Thursday, January 24, 2019


Simone Killen, Parasema: offizielle Symbole griechischer Poleis und Bundesstaaten. Archäologische Forschungen, 36. Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag, 2017. Pp. xii, 363; 36 p. of plates. ISBN 9783954902347. €78,00.

Reviewed by William Mack, University of Birmingham (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

This book on the official emblems of the Greek states (parasema) successfully fills a major lacuna in scholarship. These political symbols have long been an occasional curiosity for epigraphists, who might find an owl or a club sculpted above a proxeny decree for an Athenian or Theban.1 For numismatists, parasema, although apparently ubiquitous, have been peripheral for other reasons, not least because they are hard to pin down among the range of images a city might deploy on its coinage. Simone Killen's monograph sets the study of this important expression of state identity on entirely new foundations by surveying the full range of surviving evidence for parasema, especially in the material record. As a result of her comparative study of symbols deployed by states, Killen identifies and examines no fewer than fourteen different contexts in which parasema were employed, including state seals, official market weights and amphora stamps alongside coinage and document reliefs, but excludes a further two categories, sling bullets and ship prows (10 with n. 75).

After an introduction, in which she sets out the history of the study of parasema across different genres of material and her working definition of the phenomenon, Killen provides surveys of the different types of material. For each she sketches the wider context in which parasema were deployed before addressing the likely functions of the parasemon in context, the geographical distribution of the evidence, and the chronology of its development. These surveys are loosely grouped according to four categories: 'Handel und Produktion' (coinage, official weights, measuring vessels, amphorae, bricks, loom-weights and water-pipes, the last with only one surviving example), 'Rechtsakte' (seals, allotment plates, and voting tokens), 'Staatliche Repräsentation' (document reliefs and votive offerings), and 'Kriegswesen' (shields and tattoos, both attested by literary sources).

The second part of the book then draws on the results of these different surveys to address the historical development of parasema, their iconography (this chapter includes case studies of the material from Athens and Priene as poleis which appear to make use of multiple parasema), and the function and historical significance of this phenomenon. The remainder of the text (155-301) is occupied by a detailed catalogue organised by region and political community of the evidence for parasema which can be assigned to each community, with additional appendices containing catalogues of parasema which cannot be assigned with confidence, uncertain and excluded cases (960 entries in total; large classes of amphora stamps and coinage are summarised in single entries). Accompanied by a wealth of images reproduced over thirty-six plates, these catalogues represent a major research resource and are the product of meticulous scholarship.

The definition of parasema adopted is pragmatic and geared towards making positive identifications: 'Ein Parasemon ist ein offizielles Symbol eines Gemeinwesens. Es wird auf instrumenta publica angebracht und ist inhaltlich mit dem Gemeinwesen verbunden', (5). It privileges symbols found on objects which were public property (though, as Killen's analysis of the relationship of parasema to dēmosion-inscriptions shows, 139-40, parasema themselves do not seem to have functioned as a marker of state ownership). Coin iconography is consequently used only to confirm whether a particular symbol may be considered a parasemon (and thus included) rather than, for example, in the case of an amphora stamp or symbol on an official weight, an emblem associated with an individual performing a magistracy. While understandable, given the potential range of images deployed on the coinages of different communities, not all of which can be considered parasema, this kind of conservatism can be taken too far. It particularly reduces the coverage of the catalogue for Magna Graecia and Sicily where, for different reasons, fewer, other archaeological exempla of parasema survive (from this region only Metapontum, Selinus and Syracuse make it into the catalogue, the first two on the basis of literary attestations alongside coins). For example, a good case could be made for identifying the crabs of the coinage of Akragas as a punning parasemon of that polis on purely numismatic grounds, given its appearance on the coinage of Himera associated with a period of Akragantine control (in fact, the claw of this parasemon can also be identified on a fragmentary document relief accompanying an Athenian proxeny decree for an Akragantine, though it is hardly surprising that this did not come to Killen's attention in time).2

The initial surveys, supported by nine maps clearly showing the distribution of particular uses of parasema over time (355-63), highlight a considerable variety in the uses to which parasema were apparently put in different contexts. Some of the uses emerge as local peculiarities. In particular, allotment plates bearing parasema are only known in quantity from Athens, with five further examples spread over four other poleis, and, similarly, the use of parasema on loom-weights is limited, with only one exception, to a small number of poleis in Asia Minor. The latter in particular is a curious phenomenon, rightly interpreted with caution (proposals explored include state interest in textile production and official equipment for producing public textile offerings). For obvious reasons the use of parasema on amphora was limited to port cities during particular periods and seems, as Killen argues, to attest to state interest in production for export, though the precise function performed by the parasemon might differ between poleis (28-32 and 133-4). Out of these discussions, a clear understanding emerges in Chapter 8 of the deliberate functions associated with these emblems of state identity: internally, on weights, coins, bronze allotment and voting tokens, and seal impressions (sealing documents and vessels), as a mark of control, of authorisation and as both a guarantee of validity and a warning against tampering; externally, in the form of offerings set up by the state in question, on decrees sent to other states, on shields borne by citizen soldiers and on inscribed monuments set up by external states honouring its citizens, as an assertion of identity.

