Friday, September 21, 2018


Ryan Boehm, City and Empire in the Age of the Successors: Urbanization and Social Response in the Making of the Hellenistic Kingdoms. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018. Pp. xiv, 300. ISBN 9780520296923. $95.00.

Reviewed by Paul J. Kosmin, Harvard University (

Version at BMCR home site


The planned, designed, institutional reorganization of urban populations, together with a systematic and rationally-articulated thinking about cities, were, for whatever reason, characteristic of the Greek world since the archaic period. But nothing matches the royal synoikisms of the early Hellenistic period for scale of ambition, coherence of vision, and on-the-ground disruption. In this impressive and considered book, Ryan Boehm investigates such consolidations of existing Greek poleis into new or expanded mega-cities by the warlords, kings, and dynasts of the early Hellenistic period. Boehm, who had already explored some aspects of this phenomenon in a 2015 Classical Antiquity article,1 succeeds in giving both a macro-historical synthesis of early Hellenistic synoikism as a set of strategic, economic, and communal dynamics and a close-to-the-evidence, carefully striated study of social response.

A fleet-footed Introduction (1-25) fixes the geographical and chronological parameters of the study—the Aegean coastlands (mainland Greece, Macedonia, and western Asia Minor) from 323 to 281 BCE, that is, through the Successor Wars to the second generation of Hellenistic rulers. Such a focus makes sense on both pragmatic and substantive grounds: whereas enforced urbanization and the relocation of populations took place all across the extensive landscapes of the Hellenistic kingdoms, with obvious antecedents in the Near Eastern and Greek worlds, Boehm's Aegean region and generational time-span have the advantages of rich, overlapping textual and material evidence, a common urban and political culture, and a fractured imperial landscape, and so offer the opportunities for fair comparison and contrast between the various big players of the region. The Introduction also makes the case for the distinctiveness of this Hellenistic consolidating urbanism vis-à-vis the dispersed, fragmented, and "dioikistic" settlement patterns encouraged or enforced by Achaemenid, Athenian, and Spartan imperialisms.

The book then proceeds in two parts, of two chapters each —"Part One: Urbanization and the Imperial Framework" and "Part Two: Cult, Polis, Empire: The Religious and Social Dimensions of Synoikism"— that explore the mechanics and effects of synoikism for the Hellenistic kings and the incorporated local communities, respectively.

The substantial first chapter, "Imperial Geographies: City, Settlement, and Ideology in the Formation of the Hellenistic Kingdoms" (29-88), offers a clear political narrative of the Successors that situates the major synoikisms in the territorial formation of the new kingdoms. The chronological ordering of the reconstruction elucidates the specific historical conditions for each individual synoikism, as well as the interrelationship of these urbanizing moves in the unsteady and intensely competitive geopolitics of the period. In an effort to reconstruct the scale and impact of these urban policies on the regional landscapes of the north Aegean and western Asia Minor, Boehm overviews the textual and archaeological evidence for a core set of synoikized cities —Kassandreia, Thessalonike, Herakleia Latmos, Lysimacheia, Alexandreia Troas, Ilion, Ephesos, Smyrna, and Demetrias— with which the book will continue to engage.

If the first chapter lays out the fairly clear strategic thinking behind early Hellenistic synoikism —the imposing of a governmental coherence by concentrating resources and populations at few, well-fortified nodes— the second chapter, "Urbanization and Economic Networks" (89-139), seeks to explore the economic consequences of such synoikism on the productive and commercial landscape. As Boehm shows, while the costs for synoikism likely fell on the communities subject to synoikic processes, economic benefits would have been considerable, including a modernized civic infrastructure, the rationalization of debts and legal disputes, reduced transaction costs and fiscal simplification, exemptions from tax or tribute, and, in many cases, new harbor facilities. This economic dimension of synoikism has rarely been studied in a systematic way, and Boehm makes an important contribution here in concretely demonstrating substantial increases in the volume and differentiation of trade associated with these new or expanded centers.

