You are here

What’s New in Roman Greece? Recent Work on the Greek Mainland and the Islands in the Roman Period: Proceedings of a Conference Held in Athens, 8–10 October 2015

What’s New in Roman Greece? Recent Work on the Greek Mainland and the Islands in the Roman Period: Proceedings of a Conference Held in Athens, 8–10 October 2015

Edited by Valentina Di Napoli, Francesco Camia, Vasilis Evangelidis, Dimitris Grigoropoulos, Dylan Rogers, and Stavros Vlizos (Meletemata 80). Pp. xxviii + 652. National Hellenic Research Foundation, Athens 2018. €110. ISBN 978-960-9538-79-4 (cloth).

Reviewed by

“Scholars in the future may find it increasingly hard to grasp how ‘new’ this degree of attention, respect, and rigorous inquiry is for Roman Greece,” Alcock notes in the afterword of this volume (601), and she is certainly right. Since her Graecia Capta: The Landscapes of Roman Greece (Cambridge 1993), published 25 years ago, Greece under Roman rule has been the focus of much scholarly work. Special credit for this development goes primarily to the researchers at the National Hellenic Research Foundation, the institution that co-organized and accommodated the What’s New in Roman Greece conference and published the proceedings. With numerous published volumes, including epigraphic corpora, historical studies, and archaeological studies, the Roman history team of the National Hellenic Research Foundation is one of the most productive research groups in Greece. Taking into account also the recent interest in Greece’s Roman past by the international academic community and the attention that the Hellenic Archaeological Service and the foreign archaeological schools of Greece have paid to this period in recent decades, the ground has lately been much more cultivated.

This book is the result of a conference that grew out of the Roman Seminar, an Athens-based series of lectures running annually from October to May that aims to showcase recent research on Roman Greece. The volume includes 43 papers on various subjects, organized by the editors in six sections: town and country; economy and exchange; urban spaces, infrastructures, and the archaeology of buildings; visual culture; cults, sanctuaries, and mortuary practices; and the Roman past in the present. Chronologically, the papers range from the second century BCE to the sixth century CE, with the focus on the first to third centuries CE. Geographically, the conference intended to include all the regions within modern Greece, but the focus is clearly on central and southern Greece. Northern Greece is represented only by three papers on Macedonia, while Thrace is completely absent. Concerning the islands, only Lemnos, Mytilene, Delos, Kos, and eastern Crete are discussed. Three synthetic studies (Farinetti, Rizakis, and Kokkini) barely compensate for this imbalance. In addition to geographical disproportion and lack of comprehensive discussion, one could also note the general inequality among the papers. Along with synthetic studies there are report-like papers that concern ongoing fieldwork. Lastly, with few exceptions, most of the contributors seem not to have taken into consideration that other colleagues in this very conference and volume discuss similar matters (e.g., Dillon and Sourlas, who present the sculpture of Roman Athens, the former from the Athenian Agora and the latter from the Library of Hadrian).

Clearly, the aim of the conference organizers was the publication of new material from every field, skipping peer-review processes (difficult to achieve with this number of contributions). Indeed, the volume presents a thematic pluralism, which is its major advantage. We get information, for example, not only for monumental buildings and statues but also for ceramics and countryside graves; not only for primary urban centers but also for second-rank cities like Sikyon and Aigeira (Trainor et al. and Hinker), or for poorly known regions like Kynouria (Grigorakakis and Tsatsaris) and Chalkidiki (Vasileiou). This pluralism permits comparisons to other provinces. Moreover, the section “The Roman Past in the Present”—which includes discussion of the methods applied by the Hellenic Archaeological Service to manage and promote the Roman monuments of Nikopolis, Patras, and Delphi—shows that the “tyranny of the Classical glory” has finally been surpassed. The volume reflects the influence that the Roman studies in Greece currently have, with academics and scholars, inside and outside the country, coordinating efforts in order to compensate for the comparative delay initiating the in-depth study of Roman Greece.

