BMCR 2022.12.20

La fin de la cité grecque: métamorphoses et disparition d’un modèle politique et institutionnel local en Asie Mineure

, La fin de la cité grecque: métamorphoses et disparition d'un modèle politique et institutionnel local en Asie Mineure, de Dèce à Constantin. Hautes études du monde gréco-romain, 57. Genève: Droz, 2020. Pp. xiii, 585. ISBN 9782600057424 $74.40.

La fin de la cité grecque undertakes a difficult and challenging enquiry, to determine when the active civic communities that characterised Asia Minor and its poleis during the Hellenistic and Roman imperial periods disappear. Building on research for her habilitation, Anne-Valérie Pont has prepared a solid and extremely rich monograph that presents a detailed survey of primary evidence from the mid-3rd century to Constantine’s death, a period when that traditional archetype barely appears in the available sources. Her aim is to provide “a historical account that takes note of the end of the Greek city in Asia Minor as a political and institutional model endowed with communal values” (p. 3).

The introduction follows a preface by Glen Bowersock and Pont’s own acknowledgments. The author places her investigation within the framework of understandings of civic life established by Peter Brown and Louis Robert, in which Greek cities provided a “common good” instead of other more universal forms of belonging present in Late Antiquity. In line with the most recent research on Roman Anatolia, Pont emphasises how vivid the model was during the high imperial period, with intense peer-polity interaction (taking on board John Ma’s study on the Euboikos)[1] and “political energy”[2] that resulted in true “civic societies”, not just urban centres. For this reason, she seeks to study what happens before the government of the curial class took centre stage (so before Wolf Liebeschuetz’s interests)[3] and disagrees with Mark Whittow’s efforts to defend signs of a “continuous history”.[4] Also, in contrast to Stephen Mitchell’s approach to the topic—which was the most up-to-date before this book[5]—Pont believes that traces of ancient civic life are not enough to sustain the previous model and argues that the end was not caused by a single decision of the central power, but rather by “a rapid change of local mentalities” where the city was no longer the most interesting and suitable place for collective life (p. 20). Finally, the introduction issues a warning about the difficulty of the (meagre) sources available and argues that the “true historical (and anthropological) rupture” that takes place in Asia Minor between 250 and 330 can best be understood when compared to the better documented situation of Africa.

The main body of the book is divided in three parts: I. Les cités d’Asie mineure face à des défis nouveaux du milieu du IIIes. aux années 280, II. Cités grecques et structure impériale, jusqu’à Dioclétien, III. Dissolution des liens civiques. The first chapter studies the accounts of the religious persecutions from Trajan Decius until Probus. The aim is not to measure the levels of Christianisation in Asia Minor but rather to scrutinise this important evidence about events that are not present in the epigraphic sources but which tested the Greek civic model right before the so-called “Gothic invasions”. The information is presented in an orderly format and with an extreme degree of detail, even when sources of this type, most of which were composed at a later stage, are highly problematic and should be treated with extreme care, as Pont does. Sometimes the handling of the many extant hagiographies (especially the most dubious ones) becomes too descriptive and does not add much to the argument. However, in the opinion of this reviewer, Pont’s work nevertheless provides the most complete study on the topic currently available: it not only gathers information (listed by region and emperor) but also discusses at length the possible role played by the martyrs in the cities of Asia Minor; it emphasises the relevance of local civic structures; and it tries to describe the attitudes of the Christian community as regards the micro-identities present in each polis.

The second chapter analyses the evidence illustrating the “barbarian” raids in Asia Minor and the possible effects of such attacks on civic communities between the mid-3rd century and Diocletian’s accession. Thanks to the reports of historians such as Dexippus, who were more interested in local events, it is possible to observe that cities offered resistance even when the circumstances were adverse, as perhaps is shown by the multiple coin hoards found in the region (p. 125). The epigraphic materials are even more illustrative, and Pont’s discussion of this information is both very complete and insightful throughout the chapter. Some criticism might be advanced on grounds that the author tends to incorporate inscriptions whose dating is far from certain (e.g. p. 144-145, 161). This is particularly problematic in the section discussing the building of fortifications in Asia Minor, as it is said that the use of epigrams to honour governors and especially to commemorate constructions “starts at the end of the 3rd century” (p. 137).[6] In any case, the main points of Pont’s study are extremely valuable and interesting: local reactions seem to look at the past (p. 154) and there is no destabilisation of the civic body—which keeps a strong identity—but rather a reformulation of civic autonomy against external influences while intercity networks suffered heavily (p. 174-178).

