BMCR 2021.03.51

The fight for Greek Sicily: society, politics, and landscape

, The fight for Greek Sicily: society, politics, and landscape. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2020. Pp. xvi, 399; 1 p. of plates. ISBN 9781789253566. $70.00.

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

There were few places in the ancient Mediterranean world more fought over than Greek Sicily.[1] Located at the geographical center of the Mediterranean basin, and home to a dense network of Greek, Punic, and native Sikel, Sikan, and Elymian settlements, Sicily was synonymous with conflict and competition.[2] Its inhabitants fought over people, places, ideas, identities, and goods; they fought as soldiers, but also as politicians, craftsmen, athletes, and intellectuals. In this volume, we get an impressive collection of archaeological case studies and historical essays focusing on how collective, “organised societal violence” drove historical change on the island, and among its Greek settlements in particular—changes affecting rural and urban environments, settlements, and social practices (p. xii).

The authors spend no time concerning themselves with more traditional ‘drum and trumpet’ studies of battlefield tactics and military history, instead treating warfare as a social practice, where organized violence and society are interdependent.[3] Though the volume does not advance a single thesis or research question, it is a very welcome contribution to the history and archaeology of Western Greece: its authors offer up-to-date results from fieldwork on the island and new directions for historical research. The volume’s seventeen contributions can be split into three broad categories, each including case-studies drawing from the fields of archaeology, history, and philology: “the reflections of warfare and collective aggression in Greek Sicilian” concerning 1) society, 2) politics, and 3) landscape (p. xiv).

The first chapter comes from Stefano Vassallo, who starts us off with excavated mass graves from Himera, a grim and sober baseline for what was at stake in the fight for Sicily. We learn that the seven mass graves from the city’s western necropolis came from two famous conflicts at either end of the fifth century, with two very different outcomes: whereas the Greek war dead from the celebrated Battle of Himera in 480 were buried in an orderly fashion, one next to another in the supine position, those burials dating from 409 after the city was ransacked by the Carthaginians were disorderly and hasty, with both men and women of all ages. The next two chapters, the first by Andrew Ward and Clemente Marconi and the second by Holger Baitinger, shift the focus to life between major conflicts, emphasizing how the weapons finds from the acropolis and agora of Selinous had important ritual functions and economic value as scrap metal for the city’s highly militarized residents during “peacetime.” Then three chapters by Randall Souza, Bernd Steinbock, and Lisa Irene Hau explore the consequences of military defeat: how those who escaped death were sold as slaves, and then in rare cases were able to “transition back to freedom” as communities of ex-slaves founding cities (p. 58); how soldiers like the Athenians in 413 suffered psychological stress and trauma; and how Thucydides selectively foregrounded the personal experience of trauma to drive home his moral argument. Finally, Ryan Johnson closes out the section by interpreting the famous curse-tablets from Selinous as evidence for widespread inter-group hostility in multi-ethnic poleis.

The next section on politics begins with an impressive agenda-setting chapter from Franco De Angelis, who hopes future research will focus more on the economics of warfare than the ethnocentric narratives that animate so much of ancient historiography. Simply put, he argues that “the economy energized, and was energized by, war” (p. 129).[4] For example, war drove up demand for food like high-protein salted fish to supply all the armies crisscrossing the island. Hence military mobilization itself had a transformative effect on Sicilian societies. The following three chapters by Jason Harris, Spencer Pope, and Michela Costanzi then focus on all this movement from one battlefield to another and one resettled city to another: how successive tyrants managed to integrate large influxes of mercenaries into their communities; how mercenary settlements “diluted” the human geography of Sikel territory; and how refounded cities, like Halaesa Archonidea, were civic laboratories quite different from archaic colonies, instead anticipating later Hellenistic and Roman imperial practices.

The final section on landscape turns our attention to island’s built environment. Melanie Jonasch gets us started with an overview of the many ways Sicilian militarism went hand-in-hand with new building projects: in particular, new strategic cities, fortifications, small military outposts, hilltop forts, and victory monuments. Giulio Amara picks up on this last point and shows how different poleis celebrated the joint victory over the Carthaginians by funding building programs, like the Syracusan Athenaion. Two chapters by Valentina Mignosa and Massimo Frasca then take Syracuse and Leontinoi, respectively, as case-studies of urban change brought by wars, sieges, and civil unrest: not only did the Syracusan tyrants invest heavily in a “system” of deliberate urban development and consolidation of power on Ortygia, but even the inland site of Leontinoi also earned a complex defensive system and monumental granaries thanks to its agricultural potential. Salvatore De Vincenzo continues on the subject of urban fortifications, turning to the Carthaginian city of Eryx on the western seaboard of Sicily and offering the volume’s only chapter focusing on a non-Greek settlement. Finally, Claudio Vacanti develops a theoretical approach for creating a “geopolitical atlas” of Sicily and southern Italy during the Roman Republic—as opposed to an historical map, which “simply depicts the distribution of geographical objects” rather than “geopolitical dynamics and the reasons for conflicts” which require interpretation (p. 298). Hence Vacanti layers his maps with grids, vectors, and delineations to help us visualize historical conflicts. For example, by mapping the rough limits of Carthaginian and Roman forces from a Sicilian Greek perspective, or by plotting the extent of each Greek city’s maritime patrol, we can visualize just how important Greek support was during the First Punic War. In effect, we are invited to rethink the geopolitical dynamics of the island by expanding and shifting our field of vision.

