BMCR 2023.11.22

The lives of ancient villages: rural society in Roman Anatolia

, The lives of ancient villages: rural society in Roman Anatolia. Greek culture in the Roman world. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2022. Pp. 396. ISBN 9781009123211



In this very readable book, Peter Thonemann takes up an original and important topic. Although agriculture and rural life were of course central for life in antiquity, the world of cities tends to predominate both in classical studies and in popular perceptions of ancient history. This is above all due to our sources, which include the impressive remains of ancient cities and the great bulk of written sources, literary texts as well as inscriptions, which were produced by and for urban elites and focus on urban life. As a result, modern archaeologists, historians, and literary scholars usually focus on the urban sphere, thus reinforcing even more the perceived prominence of cities. There are of course exceptions: most prominently Egypt, with its dense papyrological evidence, which opens a window on village society in a unique way, while survey archaeology in many parts of the ancient Mediterranean has greatly advanced our knowledge of the physical appearance and material culture of rural settlements. Nonetheless, in order to at least partly redress the balance between the urban and the rural perspectives, it remains important to identify, and make use of, types of evidence that throw light on rural life in antiquity. It is therefore most welcome that Peter Thonemann, an expert of the history and epigraphy of Asia Minor, has undertaken the first comprehensive study of a region in western Anatolia renowned for a prolific epigraphical production in villages of the Roman imperial period, which, however, has never been systematically studied.

The area in question is an upland part of modern western Turkey, situated around the middle section of the ancient river Hermos. In antiquity the region was never considered as a unit, and there is no ancient designation for it. In modern scholarship it is often called ‘north-east Lydia’, but it is in fact a transitional zone between Lydia, Phrygia, and Mysia. Lacking a satisfactory single name, Thonemann invents the moniker ‘Hieradoumia’ based on the Phrygian word δοῦμος (‘kinship-group’), which is used for small religious associations, ἱεροὶ δοῦμοι, in local inscriptions. The name is well-chosen to represent what Thonemann sees as “one of the most distinctive features of Hieradoumian social organization, the institutionalization of extended kin groups as ‘segments’ of village society” (p. 2, n. 5; cf. 345-347), but serves of course also as a convenient shorthand for the practical needs of writing the book. This is creative and legitimate, but it will not be long before ‘Hieradoumia’ turns up without inverted commas as a real ancient name in undergraduate essays.

The feature that backs Thonemann‘s treatment of ‘Hieradoumia’ as a unified region is its extremely distinctive and homogenous epigraphy of the Roman imperial period (first to third centuries AD). There are two significant types of inscribed monuments: ca. 1.000 tombstones, which often carry lengthy lists of relatives and other household members of the deceased, and ca. 150 ‘propitiatory inscriptions’ in which dedicants publicly declare an offence they committed against a deity and the divine punishment they received. The propitiatory dedications, which usually praise the power of the respective gods, are part of the atonement process and announce the dedicant’s reconciliation with the deity. Both groups of inscriptions are, as Thonemann rightly stresses, absolutely unique in Greek and Roman epigraphy. The funeral stelai use a highly sophisticated vocabulary to distinguish kinship relations. Many of these terms are attested exclusively in ‘Hieradoumia’ or have only rare parallels elsewhere. The propitiatory inscriptions are a feature of village society and small rural sanctuaries, and the stories they recount throw a glaring light on social relations and agricultural activities in the countryside. The value of both types of texts as historical sources is enhanced by the fact that they are usually dated to the day (mostly using the Sullan era, in some areas the Actian era). In addition, the funeral inscriptions often give the age of the deceased. It is one of the fundamental contributions of the book to analyze these two types of inscriptions together, an innovative and productive step which was never taken in earlier research (p. 70, n. 97). All this constitutes “the extraordinary interest and importance of rural Hieradoumia for the historian of the Greco-Roman world” (p. 4).

The book is clearly structured. The argument is developed from chapter to chapter in a way that is convincing and easy to follow. The first two chapters introduce the geography and history of the region and the peculiarities of the epigraphical material (quantity, geographical and chronological distribution, textual form). An important feature of ‘Hieradoumia’ that Thonemann stresses is the relatively low level of urbanization. Despite a strong influx of Hellenistic settlers, there is no evidence that any settlements in ‘Hieradoumia’ acquired polis status before the first century AD, and the cities of the imperial period apparently did not grow into large and powerful centres. In the inscriptions, villages (κατοικίαι, κῶμαι) are the dominant unit of administrative and social organization, whereas public inscriptions related to polis institutions and civic culture are rare. From the start and throughout the book, numerous well-chosen sample texts are presented in the Greek original, accompanied by precise translations. The stelae, which are often adorned with reliefs, are illustrated with a large number of good quality photographs. Chapter 3 exploits the data contained in the funeral inscriptions for demographic analyses. Topics such as seasonal mortality, sex- and age-specific phenomena of mortality, the underrepresentation of very young children, and the impact of the Antonine Plague are all well illustrated with tables and graphs. The results are compared to data sets from Egypt and late antique Rome, which they complement in a significant way.

