions, would honestly be too much. However, Heitmann-Gordon provides numerous fresh insights and, more generally, a renewed set of conceptual tools that may nourish future interdisciplinary research on this fundamental aspect of Hellenistic culture.