Taken together, the chapters reveal a consistent, violent baseline to Sicilian Greek society. The contributions are as fascinating as they are grisly reminders of the violence endemic to Classical Sicily. Though it is impossible to read ancient historical authors like Thucydides and Diodorus and overlook this violence, the recent archaeological fieldwork these authors highlight force us to face the reality of Sicilian Greek warfare, free from its all-too-often romanticized military history. In particular, the volume makes me wonder about the continuum between interpersonal violence and the “organized societal violence” the authors focus on: in future research, how might we move below the state and state actors, and how they organized violence? Where does stasis fall on that continuum? Of course, saying anything about interpersonal violence is difficult, though not impossible given the possibility of what osteological evidence and pathological perspectives might uncover in the future. And yet even if we cannot say much about ‘disorganized’ violence for the moment, we might be able to speculate about why Sicilian Greek political culture and community rituals focused so much on organized violence as opposed to interpersonal violence.

This volume is especially successful in pointing to new directions for research. The book concludes with a short epilogue from Stefania De Vido, summarizing the book’s different lines of research relating to time and memory, landscapes, cities, fortifications and politeiai, the social body, and war and resources. To relate these questions to the broader field of Greek history, future research may also want to reckon with the question of comparative history: now that the authors have highlighted the island’s violent baseline, the next step might be to ask whether this baseline was more violent than other areas in the Mediterranean basin. If it turns out that Greek Sicily saw similar levels of conflict as, say, the Italian peninsula, western Anatolia, or even Gaul, was Greek Sicily at all unique in intensity or duration? Was this baseline a persistent feature, or one related only to a limited period of time? In other words, were the high levels of violence driven by the island’s distinctive (or, perhaps, ill-fated) human geography and location at the center of the Mediterranean? Or was it the culture of the Greeks themselves, in particular, and not of their Punic and native Sicilian neighbors, that made the island so violent? How “Sicilian” and how “Greek” was the island’s violence, actually?

Though the Sicilian Greeks are far too often overlooked in the courses we teach and the books we assign to our students (one must only take a quick survey of any Classics or History department’s PhD reading lists), I hope this volume will help remind our field of all the important questions we can ask by expanding what we include in our Greek histories beyond Athens and the Aegean. The volume is well edited and wonderfully produced, as we can expect from Oxbow Books, with over 120 maps, photographs, illustrations, and visualizations. Students and experts alike will also benefit from the six-page historical timeline spanning the first Greek foundations through to the Second Punic War, complete with primary-source citations for every entry. The Fight for Greek Sicily deserves the attention of ancient historians and archaeologists alike and will be an important point of departure for anyone interested in violent conflict in Classical Greek history.

Authors and titles

Preface / Franco De Angelis
Introduction / Melanie Jonasch

Part 1: Society
1. Guerre e conflitti nella Sicilia centro-settentrionale tra la metà del VI e la fine del V sec. a.C.: una prospettiva archeologica / Stefano Vassallo
2. War and the life of a sacred structure. Weapons from the NYU-UniMi excavations in the main urban sanctuary of Selinunte / Andrew Ward and Clemente Marconi
3. A dangerous place to live? Arms and armour in the Agora of Selinunte / Holger Baitinger
4. Enslavement and redemption in Classical Sicily / Randall Souza
5. ‘Sufferings too great for tears’: the destruction of the Athenian expeditionary corps in Sicily / Bernd Steinbock
6. Trauma and morality in Thucydides / Lisa Irene Hau
7. The curse tablets of Selinous: evidence of social strife? / Ryan Johnson

Part 2: Politics
8. Energising the economy: present results and future directions / Franco De Angelis
9. The power of movement: mercenary mobility and empire building in Sicily during the Classical Period / Jason Harris
10. Dawn of the mercenaries, twilight of the Sikels? / Spencer Pope
11. La fondazione di città in Sicilia nel V e all’inizio del IV sec. a.C. (492-396 a.C.): tra passato e futuro / Michela Costanzi

Part 3: Landscape
12. The military landscape of Greek Sicily / Melanie Jonasch
13. Quanti templi per la vittoria di Himera? Nuove evidenze dall’Athenaion di Siracusa / Giulio Amara
14. When war changes a city. Fortifications and urban landscapes in tyrant-ruled Syracuse / Valentina Mignosa
15. War and society in Greek Leontinoi / Massimo Frasca
16. The city walls of Eryx and the sociopolitical conflicts in western Sicily before the Roman conquest / Salvatore De Vincenzo
17. Roman fears, the Punic way and the Sicilian contribution: the war for Sicily in its first stages (264-263 BC) / Claudio Vacanti

Epilogue: Guerra e società nella Sicilia greca [in both Italian and English translation] / Stefania De Vido


[1] Franco De Angelis, Archaic and Classical Greek Sicily: A Social and Economic History. Oxford, 2016; Cristopher Smith and John Seratti, eds., Sicily from Aeneas to Augustus: New Approaches in Archaeology and History. Edinburgh, 2000; Sebastiana Consolo Langher, Siracusa e la Sicilia greca: tra età arcaica ed alto ellenismo. Società messinese di storia patria, 1996.

[2] Heather Reid, John Serrati, and Tim Sorg, eds., Conflict and Competition: Agōn in Western Greece. Parnassos Press, 2020.

[3] In this regard the volume fits nicely with recent work on the history of organized violence, e.g., Siniša Maleševic, The Rise of Organised Brutality: A Historical Sociology of Violence. Cambridge, 2017; Ian Morris, War! What is it Good For? Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.

[4] For a similar argument for Athenian militarism, see Barry O’Halloran, The Political Economy of Classical Athens: A Naval Perspective. Brill, 2019.