Tuesday, September 1, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Christoph Michels, Kulturtransfer und monarchischer "Philhellenismus": Bithynien, Pontos und Kappadokien in hellenistischer Zeit. Schriften zur politischen Kommunikation Bd. 4. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2008. Pp. 439. ISBN 9783899715361. €61.90.
Reviewed by Michael Kleu, Universität zu Köln, Germany


The book to be reviewed is the revised version of Christoph Michels' PhD thesis. This highly recommended work examines the often-supposed intentional policy of Hellenization carried out by the indigenous kings of Bithynia, Pontus and Cappadocia. To clarify this matter, Michels analyses the role of the kings as benefactors of Greek cities and sanctuaries, the royal coinage and city foundations.

In the first part of the introduction Michels explains why he has chosen Bithynia, Pontus and Cappadocia for his research. Besides the fact that those three kingdoms are almost traditionally regarded together, the author argues that all of them were - unlike the larger Hellenistic empires - ruled by indigenous dynasties. These dynasties were founded approximately simultaneously and had to deal with similar phenomena. Notwithstanding their similar beginnings the three kingdoms differed substantially from each other. For example, there were Greek colonies in Bithynia and Pontus, while these were absent from Cappadocia. Furthermore Bithynia had Thracian influences while Pontus and Cappadocia had Iranian characteristics. Michels presents a brief history of the states to demonstrate the similarities and the differences.

His focusing on the kings is justified by the enormous importance of the ruler in Hellenistic empires. Furthermore our ancient Greek authors were mainly interested in the kings and consequently the literary sources allow only this perspective. Epigraphic and archaeological sources are still quite meager.

In the next subchapter Michels illustrates the terms and definitions of Hellenization, Hellenism, acculturation and Hellenization policy.

The following subchapter deals with the Greek culture at the royal courts and dynastic ties. Because of the unfavourable source material it is difficult to analyse these aspects regarding Bithynia, Pontus and Cappadocia. Owing to the literary sources, one almost might have the impression that the foreign policy of the three kingdoms centred on the Greek world. This is definitely misleading, since the Bithynians e.g. cultivated good relations with Armenians and Thracians. Apparently the Greek language came into use quite quickly at the royal courts. This is reflected in coinage which began in the 3rd century BC. One may assume that Macedonian princesses, who came to Bithynia, Pontus and Cappadocia with their royal households due to dynastic ties, had a growing impact on the indigenous kings' courts (p. 31). The dynastic ties brought a considerable increase in prestige. But the intention behind the marriages was simply power politics and not Philhellenism (p. 34). Beginning with the 2nd century BC, the kings of the three empires started supporting Greek scientists, artists and philosophers. They became connoisseurs and even wrote their own studies. Concerning this matter they definitely satisfied the Hellenistic ideal of dominion.

In the last part of the introduction Michels presents the central aims of his work. The kings of Bithynia, Pontus and Cappadocia imitated the Hellenistic rulers by presenting themselves as victorious generals, benefactors and saviours of the Greek cities. They founded cities and they referred to their dynasties as having divine origins. Especially their appearance as benefactor and saviour of the Greek poleis is often described by the modern term Philhellenism. The author's central question is whether those historians are right who imply that this kind of Philhellenism was linked with an intentional Hellenization policy in the indigenous kingdoms. To answer this question Michels follows a structure given by Lise Hannestad in 1996.1 Hannestad examined the relations of the Bithynian kings to Greek culture by analyzing their connections to Greek cities and sanctuaries, the founding or re-founding of cities and the royal coinage. The author adopts those three aspects and enlarges the topic by taking into consideration also Pontus and Cappadocia. In doing so he excludes to a great extent the history of events. Besides the analysis of the deliberate Hellenization policy the second aim of the work is to offer a contribution to the Hellenistic kingdom in general.

The following three main chapters can be regarded for the most part as independent but are nonetheless based on each other. Michels considers benefaction (chapter 2) as the foundation for an interpretation of the possible Philhellenism behind the kings' politics while royal coinage (chapter 3) represents the visualisation of these policies. The foundation of cities (chapter 4) is only interpretable based on the background of the first two aspects.

The structure of the three chapters is identical. First the relevant topic is generally presented before Michels substantiates it on the basis of Bithynia, Pontus and Cappadocia.

The second chapter starts with a general introduction on benefaction towards Greek cities and sanctuaries and asks whether promoting Greek culture might imply a planned avoidance of the indigenous traditions and whether this might have caused an estrangement between king and subjects. Unfortunately the source material is fragmentary and based primary upon inscriptions. Besides being victorious, benefaction was one of the most important duties and responsibilities of a Hellenistic king. Royal benefaction was furthermore a fundamental element of political communication with the Greek cities. In return, the sponsored cities had to behave gratefully towards the king, which meant in practice that they had to honour him and that they had to conduct themselves according to the ruler's agenda. This kind of relation was not based on international law but on moral expectations and could even be bequeathed. However, perspectives of power politics were often a reason to forget about friendly relations between a king and a city. Royal benefaction supported the dominion over the Greek poleis inside the kingdom. The supporting of Greek cities and sanctuaries outside of the kingdom was an instrument of foreign affairs.

In this context Michels briefly presents the royal self-portrayal in pan-Hellenic sanctuaries before he offers an excursus about the king's role as saviour and the importance of victory over barbarians, especially over the Galatians.