The third chapter, “Idéologies et pratiques civiques, de 249 à 303”, belongs to part II and provides a discussion of evidence (epigraphic for the most part) illustrating how the local political communities of Asia Minor were still functioning despite rapid changes at the imperial level. First, a comparison with the earlier Roman period and the cities of Africa is offered before Pont concludes that participation remained essential. Then, the author reviews different aspects in which the vividness (or lack of it) of local politics could be observed: relevance of the demos, the councils, magistracies, systems of recruitment, hierarchisation… The conclusion is clear: the civic system continued to function in the second half of the 3rd century, even in the last quarter, but some changes start appearing in comparison to the more stable African cities, particularly as regards the elites (grands notables), whose visibility in the civic scene starts to diminish (p. 218). Again, some of these interesting observations are based on epigraphic materials that are not very numerous and with a more complex chronology than sometimes acknowledged by the author (e.g. p. 188-190, 192, 212-213). The valuable exploration of “extra-civic” paths to self-promotion is, however, more conservative, and I believe that such caveats and deeper consideration of the epigraphic habit(s) should have been in place before arguing for a thorny and controversial final claim: the “depolitisation” of elites who are no longer identified by their munificence towards local communities because “cultural and social forces move away from the civic engagement ideally described by Lucian of Samosata and his contemporaries” (p. 245).

The fourth chapter analyses the increasing centralisation of the imperial power, particularly after the establishment of the Tetrarchy, and describes the creation of new administrative hierarchies. Once again, the completeness of Pont’s work is admirable, and issues such as local liturgies, tax reforms, changes of civic status and Diocletian’s provincial reorganisation are discussed at length. The main point in considering the massive amount of sources and varied information from Asia Minor (and beyond) is to show that the interest in local issues became rather weak, that the role of the politeia was reduced and, as a result, “political energy” was removed from public space (p. 331-334). It is argued that most of the local revenues were appropriated by the central power; this had consequences on the social relations within the poleis; and there was a change in the local political culture that led to the far lower number of public epigraphic monuments set up by the communities in this period.

The fifth chapter opens the last part of the book and offers an overview of the imperial instability that characterises the period from 303 to 324 A.D. It takes Diocletian’s persecutions as the starting point, so hagiographic sources and the increasing role of Christians are discussed in detail. This analysis shows that, in contrast to Africa, cities do not remain “neutral places” with common values,[7] and the best illustration is provided by the analysis of the famous inscription of Kolbasa dating to 311 under Maximinus Daia. The arrival of Licinius did not reverse this process: the difficulties in fulfilling curial duties increased; and the consolidation of new imperial centres accelerated that general move towards depolitisation. In conclusion, these new circumstances could trigger or aggravate stasis inside civic communities with a higher number of Christians (p. 396), and the civil war against Constantine “seems to mark the end of the multi-secular consensus that made the city a shared ideal” (p. 401).

The final sixth chapter continues to assess the previous trends in relation to the evidence available after Constantine’s victory. The important dossier from Orcistus is studied as well as other materials from Asia Minor connected to the notion of urbes intermortuae. In sum, aspects important for the healthy functioning of Greek cities such as the availability of magistrates, local revenues, foundations or local games are examined while a new common culture, where Christians played a significant role, was rising. The concurrent founding of Constantinople also had clear effects (477-479) and many cities remained important for the Roman administration and the Church. However, the local civic place, “with its magistrates and priests, is no longer a source of authority of religious, political or juridical nature; the latter coming from the outside” (p. 476). In conclusion, the end of the Greek city in Asia Minor, as Pont understands it, can be placed in this period and was due to the convergence of the following main factors: homogenisation in line with Roman law and the new provincial administration, consolidation of new imperial centres in the region (Nicomedia, Constantinople), a period of general instability and the depolitisation of the local communities, particularly by the richest elites (p. 492-496).

