Wednesday, March 4, 2015


Jonathan R. W. Prag, Josephine Crawley Quinn, The Hellenistic West: Rethinking the Ancient Mediterranean. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. xxi, 271; 8 p. of plates. ISBN 9781107032422. $120.00.

Reviewed by Barbara Tsakirgis, Vanderbilt University (

Version at BMCR home site


The Hellenistic period in the western Mediterranean is the red-headed stepchild of ancient history. Because Alexander the Great never set foot in, let alone conquered, any part of the western Mediterranean, many scholars have limited their view of the Hellenistic in cultural terms to material only from the eastern Mediterranean.1 A few authors have attempted to remedy the neglect of the West, e.g., Pernice in his multivolume assessment of the Hellenistic culture of Pompeii or the publication of the conference Hellenismus in Mittelitalien,2 but the biased view of the eastern Mediterranean as the Hellenized East as opposed to the western Mediterranean or Roman West has persisted.

The present volume is a significant attempt to reshape the discourse on the western Mediterranean in the third, second, and first centuries BCE. The co-editors have collected thirteen papers that address various aspects of western Mediterranean culture in the three centuries after the death of Alexander with the goal of restoring this half of the ancient Mediterranean world to any discussion of the Hellenistic period. Because of the number of chapters included in this volume, I will summarize each briefly, and will then touch on themes that recur throughout the volume.

In an introduction that highlights the basic issues, the editors survey the question of dividing the Mediterranean into the Greek East and the Roman West and trace the historical origins of the concept of division back to J. G. Droysen in the 19th century and the very period in question in Polybius's Histories.3 While Prag and Quinn never refer to network theory here (neither do any of the contributors), the underlying principle of cross-pollination with its emphasis on no one side wholly subsuming the other is seen as a valuable and sensible way to approach the material under discussion. "Hellenization" as monolithic concept is as firmly rejected here as "Romanization" has been in the last decade or two of scholarship.

The chapters take the reader on a circuit of the western Mediterranean region, with five of the thirteen chapters focusing on North Africa. A great virtue of the volume is the literal ground it covers, from Italy to Spain and Numidia to France; the material surveyed and analyzed is equally diverse, with architecture, sculpture, vases, coins, habitation sites, industrial districts, and nekropoleis all making an appearance.

Andrew Erskine begins the examination in the eastern Mediterranean. By assessing the works of Polybius and the no-longer extant writings of Timaeus, Erskine traces the distinction between east and west back to Polybius. Though the east repeatedly reached out to the west, appealing on the grounds of kinship, the west was seen as a land of barbarians and somewhat indicative of that barbarity's spread to the western Greeks was their stereotypical love of luxury and indolence.

While the questions of Hellenistic culture in Campania and on the Italian peninsula were famously treated by Pernice and Zanker(see note 2), Andrew Wallace-Hadrill restarts the discussion by proposing that we should regard the Samnites as Hellenistic. The cultural flow was more to the Samnites from the Greeks than vice versa and we see the clearest manifestation of this influence in the remains at Pompeii. Wallace-Hadrill argues that the divide between Hellenistic and Roman is a false one, prefiguring a subject to which I will return below.

Edward Bispham examines more of the late first millennium culture on the Italian peninsula by focusing on death and burial at the Fossa nekropolis. He recognizes the sharply differentiated practices from place to place and argues that it is problematic to assess the Italian material against a Greek standard. He coins the word "Hellenistics" to refer to the multiple degrees to which Greek culture might be absorbed but I question whether it is any better to create a new term than to debate the merit of an old one. I miss here any reference to network theory to explain the complexity of the cultural exchange.4

Roger Wilson surveys the area that this reviewer knows best, the island called by Giuseppe Lampedusa "that America of antiquity," a reference to the many cultures which made their way to Sicily. Architecture is the focus here and, while Wilson introduces no new material, by virtue of being a survey, the chapter demonstrates well how the interrogation of the Hellenistic can occur in material culture and especially architecture constructed for diverse purposes.

Andrew Wilson's is the first chapter of several to treat material from North Africa, in particular here from Euesperides. This chapter is one of the strongest both for its reliance on abundant carefully excavated evidence and the clear and logical conclusions drawn from the finds about the local economy and cultural contacts both east and west. Sicily may be regarded as the crossroads of the Mediterranean, but Wilson argues for the rich and varied exchanges that this local Libyan community had with its neighbors. Polemically, he faults those who have published material from the Athenian Agora with presenting conclusions based on incomplete evidence, but the current standards for quantifying pottery were not practiced for the entire history of the Agora excavations, and the charge could be leveled against any long-running project.5

Elizabeth Fentress retains the focus on economic matters while broadening the scope of the inquiry to include Italy, Sicily, and the coast of North Africa. She explores the role of traders, both Greek and Punic, and the cultural interactions that resulted from their commercial activities. She focuses in particular on agriculture and uses the phrase "competitive gardening" for an activity that lay behind some of the resulting cultural spread. By including agriculture in her analysis, Fentress proves that the examination of cultural interaction must extend beyond the built environment.

Jacqueline Crawley Quinn magisterially examines how Numidian royal architecture was used to define local kingship. Here Rome begins to creep into the assessment of the Hellenistic period because the North African kings ruled subject to Rome. The references to power, drawn from a wide array of sources, enforced the facade of their rule even when it was simply that, a two-dimensional display of power.

