Saturday, April 18, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Tonnes Bekker-Nielsen, Urban Life and Local Politics in Roman Bithynia: The Small World of Dion Chrysostomos. Black Sea Studies, 7. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2008. Pp. 211. ISBN 9788779343504. $40.00.
Reviewed by A. T. Fear, University of Manchester

Full Text

This volume perhaps slightly belies its title. A reader seeking a full-length discussion of the world of Dio Chrysostom centred on the writer himself will be disappointed, as in-depth discussion of Dio is to be found in only one of its nine chapters. The author also concedes that much of Bithynia has a sparse archaeological record and that his monograph will centre on three towns: Nicomedia, Nicaea, and Prusa. The chronological span of the book is also surprising: it begins before Rome's acquisition of Bithynia (ch. 2 "Before the Romans") and extends to late antiquity (ch. 8 "The Bithynian Cities under the Later Empire").

However, if we are not offered a monograph focussed on Dio and his times, we are given much by way of compensation. The book provides an excellent introduction to the study of municipal life and politics in the Roman World. Bekker-Nielsen provides a series of chapters which introduce the nature of the politics found in the Roman East and the nature of the sources which provide our insights into this small, but intense world. The starting point in this discussion is that of rivalry within and between cities and the potential power of "informal" politics. The stage is well set, but it is surprising that no reference is made, even in passing, to the work of Dio's near contemporary Plutarch, the Precepts of Statecraft, which deals precisely with municipal Imperial politics in the Greek East of the Empire.

Chapter Five is a discussion of the political institutions of both Bithynia itself and how these local arrangements were integrated into the running of the empire as a whole. Here Bekker-Nielsen is inclined to be more sceptical than many about the role played by the Provincial Council in this regard, arguing that the view for heavy engagement by the Council in these matters is based mainly on argumenta ex silentio. Chapter Six deals with the "Political Class" of the province. Here Bekker-Nielsen argues that the assumption made by many other writers that the ruling class in Bithynian cities in the early Imperial period had a high-element of Italo-Roman immigrants, whom he curiously styles kulaks, in its composition is unlikely and that we should rather see continuity from the past combined with a parochial indifference to the possibilities of having an Imperial career. This seems a highly plausible position. A description of the various levels of politics, local (municipal), regional (provincial), and Imperial (empire-wide) is given and usefully illustrated by specific individuals whose careers have survived for us recorded on epigraphy.

Dio's life and local career is covered by a discussion of his "municipal" orations, for which a chronology (differing a little from that given by C.P. Jones in his Roman World of Dio Chrysostom, Cambridge, Ma., 1978) is provided in an appendix, though without a presentation of arguments as to how this chronology was constructed. It is a shame that some analysis of Dio's Orations on Kingship is not given, as the views of a provincial intellectual on what constituted an ideal ruler would have fitted well with the discussion of the relations of local and imperial politics found in chapter five. It is argued that Dio's conversion to a philosopher's life may have been a rationalisation of the cold reality that he would never be able to attain wealth on the scale of the Imperial elite at Rome. We are told that "it would not be unlike Dion to transform the tale of his failure at Rome into a narrative of divine inspiration at Delphi". This statement, and others similar to it, assume that the reader is already familiar with Dio's works and perhaps a little more by way of a character sketch at the beginning of this chapter would have been helpful to orientate readers without this prior depth of knowledge. Dio is seen, to some degree, as a supporter of the common man, but much of this argument is based on the hostility of other aristocrats to him and his aloofness from the machinery of civic politics on his retrun from exile. However, both these factors could be explained by tensions internal to the aristocracy of Prusa and the weakness of Dio's political powerbase after his return from exile rather than any democratic sympathies on his part. Surprisingly little is made of Oration 46 and the social tensions it reveals in the social fabric of Prusa, and a more detailed discussion of the possible reasons for the trouble which led to the temporary suspension of Prusa's assembly would have been valuable. Dio's quarrels and his relations with Roman officials, notably the Younger Pliny, and officialdom are dealt with ably. Enoch Powell once remarked that "all political careers end in failure" and Bekker-Nielsen believes this to be true of Dio, constructing an intriguing argument that Dio's Euboean oration is in fact Dio's political testament to the world.

In a substantial chapter on the late empire, Bekker-Nielsen argues that practical considerations rather than political rivalry led Nicaea, disastrously as events proved, to support Pescennius Niger rather than Septimius Severus in the Roman Civil War at the end of the second century AD. The arguments adduced are a valuable contribution to the history of the period; nevertheless, given the intense rivalry between the two cities, it is hard to see Nicaea being overly reluctant to take the opposite side to that supported by its hated rival in any quarrel. The chronological sequence of the chapter is a little curious with the discussion of crisis of the third century following the account of Bithynia in the late third and fourth centuries. Given the prominence of Nicomedia as an imperial capital in this later period it is equally surprising that the crisis period is covered in greater depth.

The book ends with a discussion of theories of how to interpret political life in the Empire. Bekker-Nielsen is harsh on Paul Veyne, but his criticisms of Veyne's model of politics on the grounds that it is undermined by social mobility within the Roman aristocracy is not overly convincing. There is also an odd assertion that neither wealth per se nor association with "celebrities" played an important role within the battle for status. Neither of these seems correct. Bekker-Nielsen asserts that aristocratic (and one assumes by extension, Imperial) friendships with gladiators and the like were not entered into for the status they conveyed, but fails to provide an alternative reason for this behaviour which is surely necessary. However, his notion, developing the approach of Honneth (Kampf um Anerkennung, Frankfurt, 1992) that Roman municipal politics was centred around a "struggle for recognition" is a convincing and valuable addition to be debate in this area.

In sum, this book delivers both more and less than the reader of its title may imagine. However, it is a valuable contribution to the debate over the nature of provincial political life in the Roman Empire and would make an excellent starting point for courses on this subject.

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