Tuesday, July 2, 2013


Arthur M. Eckstein, Rome Enters the Greek East: From Anarchy to Hierarchy in the Hellenistic Mediterranean, 230-170 BC. Malden, MA; Oxford; Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. Pp. xi, 439. ISBN 9781118255360. $44.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Gillian Ramsey, University of Toronto (g.ramsey@utoronto.ca)

Version at BMCR home site


When Eckstein's Rome Enters the Greek East first appeared in 2008 it was acclaimed as proof of the value of serious engagement by ancient historians with contemporary political theory, and thus as a work providing an important, corrective perspective for historians of mid-Republican Rome and the Hellenistic world and political scientists dealing with international relations in any period.1 For those on the ancient history side, Eckstein's study hit a nerve, in its focus on a particularly debated phase of early Roman imperialism and the nature of Roman imperialist aggression. The present 2012 version of his book is not a new edition, but a re-issue of the 2008 volume. This seems, then, a good occasion to review how Eckstein's argument has been received, challenged, and cited in the intervening four years.

Ever since W. V. Harris argued in 1979 that the Romans' history of expansion into the Greek east reveals them to be an extraordinarily hostile society whose only direct motive for involvement in Greek affairs after 201 BC was their own imperialism,2 a debate has exercised historians of this period. While Harris has many important supporters, noted by Eckstein in his introduction (p. 5, footnotes 5 and 7), his thesis also has those who would moderate it with a greater emphasis on the Greeks' own political agency, especially Erich Gruen and Eckstein himself. In this, Eckstein looks back to the older ideas of Mommsen and Holleaux, arguing that rather than permit their positions to be "eroded" by the forceful proponents of Harris' thesis, we had better understand their reasoning for seeing a shift in the Hellenistic political situation at the end of the third century which drew in the Romans, who were until then rather ambivalent regarding engagement with eastern affairs (pp. 4-5). While Harris' argument would push historians to handle the discomfort of a deeply aggressive Roman society by facing the harsh realities of its members' actions, Eckstein does not downplay this in order to bring Greeks back into the picture; he argues that the Romans' warlike nature was unexceptional and typical of their world. This ethical aspect is one of the more challenging and important legacies of his argument: that we may be forced to accept that, in the end, unsuccessful states of antiquity were just as bellicose as the successful ones, and that these losers cannot be viewed with sympathy on account of their greater pacifism. On the other hand, neither can the Romans' uniquely extreme aggression absolve them of their imperialism. Victory and successful conquest were achieved through a more complex set of goals, strategies and outcomes, worked out in decision-making, diplomacy and military engagements by all parties, and therefore making all states jointly responsible for the violence and destruction meted out both to themselves and to their neighbours and rivals.

Eckstein employs the International Relations (IR) theory of Realism to make his point. In this regard, Rome Enters the Greek East is a further development of the approach Eckstein introduced in his 2006 volume Mediterranean Anarchy, Interstate War, and the Rise of Rome. Realists tackle the question 'why war?' with the answer "war is normal", saying that for most of human history international politics have played out in a multipolar anarchy where violence is omnipresent and states will as a matter of course use military conflict to preserve their autonomy (pp. 8-9). Whatever the rhetoric used by states to offer an ideological or moral rationale for their choices, at root they have the same motivation as their rivals: self-preservation at all costs. In such a world, Eckstein notes, "wars are natural occurrences", and he acknowledges that this is a shocking state of affairs to us, although perhaps less so after the first decade of the twenty-first century (pp. 9, 11). Historians of the ancient Mediterranean are better equipped to assess the outworking of the Realist paradigm for state behavior, since our field not only supplied the basis for it (in the writing of Thucydides) but it also contains ample evidence for an anarchy situation (p. 11).

The most immediate response to Eckstein's argument has come from supporters of Harris' position, particularly in a recent volume in honour of Peter Derow. In the introductory chapter, the editors Smith and Yarrow acknowledge Eckstein's work as indicative of dynamic ongoing debate as well as ancient history's place in modern theories of imperialism. They critique Eckstein for presenting the Realism school as unified when it is not, for only briefly addressing the major criticisms of Realist theory as problematic when applied to ancient states, and for rejecting valid criticisms on the basis of pre- vs. post-September 11 realities.3 A reviewer of Smith and Yarrow, former student of Eckstein and IR Constructivist, Paul Burton, finds fault with this critique as a recapitulation of standard arguments against IR Realism, arguing that if the debate between the Harris and Holleaux followers is indeed dynamic, then it ought to venture beyond polemical reiteration of theory and attacks on personal politics and must present new, compelling evidence for a revised historical narrative.4 Eckstein himself also reviewed the Smith and Yarrow volume, and, while concentrating his assessment on the contributions to that historical narrative, he does defend himself in one point: that to say his application of IR Realism to antiquity merely masks his personal "advocacy of certain [aggressive] foreign policies" in the present is an ad hominem misinterpretation of Realists' opinions about twenty-first century events.5 It is true that Eckstein addresses the important IR theory of Constructivism in just a limited way, by describing how after the postmodern "linguistic turn" we may see that international diplomacy and decisions to undertake military action arise from mutual negotiation more than from statesmen following Realist doctrine like clockwork. He characterizes the Constructivist emphasis on "cooperative and communitarian" international dialogue as a bit too optimistic, certainly for the Hellenistic anarchy, and suggests that post-September 11 experiences have challenged the Constructivist criticism that Realists are overly "pessimistic", but he does not attack Constructivism per se or deny its contributions to the field (p. 11).

