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Spear-Won Land: Sardis from the King’s Peace to the Peace of Apamea

April 2021 (125.2)

Book Review

Spear-Won Land: Sardis from the King’s Peace to the Peace of Apamea

Edited by Andrea M. Berlin and Paul J. Kosmin. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press 2019. Pp. xvi + 289. $129.95. ISBN 978-0-299-32130-7 (cloth).

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This book presents the results of the Hellenistic Sardis Project, a collective effort by specialists to identify a reperiodization of Sardis’ urban history and a subtler understanding of its empire–city interaction. Its contributors pose the question: when did Sardis transform as a settlement from an imperial headquarters that served as a western Anatolian residence of monarchs, satraps, and military garrisons to a Hellenistic polis? The view of legendary Sardis director George Hanfmann was that the city plan dated back to Lydian times and did not change substantially until the synoecism of Seleucid King Antiochus III in 213 BCE, an interpretation based more on texts than on archaeological evidence per se. Emerging discoveries over the past 20 years demonstrate that this interpretation warranted reinterpretation. While the editors acknowledge that the archaeological data at Sardis is limited, the converging lines of manifold modes of inquiry point convincingly to the second quarter of the third century BCE as the pivot point, placing the remodeling and incipient poliadization of the city during the administrations of earlier Seleucid kings, Antiochus I and II (281–246 BCE). By focusing on ceramic contexts, local coinage, sealstones, remains of roof tiles and antefixes, evidence of monumental construction, the relocation of shrines and neighborhoods, rural settlement patterns, and ultimately comparisons with coeval communities such as Athens, Gordion, Pergamum, and Ephesus, the contributors detail the transition of this storied Lydian capital to a Graeco-Roman polis. As a Hellenistic community, Sardis embraced the key attributes of the emerging Hellenistic urban koine, while adhering to and memorializing its local traditions.

For purposes of brevity, developments at Sardis configure themselves according to four historical phases: the Lydian phase (before 559 BCE), the Achaemenid phase (sixth to fourth centuries BCE), the Macedonian Wars of Succession (323–271 BCE), and the Seleucid phase (271–188 BCE), with the bulk of the discussion focused on phases two and four. With the discovery of the city walls 20 years ago, the excavators obtained a datum point from which to assess the decline of the Lydian-era settlement, hitherto characterized by densely packed houses within the defenses. Nicholas Cahill (11–36) describes Achaemenid-era Sardis as a city turned “inside-out.” Inside the walls there was scattered, low-density occupation; outside the walls the formerly widespread suburban settlement of the Lydian period shrank to more concentrated neighborhoods along the western edge of the Pactolus River. This pattern persisted until the Hellenistic era. The bifurcated nature of Achaemenid-era Sardis is confirmed in additional ways by several contributors. Elspeth Dusinberre (37–43) points to the recovery of 34 high-quality sealstones bearing the iconography of Achaemenid hegemony. Seals functioned as an affirmation of connection to the Achaemenid heartland, and a cultural medium used to unite the Persian and persianizing elite. William Bruce (44–49) and Cahill (11–36) point to the evidence of recurrent, massive alluviation in the Pactolus neighborhood resulting from the abandonment of Lydian-era structures on the acropolis. Periodic flooding forced the inhabitants of the Pactolus to rescue repeatedly the venerated shrine of the Lydian goddess Kumbaba from mud and debris. Focusing on ceramic contexts, Berlin (50–67) asserts that domestic deposits in the extramural neighborhoods displayed little change from the fifth to early third centuries BCE. The Achaemenid cup joined the traditional Lydian skyphos to form a table service of cup plus two bowls that would remain standard in the coming era, so much so that, as Susan Rotroff (205–19) observes, the Achaemenid cup obtained acceptance as a regularized Lydian form. According to Jane DeRose Evans (97–113), numismatic evidence prior to the third century BCE indicates that coins saw limited use in the Sardian local economy. Only Sardians of special status were likely to have encountered them. From these meager indicators the Achaemenid circumstances reveal themselves: intramural Sardis became the seat of a Persian satrap, probably residing in the former palace of the Mermnad dynasty and protected by a bivouacked garrison. Outside the walls, neighborhoods of Sardian locals continued their daily lives, maintained their local cooking and dining wares, and did their best to preserve their local cults and lifeways. Christopher Roosevelt (145–64) demonstrates that those elements of the Lydian elite who survived the Persian conquest withdrew to their rural estates in the surrounding hinterland. Most of the 5,000 tumuli recorded at Bin Tepe date to the Achaemenid era, in fact. Evidence such as known settlements with names like Hyrcania and Thyateira, the identification of a rural fire altar, and two finds of Aramaic inscriptions, point to the implantation of a sizable Persian military population in the countryside as well. Rare epigraphic records from tribute assizes demonstrate, nonetheless, that landowners paid taxes directly to officers of the king, in the absence of any discernible entities of municipal authority.

