BMCR 2022.10.14

The province of Achaea in the 2nd century CE: the past present

, The province of Achaea in the 2nd century CE: the past present. Routledge monographs in Classical studies. Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2022. Pp. 412. ISBN 9781032014852 £120.00.


[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The last couple of years have seen a surge of interest in a field that had been largely neglected by previous scholarship: the history of Greece, particularly the province of Achaea, in the imperial period.[1] Although there is still no comprehensive history of Greece from the 1st to 3rd century, since Susan Alcock’s seminal study Graecia capta, a number of publications have engaged with various aspects of this highly interesting and promising topic, focusing especially on the intellectual movement of the so-called Second Sophistic and its ramifications.[2] A second (and connected) field of enquiry that has attracted increasing attention among historians, archaeologists and philologists alike is the vast field of memorial culture in imperial Greece. Already in 1970, Ewen Bowie published an influential article entitled “Greeks and their Past in the Second Sophistic.” A number of studies have followed in his track, understanding the growing interest of the inhabitants of the province of Achaea in their glorious past as independent communities in order to cope with a present as ‘backwater’ region of the Imperium Romanum that was perceived to be highly deficient. The Greeks’ engagement with the past has occasionally even been interpreted as a kind of implicit (or even explicit) opposition to Roman rule.[3] In contrast, Antony Spawforth in particular has suggested that this engagement was actually not only encouraged but even initiated by Rome and the emperors who created a kind of ‘official’ version of the Greek past which was welcomed enthusiastically by the Greek elites as a new way of communicating with the imperial centre.[4]

The volume under review can be situated between these poles. In her introduction, Anna Kouremenos explicitly refers to Bowie (who has contributed an afterword to the volume under review) while simultaneously emphasising that Rome and especially Hadrian were the most important driving force behind the Greeks’ renewed interest in their past. In order to describe and analyse the developments on display in 2nd-century Greece, Kouremenos proposes to employ the notion of ‘collective historical nostalgia’ (4). In this conception, past events are not simply memori(ali)sed or publicly remembered by individuals or communities, but conceived of as an idealised alternative, ‘a wistful retrospection’ (5) designed to overcome a deficient present. The volume aims to demonstrate that Hadrian (and his successors) who deliberately portrayed himself as a kind of ‘transmitter’ (6) and ‘custodian’ (8) of the Greek past turned this essential feature of Greek culture into an effective instrument of power.[5]

It has to be stated in advance that, although a number of the contributions explicitly engage with various aspects of the role of Hadrian and the Antonine emperors in the process of developing a collective memorial culture, the volume has not fully achieved this aim. However, what might appear as a weakness at first sight actually turns out to be a pronounced strength of the collection. As Kouremenos acknowledges briefly (8), local elites ‘were also instrumental in promoting’ the engagement with the Greek past—and, it has to be emphasised, not only in a position inferior to that of the Roman emperors and authorities and dependent on their ‘memorial input’. In fact, several contributions demonstrate how fruitful it might be to overcome the established Romano-centric perspective and to take local and regional repercussions of Greek memorial culture in the 2nd century into account much more comprehensively than it has usually been done.

Members of the Greek elite as key players in the field of collective memory figure prominently in the contributions by Nigel Kennel and Estelle Strazdins. Kennell discusses the link between forms of collective memory and the institution of the Greek ephebate, notably at Athens, Sparta and Messene. He demonstrates how the past was (re)constructed and manipulated in order to create a common identity that could be employed by the civic elites of the poleis to establish social hierarchies and bolster their claims to a leading position in their respective communities. While there existed marked differences regarding the topics or episodes from the past that were publicly remembered in each of the three poleis, a common aspect was a pronounced focus on figures from the mythical or ‘pseudo-historical’ (27) past like Theseus, Lycurgus or Aristomenes—figures, as Kennell argues, that would be regarded as uncontroversial in Greece under Roman rule. Significantly, Theseus and the Athenian ephebate are prominent elements of the strategies of self-presentation developed by one of the most eminent Greeks of the imperial period: Herodes Atticus. As Strazdins argues in her contribution, Herodes aimed at establishing a kind of informal supremacy at Athens by monopolizing the memorial landscape of Athens and Attica. His respective strategy centred on the ties of his family both with the Athenian founding hero and with the Marathonomachoi and thus was tailored to the specific conditions of Athenian collective memory. That Herodes could adapt his strategies of self-representation to other circumstances is demonstrated by the monumental nymphaeum he and his wife Regilla erected at Olympia. The sculptural decoration centred not only on the emperor and the imperial family but also on the family of Herodes himself, presenting the close ties of the latter’s family with the imperial house in a place most intimately linked to Greek tradition. While this is certainly true, Strazdins’ second conclusion is a bit more problematic: According to her, by placing the statues of his family in the upper register and thus above those of the emperor and his relatives, the monument ‘whispers rivalry, dependence, and potential substitution’ (172), presenting Herodes as a kind of alternative to imperial rule in Greece. Such a line of argument suggesting the presence of a highly subversive undertone strains the evidence a bit too much—and again demonstrates how influential as well as problematic a Rome-centred perspective on Greek memorial culture can be. Be that as it may, both in the context of the ephebate and in the case of Herodes Atticus, the past is not merely remembered in a nostalgic fashion but employed as a tool of elite self-representation and competition which is highly functional first and foremost on a local and regional level.

