Friday, August 22, 2008


Version at BMCR home site
Getzel M. Cohen, The Hellenistic Settlements in Syria, the Red Sea Basin, and North Africa. Hellenistic Culture and Society XLVI. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. Pp. 501; ills. 8. ISBN 978-0-520-24148-0. $90.00.
Reviewed by Andrea U. De Giorgi, Case Western Reserve University

Getzel Cohen's second installment of a trilogy on Hellenistic urbanism is a welcome addition to a growing corpus of studies that investigate the cultural configuration of the eastern Mediterranean basin between the age of Alexander and the emergence of Rome. In particular, the nature of Hellenistic politics is increasingly brought into focus by recent scholarship, with special attention to themes such as urbanism,1 finances, 2 and material culture.3 However, the range of analyses available still suffers from the excessive polarization of specialized studies and historical overviews. Among the former, numismatic studies figure prominently.4 Analyses of Seleucid coins, in particular, provide us with important insights about minting activities of cities the size of Antioch and the Tetrapolis, Persepolis, and Laodikea, to name but a few, thus opening important vistas into the economies that had produced them. In the category of works of historical overviews one must situate the Cambridge Companion to the Hellenistic World by Glenn Bugh and the recent study on Hellenistic Iran by Joséf Wolski,5 both essential for the understanding of the political frameworks of the time. Tangentially, these works bring to the fore the disparities and gaps in our knowledge of the Hellenistic kingdoms, as well as the uncertain nature of the settlement patterns that they elicited. The patchy and diverse nature of the archaeology in the region makes this particularly evident. The finds in the Fayum and in the Nile Valley are remarkable when compared to the paucity of data available for the cities and villages of Syria. While environmental and historical factors contributed greatly to this state of things, it must also be inferred that many archaeological investigations have neglected the pre-Roman facet in the fleshing-out of their research agendas. In this respect, the 1930s excavations of Antioch remain the most eloquent example.

On a more positive note, however, a slew of new archaeological projects that are conducted in Syria in both rural and urban contexts are producing fresh data that is going to be critical for the study of the region; the results of the Australian expedition at Jebel Khalid, in particular, induce optimism for the future of this avenue of studies. Moreover, salvage activities conducted by local institutions like the Aleppo Museum in the districts of Membij and Cyrrhus must be mentioned, and one can only anticipate their results. In the interim, Cohen's The Hellenistic Settlements in Syria, the Red Sea Basin, and North Africa provides us with a fundamental tool that by collating the scattered evidence available helps us navigate Hellenistic urbanism in the East with ease; the outcome is a work that tackles the balkanized state of the field and its complicated archaeological evidence while providing a solid corollary of textual and epigraphical sources.

Designed to supersede Tcherikover's work 6 and far from being a mere gazetteer of sites, Cohen aims to reconstruct the topography of the Hellenistic East, investigating founding agencies, political rationales and the historical framework. Seleucid Syria, in particular, benefits greatly from this operation; its analysis covers more than half of the entire book. Such is the nature of the evidence, and one can hardly blame the author. In any event, among the book's various merits two stand out particularly. First, it offers a valuable support for any studies about this region. Grainger's seminal works on prosopography or Bagnall's analysis of Ptolemaic Egypt find an ideal complement in Cohen's book.7 An additional asset that must be considered is the achievement of one of the field's desiderata, namely a systematic catalogue of sites -real or presumed. In providing this, Cohen resolves the inevitable conundrums caused by the many Antiocheias, Seleukeias, Apameias etc. that populate the region.

Getting into the nuts and bolts of the book, the spirit is that of Jones' genre, however with special attention to the ancient topography and modern toponymy, something for which the author deserves eternal praise. The formula is the same as with the previous volume, The Hellenistic Settlement in Europe, the Islands, and Asia Minor.8 To put it simply, it consists of a catalogue of sites, albeit structured in such a way that each entry addresses the questions that lie at the heart of this work, namely founding agencies and rationale. While cities and villages are listed alphabetically, the two-tiered narrative/annotation scheme provides the reader with extensive discussion of the history of each of the communities brought into focus. The capitalization of names of cities that are cross-referenced makes the consultation of the book particularly agile.