Following the removal of Persian authority by Alexander the Great, the intervening decades of the third phase at Sardis remained highly unstable. The city became the setting for frequent military confrontations, enduring three sieges and more than a dozen potential and actual regime-changing battles in the immediate vicinity. Repeated and occasionally long sojourns by dynastic females—including Alexander’s sister, Cleopatra; Lysimachus’ wife, Amastris; and Antiochus I’s wife, Stratonice—demonstrate that Sardis remained a significant node for territorial ambitions in western Asia Minor. Macedonian and Greek overlords now occupied the acropolis leaving little evidence of change. Kosmin (75–90) focuses on the so-called Sacrilege Inscription at Ephesus (334–300 BCE), which lists the names of 45 Sardians condemned for abuse of Ephesian religious emissaries at Sardis. As he notes, the document condemning these Sardian residents does so by name and profession; no mention is made of polis-type institutions at Sardis, nor of any avenues of peer-polity redress between the two communities.

Following seizure of the city by Seleucus I in 281 BCE, Sardis began to revive. The intramural city center became a bustling zone of large, high-status buildings and domestic residences. The main Lydian gate to the city interior was reopened; whereas, the extramural neighborhood near the Pactolus was abandoned, perhaps deliberately razed, and supplanted by two monumental apsidal buildings. Along the flanks of the acropolis, traces of monumental buildings, including a theater, a sanctuary to Lydian Kybele, and elite houses, were repeatedly remodeled atop the foundations of earlier Lydian terrace walls. Frances Gallart Marqués (120–31), as well as Kosmin and Berlin (235–40), suggest that the new sanctuary dedicated to Kybele, confirmed by the recovery of numerous clay figurines of the goddess, was emblematic of the Sardian population’s determination to reclaim the city center and simultaneously to resurrect the memory of its former Mermnad dynasty. The recovery of large numbers of oversized roof tiles with elaborate antefixes and of high-quality imported tablewares, dated to the first half of the third century, point to the resettlement of the urban interior by people of status and means. Berlin (68–74) interprets the Near Eastern motifs of the antefixes as likely vestiges of a Seleucid effort to merge the appearance of its western regional headquarters with the attributes of its Near Eastern imperial heartland. Likewise, Fikret Yegül (132–38) designates the construction of a “gleaming white marble structure,” the new Temple of Artemis situated on the Pactolus plain, as a Seleucid benefaction to the city. By its size and grandeur, the monument was intended to mimic neighboring temples at Ephesus and Didyma while simultaneously advertising the generosity of the city’s new ensconced patrons. Yet, even here in the temple precinct, inscribed dedications in Lydian memorialized local Mermnad tradition. Berlin (50–67) enumerates a new array of dishes at Sardis—two new styles of plates, slipped and stamped with palmettes, along with two new cups: a decorated ovoid cup with a shape reminiscent of the old-style Lydian skyphos and the hemispheric cup newly popular in the emerging Hellenistic koine. Rotroff (205–19) offers intriguing insight to both forms by suggesting that the appeal of the new hemispheric cups likely emanated from gratuities in the form of metal versions dispensed as gifts to banqueters at Hellenistic royal symposia. Imitated in clay with medallions patently exhibiting the busts of Hellenistic kings, the hemispheric cups likely acquired fashion in a top-down manner. The new-styled Lydian skyphos, meanwhile, represented a contrasting local form, whose heritage was meant to convey a contrasting political message to traditionalists. Rotroff draws a parallel between the lasting appeal of this form and that of the Athenian West Slope kantharos, a cup that conceivably derived its shape from a Boeotian form rendered poignant to Athenians by the Macedonian destruction of Thebes. Kosmin (75–90) argues that the Seleucid century saw Sardis acquire standard Hellenic political and cultural forms. Political activity at Sardis now transpired in Greek language under the guise of a Hellenistic Boule kai Demos. Epigraphical documents testify to the existence of a prytaneion, a city treasurer, and municipally sponsored competitions. In decided contrast to the Sacrilege Inscription, a judge was praised by the city for his service in tribunals “sent by the demos to the other poleis” (85), thus confirming the emergence of Greek legal expertise and peer-polity interactions based on shared and mutually legible institutions. Roosevelt (145–64) documents the emergence of a formidable military glacis of forts, citadels, and military settlements established by the Seleucids in the Sardian hinterland. He emphasizes, though, that unlike the previous era, the newfound role of municipal supervision of taxes, land allotments, and rural cult practices. As he notes, by the end of the third century, the countryside had become sufficiently bureaucratized that religious, secular, and military activities now stood firmly under the control of regional and supraregional managers. Ruth Bielfeldt (165–90), Sabine Ladstätter (191–204), and Dusinberre (220–34) offer useful comparisons by contrasting developments at early Hellenistic Sardis with coeval, yet rarely emphasized, circumstances at Pergamum, Ephesus, and Gordion. According to Bielfeldt, as a dynastic newcomer, Philetairos had to tread carefully alongside his nominal Seleucid suzerain. However, through local benefactions to towns and villages loyal to both, he and his Attalid successors slowly ingratiated themselves by interlocking their activity with that of Seleucid presence and control. In this manner they successfully transitioned from Seleucid neighbors to Attalid inheritors. Ladstätter focuses on the development of the fortified harbor district at Ephesus under Lysimachus and how this monumental achievement stimulated the community’s economic development. Archaeologically, this is indicated by immense alluvial deposition consequent to land clearance in the countryside. As the emergence of the so-called Nikandros amphora group demonstrates, past practices yielded to intensive wine and oil production. Dusinberre demonstrates that Gordion’s visible importance as a Persian administrative center fell “off the grid” (232) during the Hellenistic era, with archaeological evidence of squatting on its once imposing citadel. In place of imperial hierarchy, Gordion became a village of tight clusters of modest-sized, single-household structures arranged in no particular manner. She suggests that whatever Gordion lost in stature, its inhabitants gained in independent lifeways and heightened creature comfort.

