BMCR 2023.09.15

Roman Ionia: constructions of cultural identity in western Asia Minor

, Roman Ionia: constructions of cultural identity in western Asia Minor. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2022. pp. xvi, 308. ISBN 9781009150187.



Informed by recent debates about identity and globalisation, discursive studies of ethnic and cultural identities have increased in number in the past two decades.[1] A commonly asked question goes as follows: ‘how do people maintain a sense of belonging to a specific ethnic or cultural group in a quickly changing world that challenges traditional ties?’ A common answer is that, in response to this world of change, people deliberately promulgate their identities and invent, reinvent, and defend traditional rituals, symbols, institutions, and other cultural expressions. The monograph under review follows in this tradition.

If Ionia in the Archaic and Classical period has received ample scholarly attention,[2] the wealth of epigraphic and numismatic evidence available for Hellenistic and Roman Ionia and its inhabitants has never been studied in much detail or length. Filling this gap, Hallmannsecker presents a well-grounded socio-cultural study of Ionia and the construction of a distinct Ionian group awareness in relation to developments under the Roman Empire (133 BC – late 3rd century AD). The study examines literary sources (e.g., Strabo, Pausanias, and Pliny) as well as epigraphic and numismatic material. Archaeological evidence does not figure prominently in the book.[3] Eleven figures primarily show obverses and reverses of coins; eleven tables mostly concern statistics regarding personal names; and six basic maps help the reader to situate the various communities and regions topographically.

Hallmannsecker accepts the view that identity is multilayered, context-dependent, fluid, and constructed. He describes ‘cultural identity’ as a variety of markers of identity such as language, religion, myths, onomastics, dating systems, and a common assocation (koinon). After an initial chapter on Ionia as a cultural region, each chapter discusses evidence for a specific cultural expression of Ionianness in pre-Roman times, during the Roman period, and through a contextualisation of the evidence, presents possible explications for the relevance of Ionianness.

The first chapter (‘Mental geographies’) discusses Ionia as a distinct cultural region and Ionianness as a cultural identity. It claims that the cohesiveness of Ionian identity was first and foremost grounded in shared cultural expressions and not in a geographical notion of Ionia. This claim is supported, for instance, by Strabo’s exceptional attention to cultural actors in his discussion of Ionia (Strabo 12.1.3, 14.1). The naming of a Hellenistic polis as ‘Metropolis in Ionia’ (not ‘Metropolis of Ionia’) exemplifies that Ionia was not only constituted by old Ionian poleis and that not every city in geographical ‘Ionia’ could claim to be ‘of Ionia’ as a cultural region. Ionianness as a cultural resource became especially relevant in competitive contexts. Inter-city rivalry among the poleis of provincia Asia in the second and third centuries AD provided models for assertions of Ionianness in the form of city titles (Miletos: ‘metropolis of Ionia’; Smyrna: ‘kosmos of Ionia’). Claims to Ionianness gave additional distinction and prestige to both individuals (‘first of the Ionians’) and polis-communities beyond civic and provincial identities and served as a contrast to non-Ionian ethno-cultural regions and peoples in Asia (Mysia, Caria, Lydia, Phrygia).[4]

In the second chapter, the Ionian koinon appears as an institution issuing honorific decrees, engaging in ruler cult, and organising collective rituals. The repetitive participation in collective rituals and activities, such as the festival Panionia, celebrated at the common sanctuary (Panionion) or in one of the thirteen member-states, perpetuated the socio-cultural importance of Ionianness and the traditional bonds between its members. Koinon officials belonged to the higher echelons of the Ionian cities indicating the socio-cultural relevance of the koinon during the Roman period.[5] According to the author, after a period of relative silence from the sixties BC, the Ionian koinon received renewed attention with the introduction of chief-priests of Ionia devoted to emperor worship from Augustan rule on. The alleged revival of the koinon is explained as an emulative response to the creation and development of the province of Asia and the establishment of the chief-priest of Asia. In my opinion, both the existence and explanation of this revival remain rather speculative.

