Tuesday, June 12, 2018


Boris Chrubasik, Daniel King (ed.), Hellenism and the Local Communities of the Eastern Mediterranean. 400 BCE—250 CE. Oxford; London: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. xxii, 232. ISBN 9780198805663. $85.00.

Reviewed by Peter Talloen, University of Leuven (peter.talloen@kuleuven.be)

Version at BMCR home site

Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.

The conquest of the Eastern Mediterranean by Alexander the Great disseminated elements of the Greek way of life more widely than before. From a conceptual point of view this process—indicated with the term Hellenization1—has never received the attention in scholarly literature that befell that other major acculturation process of classical antiquity—Romanization. Whereas the latter has dominated research agendas on ancient intercultural relations since the 1990's, producing a wide array of theoretical models to approach and explain the observed Roman influences throughout the Empire,2 the concept of Hellenization has long remained overly simple and underexplored. It was generally equated with the uncritical adoption of elements of a supreme Greek culture, such as political constitution (the polis or city-state), language, religion and art, by the subjected communities of the Eastern Mediterranean. Since the pioneering work of Kuhrt and Sherwin-White,3 which saw any engagement with Greek culture occurring within the context of maintaining non-Greek traditions, this Hellenocentric approach was gradually rejected and emphasis was placed on the non-Greek cultures. Yet this in turn resulted in an exaggerated reliance on non-Greek evidence, which obscured the undeniable impact of Greek culture. The last couple of years have witnessed a renewed interest in the topic of Hellenization, which has paid more attention to the role of communities at the 'receiving end' without forgoing the Greek contribution to their cultural history. Negotiation, rather than simplistic cultural diffusion on the one hand or reactionary nativism on the other, has become the leading model to approach the complexities of the different cultures of the Greek world. This attention has manifested itself in a flurry of publications4 and the current volume should be seen as part of this increased interest.

As stated in the introduction by Chrubasik and King, the book focusses on the ways in which the relationship between local communities and Greek culture was negotiated in key areas of the Hellenistic world: Asia Minor, the Levant, Egypt, and Mesopotamia. The center stage is held by the non-Greek communities of those areas who refashioned and reshaped what they deemed to be Greek cultural forms to suit their own needs and interests. By studying different regions with different local interpretations of Greek culture, the volume aims to sketch a more nuanced cultural history of the Eastern Mediterranean. According to the editors, this focus on local interpretations of Greek cultural forms should also raise the question whether the historiographical terms Hellenism and Hellenization to describe these processes are still useful labels for the cultural processes at play in this time period—similar to questions raised about the usefulness of the term 'Romanization'.5 The volume not only has a broad geographical scope but also a wide chronological one. The editors do not adhere to the traditional chronological boundaries of the Hellenistic period, 323—31 BCE, as they consider the interaction between Greek and non-Greek cultures not restricted to this period. The overview starts in 400 BCE, the beginning of a period of intensification of non-Greek engagement with Greek cultural forms especially in Asia Minor, as demonstrated by several contributions. Similarly, the editors rightly argue that engagement with Greek culture did not cease with the battle of Actium. Yet, why 250 CE was chosen as the end date is not clarified. Surely, Greek cultural influence did not come to an end in the middle of the 3rd century CE.

The volume is structured around three main themes: local forms of the polis, the political and social impact of Greek culture, and the place of Greek cultural forms in literature, science and art.

In the first contribution, Stephen Mitchell demonstrates the limited Greek impact on the interior and even the south coast of Asia Minor prior to the Early Hellenistic period. He argues that the popularity of the polis-model from the 4th century BCE onwards lay in its adaptability, which enabled it to fulfill local needs, and that it was used to display local independence in the post-Achaemenid period. However, one may wonder whether the use of Greek terms to describe native Carian political institutions by Greek authors, cited here as evidence for the adoption of polis organization, can be seen as an actual reflection of the adoption of polis structures within a context of "deep cultural Hellenization" (p. 24), especially as these terms were also used for other than city constitutions, such as those of the associations of Carian villages (p. 27)?

This is followed by Ted Kaizer's discussion of the different trajectories of Hellenism in two of the better-known cities of Syria: Tadmor-Palmyra and Dura-Europos. Tadmor-Palmyra only became a polis during the Early Roman Imperial Period, when it adopted several forms of an "elementary Hellenism" (p. 35). The Seleucid colony of Dura-Europos, on the other hand, gradually lost its Greek cultural forms and witnessed a certain "return to indigenousness" (p. 50), although the fact that the Greek gods still had eponymous priesthoods in the 2nd century CE tends to nuance this somewhat. The different trajectories are explained by the growing involvement of Tadmor-Palmyra in the long-distance trade, but it seems obvious that the long Parthian rule over Dura-Europos will have been equally important in its diminishing Hellenism.

Philippe Clancier's study of Babylon shows how a polis could exist within the old Mesopotamian city. While the city was originally administered by members of the Esagila temple assembly known as the 'Babylonians', the introduction of a Greek community of politai or 'citizens' in the early 2nd century BCE caused a transformation of the city's political structure. The relationship between the two groups has been described as a segregation of two different political and ethnic entities, something which Clancier rejects because there are no indications in the cuneiform sources that these groupings were mutually exclusive. Rather, he sees a shift in local political power from the Esagila to the new structure of the polis as responsible for the observed distinction between the two.

In his contribution, Boris Chrubasik interprets the adaptation of Greek culture as a political tool in elite competition, and argues that in Hekatomnid Caria and Seleucid Jerusalem Hellenization was mainly a local auto-activity. In order to solidify their local political position, a group of the Jewish elite of Jerusalem would have introduced elements they deemed 'Greek' to transform their community into a polis. Similarly, in the case of Caria Chrubasik contends that the Hekatomnid satraps promoted Hellenism to distinguish themselves from their regional competitors in order to strengthen their tenure of the satrapal post. By arguing this, Chrubasik aims to underline the local character of agency and the political purpose in the adaptation of Greek forms.