Regarding the precise timing of Sardian poliadization, Kosmin and DeRose Evans each furnish intriguing indicators. Kosmin (75–90) relies on records preserved in an obscure Babylonian astronomical diary to demonstrate that in 271 BCE (the reign of Antiochus I) the Akkadian text refers to Sardis as the “land of Sardis,” or “mountain of Sardis.” This stands in distinct contrast with the diary’s designation of other Seleucid royal foundations as cities. With the passing of Seleucid consort Stratonice in 254 BCE, however, the diary suddenly acknowledges Sardis as a city. As Kosmin observes, “It is plausible to see here a recognition even in distant Babylon that Sardis had shifted from one taxonomic category to another” (82). Far more compelling is DeRose Evans’ (97–113) discussion of the sudden appearance of municipally generated or civic bronze coins at Sardis between 240–220 BCE. The minting of Sardian bronze coins arose during the Wars of Succession and was eagerly sustained by the Seleucids who kept its administration separate from that employed with local silver coinage. In other words, the Seleucid decision to strike bronze coins underscores the existence of a genuine need for small change that the rulers willingly supplied. The civic coinage of 240–220 BCE, however, appears to have occurred during a moment of political rupture in Seleucid administration. Struck on local standards in three denominations and bearing the legend SARDIANON, these civic bronzes were likely paid for by a local magistrate to generate revenue for the city. As DeRose Evans observes, “In addition to their role as statement of civic pride, the civic bronzes may have been necessary for the maintenance of the local economy. They would have helped make up for the now missing royal bronzes, not minted since 240 BCE” (109). I would go further and assert that by electing to strike bronze coins during a moment of imperial crisis, Sardian municipal authorities recognized that the local economy could hardly function without them. In this respect, the emergence of civic bronze coinage at Sardis functions as a bellwether of a poliadized urban economy.

The editors and contributors of this book have generated a compelling read: focused, well organized, and lavishly illustrated with maps, plans, drawings, and photographs. The main chapters are well crafted and purposefully drive the narrative. These are buttressed by short inserts, or “spotlights,” furnishing useful background information about particularly thorny topics. Spear-Won Land demonstrates the caliber of results that are attainable when the hard-won knowledge of archaeological research is processed through an interpretative historical approach.

Nicholas Rauh
Purdue University

Book Review of Spear-Won Land: Sardis from the King’s Peace to the Peace of Apamea, edited by Andrea M. Berlin and Paul J. Kosmin
Reviewed by Nicholas Rauh
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 125, No. 2 (April 2021)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1252.Rauh

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