Wednesday, July 13, 2011


Tim Whitmarsh (ed.), Local Knowledge and Microidentities in the Imperial Greek World. Greek Culture in the Roman World. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. xiii, 228. ISBN 9780521761468. $95.00.

Reviewed by Anna Peterson, The Ohio State University (

Version at BMCR home site


This volume contains a collection papers delivered at a conference held at the University of Exeter in 2004 which sought "to add texture and nuance to the existing literature on Greek identity." (p. i) In the past, Greek identity in the imperial period has been viewed largely through the lens of the complex relationship between Greek "culture" and Roman "power." 1 According to this model, the Greek intellectuals of the period established a cultural identity for themselves by imitating the language and literature of Classical Greece in contrast to the political superstructure of Rome. More recently, Whitmarsh, the editor of this volume, has demonstrated that paideia could be appropriated by Romans and other non-Greeks, like Favorinus and Lucian, as a tool for defining themselves as culturally Greek. 2 Rather than focus on the "umbrella category" of Greek identity, this welcome volume attempts to shake up the discussion by approaching the issue of identity from a local perspective. While this collection does not drastically redefine our understanding of Greek identity, it does add nuance to it through its inclusion of material culture and other indigenous identities in the discussion.

The decision to examine localism in the eastern Roman empire is particularly relevant given contemporary concerns regarding the effects of globalization. As the contributors to this collection suggest, the assimilation of Greece into the Roman Empire brought about a heightened awareness of local identity that was both cultivated by Rome and a reaction to it. Localism thus becomes another tool for considering the relationship between Rome and its subjects. Besides adding further complexity to discussions of identity during the first and second centuries CE, the value of this volume can be found in the interesting and detailed discussions of peoples and cities that heretofore have been understudied.

The nine chapters, whose authors represent an all-star cast of thinkers about this period, are all innovative and well-written. Although there is no explicit organization to this volume, the first three chapters examine localism in general terms, while the subsequent five, for the most part, discuss specific examples of local identities. I will provide here a brief summary of each essay.

Chapter one, "Thinking Local" by Tim Whitmarsh, opens with the question of whether we can square Aristides' praise for Rome as the capital of empire and symbol of cultural unity with Pausanias' emphasis on the distinct and diverse areas of Greece. Whitmarsh's answer is that ultimately both are responses, albeit different ones, to the process of globalization occurring at the time. What follows is the "working hypothesis" of this volume, namely that times of "rapid globalisation will also see an intensification of consciousness of localism; and perhaps also increased awareness, even questioning of, the power dynamics between the local and non-local" (p. 2). Citing examples from book six of the Aeneid and Augustus' Res Gestae, Whitmarsh goes on to suggest that the equation of Greece with culture did not express a discrete identity but in fact is part of Roman imperialist ideology. In other words, the views of Greece as representative of culture and Rome as symbolizing power were largely complementary. The same holds true when it comes to local identities: local and imperial are mutually reliant. While centralization fostered a heightened sense of regional diversity, local identity is in many ways staged for the benefit of outsiders. As usual, Whitmarsh's discussion is insightful and to the point. In contrast to many introductory chapters, which largely summarize the subsequent chapters, his discussion serves to reinvent the discussion of Greek identity in terms of localism and thus effectively sets the stage for the other contributors.

The idea that localism plays an important role in Roman imperialist ideology is continued in chapter two, "Imperial Identities," by Clifford Ando. In this chapter, Ando takes the unexpected approach of presenting "an imperial perspective on the history of localism under Rome" (p. 18). As he acknowledges, this approach goes against the grain of the rest of the volume by arguing that the very things that made a local culture unique, such as language and self-expression, became tools used by Rome both to prevent those conquered from "realizing solidarity" with other conquered peoples and to make them subjects of Rome. Two of Rome's principal strategies for accomplishing this were the imposition of new imperial geographies and the cultivation of local and regional elites. Like many of the best essays in this collection, Ando's resists oversimplification and provides a fascinating discussion of the relationship between localism and imperial power.

Chapter three, "What is local identity? The politics of cultural mapping" by Simon Goldhill, continues the general focus of the previous two chapters by exploring the rhetoric surrounding local identity. Goldhill asserts, whenever an author labels something as local, "a complex act of cultural marking is being performed" (p. 46). The discussion begins by providing us with a methodology for approaching local identity as a type of rhetorical performance of identity through four criteria: 1. Are the speakers insiders or outsiders? 2. Boundaries (a local identity presupposes exclusion); 3. Self-awareness; and 4. The assertion of local identity as a "performative utterance." To illustrate this, Goldhill turns his attention to how the term epikhōros is used in classical authors, specifically Herodotus and Thucydides. While the chapter then concludes with a fascinating discussion of Pausanias' description of the cult of Artemis Laphria at Patrae, the most significant and useful feature of this essay is the methodology that Goldhill provides.