Chapters 4-6 are fundamental for the argument as a whole since they lay the ground for Thonemann’s central thesis that extended kin groups were the decisive structuring factor of ‘Hieradoumian’ society. Chapter 4 shows convincingly that ‘Hieradoumia’ had a uniquely developed kinship terminology that allowed precise distinctions between all sorts of kinship degrees: by blood and by marriage, on the paternal and on the maternal side. In chapters 5 and 6, Thonemann pursues “the question of why the Hieradoumian ‘habit’ of extensive kin-commemoration emerged and persisted here, and not elsewhere” (p. 145). Of the rich analyses of household structures presented in chapter 5, only the most important can be summarized here: “married men typically resided with their father (if still living) and with their married brothers. Extended-family households were considerably more common in Hieradoumia than in most other parts of the Roman empire …. because the typical Hieradoumian household included numerous relatives outside the nuclear family, the inhabitants of the region developed locally distinctive norms of funerary commemoration to reflect the real shape of their families and households” (p. 191). Chapter 6 explores the widespread practice of fosterage and interprets it – against assumptions that fosterage was primarily a response to misfortunes like poverty or orphanage – as ‘circulation of children’ between households. Thonemann is right in maintaining that “in Hieradoumia, to study threptoi and their nurturers is simply to study the ordinary family going about its business” (p. 199), an assumption which is probably applicable to many parts of the Greek east. There is, however, no need to play down the importance of orphanage (as recognized on p. 305) or sexual relations between slaves and freeborn. Moreover, the thesis of a regular ‘circulation’ of children is not completely compatible with the idea that ‘Hieradoumian’ households often consisted of extended kinship groups. Under such conditions one would expect that many foster children ‘circulated’ within rather than between households.

Chapter 7 widens the perspective “Beyond the family” and discusses relationships with friends, neighbours, associations, and political communities. Thonemann concludes that the “funerary epigraphy of Roman Hieradoumia offers us a picture …of an imagined social order” which “is based first and foremost on highly complex and integrated extended kin groups; secondarily on small associative groups” and “only a very distant third on membership of a particular polis-community” (p. 240). He is of course aware that this “picture may well be an illusion, generated by our exclusive focus thus far on epitaphic evidence,” and therefore goes on to explore the question if “kinship networks, small cultic groups, and village communities [did] in fact serve as a functional alternative to the polis in this region” (ibid.).

To answer this, Chapters 8 and 9 turn to the propitiatory inscriptions, which draw a vivid picture of the powerful role of the rural sanctuaries within the economy and society of the villages. The sanctuaries were equipped with extensive landed property that, it seems, they augmented by bullying the rural population into ‘voluntary’ donations. As temporary ‘holy slaves’ (ἱερόδουλοι), the villagers were obliged to do compulsory work on the fields of the sanctuaries. The propitiatory inscriptions also describe the manifold, mostly petty conflicts within village society. These dedications were only the permanently visible part of negotiating processes and rituals that, according to Thonemann, served as “a normative filter through which low-level local disputes could pass, without the need for an appeal to higher legal authority. By categorizing a theft or an act of violence as a transgression against the village’s gods, the village community could neatly sidestep the need to involve the polis or the Roman state in the resolution of local problems” (p. 317). Chapter 10 draws together the various threads of the argument into a coherent picture of ‘Hieradoumian’ society: an egalitarian village society, in which “the wealthy, the Romanized, the urban were relatively few” (319), “organized around sprawling extended kin groups (syngeneiai), whose interpersonal relations were governed by a strict ethical code enforced by the family, the village, and ultimately by the local gods” (p. 355).

This dry summary offers an inadequate overview of the rich results of this book. The reasoning is inductive and close to the evidence, but always methodologically reflective and combined with forays into more general scholarship and comparative perspectives from other ancient regions or historical epochs. There is little to criticize, and the following observations illustrate how the book may inspire further discussion. Future research may change our picture of the role of poleis in ‘Hieradoumia’ and their interaction with the rural population since none of them have been excavated (as acknowledged on p. 19), but this would not affect most of the book’s main conclusions. Another unknown variable are the villages. In inscriptions, the terms κατοικία and κώμη denote a status and tell us nothing about the character of the corresponding settlements. For these, we have no archaeological data whatsoever, and we need at least to reckon with the possibility that some of them were in fact small towns (cf. pp. 327-328 on urban features of villages attested in the inscriptions). There are also a few other indications of the influence of urban culture on ‘Hieradoumia’ to which one might attach more weight. The rural sanctuaries are partly depicted by Thonemann as almost personalized, independent agents, but they seem to have actually been integrated into the village communities and their institutions, with local big men and priests behind them. However, the available evidence does not allow us to explore this issue in more detail.

Peter Thonemann has written a highly innovative book in a style that is accessible and even entertaining for the non-specialist as well as insightful and stimulating for the expert. His results establish a completely new basis for all those who are interested in rural Asia Minor. But the importance of the book goes far beyond the regional context. It is a case study of high quality that will be valuable for all those who investigate questions of demography, kinship relationships, household structures, rural society, and religious history of the Roman imperial period. In the preface (p. xi), Thonemann expresses the hope “that the book may be of use for the comparative study of non-urban societies in the ancient world.” He has achieved this goal.