All in all, Cohen analyzes the foundations of the Hellenistic monarchies in a systematic fashion, covering Syria, Arabia, Egypt and the Red Sea Basin, and finally North Africa. The twofold format of the introduction sets the tone of the book; it illustrates the nature of the textual sources and extant scholarship for each of the regions under scrutiny. The array of sources thus included is comprehensive, from classical to Rabbinic, Armenian and Arabic, with the inclusion of media like coins or papyri. On the other hand, the Introduction presents a geographic overview of the regions, an aspect fraught with difficulties, especially inasmuch as it intersects with ancient nomenclature. This becomes particularly evident with the description of Cyrrhestice and Chalcidice, districts where the administrative, spatial and historical profiles are all but clear; although controversial, they nevertheless represent a "necessary evil" for the re-construction of a Hellenistic geography, as the author recognizes. These frameworks thus underpin the analysis of the Hellenistic foundations in economic, social, military and demographic terms. Occasional digressions (an exquisite analysis of elephants in the Ptolemaic military or the incidence of Finnish place-names in the US) add brio to the narrative.

Following is the catalogue of sites, arranged according to regions; Northern Syria, Chalcidice, Cyrrhestice and Commagene, Phoenicia, Southern Syria, the Red Sea Basin and Indian Ocean, Egypt, Alexandria near Egypt, Cyrenaica. As mentioned above, Syria largely predominates in terms of sheer numbers of cities presented, if compared to the meager figures offered by North Africa, for instance. The treatment of the individual entries is best summarized by that of Antioch near Daphne (Antioch on the Orontes), where textual and archaeological sources coalesce to produce a coherent narrative of the foundation and growth of this capital-city. Far from replicating Downey's lines of inquiry, Cohen problematizes the ancient sources and the archaeological data, positing important questions regarding both the physical and social components of the ancient city, from the existence of early systems of aqueducts to the problematic configuration of the city's boroughs, as reported by an inscription of AD 74. Furthermore, the attention given to Arab and Rabbinic sources confers additional depth. At any event, whether it is Antioch near Daphne or the obscure settlement on the island of Dioskorides in the Indian Ocean, the system remains consistent and produces evidence for a robust picture of Hellenistic settlement. Occasionally, sites believed to be Hellenistic foundations are excluded from the catalogue on account of corruption of the name or later foundation, as in the case of Aenos in southern Syria. In the larger scheme of things, the chapter on Alexandria, however, invites a comment. Rightly deserving primacy as the most illustrious of Alexander's foundations, its being singled out is a bit at odds with the book's main rationale, that is the presentation of forms of urbanism in discrete districts. The inclusion of Alexandria in the "Egypt" section would have benefited the analysis of the city in her regional context.

Eight appendices provide information ranging from a list of founders to the type of city officials attested in various urban milieux. However, at least two of these appendices could have been substituted by maps, namely Appendix III, "Greek and Macedonian Toponyms that reappear in Syria and Phoenicia," and Appendix V, "Refoundations and New Foundations." Incidentally, in this area lies the book's only shortcoming. For a book that holds the notion of space as central and that investigates the decision-making, strategies and movements of human agencies over a vast, complicated landscape, the nine maps are inadequate. Their size and lack of physical characterization don't offer the visual support that the text commands. The author is evidently aware of the problem; in the preface he directs the reader to the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World. Production of analytical maps adds substantial costs to the publishing process, yet nowadays GIS offers cheap and powerful solutions to the problem. One hopes that this type of concern will be taken into account for the next installment of Cohen's series. This, however, doesn't take away any of the merits of this work, which will become a mainstay for any study on Hellenistic urbanism and politics.


1.   K. Mueller, Settlements of the Ptolemies. City Foundations and New Settlement in the Hellenistic World (Leuven 2006); T. Boiy, Late Achaemenid and Hellenistic Babylon (Leuven 2004).
2.   G. G. Aperghis, The Seleukid royal economy: the finances and financial administration of the Seleukid Empire (Cambridge 2004).
3.   C.A. Petrie, "Seleukid Uruk. An analysis of ceramic distribution," Iraq 64 (2002): 85-123; A. Invernizzi, Seleucia al Tigri, 3 Vols (Firenze 2004). G.M, Cohen, The Seleucid Colonies. Wiesbaden 1978.
4.   The literature on the subject is absolutely vast: for the sake of brevity suffice here to cite O.D. Hoover, Coins of the Seleucid Empire in the Collection of Arthur Houghton, part II (New York 2007).
5.   G.R. Bugh, The Cambridge Companion to the Hellenistic World (Cambridge 2006); J. Wolski, Seleucid and Arsacid Studies (Krakow 2003).
6.   V. Tcherikover, Die Hellenistiche Städtegründungen von Alexander dem Grossen bis auf die Römerzeit (Leipzig 1927).
7.   J. D. Grainger, A Seleukid Prosopography and Gazetteer (Leiden 1997); R. Bagnall, Hellenistic and Roman Egypt (Burlinton 2006).
8.   Reviewed in BMCR 1998.11.19.

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