Greek City in the Hellenistic and Roman Age

and the Territorial Powers


This is a research project funded under a Maestro grant of the National Science Centre (Poland) to be implemented from May 2015 until May 2020. It is not a synthesis of all aspects of history of Greek cities in the Hellenistic and Roman age and does not try to restate what Jones once said (1940). Its objectives are limited, not to repeat in slightly altered form what has already been said in recent years on some important topics of Hellenistic and Roman history, e.g. on Hellenistic economy, thoroughly studied in volumes edited by J.K. Davies, Z.H. Archibald, V. Gabrielsen (2005, 2011), on religion profusely discussed in innumerable books and articles (e.g. Habicht 1970; Mikalson 1998; Potter in: Erskine 2003), on architecture and art, on position of women in elite of the Hellenistic and Roman world related in the books of van Bremen (1996) and Ferrandini Troisi (2000), and now studied in K. Stebnicka’s project.

This project aims at addressing the core issue of the Hellenistic and Roman civilization of the Eastern Mediterranean: the survival and diffusion of polis civilization, itself the product of Greece of the archaic and classical age. In order to attain a minimum of precision and to avoid cumbersome enumeration of all big political organisms with which Greek poleis had to deal, it borrows the name “territorial powers” from Bearzot, Landucci Gattinoni, Zecchini (2003). It starts from the seemingly obvious reflection, that, for all interest of the modern scholarship in Hellenistic and Roman monarchy, in the Hellenistic and Roman times polis continued to be the basic form of Greek statehood and the focus of Greek self-definition. It was faced, however, with the necessity to deal with territorial states, much bigger and, as a rule, militarily stronger than any single polis. These were major Hellenistic kingdoms of the Seleucids, Ptolemies, Antigonids, the Roman republic and Empire, as well as lesser powers, from the Bosporan Kingdom in the North-East to Commagene, Judea and the Parthian empire in the East. Although neither all Greek poleis nor all territorial powers will be studied within this project, it is important to attain a cross-section of the Hellenistic and Roman world. Apart from major Hellenistic kingdoms, some smaller states on margins of the Hellenistic and Roman world will be taken into considerations, to study, among other things, dynamics of relations between Greek cities and states whose dynasties were themselves going through the process of Hellenization. A preferable example of such territorial power would be the Bosporan Kingdom, as the place of a very complex ethnic composition, with a few cities sometimes playing active political role (like Theodosia or Tanais), endowed with an intricate web of interactions between the local dynasty claiming Mithridatic and Achaemenid ancestry, the Roman empire whose soldiers occasionally stationed in Bosporus and in neighbouring Chersonesus, Greek cities and native tribes, as well Sarmatians, Scythians and Tauroi of the Crimean hinterland.

The project will not limit itself to analyzing relations of polis with territorial states: it is interested as well in the internal dynamics of Hellenistic and Imperial-era polis, with its evolution influenced also but not exclusively by territorial powers. The chronological framework of most research question is the reign of Alexander the Great which ushered the new era for polis on the one hand, and the third c. AD when the Roman order in the East took its final shape before the turmoil of the crises of the Empire. In many cases the investigation of important social phenomena will start with Alexander the Great or even their roots from the times of the Persian empire will be studied.

The questions pertaining to relations between the polis and the king/ emperor are among the most important issues for a historian of this period (e.g. Will, RPh 1979: 319-322; Davies, in: Ogden 2002; Ma 2002: 10). Thus most, if not all issues of those listed below will be studied within this project:

1. Relations between territorial states and established Greek poleis. In numerous cases it took the form of outright dependence of Greek poleis which were mere subjects of Hellenistic kings. This project will surely side with those who disagree with Orth (1977) that this was the overwhelming principle in relations between Hellenistic monarchs and Greek cities. But since they were not absolutely free as and allied only with Hellenistic kingdoms as Heuss (1937) wanted us to believe, the degree and duration of the dependent status of Greek poleis will be studied. Since our sources almost always show relations between the polis and the king as ostensibly amicable and equal, indirect evidence will have to be taken into consideration. This will require in-depth study of the language of decrees and royal letters, as well as of the symbolic code of coins and other artefacts. All study of this issue will be conducted in the broadest possible context.

2. Freedom and democracy. These are perhaps two most important notions in ideology of Greek polis of the Hellenistic age, not immaterial for many poleis of the early Empire as well. The project will assess the accuracy of the hypotheses prevailing in modern scholarship of the fast decline of Greek democracy (Dmitriev 2005), allegedly beginning already in the fourth or third c. BC (Jones 1940; Rhodes 1997), dominated by aristocratic oligarchy (Gabrielsen 1997), by the late-second c. BC degenerating into oligarchic republics (Carlsson 2010), and in Roman times ruled by the class of notables/honorati (Veyne 1990; Quaß 1993; with a skeptical voice of Habicht, in: Stadtbild und Bürgerbild im Hellenismus, 1995). Earlier I tried to look at the Greek understanding of the notion of freedom in the age of Alexander the Great (in the Klio, 2003) and the question of modality of the notion of freedom and its relative importance to various classes of Greek/ Hellenized cities throughout Hellenistic and Roman Greece and Asia Minor needs to asked in this project.

