BMCR 2021.10.08

Politics of association in Hellenistic Rhodes

, Politics of association in Hellenistic Rhodes. New approaches to ancient Greek institutional history. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020. Pp. xi, 178. ISBN 9781474452557 £80.00.

In an 1896 survey of ancient Greek associations, Erich Ziebarth called Rhodes “ein El Dorado der Vereinsbildung.”[1] For those interested in associations as windows on to Greek social, economic, (of course) religious, and – according to the elegant argument of Christian A. Thomsen’s book – political history, Rhodes is rich beyond compare. An astonishing 200 private associations are known from the island and its dependencies, ca. 165 listed in the Copenhagen Inventory of Ancient Associations. In addition, Rhodes also possessed an elaborate architecture of public associations, e.g., demes and phylai, a legacy of the synoikism of 408/7 BCE, which joined the three poleis of Lindos, Kamiros, and Ialysos into a single island-wide state, but did not erase older civic identities and institutions. Thomsen’s book manages to transform this large and unwieldy body of epigraphic evidence into a compelling microhistory of ancient Greek politics. This is no mean feat. It requires contending with the even larger corpus of some 5,000 Rhodian inscriptions.[2] And it requires pivoting from chronology, which classical archaeologists of all stripes will immediately associate with Rhodes, to history. For political history, in particular, the lack of law-court speeches is one of several challenges. The island’s epigraphy is an “épigraphie du nom,” mostly devoid of decrees and decisions. What we have are lists of magistrates – and associations. Nevertheless, this book transcends both prosopography and the traditional typological study of Greco-Roman associations. It shows us how elites used private associations to gain power and consolidate their ranks, while the Rhodian state was also relying on those same associations to provide the human and ideological resources crucial to its success.

The central argument here is that Rhodes is an important case study for how, in an ancient Greek democracy, certain people, namely, a “magisterial elite,” were able to hoard political power by mobilizing certain non-state groups and networks, i.e., private associations. Vincent Gabrielsen had already provided a portrait of what he called the “naval aristocracy of Hellenistic Rhodes,” but his 1997 book left room for other scholars to offer explanations for emergence of that elite.[3] For his part, Volker Grieb has placed the birth of the “naval aristocracy” post-167 BCE, in the context of new political circumstances after Rome’s Third Macedonian War.[4] Whereas Grieb, following Hans-Ulrich Wiemer, saw an institutional and constitutional change, the elevation of the Council (boula) and its secretary (grammateus boulas) at the expense of the popular assembly, Thomsen both denies those facts and shifts the focus (p. 21). These people are the “magisterial elite” because they successfully capture all the magistracies, not because they change or reconfigure them. The key to their strategy was the political mobilization of private associations.

Such claims grant the study under consideration significance for several debates. The most basic problem is that of authenticating Rhodian democracy. Suspicion of Rhodes’ democracy, with its aristocratic veneer, seems to go back as far as Strabo.[5] Did the Rhodians misrepresent their political system as a democracy? (And if they did, who else did in Classical Antiquity?) Here is where a description of the political institutions only gets us so far. The Rhodian institutions all look democratic.[6] Theoretically, every citizen could stand for elective office. Further, frequent rotation of office, between individuals and also civic tribes, was strictly observed. Yet a remarkably small number of people and their families dominated office-holding. In the end, the Rhodian democracy holds up as authentic, but we gain a better understanding of how the game was played. The emphasis in this book is on political practice.[7] This makes its case study potentially transformative for the conversation around Hellenistic democracy and indeed the overall characterization of the Hellenistic polis. The book challenges us to move beyond chronicling the post-Classical persistence of public institutions and labeling the phenomenon “vitality” because it points to a new set of private institutions as the very mechanism by which Classical democracy evolved historically. In a stunning historiographical reversal, the associations are not the harbingers of civic decay anymore. They are where politics is actually happening.

Earlier work on the topic treated private associations as either apolitical – in other words, “just” religious – or ranged against the state in the manner of Pliny’s troublesome collegia or, on some interpretations, early Christ groups.[8] A prior generation of scholarship was at most willing to concede that associations opened up an alternative space for participation in civic life, principally for foreigners excluded from the polis at the great emporium of Hellenistic Rhodes.[9]Associations strengthened outsiders’ bonds with citizens and provided access to property rights, the means of acquiring temene, as well as plots in the necropolis of Rhodes, a Hippodamian “city of the dead” haunted by the members’ voices.

However, a large population of foreigners cannot account for 200 private associations and the role they played in civic life. Their function was not merely social, but rather societal integration, as Thomsen and Gabrielsen have argued in a programmatic essay. “Private” associations become simply non-state ones, playing a mediating or integrative role between state and society. The civic space opened up is therefore complementary (civil society), rather than alternative, and it retains its public-ness. This book presents a vision of the polis as “corporate,” taking Aristotle’s formulation in the Nicomachean Ethics (1160a8–29), an “association (koinonia) of associations,” for the complete picture, not the societal half of a dualistic state-society ontology of the polis.

