Where was ancient Greece?

Modern Greece is well defined, with the minor dif­fi­culty over the sov­er­eignty of Mount Athos. Ancient Greece is a dif­fer­ent mat­ter. In the early first mil­len­nium BC Greece was argu­ably not united by land but by the Aegean Sea. Greek cit­ies sur­roun­ded the Aegean, lying on its shores. In the ninth cen­tury some­thing pecu­liar hap­pens. Euboea, an island close to Athens starts send­ing out waves of set­tlers. The set up a colony on the shores of Syria at a site now known as Al Mina (Boardman 1990). This is fol­lowed by the estab­lish­ment of other far flung colon­ies. Near what is now mod­ern Naples, the Euboeans settled the colony of Pithekoussai. Other colon­ies fol­lowed on the toe of Italy and on Sicily on the oppos­ite side of the Straits of Messina. Other cit­ies sent out other set­tler and colon­ies sprung up along the shores of the Black Sea as far away as Georgia and on the shores of France and Spain. Both mod­ern Marseilles and Ampurias are built on Greek foundations.

These were not ven­tures into pristine ter­rit­or­ies. In every case there were already indi­gen­ous pop­u­la­tions. The nature of rela­tion­ships between the Greeks and the Natives is a con­ten­tious issue. It is agreed that Natives in con­tact with the Greeks appear to have become more Hellenic. How this occurred and how the change in archae­olo­gical finds should be inter­preted is con­tested. Broadly speak­ing there are two camps.

The tra­di­tional approach has been the superi­or­ity of Greek intel­lec­tual achieve­ment Hellenised the Natives. Natives took on Greek pot­tery, Greek archi­tec­ture and Greek cul­ture simply because they were bet­ter. Typical of this inter­pret­a­tion would be the works The Western Greeks by Thomas Dunbabin (1948) and The Greeks Overseas by John Boardman (1999). These work from the observ­able facts that the Greeks arrived in new lands and caused the Natives to become more Hellenic and thus, in some way, must have been super­ior. This may have been tech­no­lo­gical superi­or­ity or organ­isa­tional superi­or­ity but without resort­ing to racist ideas of inher­ent superi­or­ity they are able to con­clude that the Greek way of life was bet­ter in some way, because that was the one that was adopted.

In con­trast the other camp, the post-colonialists, con­siders how accul­tur­a­tion occurred to be cent­ral to writ­ing his­tor­ies of ancient col­on­isa­tion. They can point to cur­rent stud­ies of Americanisation and show that adopt­ing exotic goods and ideas is not neces­sar­ily a mat­ter of pass­ive recep­tion, but a mat­ter of nat­ives act­ively choos­ing what to use and what to reject. Hellenisation, it has been argued, is not about Natives being Hellenised, but act­ively com­pet­ing against each other to show their status. They argue the tra­di­tional approaches to Hellenisation have been col­oured by the leg­acy of the British Empire. The tra­di­tion­al­ists jus­tify the recent past by arguing that occu­pa­tion of Native lands can be a good thing. The post-colonialists believe that the tra­di­tion­al­ist view is an exer­cise in polit­ics. De Angelis (1998:541) is scath­ing refer­ring to Dunbabin’s work as part of an “…imper­i­al­ist superi­or­ity com­plex in which things Hellenic (mir­ror­ing things British) were unhes­it­at­ingly regarded as inher­ently supreme.”

This may be true.

Boardman (1999:268) how­ever has a robust response:
“Most recently a strange kind of polit­ical cor­rect­ness has crept in, thrust­ing the desired mod­ern stand­ards onto antiquity and mak­ing assump­tions about pre­ju­dices of recent gen­er­a­tions of schol­ars, repla­cing them with new pre­ju­dices which are poorly estab­lished on any basic aca­demic prin­ciple. To be Greco-centric is no mat­ter of being pre­ju­diced by the qual­ity of evid­ence and his­tor­ical obser­va­tion, but simply a mat­ter of being wrong. Some areas are now awash with babies and their bathwater.”

This may also be true. As Boardman points out neither rebut­tal of the other side’s polit­ics moves us any closer to know­ing who is right.

De Angelis has dis­reg­ards Boardman’s refut­a­tion, arguing cur­rent archae­olo­gists are dif­fi­cult to polit­ical ana­lyse because it can take many years for the polit­ical cli­mate of a time to be evid­ent (1998:548 and cit­ing Davies 1996:2). We are too close to the eighties to say if the rise of the archae­ology of the indi­vidual and the rejec­tion of sys­temic explan­a­tions was reflec­ted by the rise of the polit­ics of the indi­vidual and the paradigm shift of Thatcher-Reagan polit­ics which rejec­ted sys­temic notions of eco­nom­ies and focused on the indi­vidual. Similarly we can­not recog­nise the adop­tion of Giddens as philo­sopher of Labour’s Third Way and the pop­ular­ity of Agency in archae­ology as based on Giddens’ Structuration Theory. It is, for De Angelis as it is for Blair (Ashley and MacAskill 2003), for his­tory to judge us.

The prob­lem of what Hellenisation says about human inter­ac­tion is fas­cin­at­ing because it is time­less. The period I shall look it is far from time­less, being the first mil­len­nium B.C. Yet the pro­cess of accul­tur­a­tion is some­thing that can rel­ev­ant to any time in the human past. The reason that there is con­tinu­ing dis­cus­sion of the pro­cess of Hellenisation is due in part to the under­de­termin­a­tion of the­ory by evid­ence (Baggini and Fosl 2002:211–2). As long as no new evid­ence is brought to bear on the topic data can be inter­preted in either the­or­et­ical framework.