3. Foreign policy and war. Even if kings and later the Roman republic and Empire dominated foreign policy of the Hellenistic and Roman age, they never had monopoly in this area, with cities maintaining armies and waging war, Rhodes and Miletus being prime examples of that (J. Ma, "Fighting poleis of the Hellenistic world", in: H. van Wees (ed.) War and violence in Greek society, 2000: 337-76). This project will study changing attitudes to war in the world of polis and ask questions about different ways of handling international crisis, arbitration in the first place. It will further try to assess what was the influence of pax Romana and of practical elimination of serious foreign policy issues from the agenda of poleis of the Imperial age on the dynamics of their internal development and their social consciousness. A study of poleis on the margins of the Roman world, e.g. in the north coast of the Black Sea which never ceased to handle their active foreign policy and to wage wars, will be of crucial importance here.

4. Dialogue. As has been indicated more than once, territorial states and cities were involved in a dialogue of sorts (Gauthier, in: Hansen (ed.) 1993), in which each party tried to influence the other both through their words, i.e. decrees of poleis and letters of kings (Bertrand, CCG 1990: 101-115) and by their deeds: royal/ imperial benefactions seemingly showered on Greek cities and honours granted to kings, emperors, prominent Roman politicians and generals. What needs to be investigated is patterns of behaviour in this dialogue, ideological values promoted on both sides and practical versus symbolic gains to both sides. An issue to be studied further is the role of prominent citizens, often in a king’s service, in the dialogue between the polis and a king. Both the earlier works on royal friends (e.g. Savalli-Lestrade 1998) and on the role of prominent Milesians in forging and maintaining ties between Miletus and the Seleucid (Hermann, Chiron 1987; Nawotka, “Demodamas of Miletus, Seleucus I and Apollo,” forthcoming in: Festschrift John K. Davies) suggest that this is a promising avenue of research.

5. Transformation of the local elite throughout the Hellenistic and Roman age. Most of Greek public documents bring information about upper classes of polis. Therefore meaningful questions may be asked as to the changing definition of elite of Hellenistic and Roman polis, to the impact of Hellenistic kings on shaping elites of Greek poleis, to the role of elite citizens in enhancing ties of their poleis with territorial powers, to the absorption of non-Greek aristocrats into elite of Greek poleis.

6. Euergetism. It is a major issue, directly linked to other above research questions because most of what we know about Greek poleis of the Hellenistic and Roman age comes from inscriptions honouring benefactors. The enormous discussion of the phenomenon of ancient euergetism, marked by landmarks books of Gauthier (1985), Veyne (1990), Zuiderhoek (2009), has been approaching it on the basis of select number of major epigraphic sources coming from different periods and drawn from very dissimilar places. Here an attempt will be made to study diachronically the whole honorific culture of select cities sporting a source bases big enough to make conclusions meaningful. One goal is to verify the hypothesis of Gauthier of “grand evergets” allegedly dominating Greek cities from the second c. BC on. Another one is to assess the changing goals and motivations of euergetic activity, in that its alleged role as means to control the populace of Roman-time Greek cities by their elite (Zuiderhoek 2009). Even if women in Hellenistic and Imperial-era polis will not be a primary interest of this project, activity of women euergetai will receive due attention. The demise of ancient euergetism should be studied in this project too, among other things in order to ask to whether the demise of this important social phenomenon and the rise of Christianity only coincided or if it was a detectable causal link between the two.

7. Spread of the Greek type urbanization in the Eastern Mediterranean. The focus will be not as much on planting new cities, since still not much can be added to Fraser’s (1996), Billows’ (1994) and Cohen’s (1978, 1995) landmark books, but on spatial and cultural transformation of native settlements into full-fledged Greek cities. The prime example of that if the transformation of Egyptian metropoleis into Greek poleis, culminating into recognition of this new status by Septimius Severus (Bowman 1971, Bowman and Rathbone 2007). This project will attempt to study the process of this transformation, from its origins in the Ptolemaic age through the early Empire, trying to assess to what degree it was influenced by conscious policy of the Ptolemies and Roman authorities. This will go hand in hand with a broader issue of cultural, social and political Hellenization/ Romanization of native towns in the Middle East as well the, sometimes difficult, co-existence of poleis planted or recognized by the Seleucids with the existing major urban centres of the East, from Babylon to Jerusalem (see e.g. Bickerman 1979).

