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Colonization and Subalternity in Classical Greece: Experience of the Nonelite Population

July 2021 (125.3)

Book Review

Colonization and Subalternity in Classical Greece: Experience of the Nonelite Population

By Gabriel Zuchtriegel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2018. Pp. xii + 272. $99.99. ISBN 978-1-108-41903-1 (cloth).

Reviewed by

Rara avis may be an infrequently used epithet in book reviews, but Zuchtriegel has written an unusual book that might just warrant classification under this heading. As readily signaled by its very title, the volume investigates a long-standing major topic of Greek and indeed classical archaeology (colonization) from an innovative and unusual perspective (subalternity). As a result, this book stands out from the crowd, at least from the classical one in the Greek world, as it combines a sophisticated theoretical framework with an intimate familiarity and firsthand experience of the archaeological and historical evidence to scrutinize Greek colonization in South Italy, a field not known for theoretical exploration. Zuchtriegel does not mince his words, and his opening line of chapter 1 proclaims right away that he intends “to paint a different picture of Classical Greece.” Even though he goes on to qualify this claim by adding that he will be “looking at the experience of the nonelite population in the colonial settlements and their hinterland” (1), this is clearly an ambitious project—and the author has gone a long way to pull it off. 

The volume is made up of eight chapters, of which the first one is the longest. It starts by setting out the theoretical framework, which is that of postcolonial theory. As Zuchtriegel briefly explains, this perspective goes back several decades within and especially outside of academia, as it was developed by scholars and intellectuals with deep roots in the modern colonial world of what some now call the Global South. Writers, artists, academics, and activists like Aimé Césaire, Edward Said, and Frantz Fanon explicitly aimed to decolonize indigenous cultures, including their past, in the wake of their countries’ political independence in the second half of the 20th century. Both the general framework and more subtle notions have gradually been taken up in both archaeology and classics since the 1990s, with Roman and historical archaeology leading the way in both theoretical sophistication and research volume, while Greek archaeology has notably lagged behind (for details and references, see this reviewer’s discussion of “Postcolonial Archaeologies Between Discourse and Practice,” WorldArch 43.1, 2011, 1–6). The limited engagement of Greek archaeologists with these debates is especially notable because of the prominent role of Greek culture in the Western self-imagination and representation, as has been recognized by some classical scholars. About halfway through the chapter, the theoretical introduction gives way to a broad introductory overview of the study region of the central Ionian coast in South Italy. In line with the book’s theoretical aim, this discussion focuses specifically on the “nonelites,” or “subaltern” in postcolonial jargon, to highlight the heavy biases in conventional representations of the historical and archaeological records. These pages also introduce the colonial settlement of Heraclea Lucana, which stands at the heart of the book’s study region and period. I also want to underscore Zuchtriegel’s focus on the Classical rather than Archaic period, unlike conventional colonization studies that overwhelmingly target colonial settlements with Archaic foundation dates. As shown by the abundance of archaeological and historical data examined in this book, the decision to concentrate on a Classical-period foundation may be unconventional but it is surely eminently sensible. 

Chapters 2–7 make up the bulk of the book and offer a wealth of archaeological and historical evidence that is discussed in great detail and skillfully dissected in search of traces of the subaltern, whose presence, let alone voices, have consistently and thoroughly been disregarded and dismissed from academic consideration in discussions of Greek colonization, if not more widely in classical archaeology. Each chapter covers a different aspect of daily life in the South Italian colonies, chapter 2 kicking off with a critical examination of where people lived: in houses or in huts? While conventional colonization and urbanistic studies make great play of gridded settlement plans, Zuchtriegel shows that already a couple of generations after the foundation, housing was anything but regular and identical. He also proposes imaginatively, but always with solid archaeological arguments, that in certain cases people are likely to have lived in tents and wooden houses during the initial years or even decades of the settlers’ arrival. Chapter 3 turns to the burial evidence to examine the “symbolic order” of colonial cemeteries, questioning in particular the assumed correlation between gridded housing and standardized burial (75). Given the foregoing critique of homogenized settlements, it can hardly come as a surprise that Zuchtriegel has little time for the view that colonial burial would be uniform and “modest.” Focusing on Heraclea in particular, he discusses the sumptuous Tomb of the Policoro Painter at some length and contrasts it with many other and very different burials, which allows him to show convincingly the variability of numbers, size, and wealth of burials in the cemeteries of Heraclea. In chapter 4, the author ventures away from the colonies proper to explore the surrounding chora, which is, after all, widely considered a critical and integral feature of Greek colonization. Supplementing the limited data from Heraclea with evidence from Metaponto and describing the remarkable findings from the Black Sea (Chersonesus) in comparison, Zuchtriegel is satisfied that rural land divisions were fairly equal; even so, he notes that inequalities emerged all too soon. This observation is elaborated in chapter 5 by homing in on the rural settlements, which are mostly farmsteads. Combining survey and excavation results, he argues that most farmsteads ended up at a substantial distance from Heraclea, which effectively cut off their inhabitants from civic life in the colonial settlement, thus undercutting the alleged equality of the citizenry. In chapter 6, he zooms out further still and notes that despite superficially similar material culture, “Greekness faded as one moved inland” (105) and was replaced with hybrid rather than indigenous identities—which were nevertheless equally marginalized. In the final data chapter (ch. 7), Zuchtriegel recasts his eye on the colonial settlements themselves to examine the productive economy of urban workshops. He basically turns up empty-handed, however, arguing that beyond some local artisanal activity, most colonial settlements depended heavily on their mother-cities—only rare exceptions such as Kamarina succeeded in building a successful manufacturing industry.

The book ends with a substantial concluding chapter (216–35) that moves back into a higher theoretical gear to reflect on the practices and ideologies of subalternity and cultural hybridity in the colonies and in the Greek world more widely. It is no coincidence that the very first word of this chapter is “subalternity,” as Zuchtriegel argues that the ideology of equality that negated subalternity and that downplayed cultural hybridity had a lasting impact on Greek culture, as is well reflected in Greek political thought. In what is effectively an elegant instance of postcolonial critique, the author shows how colonization not only impacted the colonized communities but also “struck back” at Greek society at home.

To conclude, I want to reiterate my earlier comment that Zuchtriegel has gone a long way toward achieving his goals, ambitious as they are. Indeed, it is surely no exaggeration to state, as he does in his final sentence, that “in practice and theory, Classical colonization has laid the foundations for the systematic concealment of exploitation and subalternity through the abstract space of the political” (235). There can nevertheless also be no doubt that much more could be said, and perhaps should be said—not so much about Heraclea itself, but rather about its relevance for other contexts. I could also point out that the strong focus on Greek colonizers and the near absence of indigenous communities in this study are aspects that sit rather uncomfortably with the postcolonial endeavor to move away from a colonizers’ perspective; the rural chapters rather surprisingly lack any reference to the extensive body of literature on peasants and rural life (e.g., none of Eric Wolf’s work is cited), even though the bibliography is generally good and well targeted; also, there is little attention to the emerging environmental evidence in colonial situations. Even so, given the space of a single monograph, Zuchtriegel has written a well-focused, carefully organized, and most of all original book that has firmly and convincingly placed subalternity on the agenda of Greek colonial studies, and perhaps even drawn fresh attention to the role of cultural hybridity. 

Peter van Dommelen
Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World
Brown University

Book Review of Colonization and Subalternity in Classical Greece: Experience of the Nonelite Population, by Gabriel Zuchtriegel
Reviewed by Peter van Dommelen
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 125, No. 3 (July 2021)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1253.vanDommelen

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