The development of this system of state symbols, delineated in Chapter 6, is particularly fascinating but difficult given the widely divergent patterns of preservation for different examples of their use. Although parasema on coins were themselves influenced by the general iconography of seals (something shown clearly by Jeffrey Spier), Killen suggests that specifically civic seals are unlikely to have predated the deployment of parasema on civic coinage.3 This is not because Killen doubts the existence of such public seals before the end of the fifth century, following Rudolf Haensch's analysis of the meagre and patchy surviving evidence attesting to their use (on the contrary, Killen, 50-1, identifies two plausible candidates for earlier seal-impressions).4 Instead, this is based on the argument that, if a well-defined public seal already existed at the time of the earliest coinages, we would find that being used, rather than the multiple different images which we instead see impressed on the early coinages minted within a single city, which only later in the sixth century are reduced to a single image or set of images (72). This is not entirely convincing. Since the functions of parasema in all periods seem to correspond very closely to the idea of the seal, and the development of state involvement in coinage is itself complex, it would surprise me if there were not at least a co-evolution of public seals alongside early civic coin types; but the state of our evidence for public seals and their use will probably continue to preclude certainty. Killen also has very interesting remarks concerning the decline of the use of parasema in the late Hellenistic period (75-6), which she relates persuasively to the internal transformation of the Greek world under Roman domination. The material basis for making this argument would, however, have been stronger if the catalogues or at least the quantitative diachronic surveys incorporated material from the early imperial period instead of cutting off in the late Hellenistic.

In Chapter 9, this book illuminates the role which parasema performed on an interstate level, within the context of the wider network of Greek states, as expressions of statehood. Killen conjures up a picture of emulation and competitive differentiation which in fact corresponds closely to and would benefit from consideration of the 'Peer-Polity Interaction' model, popularised in relation to the study of Hellenistic polis institutions by John Ma.5 The shared iconography which Killen identifies in Chapter 7, of a limited number of appropriate types (especially animals and objects linked to particularly significant local deities; to a lesser extent depictions of deities), clearly illustrates the way in which this functioned as a network phenomenon. This is also visible in deliberate iconographic links which Killen highlights, including the use of the Phokian federal parasemon in civic contexts with polis ethnics (121) and the use of a shared eagle-on-dolphin image by both Sinope and Istros on both coinage and official weights (78, though here I missed reference to the occurrence of the same image on the coinage of a third polis, Olbia).

In addition to the omissions from the catalogues highlighted by Killen (10; 70 official weights, published too late to be incorporated) — and in the same spirit — I note that there are two further document reliefs depicting parasema.6

The methodical approach, of surveys of different types of material followed by synthetic studies, sometimes leads to repetition (and, conversely, readers interested only in particular types of material will nonetheless be well advised to scan the later chapters for additional material), but the exposition is clear and concise. This systematic and detailed account will be the starting point for anyone interested in polis symbols for many years.


1.   The classic study of parasema on epigraphic monuments is T. Ritti, 'Sigle ed emblemi sui decreti onorari greci', MAL 14 (1969), 259–360 (with J. and L. Robert 1971, 64).
2.   For the crab of Akragas on the coinage of Himera (usually associated with the episode of Akragantine control described at Hdt. 7.165), see T. Fischer-Hansen, T. H. Nielsen and C. Ampolo, 'Sikelia', in M. H. Hansen and T. H. Nielsen, eds., An Inventory of Archaic and Classical Poleis (Oxford, 2004), 186 and 201; for the identification of a fragmentary relief of a crab on an Athenian proxeny decree for an Akragantine, see W. Mack ap. S. D. Lambert, Inscribed Athenian Laws and Decrees 352/1–322/1 BC (Leiden, 2012), 402.
3.   J. Spier, 'Emblems in Archaic Greece', BICS 37 (1990), 107–29.
4.   R. Haensch, 'Das öffentliche Siegel der griechischen Staaten: zwischen Kontrollmittel und Staatssymbol', in Symposium 2003 (Vienna, 2006), 255–79.
5.   J. Ma, 'Peer Polity Interaction in the Hellenistic Age', Past & Present 180 (2003), 9–39.
6.   For an additional document relief depicting the crab of Akragas, see n. 2 above. SEG 30.357 in fact presents two depictions of animals — a dove in the pediment, and the forepart of a boar below in an inset square — above a decree (also inset) for someone identified as a Thracian. Denis Knoepfler's reconstruction of this must be correct (Décrets érétriens de proxénie et de citoyenneté (Lausanne, 2001), 31–2): a stele commissioned for an honorific decree for a Sikyonian with the Sikyonian dove parasemon, the text of which was then erased, presumably after the repudiation of the grant, and replaced with the second honorific decree and accompanying boar.

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