BMCR 2023.05.11

Eurasian localisms: towards a translocal approach to Hellenism and inbetweenness in central Eurasia, third to first centuries BCE

, Eurasian localisms: towards a translocal approach to Hellenism and inbetweenness in central Eurasia, third to first centuries BCE. Oriens et Occidens, 41. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2022. Pp. 338. ISBN 9783515133159

Despite being a historically connective region, the study of Hellenistic Central Eurasia is fraught with disconnection and paradoxes. The first major reference work for the field, Rachel Mairs’ The Greco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek Worlds, was published in November 2020 and brought together the scattered waves of inquiry into Hellenistic Central Eurasia.[1] Milinda Hoo’s ground-breaking Eurasian Localisms highlights these oppositional intellectual traditions and reveals the paradoxical understandings of Hellenism in the major streams of Central Eurasian archaeological and historical study. In doing this, Hoo outlines a new theoretical basis for studying the material culture, social structures, and people of this hybrid time period.

The book is divided into three major parts, building a good theoretical and archaeological basis for its investigation. The first, Chapters 1–2, introduces the aims of the volume, theorizing the cultural ‘inbetweenness’ of Hellenism in Asia during the first three centuries BCE. Chapter 1 examines Hellenistic Central Asia as geographically and temporally inbetween. It then provides a sweeping historical overview of the major movements in the historiographic and archaeological study of Hellenistic Central Asia from the 19th century to the 1970s.

Chapter 2 is an excellent discussion of the evolution of the terms Hellenism, Hellenization, hybridity, and globalization in the intellectual study of Hellenistic Central Eurasia. It covers a breadth of scholarship, including the majority of scholarly traditions that investigated the region. It does not include Russian sources, but this was disclaimed in the introduction. This chapter provides a clear and concise overview of the major developments of Hellenism and includes representative examples from each period to illustrate the different waves of inquiry. Overall, it provides a concrete foundation for the case studies in Part 2.

Part 2, comprising Chapters 3–7, discusses the Hellenistic archaeological evidence from Ai Khanoum, Takht-i-Sangin, Old Nisa, Seleukeia-on-the-Tigris, and Babylon in broad strokes to outline the major paradoxes in intellectual perceptions of Hellenism in Central Eurasia. Each chapter provides a survey of the archaeological evidence available from each site and discusses the particular views that the evidence has elicited.

The first two case studies focus on the Baktrian evidence at Ai Khanoum and Takht-i-Sangin. The discussion of Ai Khanoum in Chapter 3 draws attention to the presentation of Hellenistic identity in the major lines of inquiry into the city. Hoo deftly navigates the two interpretations of the ‘Greekness’ of the site: whether this was a representation of the community wanting to emulate a Greek style or a Greek upper class wanting to reinforce their identity. Chapter 4, on the other hand, frames Takht-i-Sangin’s consistent presentation as hybrid in scholarship, paying particular attention to the Atrosokes votive altar and the temple’s contested identification as a Zoroastrian fire temple. Although this case study is much shorter than the others, Hoo highlights that the interpretations of the temple site are more inclusive. It is seen as a “cultural melting pot” (126) rather than something solely of one cultural group. The discussion then shifts to the Parthian Arsakid dynasty in the third case study.

Chapter 5 introduces the Parthian site of Old Nisa and the Arsakid Dynasty. It provides a compelling argument for the originality of the Arsakid Dynasty and draws attention to how their rule has been largely classified by scholars as Philhellenism. Hoo emphasizes how Philhellenism, as presented by the intellectual traditions, innately rejects the legitimacy of Parthian creativity. This bias is demonstrated further in the oppositional fourth and fifth case studies.

Hoo presents Seleukeia-on-the-Tigris (Chapter 6) and Hellenistic Babylon (Chapter 7) as two divergent presentations of Hellenism. Seleukeia-on-the-Tigris is seen as a site of Hellenistic hybridity that presented a so-called ‘real Hellenism’ from the outset and under Parthian rule. In Chapter 7, however, Hoo highlights the focus in scholarship on the persistence of localism in Hellenistic Babylon. This section discusses the evidence in a less granular way than the previous case studies due to the sparing available evidence from Hellenistic Babylon. Hoo primarily argues that scholars persistently identify Babylon as a fading Babylonian city with some minor Greek elements under the Seleukids and Arsakids. This contrast is used as a springboard for Part 3: Eurasian Localisms.

The last part, comprising Chapters 8–10, is a ground-breaking discussion of the paradoxes present in the study of Hellenistic Central Eurasia and presents Arjun Appadurai’s theory of translocalism as a more nuanced approach to understanding its people and cultures.[2] Chapter 8 elaborates on the contradictions in the case studies, analyzing the five archaeological sites by examining how the scholarship of each is inherently paradoxical. Hoo highlights five aspects: the baggage of ethnicity in notions of Hellenism; the double relationship between religion and syncretism; the ambiguous forms of Philhellenism; cultural reductions inherent in models of cultural hybridity; and a troubling relationship with localism. The book expertly identifies how these paradoxes perpetuate the dichotomies of ‘Us’ vs ‘Other’ in the case of Greeks and locals. Despite trying to move past these conceptions, there is an implicit reintegration of these dichotomies throughout current discussions of localism and hybridity.

Chapter 9 then provides a theoretical basis to reorient the study of Hellenistic Central Eurasia: translocalism. The first half of the chapter prepares the reader by providing an overall discussion of the nature of globalism, and it defines the major aspects of translocalism in contrast to glocalism. This includes complex connectivity, time-space compression, deterritorialization, and communities of practice. Hoo delves into the major theoretical literature of globalism in this section; unfortunately, it does become quite dense at times. However, in the second half, Hoo largely synthesizes the concept of translocalism into a digestible format and applies it to the archaeological contexts of Ai Khanoum, Old Nisa, Takht-i-Sangin, Hellenistic Babylon, and Seleukeia-on-the-Tigris. The discussions outline a new way to consider the hotly contested and paradoxical archaeology from each site. This book’s evidence disrupts conservative conceptions of culture and locality, drawing “analytical attention to what trans-regional mobility and connectivity do to people’s experience without privileging global space and scale over locally embedded social practices” (272). Hoo asserts that these sites need to be considered in their wider, interconnected contexts without falling into the dichotomies of previous scholarship.

This book is a breakthrough for the theoretical approach to the study of Central Eurasia during the Hellenistic Period. In particular, it is an excellent resource both for new readers to explore the intellectual history of the subject and for scholars to re-examine the inherent biases in the field. Translocalism, as Hoo describes it, “has potential to bring current debates in Classics and archaeology on Hellenism, globalization, and cultural transformation in Hellenistic Eurasia forward” (272). This book, and translocalism itself, is an essential building block for scholars of Hellenistic Eurasia that can potentially restructure, nuance and unify current conceptualizations of Hellenistic Eurasia. In the next stage, this theory should be applied to in-depth case studies of the archaeology of Hellenistic Eurasia to broaden understandings of ancient identity, religion, and lived experience. Overall, this volume is an excellent contribution to the field of Hellenistic Eurasian studies and will, hopefully, make the wider scholarly community aware of more inclusive approaches to studying the ancient world.



[1] Rachel Mairs, ed. The Graeco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek World (Milton Park: Routledge, 2020).

[2] Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, Vol. 1: Public Worlds (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996).