Burton's own work on Roman imperialism makes considerable use of Eckstein's, and in his opinion Eckstein is not a hard Realist, because he agrees that the discursive "internal culture of polities"(pp. 228-9) must be part of the picture. Burton critiques Eckstein's emphasis on obtaining the "balance of power" as being the goal of primary states and disputes the assertion that Romans achieved their unipolarity solely through "massive violence" rather than by also using relationship-building.6 A few historians of Republican Rome or Hellenistic states, whose interests lie beyond the aggressive expansion debate, acknowledge Eckstein's work for "invigorating" that debate with fresh perspective, or for shifting our focus in international relations toward other Mediterranean states, by highlighting each one's pursuit of its own goals and self-interest.7 Andrew Erskine's 2010 undergraduate sourcebook on Roman imperialism includes a strong engagement with Eckstein's argument, both in terms of the theoretical paradigm and specific points in the historical narrative, and for the generation of current students born years after the demise of the Cold War and now the first Gulf War, it is pedagogically profitable for ancient historians to continue to demonstrate that evolving theories of interstate conflict affect how we interpret past actions.8

Eckstein is cited in IR scholarship as the lone historian among political scientists, and this seems to be viewed as a point for criticism, though it is unclear whether this is toward historians for not crossing the disciplinary line or toward the political scientists for not attempting to involve their historian colleagues. This commentary on his work appears in a review of another study to which he was a contributor, and is (apparently) the only significant instance of any political scientist making reference to his 2006 and 2008 books.9

Thus the loudest response to Eckstein's volume has come from those already positioned as his opponents in the debate over the nature of Roman expansion during the Republican period. The most productive response has come from historians of Roman imperialism less invested in that debate and interested in other aspects of imperialism for which Eckstein's work contributes a valuable conceptual starting point. The general response from ancient historians is to give the customary bibliographic acknowledgement but provide little to no engagement with Eckstein's ideas, although a few do cite him on a specific points relating to the historical narrative. Among political scientists the response is extremely quiet. All of this may be as one would expect for a contribution to a field with a long history of polemical scholarship and in an intellectual climate where the disciplines are quite segregated. Four years is not long, and the fact that 2012 saw a re-issue of this volume suggests its popularity is high, and so it is probable that the scholarship available a decade from now will reveal further filtration of Eckstein's argument through the mentality of historians studying this period and topic.

A strength of Eckstein's volume is the balance of international relations theory with the detailed history of the transformation of the Hellenistic multipolar anarchy from the First Illyrian War to the period of Roman "unipolarity". This consolidates the placement of political theory within current historiography of the interstate relations of the mid- Republic and Hellenistic world. Based on the reception of IR Realism in the various studies cited here which have engaged directly or peripherally with Eckstein's volume, there are two major ideas for which he argues that are already working their way through the ancient historical consciousness: that fear, threat, force and violence underpin interstate discourses and were commonplace in the experiences and strategies of both primary and secondary polities; and that all polities were stakeholders in international relations, with neither Roman (or others') ambivalence preventing their participation, nor secondary states' comparative weakness limiting their determination to join the negotiation of conflict. We shall in future see much more scholarship based upon these two central arguments.


1.   See the reviews by André Heller, 2009.02.13, Craige B. Champion, Classical Philology, Vol. 104, No. 2 (April 2009), pp. 253-257, and Michael D. Dixon, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No. 356 (Nov., 2009), pp. 95-97.
2.   W. V. Harris, War and Imperialism in Republican Rome, Oxford, 1979.
3.   Christopher Smith and Liv Mariah Yarrow (eds.) 'Introduction,' in Imperialism, Cultural Politics, and Polybius, Oxford, 2012, pp. 4, 7-8.
4.   See Paul Burton, BMCR 2013.01.33.
5.   Arthur M. Eckstein, "Review – Discussion: Polybius, the Greek World, and Roman Imperial Expansion," Histos 6 (2012), pp. 350-8.
6.   Paul Burton, Friendship and Empire: Roman Diplomacy and Imperialism in the Middle Republic (353-146 BC), Cambridge, 2011, pp. 21, 87 n. 28, 343.
7.   For 'invigoration': Karl-J. Hölkeskamp, Reconstructing the Roman Republic: An Ancient Political Culture and Modern Research. Princeton, 2010, pp. 128-9; for the Ptolemies: J.G. Manning, The Last Pharaohs, Egypt Under the Ptolemies, 305-30 BC, 2010, pp. xii, 76; for the Chalcidians: Nikos Giannakopoulos, "Chalcidian Politicians and Rome between 208 and 168 BC,'' CandM 60 (2009), p. 145.
8.   Andrew Erskine, Roman Imperialism, Edinburgh, 2010, pp. 23-26, 38, 48.
9.   Benjamin Zala, "Review Article: Weighing up the balance: What role for the balance of power in the twenty-first century?" Cooperation and Conflict 45/2 (2010), p. 247.

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