You are here

Space, Place and Identity in Northern Anatolia

April 2016 (120.2)

Book Review

Space, Place and Identity in Northern Anatolia

Edited by Tønnes Bekker-Nielsen (Geographica Historica 29). Pp. 271, figs. 60. Franz Steiner, Stuttgart 2014. €49. ISBN 978-3-515-10748-8 (paper).

Reviewed by

Compared with western and southern Anatolia, the Black Sea coast and the Pontic mountains remain poorly explored and underappreciated. Systematic excavations are still largely lacking, literary sources are scanty, and the available epigraphic and numismatic evidence has not been examined to the same extent. Anyone interested in developments in the area, especially in the Roman period, will find much of value in this volume. It collects 13 papers, 12 of which were presented at a conference on identity formation, development, and expression in northern Anatolia at the University of Southern Denmark in 2012.

In his introduction, Bekker-Nielsen attempts to lay out the overarching themes of the volume: (1) regional spaces; (2) city identities; (3) cities, coinages, and cults; (4) landscapes and identities; (5) time, space, and identity; (6) invisible spaces, invisible places. This structuring effort remains unconvincing, however, since the contributions are extremely diverse in terms of source material, content, approach, and quality. They cover a very long period, from the fifth century B.C.E to the 12th century C.E., and the coherence of the volume would have benefited from an introductory overview of the history and changing organization of northern Anatolia in these centuries. The reader is now obliged to piece this together from assorted historical sections spread over several papers.

Most of the papers indeed deal with particular sites or areas to the south of the Black Sea, and primarily with Pontos. The use of the term “Pontos” among the scholars contributing to the volume, however, varies tremendously; there are, for example, significant chronological differences between the Mithridatic kingdom (“Pontos”) and the administrative units of the Roman period (“Pontus”). In addition, the volume includes three articles that do not focus on northern Anatolia at all. One deals with Anatolia as a whole, another focuses on a Phrygian site, and a third by Revell discusses a Hispanic example to illustrate how cities used architecture to express their Romanness. Whereas this last article is primarily theoretical, others present a highly specific body of evidence without much interpretation. Of the 13 articles, the last two are of interest primarily to archaeologists; the others will appeal more to ancient historians, numismatists, and epigraphists.

The papers have been organized roughly in chronological order. McGing starts off with a reworking of a 1998 paper on the multiple identities of Pontos under the Mithridatids (“Na rebe┼że, kul’tura i istorija Pontijskogo carstva,” VDI 3 [1998] 97–112), where Iranian and Greek aspects were mingled with local Anatolian elements. Eleven papers on the Roman period follow. Olshausen presents a systematic but unimaginative sketch of the geography of the area, its resources, and its road network. The article ends with a rather disconnected short section on the history of Roman Pontus. The Pontic area discussed in Vitale’s article is vast. Coins and inscriptions reveal that cities from the Roman provinces of Moesia Inferior, Pontus et Bithynia, as well as Cappadocia all felt that they belonged to a Pontic community. Although Vitale cannot provide a conclusive explanation, he convincingly refutes existing theories such as that of a transprovincial Pontic league of cities. Bekker-Nielsen evaluates literary, epigraphic, and numismatic evidence to establish whether Neapolis and the surrounding region of Phazemonitis were part of Pontos or belonged to Paphlagonia. Madsen concludes this first batch of papers on the extent and identity of Pontos with an examination of the writings of Strabo in order to establish whether the identity of the Pompeian cities of the Pontic hinterland was considered to be Greek or Roman. 

The next two articles deal with architecture and ideology. Revell discusses how cities in the provinces attempted to link themselves to Rome by means of architecture. As said above, this article would have been a better fit for this volume if it had discussed a northern Anatolian example. Zuiderhoek’s narrative on the intricateness of munificence is the most cogent of the volume. Based on a corpus of 500 inscriptions from all over Anatolia, he discusses why almost all investments of elite benefactors, civic governments, and the imperial administration focus on collectivist architecture.

Sauer and Dalaison both focus on numismatic evidence. Sauer’s corpus of coins referring to space—natural and architectural surroundings, precursor settlements, and units of administration—is certainly interesting, but the paper remains purely descriptive and leaves the reader hungry for further analysis. Dalaison discusses at length all titles and imagery that illuminate how poleis wished to express their special identity on coins—foundation myths, associations with particular divinities, references to a city’s status, but also architecture and natural features. Consequently, there is unavoidable overlap with Sauer. Both articles discuss, among others, the altar of Zeus Stratios depicted on city coins of Amaseia. This altar is central to Williamson’s contribution as well. Her viewsheds of the sanctuary clarify that it was highly significant for the unification of the extensive territory of the polis. Although her analysis supplements the coin papers, it is separated from them by another paper by Zwingmann on Kelainai-Apameia Kibotos in Phrygia, believed to be the site of the Marsyas myth but also revered as the landing place of Noah’s ark. Zwingmann shows how Kelainai-Apameia deliberately strengthened these associations by altering local toponyms and depicting the narrative of Noah on its coins already in the late second and the first half of the third century C.E.

Summerer gathers in situ evidence for religious practices in the north of Anatolia in the Iron Age and Roman period. The very low count of 13 religious sites, including temples, votive deposits, rock-cut shrines, and hill-top sanctuaries, stresses the deplorable lack of excavations in the area. The last article, by Erciyas, presents one of the few systematic digs, namely that at the Middle Byzantine citadel of Komana, under research since 2009. As the results are still very preliminary, the paper cannot actually contribute to questions regarding identity at all.

In summary, most of the contributions contain a wealth of up-to-date content and will be of interest to experts with a keen interest in northern Anatolia. However, the variety in the content and approach in the separate articles, together with the absence of an effective conclusion, will make it a difficult read for students or a wider scholarly audience.

Ine Jacobs
The Ioannou Centre for Classical and Byzantine Studies
Oxford University

Book Review of Space, Place and Identity in Northern Anatolia, edited by Tønnes Bekker-Nielsen

Reviewed by Ine Jacobs

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 120, No. 2 (April 2016)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1202.Jacobs

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.