Chapter four, "Europa's Sons: Rome's Perceptions of a Cretan Identity" by Ilaria Romeo, shifts the focus of the discussion to a specific example of local identity, that of Crete. As Romeo contends, the attitude regarding Europa and her famous sons, Minos, Rhadamanthys, and Sarpedon, reveal complicated views of Crete during the imperial period, especially given Crete's support of Mithridates and reputation for harboring pirates. Drawing her evidence largely from coins, Romeo provides an interesting discussion of how Rome's perception of Crete fluctuated from a barbarian and orientalizing island to the birthplace of Hellenic culture.

Chapter five, "The Ionians of Paphlagonia" by Stephen Mitchell, takes Paphlagonia as a kind of test case for local identity that developed as a direct response to its experiences as a subject of Greek colonization, Persian rule, and ultimately Roman control. In tackling Paphlagonian identity, Mitchell seeks to combat the largely derogatory view of region, such as that found in Aristophanes and Lucian, by exploring the changing relationship of inhabitants of the region to Hellenic culture. His discussion examines the history of Greek colonization and includes an interesting discussion of the role of Homer and Hesiod in the imperial Paphlagonians' assertions of their identity. By the imperial period, the people of Paphlagonia were largely rural and regional power was in the hands of land-owning families with long lineages. Mitchell's conclusion that the imperial Paphlagonians conceived of their Hellenism, not in terms of the Greek city-state, but as an overall way of life demonstrates the failure of the Greece/ Rome polarity to reveal the complexities surrounding identity at the time.

Chapter six, "Ancestry and Identity in the Roman Empire" by Christopher Jones, examines the role that ancestry played in assertions of local identity. The chapter is broken down into discussions of collective ancestry, such as the Pergamenes' inclusion of Telephus among their ancestors; gods, heroes, and historical ancestors, such as Brasidas and Alcibiades; and finally the importance of continuity in lineage. Jones then concludes by questioning what role these illustrious lineages played in a local community's cultural memory, the amount of prestige they conferred on individual cities, and finally how those who claimed such a heritage viewed themselves within their own cities and in the Greek versus Roman debate that seems to fascinate us today. While many of Jones' conclusions reinforce the importance of the archaic and classical past for Greeks of this period, Jones ends his essay with the important point that the Greek and Roman divide is largely a modern interest since Roman rule merely opened up new options to developing an illustrious heritage.

Chapter seven, "Making Space for Bicultural Identity: Herodes Atticus Commemorates Regilla" by Maud Gleason, explores the complex figure of Herodes Atticus and specifically his building projects before and after the death of his wife, Regilla. Gleason offers a quite stimulating discussion of how the Greek and Roman elements of Herodes' identity were never fully integrated and, according to Gleason, remained in tension. This, as Gleason shows, is evident from Herodes' building projects both before and after the death of his wife. For example, Herodes built an arch at Marathon while Regilla was still alive. As Gleason explains, the arch in its original form can be seen as demarcating Herodes' Greek identity from Regilla's Roman one. After Regilla died, Herodes as part of his extravagant mourning of her affixed an inscription on the arch, written in elegiac couplets, that Gleason convincingly contends reinvented the arch as emphasizing the boundary between life and death.

Chapter eight, "Being Termessian: Local Knowledge and Identity Politics in a Pisidian City" by Onno van Nijf, examines funerary inscriptions found at Termessos, a thriving provincial city during the second and third centuries CE. As van Nijf contends, the Termessian cemeteries were a focal point of cultural politics, in which we can see the inhabitants of Termessos juggling their identities as cultural Greeks, loyal citizens of Rome, and descendents of indigenous warriors. In what follows, van Nijf offers a stimulating discussion of the funerary practices of the inhabitants of Termessos, including what he calls "genealogical bookkeeping," an almost obsessive account how each member of the family fit into the family tree, and an interesting discussion of the presence of both Greek and Roman names. Van Nijf here successfully demonstrates that cultural identity was far from simple and that the Termessians were in fact able to conceive of themselves as belonging to different cultural traditions.

The volume concludes with an afterword by Greg Woolf, entitled "The Local and the Global in the Graeco-Roman East." As the conclusion to the discussion, Woolf classifies the localism examined in this book as the result either of isolation or of connection, by which he means both to the neighboring poleis and to the literary past. Besides noting the different causes for the development of the local identities under discussion here, Woolf also makes the important point that, while these identities appear quite varied, they nonetheless all seem to be construed relationally. In terms of a local identity, however, the relation is concerned as much, if not more, with particular ancestries as it is with particular places. Read within the larger context of this volume, this observation reveals new complexities in the way we think about identity in the imperial Greek world.

This collection of essays both exposes an important gap left by scholars of the imperial period and, at the same time, attempts to fill it. Given the vast size of the Roman Empire and all the individual localities it contained, the possibilities for further work here are endless. But the authors of this volume, who, in many ways, were responsible for setting the stage for understanding the cultural, political, and social realities of the Roman empire in this period, continue to push us in profitable directions for the future.


1.   See G.W. Bowersock, Greek Sophists in the Roman Empire , (Oxford, 1969). Simon Swain, Hellenism and Empire: Language, Classicism, and Power in the Greek World, AD 50-250 (Oxford, 1996).
2.   See Tim Whitmarsh, Greek Literature and the Roman Empire: The Politics of Imitation (Oxford, 2001).

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