Such a regional focus of Greek ‘memorial politics’ in the 2nd century is also discernible in the case studies analysed by Eliza Gettel and David Weidgenannt. Gettel conclusively argues that the memory of the Hellenistic general Philopoemen and the end he met at Messene was used by different (and potentially rivalling) groups or individual families of the Messenian elite in order to negotiate both the balance of power within the polis and the role of the polis within the province of Achaea, particularly the Achaean koinon. According to Gettel, local histories like the Philopoemen-story constituted ‘an important cultural currency’ (122) in the context of inter‑polis rivalry characteristic for the 2nd century Greek east. She plausibly interprets versions of the Philopoemen-story that blamed a small group of elite citizens for the general’s death and thus exculpated the main body of the Messenians as ways to counter accusations brought forward by other Achaean poleis that aimed to undermine Messenian influence within the imperial koinon by accentuating past antagonisms between the polis and the koinon’s Hellenistic precursor. That particularly the mythical past formed an important part of the ‘cultural capital’ (295) not only of renowned poleis like Athens, Sparta or Corinth but also of smaller and far less important communities is shown by Weidgenannt’s analysis of the 2nd-century coinage of Argos, Troezen and Epidaurus. Weidgenannt plausibly argues that coin types with motives depicting episodes from Panhellenic mythology that were particularly related to specific periods of local history or specific locations were often employed by those poleis in order to establish new or highlight existing ties with other communities and thus stabilize or create regional networks defined by a common frame of reference, but also as a means of self-assertion by claiming a prominent place in ‘Panhellenic’ memory. As in the case of the Palladion represented on a number of Argive coins which might have conflicted with Roman claims to its ownership, Rome could be integrated into this frame of reference as a prominent player or even rival, yet without taking centre stage. In these cases, too, certainly more than mere nostalgic longing for a better past in the face of a supposedly deficient present is at work.

The notion of nostalgia, or rather decadence, has repeatedly been invoked in previous scholarship as a kind of guiding principle for one of the central literary sources for 2nd century Greece, the Hellados Periegesis by Pausanias. This view is also taken—albeit in a more nuanced manner—by Sulochana Asirvatham in the present volume. In her study of the (few) literary accounts of the battle of Chaeronea (which in principle might seem as an ideal starting point for considerations of that kind), Asirvatham argues convincingly that no nostalgic longing for an idealised past that is contrasted with a highly deficient present can be perceived in these texts. Significantly, however, she interprets Pausanias’ recurring references to the episode as exception from this rule and as part of an Athenocentric ‘nostalgic idealism’ (76). In his short contribution on the somewhat erratic book X, Frank Daubner proposes a different approach: This book, in which Pausanias describes Phocis and Ozolian Locris and thus regions that were not commonly regarded as part of ‘Classical’ Greece proper, has been seen as an example for Pausanias’ view of large parts of Greece as impoverished ‘imperial backwater’ where only few if any traces of the glorious classical past were left to be seen. Daubner contends that, as Pausanias defined his subject ‘Greece’ by way of its history, for him Phocis and Locris must have formed an essential part of this history. According to Daubner, especially Phocis could be portrayed as remnant of a ‘primordial Greece, not yet polluted by cultural achievements like theaters, games, and civic politics’ (44). Thus, rather than being a symbol of Greek misery under Roman rule that would conjure up a nostalgic longing for the past, Pausanias’ Phocis with its small and seemingly primitive poleis has to be seen as a prime example of resilience and immutability of the most fundamental principles of Greek culture.