After providing a neat overview of the structure of Rhodian democracy, the book unfolds in three acts. The first introduces the magisterial elite, the second, the associations, both public and private. In the third and final act, we get a holistic view of the role of private associations in every corner of the political system. As for the magisterial elite, they are not a different group of people from the “naval aristocracy” analyzed in early scholarship. Rather, office-holding is now highlighted as the key expression of their identity and power. Again, the ability of certain individuals and their families to dominate elective office is remarkable and cries out for explanation. Competition was fierce. Lindos, for example, seems to have taken steps to meet the demand for priesthoods by turning the hiereis statoi (“standing priests”) of Poseidon Hippios into annual office-holders, ca. 315 (Lindiaka VI 18). Yet by the end of the third century, the priesthood of Artemis Kekoia, which had begun the Hellenistic period outside the civic pantheon, seems to have been reserved for those who had already held the eponymous priesthood of Athana Lindia and Zeus Polieus, in turn restricting supply. Riding a wave of popular support to the top of the cursus honorum required the ability to advance specific, albeit mostly unrecoverable policies. Rhodian magistrates shaped policy, as the federal prytaneis or civic epistatai who set agendas, and it is emphasized, did the same out of office, as proposers (boulomenoi) before assemblies. Their election, then, required the mobilization of so-called “policy networks.” On the other hand, they also just needed money and family connections. Households (oikoi) were built or maintained by means of marriage and adoption. Local marriage ties could be crucial for consolidating deme-level support in elections that pitted demes against each other. An idiosyncratic form of adoption proliferated at Rhodes. Sons bear the name of both fathers, and adoptions could take place while the biological father was still alive, quite often within the same family. While in some cases this allowed the adoptee to choose between two different deme affiliations, and therefore, to circumvent the “triennial rule,” by which the priesthood of Athana Lindia rotated between three tribes of four demes apiece, adoption was fundamentally an inheritance strategy that allowed a family to produce economically viable candidates for office across the generations.[10]

Public associations were ubiquitous on Rhodes, a palimpsest of different territorial arrangements and gentilicial groupings. The ktoinai, for example, seem to represent an older form of territorial organization that was superceded but not replaced by the deme system. Perhaps, the ktoina endured because it was able to remain in contact both with the demes and with burgeoning non-citizen population, displaying the flexibility that Thomsen highlights throughout as a distinguishing feature of associations. This nimble polis, at least, does not look much like W.G. Runciman’s “evolutionary dead-end.” Of particular interest here may be an entire cast of private associations that shadow and reduplicate the identity if not the function of public associations. For a given public ktoina, there might also be a private koinon of ktoinetai; similarly, some private patriotai organized alongside a public patra. The membership of the ktoina of the Matioi overlapped with that of the private koinon of the Matioi ktoinetai eranistai Philokrateioi, but the private association owed its very name to a wealthy citizen of Ilion named Philokrates. Our modern Leviathan states do not countenance such redundancies.

In federal politics, the public associations of the cities play a fascinating role, not just in terms of launching careers, but by broadcasting “particularized trust” for these individuals across the island in the form of re-publication of locally awarded honors. Here and elsewhere, Thomsen’s book raises stimulating, social-scientific questions about what epigraphy is doing as publicity. Regarding private associations, we witness an “associational arms race” driven by a magisterial elite in search of clientage. Like Philokrates of Ilion, many Rhodians gave their names to private associations, such as the Timapoleion koinon, associated in a Lindian epidosis (public subscription) with a certain Timapolis, whose career is documented. The magisterial elite appear terribly hungry for the endorsement of associations, with an unnamed man accumulating no fewer than twenty-three of them (p. 103)! He clearly wasn’t participating in all of them, which makes Rhodian “democratic” politics look decidedly inegalitarian at the grassroots level. The flexibility of the private associations is stunning, with far-flung branches or affiliates such as the Euthalidai in Netteia (Lindos) and the Euthalidan patriotan ton en Oiais Koinon in the asty (Rhodos).[11]

The book’s successful payoff chapters give readers a profound understanding of associations as resources for both the elite and the Rhodian state. Beyond electoral politics, they mobilized “human resources” for trierarchs and choregists. They also disseminated civic ideology, even beyond the citizenry. One foreigners’ association boasted games and tribes; another acted as a thirteenth deme of Lindos. Some readers might wish for more granular periodization, but we do come to see the well-studied Polykles, a personality of the period of the Mithridatic Wars, as perhaps a new kind of political animal, expedited to federal office (p. 128). Others might ask how the concept of “policy networks” improves upon earlier accounts of “interest groups” with interests that are too fluid to be seen as policies. Yet the heuristic helps us see how non-state actors used these institutions to capture state power. The book very much fulfills the mission of the Edinburgh University Press series to which it belongs, “New Approaches to Ancient Greek Institutional History,” by indeed presenting these institutions as an “organic system of rules, practices and ideas/discourses.” That makes it of interest to both those laboring over their own microhistories and those seeking a generalized history of the fragmented and diverse ancient Greek city-state system.


[1] Erich Ziebarth, Das griechische Vereinswesen (Lepizig, 1896), 196.

[2] Nathan Badoud, Le Temps de Rhodes (Munich, 2015), with 1,012 inscriptions dated.

[3] Vincent Gabrielsen, The Naval Aristocracy of Hellenistic Rhodes (Aarhus, 1997).

[4] Volker Grieb, Hellenistische Demokratie (Stuttgart, 2008), 339–44.

[5] 14.2.5.

[6] See Susanne Carlsson, Hellenistic Democracies (Stuttgart, 2010), 25–59.

[7] Cf. Grieb, Demokratie, 304–20, on “politische Praxis.”

[8] On an at-times parallel debate in religious studies, see Benedikt Eckhardt, ed., Private Associations and Jewish Communities in the Hellenistic and Roman Cities (Leiden, 2019).

[9]  But see now Stéphanie Maillot, “Foreigners’ Associations and the Rhodian State,” in Private Associations and the Public Sphere, Vincent Gabrielsen and Christian A. Thomsen, eds., (Copenhagen, 2015), 136–82.

[10] The “triennial rule” was discovered by Christian Blinkenberg for the priesthood of Athana Lindia. For Gabrielsen (Aristocracy, 112–20), it explained adoption patterns.

[11] On these homonyms, see Vincent Gabrielsen, “A New Inscription Attesting to Associations from the Necropolis of Rhodes,” Tyche 32 (2017): 15–16.