In the framework of this current boost, however, there is an obsessive trend, I would say, from scholars (not only in this volume), to overturn the previously doomed picture of Roman Greece, with the pendulum swinging to the opposite side via sometimes simplified reasoning. As Alcock did 25 years ago, modern scholars challenge, for example, the ancient literary sources and make every effort to prove that the “desertion” the ancient writers speak about (e.g., "Plut., De def. or." 413F–414A) was essentially a lie. If this conclusion had a value in 1993 (or even earlier), it is certainly sterile in 2019. It is well established, I believe, that instead of desertion, a complex mechanism of transformation of the Greek landscape occurred in Greece with the advent of the Romans. The task of modern scholarship should no longer be to question this “desertion,” but to identify and interpret the transformation that Greece underwent. Le Quéré, for example, challenges the “Delian solitude” attested by the ancient writers (significantly, using archaeological evidence only from the area of the sanctuary of Apollo). She admits, however, that Roman Delos was a minor urban center and concludes that “if Roman Delos was ever considered adēlos, this would only be in comparison to the large and impressive Late Hellenistic city, which, for less than one century, benefited from quite exceptional religious, political, and economic conditions, unrivalled in the Mediterranean” (117–18). Moreover, Theurillat, Ackermann, and Zurbriggen note that “until the end of the 1980s it was believed that the ancient city [of Eretria]  no longer thrived under the Roman Empire” (249), implying that recent evidence has altered our view. Later on, however, these authors stress that “compared to the extent of the Classical and Hellenistic city, evidence attests to a severe contraction of the Roman town” (250). I wonder what is the new thing here that challenges the view we had before the 1980s.

In fact, the problem concerning the town and country of Roman Greece and the resulting economic and social implications remains essentially unclear. Scholars generally agree on the regional variability (see the papers by Farinetti and Coutsinas). Beyond that, there is general agreement on the accumulation of wealth in the hands of few people, and on the advent of commercial villae, concentrated around large urban centers and in good quality lands in order to provide surplus products for redistribution. The situation is hazier in many other respects. Taking as examples the papers in this volume, we notice that while regional archaeological surveys suggest a severe reduction of small farmsteads in the Greek countryside (Farinetti), Rizakis argues that despite the introduction of villae rusticae, the basic agricultural unit of Roman Greece remained the family farm. Interestingly, his argument contradicts his own statement that capital concentration enhanced social inequality and accelerated the impoverishment of rural inhabitants, who gradually became dependent farmers (146).  Furthermore, while there is general agreement that Greek towns shrank from Classical to Roman times without, as recent evidence suggests, compensation in other urban centers, it seems that the “nucleation” scenario, first introduced by Alcock, is still active (Zachos). More significantly, whereas we were almost convinced of which regions thrived in Roman times (e.g., Achaia) and which were suppressed (e.g., Boeotia), new suggestions appear to stir the waters. Concerning Attica, previous research has shown that during the Roman period it experienced a rural collapse, but Rizakis here suggests continuity in its settlement pattern from Classical to Roman times, with only minor changes. He presents the image of Roman Attica as rich and variegated, and he stresses that the rural farms were numerous (140). To enhance his argument, however, he presents a map (fig. 5) of Attica with only approximately 20 farms in a region of roughly 2,500 km2. Significantly, these 20 farms are almost exclusively of Late Roman date (see D. D’Aco, “L’Attica in età Romana,” in A. Rizakis and I. Touratzoglou, Villae Rusticae: Family and Market-Oriented Farms in Greece Under Roman Rule [Athens 2013] 440–65). Taken together, the small number of farms that Rizakis presents, the poor Roman evidence revealed by regional archaeological investigations (cf. the Atene survey), Herodes Atticus’ estate taking the place of the deme of Marathon, and the despoliation of the early Roman demes, differs significantly, I am afraid, from a truly flourishing countryside. Clearly, we have a long way to go before reaching agreement on these critical matters, as this volume demonstrates.

Michalis Karambinis
Ephorate of Antiquities of Lesbos
Hellenic Ministry of Culture

Book Review of What’s New in Roman Greece? Recent Work on the Greek Mainland and the Islands in the Roman Period: Proceedings of a Conference Held in Athens, 8–10 October 2015, edited by Valentina Di Napoli, Francesco Camia, Vasilis Evangelidis, Dimitris Grigoropoulos, Dylan Rogers, and Stavros Vlizos
Reviewed by Michalis Karambinis
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 1 (January 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1241.Karambinis

Add new comment

Plain text

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