Chapter 3 turns to ritual and myth as expressions of Ionian identity. Three divinities are considered Ionian: Dionysos Phleus,[6] Poseidon Helikonios, and Apollo Delphinios. Poseidon Helikonios was the main divinity of the Panionion and the Panionia, but individual Ionian poleis as well as the Ionian colonies on the shores of the Black Sea could have their own shrines devoted to this god. Apollo Delphinios is considered an Ionian deity too, even though almost all evidence stems from Miletos. The only reason for the god’s perceived Ionianness is a passage in Strabo’s work (4.1.4), in which a temple of Apollo Delphinios in the Phokaian colony of Massalia (Marseille) is called ‘common to all Ionians’. Passages in Strabo (especially 14.1.3-4) and Pausanias (7.1-5) show that a variety of foundation myths of the Ionian Migration together formed a mythological base for collective Ionianness. Many Ionian poleis had Ionian kings as their foundation heroes, providing a shared sense of ethno-cultural roots. Hallmannsecker focuses on the best known of these kings: Neileus of Miletos and Androklos of Ephesos. Rituals expressive of an Ionian identity, such as the worship of Poseidon Helikonios, Apollo and Artemis Panionios, and the organisation of the Panionia continued in the Roman period. Foundation stories seemingly rose in significance especially from the Hadrianic reign on. This rise is explained as a consequence of the influence of the Panhellenion and the associated emphasis on different ethno-cultural forms of Greekness (Doric, Aeolic, Ionic) and the inter-city rivalries in Asia.

Chapter 4 (‘Times and names’) focuses on Ionian month names (ending in -ών) as well as annual cycles of eponymous office-taking, both of which show consistency over time. In other communities, the use of different month names, the adoption of different systems for dating (Seleucid, Sullan, Pharsalian eras), or the replacement of traditional eponymous magistrates by officials associated with Roman power (e.g. in Lydia) set these regions apart from Ionia. Traditionalism and conservatism, Hallmannsecker concludes, were a unifying factor connecting the Ionian poleis in the Roman period. In the same chapter, Hallmannsecker pays attention to personal names which may be considered Ionian.[7] There were few Ionian names (names formed with ἅναξ, θέμις or ἀγορή) in the Roman period. But, Hallmannsecker suggests, the conscious selection of such a rare name becomes all the more meaningful as a sign of Ionian distinction. It is noteworthy that such names were particularly common among a small group within the elite of Miletos.

Evidence for the use of the Ionic dialect (chapter 5) and for expressions of Ionianness outside Ionia (chapter 6) is also limited. Again, Hallmannsecker considers the sporadic and quantitatively limited occurrence as a qualitative asset: when the Ionic dialect is used or when expressions of Ionianness do appear outside Ionia, their selection must be a conscious attempt to bestow prestige and to use Ionianness as a marker of distinction. Ample or limited, then, the evidence for all types of cultural expressions is used to exemplify ‘cultural capital’ and ‘cultural resources’. This interpretation tends to flatten out the variety and unequal distribution (in time, space, and social grouping) of expressions of Ionian identity.

After a brief consideration of the end of Ionianness in antiquity, Hallmannsecker summarizes his observations and presents his explications. His explications for the relevance and historical dynamics of expressions of Ionianness concentrate on the use of Ionianness as a cultural resource conveying prestige and distinction. Hallmannsecker locates the use of Ionianness primarily in three historical contexts: inter-city rivalries and competition between groups or individuals (2nd-3rd centuries AD), the Hadrianic creation of the Panhellenion and the emphasis on ethno-cultural categories (Doric, Aeolian, Ionian), and the Constitutio Antoniniana and its perceived unification of the peoples inhabiting the Roman Empire. Hallmannsecker ends his book with three important lessons: cultural references to Ionianness are not artificial archaisms, framing issues of identity as simply Greek does not do justice to the complexities of provincial identities, and expressions of identity primarily come down to us through the activities of civic elites.

