The volume under discussion here, the result of a conference held at Clermont-Ferrand in 2016, sets out to revisit some traditional and some more recent assumptions about personal status in the Hellenistic Mediterranean. Traditional assumptions see the mid-second century BCE as a turning point in the history of Greek status definitions, as previously simple dichotomies became permeable, leading to a multiplication of status categories in search of a new equilibrium. As for more recent approaches, the editors take issue with a tendency in some scholarship to shift attention from fixed definitions to agency and fluidity, leaving the construction of status up to individuals: « on ne peut pas baser une histoire des statuts sur la fluidité » (p. 18). Going back to Finley’s definition of status as a set of rights and obligations, and tying those rights and obligations specifically to economic activities, the editors aim to give substance to the concept while at the same time moving away from the focus on political participation that has frequently dominated debates on Greek status definitions. The result is a book with a clear overall concept and a working hypothesis: as each contribution can be read as either affirming or challenging the editors’ methodological stance, the usual weaknesses of edited volumes are largely avoided, despite the inevitable variety of topics and a few sidesteps on the way.
The book is divided into four parts, unequal in both length and cohesion. While all chapters offer detailed case studies, the book as a whole moves from the general to the particular: the first two parts include five chapters each with a considerable thematic variety, whereas the other two have fewer chapters but tackle more specific phenomena: private associations and agricultural labour in the Hellenistic kingdoms. Part one is the most general, with five chapters on slavery, status systems and labour. It opens with a summary discussion of status and labour in Herondas (J.-M. Roubineau): there is little fluidity here, as all labour is done by foreigners or lazy slaves, whereas citizens dedicate their time to athletic pursuits. Perhaps this description of society is situated on an « ordre idéologique » (p. 46), but just how unrealistic it would be grosso modo (and notwithstanding the obvious fact that some citizens did work in Greek societies) could have received further elaboration. We move on to Sparta, a place where citizens traditionally did not work, and to an attempt to define the status of the perioikoi (C. Müller): their dependent status should not be overlooked just because helots had it even worse, and any kind of agency they might have had appears very limited even in the Hellenistic period, when some of them became citizens to replenish numbers in the Spartan army. We also learn a lesson here about hindsight and historical progress: the perioikoi system was nowhere close to disappearance before the Roman war against Nabis, and cannot therefore serve as an example for an inevitable long-term transition from dependent status to civic participation. A long chapter then deals with enktēsis in Athens (J. Faguer): here we do see the disappearance of a status group in the late Hellenistic period, presumably because benefactors were increasingly rewarded with citizenship rather than the limited privilege of buying one house of often strictly limited value. There is a special focus here on metic participation in financial transactions, which usually relied on the one thing metics could not have, namely property (enktēsis being given to benefactors rather than the average metic, and being limited in value). This is a concrete example for the kind of connections between status and economic activity envisaged by the editors, even if the discussion of metic strategies to circumvent this limitation perhaps accords too important a role to the late evidence for philosophical schools (p. 80-82). The next chapter, one of the last publications of the tragically deceased A. Avram, discusses slavery in the Pontic cities: while the region is well-known to be one of the main suppliers of Greek slave markets, evidence for slaves (rather than dependent populations such as the Maryandynoi) working in the Pontic cities themselves is lacking. Both the categorical distinction between slavery and helotism and the overall design of the argument invite second thoughts – are not slaves invisible in many a place’s epigraphic record? But as the chapter features the careful analysis of the sources its author has always been known for, there is much of value to be found here. A view to the West (the only one in the book) concludes the section (S. Roselaar): against a historiographical tradition that connects the rise of tenancy agreements in Republican Rome with the monopolization of land by an elite and the impoverishment of everyone else, a number of plausible considerations (size, yield, tools and infrastructure needed) suggests that not all tenants can have been poor. This perhaps has less to do with formal status groups than with more general economic trends, but we do get to hear about the possibility (it does not seem to be more than that) that some of the tenants were wealthy socii rather than Roman citizens (p. 136-137).
The second part comprises another five chapters on personal status and labour, which are perhaps held together by an underlying concern with obligations. An obvious context here are freedmen and the paramonē: two chapters deal with two central dossiers on the status of freedmen in the Hellenistic Greek world, using inscriptions from Delphi (D. Mulliez) and Thessaly (R. Bouchon). A lot of this is by necessity descriptive: many individual scenarios are presented, but it is notoriously difficult to generalize, not least because of gaps in the evidence. For Delphi, an apparently straightforward conclusion emerges when the few professions mentioned in manumission inscriptions point to specialized labour and, correspondingly, a higher price for freedom – but as is duly noted, even this unsurprising connection is not certain, because it is precisely these documents that regularly lack reference to paramonē. Did specialized slaves make more money on the side to buy a better deal upon manumission (p. 160)? For Thessaly, a veritable mosaic of freedmen statuses emerges: some with, some without obligations, some freed under Thessalian law, some on other conditions (the enigmatic xenikē lysis). While the precise differences (and hence their translation into labour relationships) remain unclear, the chapter very interestingly sketches the development of a defined status of freedmen at the very end of the Hellenistic period, most likely under Roman influence. The focus shifts to debt in the following chapters. In Ptolemaic Egypt, debtors could be contractually obliged to work for their creditor: given some early evidence, this may be a pre-Ptolemaic practice that was then conceptualized in Greek as paramonē (K. Vandorpe). This would be an interesting example of status « translation »: does it imply a rapprochement between debtors and freedmen? The answer would seem to be no, given that paramonē does not seem to be used for freedmen’s obligations in Egypt, but this connection could perhaps have been explored a bit further. A chapter on Neoassyrian connections between debt and labour offers a surprising chronological side-step (P. Villard): the relevance for the emergence of new status groups in the Hellenistic period is hard to see, but it is still interesting to learn about a society where every formalized labour relationship could be conceived of in terms of debt (or, in a wider sense, obligation). The section ends with a wide-ranging chapter on agricultural labour in Asia Minor (J. Zurbach). Most of it is devoted to reconstructing the emergence of paroikoi and perioikoi as a result of the phasing out of helotism. The latter is presented as a wide‑spread institution with many local variants, which should not necessarily be imagined according to the Spartan model (p. 245-246) – but how can this realistically be avoided if the whole category is named after a Spartan institution and the evidence is altogether slim? The careful discussion of attested (or hypothesized) dependent populations in Asia Minor shows how little we know, and the chronological gap between their disappearance and the emergence of paroikoi in the evidence is often considerable. Perhaps the development envisaged here is ultimately too linear, but the argument is worth considering in detail, and so is the other point made in this chapter, that debt-bondage was not introduced by the publicani to late Hellenistic Asia Minor, but an existing institution exploited by them.
