An ancient Greek traveling to an overseas city-state in the 4th century BCE would have probably felt more at home at his destination than among his next-door “barbarian” neighbors. Whether he were going, say, to the tiny city-state of Lato in Crete, or to the wealthy Cyrene in Libya, or to colonies in what are today southern France or even the Crimea - the local sights would have felt comfortingly familiar.
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Our traveler could immediately identify the same buildings and institutions that defined public life in his own polis (city-state). At the city's center he would find a similarly structured agora – citizens' assembly ground – as well as recognizable temples and political institutions such as the state-council. He would probably also have found a theater or an acropolis overlooking the city.
Hundreds of such city-states, separated by the Mediterranean Sea, shared the cultural and political system of the Greek polis, materialized in similar architecture and spatial planning. When the traveler and his host would meet, their shared Hellenic civilization would have helped close the vast maritime gap between their city-states.
What was the historical process that allowed for the convergence and homogenization of this great yet essentially center-less and scattered civilization, consisting of over one thousand city states? Historians all too often side-step this question, which is a big one to answer when all one can offer is vague statements about the "Greek miracle." I believe the answer can be found through the application of Network Theory, as elaborated in my latest book, “Small Greek World” (Oxford UP).
Network theory attempts, among other things, to extract abstract characteristics of network relations, whether in the brain, the Internet, or among friends and communities. The field has enjoyed many recent applications, from neurobiology and physics to economics and sociology.
It can also tell us a lot about the ancient Greek civilization, since the Greeks' shared cultural heritage did not develop in some “center” or some dominant city-state, spreading outwards from center to periphery, but was a reciprocal, multi-directional, network-based process.
Hippodamos on board
The vast sea between the thousand coastal colonies and city-states throughout the Mediterranean and the Black Sea brought these city-states together. The Mediterranean itself, the shared space, was the center of Greek civilization, not any specific node or colony. Thus the spread of knowledge, ideas, technology, and political and cultural practices was multi-directional, speeding up cultural homogenization.
Religious pantheons and cults (such as Apollo’s), literary works (such as the Iliad), artistic and architectonic styles (such as theaters or the temples with their famous columns), political notions on how to organize society (e.g., “democracy,” a Greek invention), scientific ideas and so much more moved along network lines, creating common perspectives, values, and standards.
Duncan Watts, a major contributor to networks theory, provided the central insight on network formation and connectivity, which can shed light on this process of the emergence of ancient Greek as “convergence through divergence”.
Say we have many points where each is connected only to its neighboring point: all we get is a series of points. According to Watts, it is enough to create a few random links among just a few points in order to spark a sudden dynamic process of connectivity, where each node becomes interconnected with all other nodes. In other words, what we get is a “system”, a “small world,” or network.
Similarly, the establishment of a few active trade routes among several city-states had strong cultural influences on the entire network of city-states, by shortening the number of connections (or “degrees of separation”) between all other points to each other.
Take a ship sailing from Athens to its colony Thourioi in Italy, carrying wine amphorae. The merchant on board is perhaps interested only in profit, but he becomes an unaware historical agent: on the very same ship he may be taking on future settlers such as Herodotus the historian, Protagoras the philosopher, and Hippodamos of Miletus, the famous town-planner and social utopian, known for his colorful robes and long hair. The wine-ship thus becomes a “link” with a wide spectrum of applications.
Instead of building a centralized, heterogenous empire ruling over masses, as their Persian contemporaries did, the Greeks formed a decentralized system of hundreds of sovereign and independent city-states that were strongly interconnected over great distances with maritime means of transport that today might seem incredibly slow.
This system of connections between the city-states had no clear hierarchy. The Greeks considered the Delphic Oracle to be the “navel of the earth”, but Delphi was just a “virtual center”. Unlike the status of the Vatican in the centralized and hierarchical Catholic Church, Delphi’s status was symbolic. Greek religion had no dogma, no set of religious texts, and no professional clergy. Precisely because it could wield no power, Delphi could become central and common to all Greeks.
Artificial territories, a modern tragedy
Unlike modern nations, vast territory was not even a criterion of national identification. The circles of collective identity that mattered were the political (polis), historical (the mother-city), ethnic (Dorians etc.) and, to add one more, the regional: A Greek from Syracuse, such as the famous Archimedes, was also a “Sicilian-Greek”. Finally, he was also a Hellene, a “Greek”, sharing with all other Greeks notions of common blood, common cults, common language, and a common “way of life,” as Herodotus puts it.
Networks linked the various circles of Greek collective identity, beginning with their immediate environment – the city-state, known as the polis – and ending with the all-encompassing sphere of Hellenic culture.
The tragedy of modern nationalism is found in its effort to implement a homogenous overlap between blood and place, between the nation and its territory. In a modern “ethnic” country such as Egypt, where ethnic homogeneity seems relatively stable, such an overlap is relatively workable (although perhaps not all the Christian Copts would agree). On the other hand, we have all witnessed and are still witnessing the tragedies of the former Yugoslavia, Libya or Iraq, where the huge territorial framework is being fractured along ethnic and religious lines.
Greeks perhaps had the better idea: they were like “frogs around the pond” (Plato’s phrase), but the pond itself (the Mediterranean) belonged to no one. Each “frog” was independent and sovereign with a strong but delimited local identity, yet with a huge, overarching, common network that constituted a Hellenic civilization. This perhaps should be the true meaning of globalization.
Irad Malkin is Professor of Ancient Greek History and the Cummings Chair for Mediterranean History at Tel Aviv University, and co-founder and co-editor of the Mediterranean Historical Review. He is the Laureate of the Israel Prize for History 2014.
With reporting by Asaf Shtull-Trauring