The book's third and fourth chapters, constituting "Part Two: Cult, Polis, Empire: The Religious and Social Dimensions of Synoikism", are closely related. Chapter Three, "Civic Cults between Continuity and Change" (143-183), explores the range of institutional religious reactions to synoikism within the synoikized communities—the absorption of older cults into the new cities, the invention of new, central cults, and the decline, abandonment, and occasional retention of pre-synoikic sanctuaries. The chapter is organized around three regional case-studies—Demetrias and the Pagasitic Gulf, Thessalonike and the Thermaic Gulf, and Alexandreia Troas and the western Troad—that illustrate, in different ways, the practical complexities of uniting pre-existing worship communities in one place. In turn, the fourth and final chapter, "Consensus, Community, and Discourses of Power" (184-224), attempts to reconstruct the internal organization and communal affiliations of the newly synoikized politai, exploring how institutions, coinage, cultic processions, foundation myths, and so forth worked to broker the competing interests and identities of the constituent populations, tailored in each case to highly specific local concerns. Together, these chapters develop a model of institutional accommodation, of a top-down, consciously designed integration of an inorganic citizen-body that also left spaces for the continued expression of the constituents' diverse and ancient origins.

Boehm splendidly makes the case for his topic. In his hands, synoikism is located at the intersection of many of the historical dynamics of greatest interest to scholars of the early Hellenistic world: most obviously, the fraught interactions of poleis with kings and the formation of Hellenistic imperial landscapes, but also the workings of regionalism in the Aegean, the functions and ambivalences of political religion, and the fungibility or stickiness of communal identities. Boehm displays remarkable control of up-to-date archaeological (including survey) and epigraphic evidence over a very large area, in several cases permitting the re-evaluation of historiographical statements on monarchic action, urban destruction, and dating. Boehm is especially strong on identifying the practical problems and political compromises that lie behind the epigraphic record, such as the sharing of priesthoods or codification of sacrificial calendars. The first chapter is illustrated with useful topographical maps of the synoikized cities' catchment areas, indicating cult sites and constituent poleis. It is only a minor complaint, and born of enthusiasm, that Boehm's careful argumentation from material and numismatic evidence is not accompanied by the archaeological plans and coin images in question.

It is probably inevitable, given the book's shape as a diptych of monarchic ambitions and civic responses, that Boehm's underlying model is one of negotiation between two discrete entities. There is emphasis throughout on how the norms of the Greek polis and the traditions and claims of the participant communities constrained the power of the dynasts and mediated the processes of urban conglomeration: synoikism emerges as "a reciprocal exchange between king and community" (23) and "a delicate balance between royal authority and local concerns" (228). Such insistence on polis resilience and civic agency vis-à-vis the Hellenistic monarchs accords with what has become, to a large extent, a historiographical consensus. Yet, when so much of our evidence derives from the public transcript or institutional record of the synoikized communities, can this capture the profound imbalance of power at play, or the unlevel and highly circumscribed ground in which small poleis could manoeuver, or the violent disruptions of social and personal life that a forced synoikism imposed? Asandros' late fourth-century synoikism of Latmos and Pidasa in Karia prescribed that for six years the Latmians could only marry Pidasians and the Pidasians Latmians (SEG 47 1563 ll.21-25); it is not to indulge the historical imagination too much to pause and ponder the extra-institutional effects of this synoikic mechanism, and this is where the historiographical and literary evidence for (mostly ineffectual) local hostility to synoikism, downplayed by Boehm, could, for all its complications, have some reach. It would be surprising if these rather dramatic instances of "seeing like a state", a rationalizing, strategic vision of empire that so easily assimilates to historians' concerns and scale, did not bring misery with profit.


1.   Ryan Boehm, "Alexander, 'Whose Courage Was Great': Cult, Power, and Commemoration in Classical and Hellenistic Thessaly", Classical Antiquity 34 (2015): 209-215.

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