Two chapters make up the third part on private associations. Their widespread occurrence in the Hellenistic period appears to be driven by religious concerns if we go only by their names and attested activities, but it is widely agreed that they fulfilled other functions as well. A reassessment of the evidence for associations with professional designators (I. Arnaoutoglou) shows that they were not completely absent but rare; dedicated craftsmen associations in particular only emerge in the second century BCE, before they become very common in the Roman period. There are some thoughts here about this change, notably on the fragmentation of cities according to « fixed socio-economic categories » under Rome (p. 276); legal regulations would be another factor to consider. Personal status is at the heart of the other chapter (S. Maillot), which challenges the way membership lists have been read in the past: many of those classified as foreigners in previous research may well be slaves or freedmen identified with reference to the city where they were sold – a plausible suggestion that allows for new considerations of recruitment patterns (production sites?) and purposes of associations. Both chapters offer valuable insights into the question who the members of associations « really » were. However, in the light of the volume’s overall premise, one might also want to know how associational identities might have created new (formal or informal) status groups that could override the members’ « real » status: the analogy of Roman collegiati might be worth exploring, if only as a potential contrast.
The last part on agricultural labour in the Hellenistic kingdoms treats another well-defined topic. Two substantial discussions deal with Asia Minor, where the status of laoi – already discussed by Zurbach – has been a bone of contention for many decades. C. Mileta offers a clear and, despite its length, concise summary of arguments he already published some 15 years ago (Der König und sein Land, Berlin 2008): laoi is not a technical term designating a legal status, but simply designates « people » on royal land who do not belong to a polis or an ethnos and therefore interact with the king directly, without mediation by a semi-autonomous political entity; the king in turn is best understood not as a property owner, as some discussions of royal land might imply, but as sovereign over all land, some of which he controls directly. The fundamental distinction is thus not between « serfs » and free labourers, but between direct and indirect control, with an added layer provided by the fundamental distinction between city and countryside (according to M., the basic principle of Alexander’s empire, p. 318-322). The boundary becomes permeable on certain occasions, when kings assign royal land to the territory of a city. The « city » as a concept carries a lot of weight here, perhaps more than the sources allow for (there is little evidence for kings regularly encouraging the transfer of royal land to cities to foster acculturation within their kingdom, as argued on p. 345). The clear-cut dichotomies established here remain heuristically useful, but there is little engagement with more recent scholarship (e.g. in the treatment of I. Priene 1) or indeed with other arguments made in this volume. Whether the transfer of royal land to cities would actually improve the inhabitant’s lot is questioned in the next chapter (L. Capdetrey): the abstract advantage of having a political entity mediating relations between kings and subjects might be offset by an intensification of land use, hierarchical status distinctions in some regions (such as Lycia), and the lack of direct royal protection (p. 377-378). The integration of regional diversity and real-life experience offers a welcome counterpoint to the abstract discussions that necessarily dominate both chapters. The final chapter brings us again to Ptolemaic Egypt (A. Monson): the « royal cultivators » (basilikoi geōrgoi) have at times been understood as a privileged class among Egyptian peasants, but what appear to be royal privileges are here understood as protective measures, necessary precisely because royal cultivators had significantly fewer rights than private landowners and were vulnerable to abuse. Once again, potential continuity since pre-Hellenistic times comes into view briefly (p. 387), but it does appear that Hellenistic rule created a new status group in Egypt: interestingly, the evidence from terminology suggests that the interest of royal cultivators in defining themselves in these terms precedes that of kings by a century. The interest of the ruling powers in status definitions is indeed not self-evident: from the perspective of absolute rulers, a non-committing fuzziness (or should we say: fluidity?) may often be advantageous over creating distinctions that necessarily imply the recognition of rights and obligations.
This latter point highlights one area that the volume (and the conclusion by R. Descat) could perhaps have tried to address – but given the richness of what is in fact presented here, it would be unreasonable to highlight the gaps. The editors’ mission to reintroduce personal status as a historical category has succeeded precisely because of the wide array of case studies chosen, and the careful approach of contributors to the evidence in their respective fields. There is no way back to Greek social history as a mere rehearsal of a few fixed status categories, and no return to the idealistic image of the Hellenistic period as an age of social mobility. But that status boundaries mattered for societal integration, the organization of labour and the chances of individuals to exert agency is powerfully demonstrated in many chapters. While some are more thought-provoking than others, I cannot honestly point to a single one that did not teach me something. The volume is thus highly recommended as essential reading for Hellenistic historians, and as a useful set of comparanda for those who work on other epochs.
Benedikt Eckhardt, University of Edinburgh
Publié dans le fascicule 2 tome 124, 2022, p. 630-633.