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Insularity and Identity in the Roman Mediterranean

April 2019 (123.2)

Book Review

Insularity and Identity in the Roman Mediterranean

Edited by Anna Kouremenos. Pp. vii + 208, figs. 59, tables 4. Oxbow, Oxford and Philadelphia 2018. £38. ISBN 9781785705809 (paper).

Reviewed by

Insularity and Identity in the Roman Mediterranean is a collection of essays concerned with identifying and exploring the ancient Mediterranean island communities that came in contact with the Roman empire. It resulted from a Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference session held at the University of Reading, UK in 2014. Cleverly organized starting from the east (Cyprus) and moving west (Corsica), the chapters each treat a different island or island group during the Roman period, including Cyprus, Crete, the Northern Sporades, the Ionian Islands, the Dalmatian Islands, Malta, Sardinia, and Corsica.

The insularity referenced in the title of the work refers to a theoretical conundrum that scholars have been contending with over the past few decades: how does one analyze the island experience? Is it one of isolation and idiosyncrasies or connection and cultural interchange? Similarly, how does one move beyond the “island as laboratory” notion, while retaining the unique character of island interactions? The short introductory chapter by Kouremenos poses similar questions in the study of Mediterranean islands, grounding these in recent theoretically driven works. Balancing notions of isolation and connectivity, Kouremenos and the other contributors take on the nature of island life under Roman rule. The volume’s perspective is noteworthy, as Mediterranean archaeology often turns away from studies of island identities and insularity after Roman conquest, at times employing insidious tropes that depict indigenous island cultures as unchanging or even primed for acculturation via romanization. This collection presents a valuable addition to archaeological literature, integrating regional scholarship that is usually found in disparate locations, often without the theoretical or conceptual coherency of an edited volume, and only rarely in English.

Chapter 2 begins the thematic discussion of islands in Roman contexts, focusing on Cyprus. Gordon’s discussion of Roman perceptions of insularity is enlightening, showcasing the common perception of the eastern Mediterranean as a cultural backwater during the post-Classical period. Combating notions of passivity and stagnation, Gordon describes the enduring traditions and cultural dialogues that take place on the island. He engages with scholarship and theory, then describes what he sees as a pluralistic material culture record, highlighting the cultural interchanges evident in the ceramic, numismatic, sculptural, and architectural evidence.

Kouremenos builds on Gordon’s theory-heavy chapter, beginning with a detailed outline of the Roman conquest of Crete, the largest island in the Mediterranean, then turning to describe the Roman-era economy, which was based in agriculture and cultural capital. The latter notion is fascinating, as Kouremenos highlights how Cretans used the island’s mythological heritage to promote places of healing or, essentially, ancient tourism, as was the case at the Sanctuary of Zeus on Mount Ida. She then focuses on the preeminence of mythological tropes in Cretan art of the Roman era, focusing on the appearance of the Minoan double-axe in the House of Phidias at Kissamos as well as on other grave stelae from Tarrha in southwest Crete. Kouremenos contends with the multiple potential meanings of the indigenous Cretan symbol in the Roman household as a sign of cultural continuity or ancient antiquarianism, concluding by referencing ancient Crete’s ability to persist (albeit with a reduced population) while harnessing its mythological cultural capital for extra-island consumption.

Ginalis introduces the Sporades Islands in the shorter chapter 4, focusing on the history and evidence of trade and interaction on these islands. Ginalis describes the islands’ probable role in the control of shipping lanes to Asia Minor and, using ancient textual evidence, highlights the role that the islands of Skiathos and Skopelos played in Rome’s eastern expansion. Archaeological data is then used to interpret the relative insularity of the islands, to be read here more as isolation than the theoretically couched notion of insularity presented in earlier chapters.

Zoumbaki introduces the islands of the Ionian Sea in chapter 5, relying on traditional textual evidence and incorporating classical material culture and modern anthropological perceptions of identity as well. Zoumbaki states that she is less interested in presenting another theoretical examination of insularity and more concerned with locating the identities that the island experience creates (78–9). To Zoumbaki, while these islands are not exactly remote, they do represent an important gateway for voyagers and trade between the eastern and the western Mediterranean. The chapter then focuses on the history of Roman conquest and the nature of textual and material evidence from Corcyra, Leukas, Ithaca, Kephallenia, and Zakynthos. These sections serve as island biographies, detailing what changed and what remained the same during the Roman era, and providing a valuable introductory resource.