8. Cities, their temples and oracles. The economic position of Greek temples in Asia Minor and elsewhere has been studied profusely in recent years (Ameling et al. 1995, Dignas 2002). What needs to be analyzed is the role temples and oracles played in establishing and maintaining the role of their host-cities in the world of territorial power. Testing the words of E. Will (RPh 1979) about the tremendous role of the “rayonnement du Didemeion” for the position of Hellenistic Miletus, I have tried to show how instrumental it was in establishing cordial relations of Miletus with Seleucus I and Antiochus I (“Demodamas of Miletus, Seleucus I and Apollo,” forthcoming in: Festschrift John K. Davies). And this aspect of the role of oracles will be tested on more than the Milesian example for the reminder of the Hellenistic age and for the early Empire, having in mind that some oracles, Didyma in particular retained its vitality down to the reign of the Emperor Julian. An attempt will be made as well to assess the contribution of temples and oracles to the transformation of elites of Greek cities in the Hellenistic and Roman age.

9. Language, culture and ethnicity. For the apparent domination of Greek in the Eastern Mediterranean, among the literate elite at least, most people in the East spoke other languages and the very survival and revival of native tongues and cultures in Hellenistic and Roman times has been of growing interest in recent years (e.g. Cotton 2009). An issue to be raised in research is the role of Latin in the cities of the Roman East and its significance for the Greek elite in its interaction with the Imperial elite and in their Imperial career. Even less known is the role of Semitic languages and culture in the self-definition of urban elite of the Roman East. Then, a topic to be handled in this project is the impact of the culture elite in defining ideologies of Greek cities of the Roman East and in promoting their agenda with Roman authorities. And, drawing upon hypotheses raised in books of Leschhorn (1984), Wörrle (1988), Rogers (1991) and Erskine (2001), the issue to be investigated is the role of history and mythology juxtaposed to and sometimes opposed to the Roman rule in ideology of Imperial-era polis. Polis ideology in general and the ways through which it was demonstrated (e.g. through tituli honorarii) will be a major topic within this project.

10. Influence of Rome: this is one of the most important and most discussed issues in history of the Hellenistic and post-Hellenistic world. Recent decades brought a plethora of books on the advent of Rome in the Hellenistic world (e.g. Gruen 1984; Ferrary 1988; Ma 2002; Grainger 2002), and on Greek reaction to it, in the first place in the cultural movement of the second sophistic (e.g. Swain 1996; Goldhill 2001). It will in fact emerge in almost all other research questions outlined here. Certainly the ways of acquiring Roman patronage by Greek cities in the age of the Republic and early Empire will be investigated and so will be the transformation of the polis in the Roman age and under Roman influence. But the question will be asked to what extent and why only to this extent post-Hellenistic polis assimilated Roman political and social patterns. What is associated with it is the question of how to detect and measure anti-Roman sentiments in the cities of the East.

At this point It can be safely established that three major studies within the project will be conducted, while other co-investigators will be hired to pursue research of some of the research questions presented above which they or, in the case of doctoral students, they with their supervisors, will select and clear with the co-ordinator. At this point, prior to recruiting all seven researchers it is not feasible to state what precisely they will study within the projects: this much depend on available talented people with their preferred interests and approaches. What is crucial to the success of this project is that all research questions are covered, but not necessarily all ten in each individual project. The three studies which can identified now will concentrate around Miletus in the Hellenistic and Roman age, around Delphi and around Egyptian metropoleis. They represent three very different case studies of great significance which can be researched on the bases of a very large and diverse sources bases. We know ca. 2,500 inscriptions from Miletus, mostly Hellenistic and Imperial and of the largest number of coin series among all ancient cities (Nawotka 2014; Deppert-Lippitz 1984; Marcellesi 2004). Miletus has been researched archaeologically for over a hundred years and results of excavations have been published in an exemplary way. All of these makes Miletus one of the best documented cities in antiquity. From the point of view of a modern scholar, many Milesian inscriptions are very high quality: some four hundred of them are public documents, in that seventy decrees, many of substance, not honorific, and over a hundred abbreviated decrees. Most Milesian decrees and many other inscriptions can be dated to the year which of courses increases their value in historical studies.

Delphi, one of smaller Greek poleis, has produced ca. five thousand inscriptions, about a thousand of which are decrees and abbreviated decrees, not counting numerous manumission inscriptions, tituli honorarii, dedications and letters. Although they usually carry less substance than inscriptions from Miletus or Athens, the sheer number of surviving inscriptions, certainly the highest in antiquity for a medium-size city, offers an unique research perspective.

The case study of Egyptian metropoleis will bring more diverse source bases: inscriptions, Greek and demotic papyri and ostraka. Because of that, it will be a control group in the research which should allow us to verify some hypothesis reached on the basis of mostly epigraphic evidence dominating in the study of polis in other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean.


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