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For some time I have been fascinated with the ‘subject peoples’ of the Roman Empire, especially those in the Greek-speaking East. This has been a popular topic in academia for several years, so I was excited to read a new addition that was built on recent scholarship: Local Knowledge and Microidentities in the Imperial Greek World. It was published in 2010.

The book is edited by Tim Whitmarsh from Oxford. Each chapter has its own author, and it covers a wide range of diverse topics. Overall, though, it explores ‘microidentities,’ meaning how ancient people identified themselves with their local area, and how this relates to their identity as a Greek or Roman.

Some of the chapters are fairly general, and discuss the overall idea of a local identity. Others explore these locales in detail, such as on Crete, among the Ionians, or in the city of Termessos, a rather out-of-the-way place in Asia Minor. Although much emphasis is placed on the members of the Second Sophistic, as one would expect, the writers also make heavy use of epigraphic evidence. I was enthralled at reading about the use of Roman, Greek and ‘local’ names on tombstones, and what this meant in regards to how the families viewed themselves.

One of my favourite authors, Greg Woolf, gives a nice summing-up chapter, but the chapter I like the best is Maud Gleason’s take on Herodes Atticus. Herodes Atticus lived under the Antonines, and he encapsulated the entire idea of local identity. He identified with his Athenian deme of Marathon, was a proponent of ‘Greekness,’ and yet was a Roman citizen who married someone distantly related to the Emperor. Then he and his in-laws had a falling out, and they seemed to have insulted each other about their identities as Greeks or Romans. It is a great chapter.

So if you are interested in this sort of thing, I definitely recommend this book.

Post script: the provincial boundary question

I could have started a new thread for this, but since Local Knowledge and Microidentities in the Imperial Greek World really opened my eyes about it, I figured I could mention it here.

I have heard it said countless times that the Romans didn’t have clear provincial boundaries. But this book goes into such detail of how the ancients viewed their local municipalities and provinces that I’m convinced they knew exactly where boundaries were placed.

We have discovered provincial boundary stones out in rural areas. We have letters to the emperor from different cities fighting about jurisdiction. We have arches saying one side faced a particular municipality, while the opposite faced another. We have records of tax disputes, and who had the right to collect taxes in certain areas. Even inside cities the different boroughs were demarcated to different neighbourhood associations.

If we take all this as evidence as how the ancients viewed their immediate localities, I think it is easy to suggest provincial boundaries were very well-defined. If you were to travel back in time and ask a local to show you where Asia ended and Bithynia and Pontus began, for example, I suspect they could walk you right to the place and show you.