Chapter 6 then shifts to the Adriatic Sea, where Dzino’s analysis focuses on connections and communication with the mainland through the cult of Sylvanus, which he presents as syncretistic, combining indigenous and Greco-Roman traditions to create an idiosyncratic worship of the divinity on the islands. Dzino uses Sylvanus’ artistic representation on reliefs and inscriptions and the features of his cult to discuss cultural negotiation during the Roman era. This discussion leads to theoretical conceptions of identity construction, drawing from Anderson’s “imagined community” and Apparaduai’s “production of locality” in understanding what has been called “glocalization.” This term implies a blending of strong, island-based identities, coupled with the perhaps contrary notions of global, cultural interactions inherent to island connectivity and colonialism.

Moving to the central Mediterranean, Anastasi discusses industry as the basis of certain forms of identity construction on Malta (along with Gozo and Comino). She focuses on the ancient textile industry in Malta, known from textual records, coupled with lesser-known wine and olive production that are only really visible through the archaeological record. Anastasi also looks at the continued use of local fine wares rather than Roman imports during this period, as well as possible trading ties between Malta and Pantelleria, seeing both trends as evidence of local cultural persistence and active participation in regional economies.

Chapters 8 and 9 discuss the larger central Mediterranean islands, Sardinia and Corsica. In chapter 8, Roppa presents Sardinia, which has for decades been the focus of many works concerning insularity and identity in both the ancient and modern worlds. He first describes this recent scholarship, then turns to the island’s Punic and Roman periods, focusing on the political shifts that took place from the third to first centuries B.C.E. Roppa uses the case studies of Nora and Neapolis and its hinterland, as well as the hinterlands of Olbia and Monte Sirai, to understand this period of transition. He showcases the changing economic opportunities available to Sardinians and the evidence of Punic cultural persistence through the republican era, primarily through the ceramic record. He grounds his work in many of the previous studies, focusing on concepts of insularity and negotiated identities.

In the final thematic chapter of the work, Mary presents a detailed account of Corsica’s relationship with Rome. His attention is on the fortified settlements and internal dynamics of southwestern Corsica during the Roman transition and the ceramic record, numismatics, inscriptions, and other material cultural indicators of Roman life. Mary provides theories regarding how and why Corsica experienced a shift to direct Roman influence and the widespread integration of Roman material culture as late as the first half of the first century C.E., comparatively later than elsewhere. As this is the only chapter in French, the audience might have been better served if it had been translated, particularly in maintaining editorial consistency.

In the conclusion chapter, Lim considers themes and future directions, emphasizing the use of archaeology to overcome presumptions inherited from the textual record and pointing out the strong theoretical focus of the volume. Lim rightly highlights the lack of consistency in the use of the term “insularity” throughout the chapters, as it ranges from isolation to island experience, which can in fact be the opposite of isolation. While not resolving this definitional issue, Lim concludes that the book should be praised for attempting to employ the theoretical framework on multiple scales and multiple islands.

Overall, this book is a fantastic resource for scholars of Mediterranean islands. Its value lies particularly in bringing together these international scholars to focus on big and small islands that are not well represented in international literature nor in general works related to the Roman world. Many of these islands, island groups, and archipelagoes have strong internal or local academic traditions but have seen little representation on the international stage. This is particularly true of Corsica, for which chapter 9 makes great strides in presenting the island’s resources in this international forum. The eastern and central Mediterranean are represented well, though one lacuna is the Balearic Islands; it might have made sense to include one of the scholars from this western Mediterranean region who is working on issues of insularity, colonialism, and the indigenous island communities. Nevertheless, this is a praiseworthy collection of scholarship discussing islands that are often overlooked and examining a time period that is regularly ignored within Mediterranean island archaeology.

Alexander J. Smith
Department of Anthropology
The College of Brockport
State University of New York


Book Review of Insularity and Identity in the Roman Mediterranean, edited by Anna Kouremenos

Reviewed by Alexander J. Smith

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 2 (April 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1232.smith

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