The question remains whether the search for explanation in contextual externalities is the most convincing way to go about understanding Ionianness in the Roman period. In the final two pages, Hallmannsecker notes that studies of cultural identities have often ignored the issue of power.[8] Paradoxically, this comment reads as a criticism of both the cultural model Hallmannsecker adopts and of his own study. There is no analysis of power dynamics and ideologies as constituents of the construction of Ionianness. This is particularly true for the internal relations of the Ionian region and koinon as well as of the various Ionian poleis. Miletos, for instance, is sometimes singled out as one of the key sites for evidence of Ionianness (chief-priests of Ionia, agonothetai of the Ionian koinon, Ionian names, ‘metropolis of Ionia’), but this observation is not followed by an analysis of Miletos’ peculiar position in Ionia. Which specific communities and individuals were involved in construing Ionianness, at what time? What could they have gained in doing so? What ideological role did Ionian identity play?

Ionianness remains an abstraction, which Hallmannsecker presents as cultural resource and cultural capital. The reader does not learn much about the concrete elements making up Ionian identity. In part, this is a result of Hallmannsecker’s exclusion of geography from his analysis (chapter 1). Rituals and myths have value in specific geographical spaces.[9] The specific relevance of Dionysos Phleus (see note 6) may, for instance, lie in its appearance in deltaic and riverine environments (e.g. Priene on the Maiandros and Ephesos on the Kaystros), where reeds grew in abundance and could be used as supports for vineranks.[10] Additionally, the coastal geography of Ionia may provide concrete sources for identity construction (maritime trade; seafaring) and a potential link with the worship of Poseidon Helikonios. The point here is not that these suggestions of geographical relevance are necessarily correct, but that geographical aspects should not be excluded from the start as potential sources for Ionian identity. Attention to internal geographical and social relations of Ionia is necessary for an understanding of the way Ionia and Ionianness was constructed, by whom, with which social interests, and how mental geographies interact with environmental and social geographies. Hallmannsecker has done an admirable job in collecting and presenting evidence for Ionianness, but has, in the reviewer’s opinion, framed it with a cultural model of limited explicatory capacity.



[1] Hallmannsecker gives many references in the footnotes on pages 6 to 11.

[2] Alan Greaves 2010. The Land of Ionia. Society and Economy in the Archaic Period. Chichester/Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell; Naoíse Mac Sweeney 2013. Foundation Myths and Politics in Ancient Ionia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[3] One of the exceptions is a frieze block from the Milesian theatre depicting Apollo Delphinios (page 96, figure 3.3).

[4] In this review, Asia refers to the Roman province, not to the continent of the same name.

[5] The discussion of these officials and their social background is usefully accompanied by an appendix listing the evidence (Appendix: Evidence for Officials of the Ionian Koinon in the Roman Period). See also Peter Herrmann 2002. “Das κοινόν τῶν Ἰῶνων unter römischer Herrschaft,” in Norbert Ehrhardt & Linda-Marie Günther (eds), Widerstand – Anpassung – Integration: Die griechischen Staatenwelt und Rom. Festschrift für Jürgen Deininger zum 65. Geburtstag, 223-240. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag.

[6] Evidence for Dionysos Phleus comes from Ionian poleis only. There is very little further discussion.

[7] The discussion of Ionian personal names is supported by the collection and statistical study of a set of 2,148 names for 7,469 persons. This original section of the book, with data presented in tabular form (tables 4.1-4.8), carefully considers a variety of possible Ionian names, determines whether they can be considered specifically Ionian and rates their quantitative significance and relevance.

[8] The monograph to which Hallmannsecker refers as a seminal study on power and culture is missing from the bibliography: Schmitz, T.A. 1997. Bildung und Macht. Zur sozialen und politischen Funktion der zweiten Sophistik in der griechischen Welt der Kaiserzeit (Zetemata 97). Beck: München.

[9] On myth and place in Pausanias: Greta Hawes 2021. Pausanias in the world of Greek myth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, and the review by Elton Barker 2023:

[10] The epithet of the god is commonly derived from φλέω (to flourish, to abound), but a connection with the plant ὁ φλέως, wool-tufted reed, is a good alternative to be considered. For artificially maintained reed-beds connected to vineyards in the Kaystros-valley during the Roman period, see e.g. I.Ephesos VII.2 3803, with Thomas Drew-Bear 1980. ‘An act of foundation at Hypaipa,’ Chiron 10: 517-519. Strabo (14.1.15) considers many Ionian territories as producers of good wine.