In sum, the concept of collective nostalgia instilled by the imperial centre as a new instrument of domination appears not fully sufficient in order to capture the complexity of Greek memorial culture in the 2nd century. However, in an explicit or implicit engagement with this concept, several of the contributions collected in this volume offer very interesting insights, thought-provoking considerations and new perspectives on a highly dynamic topic. The volume thus provides a number of promising starting points for further discussion.


Authors and titles

Anna Kouremenos, Introduction: collective historical nostalgia in 2nd-century Achaea

Part I. Social and Literary Approaches to Achaea’s Past in the 2nd Century CE
Nigel M. Kennell, Memory and identity among the ephebes of 2nd-century Achaea
Frank Daubner, Pausanias book X: a detour to the fringes of “classical” Greece
Mali Skotheim, Hadrian and the dramatic festivals of Achaea
Sulochana R. Asirvatham, The battle of Chaeronea: nostalgia vs. idealism in 2nd-century Greek prose

Part II. The Greek Past in the Roman present: Politics and Religion.
Francesco Camia, Hadrianos Olympios Panhellenios: worshipping Hadrian in Athens
Eliza Gettel, Remembering Philopoemen: Achaean pasts and presents of Messene under Rome
Giorgos Mitropoulos, Politics of the past: Marcus Aurelius and Commodus in Achaea
Estelle Strazdins, Herodes Atticus and the sanctuaries of Achaea: reinterpreting the Roman present via the Greek past

Part III. Past and Present in the Visual Culture of “Old Greece”
Panagiotis Konstantinidis, Remembering classical Greece: Hadrianic and Antonine imperial portrait sculpture
Dafni Maikidou-Poutrino, Between the local past and a global phenomenon: Isiaca in 2nd-century Achaea
Stylianos E. Katakis, Sculpture for “ordinary” people in 2nd-century Achaea
David Weidgenannt, The past in the round: Roman provincial coinage in the Argolid

Part IV. Beyond Spatial and Temporal Boundaries: Hadrian and the Reception of Achaea’s Past
Juan Manuel Cortés Copete, Hispania Graeca: Hadrian as a champion of Hellenic culture in the West
Anna Kouremenos, “The City of Hadrian and not of Theseus”: a cultural history of Hadrian’s Arch

Ewen Bowie, Afterword



[1] See among other recent publications Valentina Di Napoli et al. (eds.), What’s New in Roman Greece? Recent Work on the Greek Mainland and the Islands in the Roman Period. Athens 2018; Johannes Fouquet, Bauen zwischen Polis und Imperium. Stadtentwicklung und urbane Lebensformen auf der kaiserzeitlichen Peloponnes. Berlin/Boston 2019; Frank Daubner, “Die Provinz Achaia von Nero bis Trajan”, in: Gustav Adolf Lehmann (ed.), Bürger-Ethos, politisches Engagement und die Bewahrung des Status Quo. Plutarch, Politische Ratschläge, Tübingen 2020, 183-213.

[2] Susan Alcock, Graecia capta. The Landscapes of Roman Greece. Cambridge et al. 1993. On the Second Sophistic, see Daniel Richter/William Johnson (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of the Second Sophistic, New York 2017.

[3] Ewen Bowie, “Greeks and Their Past in the Second Sophistic”, Past and Present 46 (1970), 3-41; see also Tamara Dijkstra et al. (eds.), Strategies of Remembering in Greece under Rome (100 BC – 100 AD), Leiden 2017; Frank Ursin, Freiheit, Herrschaft, Widerstand. Griechische Erinnerungskultur in der Hohen Kaiserzeit (1.-3. Jahrhundert n. Chr.) Stuttgart 2019.

[4] Antony Spawforth, Greece and the Augustan Cultural Revolution. Cambridge et al. 2012. A more nuanced view is taken by Susan Alcock, Archaeologies of the Greek Past. Landscape, Monuments, and Memories. Cambridge et al. 2002.

[5] On Hadrian and Greece, see most recently Christian Seebacher, Zwischen Augustus und Antinoos. Tradition und Innovation im Prinzipat Hadrians. Stuttgart 2020.