ARCHAIC AND CLASSICAL GREEK SICILY: A Social and Economic History

Franco De Angelis

OUP (2018) p/b 437pp (44 figs., 9 tables, 13 maps) £25.99 (ISBN 9780190887131)

This good book (published in 2016) builds on the author’s expertise in his subject reaching back to an Oxford DPhil., published as a monograph on Archaic Megara Hyblaea and Selinus (2003). The present work, heavily driven by archaeological evidence, offers a social and economic history of the ten Sicilian Greek poleis. Extending chronologically to about 320 BC, it is divided into four substantial chapters, along with an Introduction and Conclusions. 

The Introduction surveys scholarly approaches to the study of the ancient Greeks in Sicily. The author flags up his interest in theory, in particular the ‘middle ground’ model of cultural contact between newcomers and locals and the somewhat woollier—to this reviewer’s mind—notion of ‘globalization’ as a way of framing the push and pull of pan-regional cultural forces in the central Mediterranean. 

Ch. 1 (‘The Geographical and Historical Setting’) concludes that on the eve of Greek settlement Sicily ‘had much available land to clear and work’ and that land-hungry and technologically superior Greek newcomers would have found the coasts thinly populated. An overall pre-Greek population of 100,000 (‘about 3 people per square kilometre’) is tentatively hypothesised.

Ch. 2 (‘Settlement and Territory’) is driven by the author’s emphasis on two competing models of Sicilian-Greek state formation, city states and territorial states, the last typically larger and ruled by a monarch (turannos in the ancient sources). On this basis he sees four phases down to 320 BC, beginning with the foundational period: here and for the later phases, town planning, house types, sanctuaries and rural settlement are among the topics discussed. The later sixth century BC ushers in a time of ‘political centralisation.’ Under the ‘imperial policies’ of its tyrants, an expansionist Syracuse built up a territory estimated at 4,330 square kilometres by c. 470 BC (smaller than Sparta but larger than Athens at this time). The last two generations of the fifth century see a brief return to ‘city-state culture’ following the end of the tyrannies at Syracuse and Acragas. As the threat from Carthage grew (from 409 BC) tyranny re-emerged at Syracuse. Under Dionysius I Syracuse ‘became the largest territorial state in Europe at the time’ (c. 18,500 sq. km.). Timoleon’s ‘revival’ of Greek Sicily receives an historical ‘downgrade’ with the author’s emphasis on the evidence for prior developments in the earlier fourth century BC, notably an intensification of rural activity, indicated by excavated farmsteads in both west and east Sicily. 

Ch. 3 (‘Societies’), following the same periodization, explores difficult questions such as the background to the political volatility of Greek Sicily, relations between Greeks and pre- and non-Greeks, settler demography and the constant quest for manpower, and the shaping force of ‘frontier conditions’ which meant that ‘Sicilian Greek societies were never closed’. 

The author’s archaeological expertise pays perhaps the most dividends in Ch. 4 (‘Economics’). The usual modern view that ‘grain was the cornerstone of the agricultural economy’ is not overturned, but archaeology is used to give due weight to other agricultural exports: e.g. the finds of ‘western Greek’ transport amphorae in North Africa, seeming to bear out the literary evidence for the export of olive-oil to Carthage from fifth-century BC Acragas. The non-agricultural sector is also well-served, as suggested by illustrations from modern Sicilian life, including salt pans, wild boar, and a catch of silver scabbard fish.   

Anglophone readers with a general interest in Greek Sicily are well-served by this book, which summarises recent work, much of it in Italian, and offers an update to the first eight chapters of Moses Finley’s classic, Ancient Sicily (2nd ed. 1979), albeit without quite the pithiness of prose style. Inevitably there is much speculation. Sometimes the influence of ideological fashion can perhaps be detected (the emphasis on mixing and integration rather than conquest, e.g., in discussing Greek relations with non-Greeks). In all, this new and authoritative synthesis is likely to become indispensable for its subject. 

Tony Spawforth

Brighton

UK

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