At first glance, Ann Kuttner treads ground similar to that covered by Quinn, the monuments of the Numidian kings and their negotiation with Rome through the making and display of political art. Kuttner is the contributor who most boldly and baldly brings Rome into the discussion. Rome was a complicated and complicit party in absorbing Hellenism itself and being the medium for its diffusion elsewhere in the west, but receives only scant mention in several of the chapters.

Peter Van Dommelen and Mireia López-Bertran focus on the Punic world and thereby emphasize what is new in this volume, since the Carthaginians are usually examined without their positive interactions with Greek culture. Previously the Carthaginians were regarded in many ways as the anti-Hellenes, having fought against the Greeks in Sicily in 480 BCE and again in 406. Recognizing the cultural and economic connections of the Punes, to use Kuttner's amusing term, in the western Mediterranean credits them with accomplishments rather than viewing them as the inept other. In this chapter we best see that two-way street of the middle ground as it is called in studies of colonialism. The Carthaginians absorbed influence from outside but also had something to add to their own cultural equation.

Simon Keay moves us to the westernmost reaches, the Iberian peninsula. He recognizes the elephant in the room, the Romans, who provided the filter through which Hellenism reached the indigenous population of this region while at the same time themselves continuing to accept and absorb cultural influence from the east.

Jonathan Prag reminds us that the act of writing and the language used for any text are an expression of cultural identity every bit as potent as the choice of building type or vessel shape. Prag touches on an unknown variable in this discussion, i.e., the levels of literacy amongst the people who would encounter if not read an inscription. Prag concludes that the very spread of the epigraphic habit, whether the language was Greek or not, was a marker of increased Hellenism and Rome was simply one of the places acquiring the habit of writing.

Liv Yarrow focuses her attention on coin types that employ the image of Herakles, but with a particular emphasis on Carthage. Yarrow chooses Herakles because he was the stand-in for Alexander on coins, and it is his syncretism with Melqart that interests her. She shows how that mythological figure is used, lands and centuries apart from Alexander, to signify potent political and military power.

Fittingly, given his co-authorship of the seminal work on the Mediterranean, The Corrupting Sea (2000), Nicholas Purcell has the last word. Purcell argues for a Mediterranean-wide view of the final three centuries of the first millennium rather than the fragmented approach that focused on discrete areas and local cultures. He fills a need felt by this reader for reference to the network theory underpinning Irad Malkin's studies of colonization and views the Mediterranean as a corridor rather than a series of destinations.

One recurrent theme in the volume is Kunstpolitik, the use of art and architecture to political end. The Samnites discussed by Wallace-Hadrill, the Sicilians presented by Roger Wilson, the Numidian rulers surveyed by Quinn and Kuttner used the monumental arts developed by Hellenistic ruler to present and perhaps even to shape their rule. Even those authors who discuss less monumental forms of material culture (e.g. Bispham, Andrew Wilson) recognize the same appropriation and manipulation of Hellenistic material culture as having some social, if not political aims.

One factor somewhat underplayed in the present volume is Rome itself. Perhaps as a result of the desire to move away from the dichotomy of the Greek east and the Roman west, no chapter is devoted to the Hellenistic period in Rome itself and, while many of the contributors mention the city and its influence in the west, most shy away from a detailed examination of Rome's role in both sowing and reaping the seeds of Hellenism through its literature and material culture in the western Mediterranean.

The strength of this volume is also, to a small extent, its weakness. The chapters cover enormous ground, in geographical, chronological, and material senses, clearly demonstrating that there is a wealth of information in the western Mediterranean for the final three centuries of the first millennium BCE. Because there is such a diversity of materials, however, the reader cannot always make definitive connections between the cultural interactions in one area and those in another. Of course, that difference may just be the point, to show that there is no single model of Hellenism or Hellenization, or Hellenistics, at play.

In sum, this valuable volume can be studied by scholar and student alike for its examination of the Hellenistic and Hellenism. With its different methodological approaches, places, and periods examined, the volume could provide a rich and far-reaching foundation for examining and re-examining our notions of the Hellenistic West, perhaps in a graduate course. That would be a course I would want to take.


1.   E.g. M. Pfrommer. 1990, Untersuchungen zur Chronologie früh- und hochhellenistischen Goldschmucks Tübingen.
2.   E.g. E. Pernice. 1938, Hellenistische Kunst in Pompeii, Bd. 6. Pavimente und Figürliche mosaiken Berlin. P. Zanker. 1976, Hellenismus in Mittelitalien. Kolloquium in Göttingen vom 5. bis 9. Juni 1974 Göttingen.
3.   J. G. Droysen. 1877-8, Geschichte des Hellenismus 2nd ed. Gotha.
4.   Bispham should have cited S. I. Rotroff. 1997, The Athenian Agora. vol. XXIX. Hellenistic Pottery. Athenian Wheelmade Tableware and Related Material Princeton.
5.   Despite their past failings, long-running excavations are excellent for providing the quantities of pottery and other small finds necessary for establishing typologies, particularly so when the pottery in question was created at that site. Such quantification has in fact taken place in recent seasons of the Agora excavations, e.g. K. M. Lynch, 2011, Symposium in context. Pottery from a Late Archaic House near the Athenian Agora. Hesperia suppl. 46. Princeton.

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