The book is equipped with informative maps, an impressive bibliography, and helpful indexes of various kinds. The virtual absence of typos despite the many languages and sources handled is also noteworthy and the care of the author and the publisher throughout the monograph must be commended. In conclusion, my only reservations have to do with Pont’s insistence to identify the end of the Greek city as something conclusive and fully measurable. After all, the entire hypothesis is largely based on the absence of the huge number of inscriptions that illuminated civic life in Asia Minor during the high Roman imperial age when many impressive construction projects funded by the local elites were accomplished.[8] In the opinion of this reviewer, that period should be considered exceptional in terms of epigraphic habit and building activity, so probably not as illustrative of Greek cities and civic life in the long run. The regions of Pisidia or Phrygia could be a good example of this paradox, where inscriptions or coins were still not very numerous before the 2nd century A.D., and yet, no one could argue that civic life or local identity were moribund.[9] Secondly, the author, despite her evident mastery of the subject and sources, does not seem to be willing to incorporate some later evidence that could lend nuance to her conclusions. I am not referring to testimonies such as Libanius, who was clearly an active citizen of an imperial metropolis (p. 481), but rather to more local inscriptions such as one recently found in Hierapolis, recording how “the entire political body (πολιτευτικόν) provided money” for the theatre under Constantius II,[10] the famous Valens’ dossier in Ephesus where magistrates from modest communities were still moved by “a greater glory for popular affection”,[11] or even Eunapius’ account of Maximus’s departure from the city amid the customary shouting of the people[12] and the presence of those leading the councils (τὸ κρεῖττον τῶν βουλευτηρίων).

This book should obviously be read by anyone interested in Roman Asia Minor and local civic life between the high imperial period and Late Antiquity. Indeed, the reservations expressed in this review should be understood as endorsing the great importance of this work’s contribution to scholarship and the interesting academic debates it will certainly generate.



[1] John Ma, “Public Speech and Community in Dio Chrysostom’s Euboikos,” in: Swain, S. (ed.), Dio Chrysostom. Politics, Letters, and Philosophy, Oxford 2000, , 108-124.

[2] Pierre Manent, Les métamorphoses de la cité. Essai sur la dynamique de l’Occident, Paris 2010.

[3] Wolf Liebeschuetz, Decline and fall of the Roman city, Oxford 2001.

[4] Mark Whittow, “Ruling the Late Roman and Early Byzantine City: A Continuous History”, Past & Present 129.1 (1990), 3-29.

[5] Stephen Mitchell, “The cities of Asia Minor in the age of Constantine,” in: Lieu, S.N.C. –Montserrat, D. (eds.), Constantine. History, Historiography and Legend, London 1998, 52-73.

[6] While the statement comes from more specific research on the topic conducted by the author (“Dernières mentions des magistratures et des liturgies traditionnelles dans les cités d’Asie mineure: habitus épigraphique et vie institutionnelle locale à la fin du IIIe et au début du IVe siècle”, Chiron 47 (2017), 35-55), this reviewer remains cautious about such conclusions.

[7] Lepelley, Claude, “Le lieu des valeurs communes: La cité terrain neutre entre païens et chrétiens dans l’Afrique romaine tardive”, in: Inglebert, H. (ed.), Idéologies et valeurs civiques dans le monde romain, Paris 2002, 271-285.

[8] Anne-Valérie Pont, Orner la cité: enjeux culturels et politiques du paysage urbain dans l’Asie gréco-romaine, Pessac 2010.

[9] Stephen Mitchell, “Greek Epigraphy and Social Change: A Study of the Romanization of South-West Asia Minor in the Third Century A.D.”, in: Atti di XI Congresso internazionale di Epigrafia greca e latina, Rome 1999, 419-433.

[10] SEG 61.1155.

[11] I.Ephesos 43 (6-7): in minoribus municipiis generatis, quos popularis animi gloria maior attollit.

[12] Eun. VS VII.42: μετὰ βοῆς πηδῶντες, ἣν δῆμος, ὅταν τινὰ θεραπεύῃ, ἐκ πολλοῦ μεμελέτηκεν.