Johannes Haubold confronts three textual images of the kingship of Antiochos III from three different regions in order to trace connections between these local perspectives. While there are obviously differences, the author also points out commonalities beyond local traditions of accommodation and resistance, as all texts are informed by language and ideas of the Seleucid imperial discourse. All this suggests the existence of a shared Seleucid worldview within the empire.

As demonstrated by Mario Paganini, the modern labels Greek and non-Greek (in casu Egyptian), implying different identities, prove unhelpful for the study of private associations in Ptolemaic Egypt. Although distinct cultural traditions certainly existed among them, especially in the early stages of Greek settlement, scrutiny of the sources does not allow for an exclusive ethno-cultural make-up of those associations. Rather than a sign of a segregated society, the complex nature of the associations illustrates the co-existence of elements belonging to different cultural traditions that constituted Ptolemaic society.

Myrto Hatzimichali's discussion of the "Letter of Ps.-Aristeas", a 2nd century BCE example of Alexandrian prose on the translation of the Jewish books of Moses for the Ptolemaic library, allows Aristeas' writings to be situated within a learned Jewish elite that choose to write in Greek, using a series of motifs from Hellenistic literature as well as Jewish ideas. It serves to illustrate cultural exchange at the level of oral wisdom.

Finally, the discussion by Daniel King of 1st and 2nd century CE papyri evidence from a sanctuary at the village of Tebtunis in the Fayum reveals the importance of Greek medical traditions for the provision of health care in a non-Greek cultural context by individuals who were closely associated with traditional Egyptian religious practices. The way different medical practices and traditions intersect at the site is used to speak to broader issues of cultural affiliation and interaction in the area of the Fayum.

The strength of this volume lies in the regional diversity of the case studies and the attention they pay to the non-Greek contexts. The papers clearly demonstrate the presence of Greek culture throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, with different degrees of local adoption, adaptation and interpretation of its cultural forms, generally illustrating processes of glocalization—the adaptation of Greek cultural elements in the local cultural repertoire.6 Unfortunately, the 'ordinary' material culture of daily life is not among the cultural forms studied. The clear focus throughout the volume on written sources, informing mainly on elements of elite culture, excludes the majority of people in those communities that engaged with Greek culture. Another shortcoming is the relative lack of "new methodological insights into the larger questions of cultural exchange" that the editors had hoped this volume would produce. Especially the conceptual framework of the contributions is rather weak, certainly when compared with other recent publications such as the edited volume by Stavrianoupoulou.7 Except for the contributions by Chrubasik and Paganini, conceptual aspects remain largely absent, and also the question whether Hellenism and its process Hellenization are still appropriate labels, which the volume set out to answer, is not really addressed. Nevertheless, the scholarship displayed in the contributions is solid and the wide scope of discussed topics will find interested readers in the disciplines studying Classical and Near Eastern antiquity.

Authors and titles

Boris Chrubasik and Daniel King, "Hellenism? An Introduction"
Stephen Mitchell, "The Greek Impact in Asia Minor 400-250 BCE"
Ted Kaizer, "Trajectories of Hellenism at Tadmor-Palmyra and Dura-Europos"
Philippe Clancier, "The Polis of Babylon: An Historiographical Approach"
Boris Chrubasik, "From Pre-Makkabaean Judaea to Hekatomnid Karia and Back Again: The Question of Hellenization"
Johannes Haubold, "Converging Perspectives on Antiochos III"
Mario C.D. Paganini, "Greek and Egyptian Associations in Egypt: Fact or Fiction?"
Myrto Hatzimichali, "Text and Wisdom in the Letter of Aristeas"
Daniel King, "Medicine between Cultures in the Hellenistic Fayum"


1.   Rachel Mairs, art. Hellenization, in: Roger Bagnall et al. (eds.), The Encyclopedia of Ancient History (Malden, 2012).
2.   Martin Millett, The Romanization of Britain: An Essay in Archaeological Interpretation (Cambridge, 1990); David Mattingly (ed.), Dialogues in Roman Imperialism: Power, Discourse and Discrepant Experience in the Roman Empire (Ann Arbor 1997); Richard Hingley, Globalizing Roman Culture: Unity, Diversity and Empire (London, 2005); Martin Pitts and Miguel John Versluys (eds.), Globalisation and the Roman World: World History, Connectivity and Material Culture (Cambridge, 2014).
3.   Amélie Kuhrt and Susan Sherwin-White (eds.), Hellenism in the East: The Interaction of Greek and non-Greek Civilizations from Syria to Central Asia after Alexander (Berkeley, 1987).
4.   E.g. Ian Moyer, Egypt and the Limits of Hellenism (Cambridge, 2011); Eftychia Stavrianopoulou (ed.), Shifting Social Imaginaries in the Hellenistic Period (Leiden, 2013); Rachel Mairs, The Hellenistic Far East: Archaeology, Language, and Identity in Greek Central Asia (Oakland, 2014); Philippe Clancier, Omar Coloru, Gilles Gorre, Les mondes hellénistiques. Du Nil à l'Indus (Paris, 2017).
5.   E.g. Andrew Merryweather and Jonathan Prag, "'Romanization'? or, Why Flog a Dead Horse?", Disgressus 2 (2002), 8–10.
6.   See e.g. Kostas Vlassopoulos, Greeks and Barbarians (Cambridge, 2013), 19-24 for the application of the concept in the process of Hellenization.
7.   See note 4.

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