This thesis puts for­ward two ideas.

The first is that action and beha­viour is a product of iden­tity. For ancient Sicily this means that merely find­ing Hellenic mater­ial cul­ture at a site does not neces­sar­ily make a site Hellenised. Hellenic pot­tery could, for example, be used to hold nat­ive food­stuffs. Identity is learned and con­struc­ted. A Greek is someone who behaves in a Greek way. The atti­tude of the Greeks to the Macedonians would sug­gest that merely using Hellenic mater­i­als was not enough to be truly Greek because they were not done in a Greek way. This thesis attempts to access inform­a­tion on how mater­i­als were used. Specifically it ques­tions how ritual beha­viours were per­formed. If people used mater­i­als to act in a Greek man­ner then it would sug­gest they were Greek. Contrary to that it could be pos­sible that Natives were spi­cing up their cere­mon­ies with the use of Greek “bling” to con­fer status.

The second idea is that if we are to under­stand accul­tur­a­tion then the concept of Hellenisation is a dis­trac­tion. If any­thing it bol­sters the tra­di­tional inter­pret­a­tion of Greek col­on­isa­tion because it con­firms the trans­ition from Native to Greek. We are merely dis­cuss­ing the route rather than ques­tion­ing the des­tin­a­tion. Yet the Greeks were in con­tact with their neigh­bours for hun­dreds of years. Surely there should be an exchange of ideas rather than an out­flow? The inflow of con­cepts from the East is accep­ted by Classicists yet the view of the cit­ies of the west is that they were Greek. This would appear to be the descrip­tion given to us by the ancient texts but the Greeks were not trained eth­no­graph­ers, would they have recog­nised, or even cared about, nat­ive influ­ence on their society.

I intend to exam­ine the ritual beha­viour around temples, move­ment through space and burial tra­di­tions. There is an uncon­firmed belief that Greek temples point east (Dinsmoor 1939) for ritual reas­ons. If I can find con­sist­ent pat­terns of ori­ent­a­tion asso­ci­ated with eth­ni­cit­ies then there is new data that can be employed with exist­ing archae­olo­gical reports and tex­tual ana­lysis. For example if Greek temples face east and a Native temple of Hellenic-style archi­tec­ture faces north, then it would sug­gest that this was used by and for the Natives and that they were select­ing what ele­ments of Greek cul­ture to adopt without tak­ing the whole pack­age. Similarly if Native pat­terns of ori­ent­a­tion in road lay­out become adop­ted by the Greeks, then this would provide a way of show­ing the integ­ra­tion of Native ideals which do not con­tra­dict Greek thought and thus are not recog­nised as un-Hellenic.

There are uncoun­ted num­bers of Greek sites and so an invent­ory of the beha­viour of the Greek world is not a feas­ible area to study within the con­fines of a thesis, or even a life­time. This study con­cen­trates on one area, Sicily. Sicily is a clearly defined geo­graph­ical area, being an island. It fea­tures prom­in­ently in the ancient texts, and also boasts some the finest examples of Greek archi­tec­ture in the Mediterranean. There appear to be com­par­at­ively few indi­gen­ous groups, being clas­si­fied as the Sicels, Sicans and the Elymians. The pres­ence in the west of the island of the Phoenicians poses a prob­lem, but per­haps causes less trouble than the Etruscan influ­ence would by examin­ing Italy.

One prob­lem with my approach is that it is problem-orientated. I am in inter­ested in what I can find out about changes in cul­ture. I am not inter­est­ing in what spe­cific­ally archae­ology or ancient his­tory can tell me about changes in cul­ture. This means I am happy to use archae­ology and ancient his­tory but also anthro­po­logy, evol­u­tion­ary the­ory, philo­sophy and whatever seems use­ful to try and tackle the prob­lem. No one, me included, is an expert in all these fields so in many places the ana­lysis will be as deep as is neces­sary, but no deeper. This is not the last word on accul­tur­a­tion, but the open­ing of a col­lec­tion of inter­re­lated research pro­grammes into what it is that makes us us.

Ashley, J and MacAskill, E. 2003. ‘History will be my judge’. Guardian Unlimited. >

Baggini, J. and Fosl, P. 2002. The Philosopher’s Toolkit: A Compendium of Philosophical Concepts and Methods. Blackwell Publishing.

Boardman, J. 1990. ‘Al Mina and History’. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 9. pp 169–90.

Boardman, J. 1999. The Greeks Overseas. Thames and Hudson. London.

Davies, N. 1996. Europe: a his­tory. OUP.

De Angelis, F. 1998. ‘Ancient past imper­ial present: the British Empire in T.J. Dunbabin’s The west­ern Greeks’. Antiquity 72. 539–49

Dinsmoor, W. B. 1939. “Archaeology and Astronomy.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 80: 95–173.

Dunbabin, T.J. 1940. The Western Greeks : the his­tory of Sicily and South Italy from the found­a­tion of the Greek colon­ies to 480 B.C. Clarendon Press. London.

Check also Plut. Vit. Num. 14.4, Lucian De domo 6 from here.

Klee 1999 Scientific Inquiry

Merriee Salmon 1982 Philosophy and Archaeology


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.