After this introduction the author analyses the benefactions of the kings of Bithynia, Pontus and Cappadocia. The central motivation for their Philhellenism was, besides economic and power-political interests, simply desire for prestige. They wanted the worldwide public opinion to regard them as kings and not necessarily as Greeks. Diodorus of Sicily's passage 31.19.8 e.g. is no proof for an intentional Hellenization policy by the kings as is frequently supposed. The examination clarifies furthermore differences between the benefaction habits. Only the Bithynians seem to have sent cult objects to pan-Hellenic sanctuaries; and also the spatial distribution of the benefactions is not congruent. Michels admits that those results might be caused by the limited source material. Moreover the presence of Greeks and Macedonians at the royal courts of Bithynia, Pontus and Cappadocia was probably more a result of the kings' interactions with Greek cities than an intentional policy. It seems that the indigenous kings aspire to no cultural changes in their kingdoms. Like the other Hellenistic rulers they only fulfilled the expectations of each group of subjects. This meant that towards the Greeks they had to present themselves as benefactors.

Chapter 3 starts with a short introduction about the importance of the indigenous king's coinage. Compared to literary sources coins have the advantage of being coeval official documents. Michels places particular emphasis on similarities and differences to the coins of the Macedonian dynasties and questions to what extent Greek iconography can be an indicator for the Hellenization of the indigenous subjects. The author underlines that different types of coins had varied target audiences. While copper coins were minted for local usage, silver coins could circulate widely, so that it was much more likely for them to reach a Greek audience and this fact might have led to a different style of iconography. Michels wants to examine if the coins' iconography can be regarded as an intentional policy of Hellenization towards the indigenous subjects.

After a brief survey of the current state of research concerning coins as a medium for political communication Michels begins with the analysis of the coins from Bithynia, Pontus and Cappadocia and offers altogether 55 pictures of coins on 10 pages plus one page with nine illustrations of official Median headdresses. He records that although the three indigenous kings were attentive to the coins of the bigger dynasties, they did not just imitate them, but seem to have deliberately absorbed particular characteristics. The kings' motivation was not to present themselves as Greeks but as kings. Michels presumes that the Greek iconography on the coins implies a certain Hellenization of the royal court. It does not necessarily imply a certain Hellenization of the indigenous subjects because they did not receive the relevant silver coins. In Michels' opinion the coins should not be regarded as evidence for an intentional policy of Hellenization.

As in the previous two chapters Michels opens his examination about the kings as city founders with an introduction outlining the central aspects of Hellenistic foundations in general. He emphasizes the importance of Philip II of Macedonia whose foundations were something new to the Greek world, since they occurred on the king's order. Alexander the Great followed in the footsteps of his father but was confronted with completely new problems due to the enormous size of his empire. The Diadochi founded cities as well and the foundation or re-foundation of cities became a central aspect of the representation and legitimating of power. The ruler replaced no less than gods and heroes as founder and patron. Alexander named several cities after himself and the Diadochi followed him by giving their foundations dynastical names. Asia Minor was one of the central points of city (re-)foundations in Hellenistic times.

By analysing the foundations in Bithynia, Pontus and Cappadocia Michels tries to identify the kings' intention. As it turns out, it cannot be seen as a certain policy of urbanization. In most cases the kings just re-founded, or renamed, already existing cities while only a few were newly founded. The intention was not the Hellenization of the indigenous subjects but the protection of new territories. Also in this case the indigenous kings were not purely motivated by Philhellenism. By founding cities and imitating the rulers of the Macedonian dynasties they just presented themselves as Hellenistic kings.

In his conclusion Michels points out that the term Philhellenism cannot be used to describe all aspects of the appearance of the indigenous kings of Bithynia, Pontus and Cappadocia. Furthermore he cannot find any basis for an intentional policy of Hellenization in the sources. Michels wonders what would be the correct term to describe the discussed actions of the kings and following Zagdoun he considers the term "policy of prestige" (Prestigepolitik) an accurate solution.2

Although there is no certain evidence for an intentional policy of Hellenization Michels underlines that this result does not contradict the fact that cultural change occurred. But this change took place spontaneously and was not planned.

The book ends with a substantial bibliography, a list of illustrations, and an index of source material and names of persons and places. The appendix lists the kings of Bithynia, Pontus and Cappadocia and the years of their reigns and three coloured maps showing Asia Minor and surrounding territories in the 3rd century BC, the 2nd century BC and during Mithradates' VI lifetime.

Altogether the book makes an excellent impression. It is very well structured and offers brief but adequate introductions to each topic. Michels makes use of the current research and shows a deep knowledge especially in the chapter about numismatic questions. He is familiar with a large account of source material and balances his conclusions well. The most important fact is of course that Michels clearly disproves the often claimed intentional Hellenization policy of the kings of Bithynia, Pontus and Cappadocia.


1.   Hannestad, L.: "This Contributes in no Small Way to One's Reputation:" The Bithynian kings and Greek Culture, in: P. Bilde, T. Engberg-Pedersen, L. Hannestad, J. Zahle (eds.): Aspects of Hellenistic Kingship, Studies in Hellenistic Civilization 7, Aarhus 1996, pp. 67-98.
2.   Zagdoun, M.-A.: Review of: H.-J. Schalles: Untersuchungen zur Kulturpolitik der pergamenischen Herrscher im 3. Jahrhundert vor Christus, REG 105 (1992), p.281.

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