A Small Greek World:
Networks in the Ancient Mediterranean
Oxford University Press
01 Nov 2011
Greek civilization and identity crystallized not when Greeks were close
together but when they came to be far apart. It emerged during the Archaic
period when Greeks founded coastal city states and trading stations in
ever-widening horizons from the Ukraine to Spain. No center directed their
diffusion: mother cities were numerous and the new settlements ("colonies")
would often engender more settlements. The "Greek center" was at sea;
it was formed through back-ripple effects of cultural convergence, following
the physical divergence of independent settlements. "The shores of Greece
are like hems stitched onto the lands of Barbarian peoples" (Cicero).
Overall, and regardless of distance, settlement practices became Greek
in the making and Greek communities far more resembled each other than
any of their particular neighbors like the Etruscans, Iberians, Scythians,
or Libyans. The contrast between "center and periphery" hardly mattered
(all was peri-, "around"), nor was a bi-polar contrast with Barbarians
of much significance.
Should we admire the Greeks for having created their civilization in spite
of the enormous distances and discontinuous territories separating their
independent communities? Or did the salient aspects of their civilization
form and crystallize because of its architecture as a de-centralized
network? This book claims that the answer lies in network attributes
shaping a "Small Greek World," where separation is measured by degrees
of contact rather than by physical dimensions.
(...) It is no accident, for example, that Corinth was the mother city of both
Corcyra (Corfu) in the Ionian Sea and Sicilian Syracuse (both founded
around the same time) (47), since to reach Sicily from mainland Greece,
it was wise to make a maritime journey “up” before “descending” with the
northeasterly winds (the entire Athenian navy repeated the pattern when sailing
to besiege Syracuse in the late fifth century).
Finally, maritime straits such as Messina, the Bosporus or the Crimean Bosporus
did not wait for modern strategists to evaluate their importance, and Greek colonies
were settled, sometimes in pairs, to control them (48).
Networks may be transformed, especially with the proliferation of
permanent nodes and the intensification of flows. Dormant for long periods,
trade networks underwent a period of intensive activation and qualitative
change. It started during the first part of the eighth century, with “proto
(or pre) colonial” contacts (49). The second half of the century
witnessed an intensive founding of new cities that qualitatively changed
the more ephemeral networks of trading stations (emporia). “Towns
are like electric transformers”, says Braudel (51).
The eighth century started the process of transforming disparate maritime cultures
into a Mediterranean civilization based on ties among mostly city-oriented nodes.
Phoenicians, Greeks and to some degree Etruscans were founding new settlements,
thus signalling a social and political model diametrically opposed to what the far
more affluent ancient Near East had to offer. Instead of a multiethnic empire,
with a "King of Kings" at its head and “subjects” for a population, they created
networks of numerous, independent, political communities made up of “citizens”.
This became a longue durée contrast between the political cultures of the
ancient Near East and the Mediterranean, expressed in the conflicts between Greeks
and Persians and replicated in later periods, especially by the conflicts between
the Mediterranean republics and the eastern empires of Byzantium and the
The transition to intensive connectivity among cities and emporia
may be illustrated by a Greek literary representation of a Phoenician
example: The Odyssey describes a floating Phoenician emporion,
a ship anchoring for one year, trading with the natives, yet making it
impossible for the Phoenicians traders to ever return because, just before
leaving, they also abduct the prince Eumaios, who ends up as Odysseus’s
pig farmer in Ithaca (53.
Think, by contrast, of Phoenician Motya, a tiny
offshore island in western Sicily that served as a permanent base of
commerce and contact also with Carthage, itself a major Phoenician
foundation (from Tyre) dating back perhaps to ca. 800. The distinction
between the temporary emporion and the permanent colony (the two forms
of settlements existed side by side) (...)
Note 52 (on page 22):      For a wide-reaching emphasis
on the role of the long and fragmented European seashore as the
longue-durée cause of the Rise of the West, see Cosandey (2007).
Cf. Mollat du Jourdin (1993).
One of the fascinating achievements of The Corrupting Sea (124)
is the emphasis on Mediterranean micro-regions. Many of the Braudelian
patterns appear in each of these regions, although Braudel presumed
them to be applicable only to the Mediterranean as a whole.
For example Braudel’s “mountains” where people are less prone to be
subjects of central authority, emerge when observing the Lebanon
together with the Biqa valley, as containing a whole spectrum of
characteristics (e.g. climatic, economic, social) that according to
Braudel could be depicted only with very wide brushstrokes.
The Mediterranean, therefore, still appears as it does in the
Braudelian model (“the Mediterranean is exchange” or “the whole
Mediterranean consists in movements in space”) but more as a network
connecting the micro-regions or micro-networks, with the added
recognition that the pattern itself is replicated within each
micro-region (or conversely, what happens in each is replicated
in the entire Mediterranean). In other words, micro-networks are
structurally similar to the mega-network within which they exist
or with which they coalesce.
Finding the correct vocabulary is not easy. The term “connectivity”
which appears throughout the Corrupting Sea seems to have
been appropriated from communication theory. I believe that the
micro-regions are equivalent to “fractals”, a concept borrowed
from fractal physics and chaos theory (125).
It is curious that a prominent example used by the mathematician
Mandelbrot, who developed fractal theory, was maritime, fitting
the Mediterranean context of this book. He observed that sections
of coastlines replicated the patterns and contours of much larger
sections. Fractals are everywhere. A section of a snowflake replicates
the entire snowflake, that of a tree leaf, the entire leaf -- in
fact the entire tree, and so on. In a sense, each micro-region in
Horden and Purcell's Mediterranean is also a fractal of Mediterranean
In sum, instead of looking at nodes as solid points, we may now, with
greater sophistication, approach the issue of micro-regions serving
as regional network clusters.
In historical terms (rather than environmental terms), this involves
observation of areas such as Sicily (chapters 3, 4) or southern France and
Spain (chapters 5, 6), the regions that constituted a middle ground of
settlement and cultural transfers. (...)
Note 125 (on page 45):      Mandelbrot (1967, 2004);
Peitgen, Jürgens and Saupe (2004); cf Cosandey (2007)
Greg Dening, in his suggestive book Islands and Beaches (142),
elaborates on the themes of the shore as a middle ground of commerce
and settlement, both for people arriving from ship to shore and for
those coming from the hinterland to the beaches.
Odysseus had already observed that the island across from the
terrible Cyclopes was “good-to-settle”, not least because
the Cyclopes possessed no ship (143).
The observation may
serve as a blueprint for Greek perspectives of settlement,
consistently maritime since the Dark Ages (settlements in the
Aegean and Asia minor) and the Archaic Period (city foundations
in the Mediterranean and Black seas). One advantage of the
network approach immediately comes to the foreground: the ship-to-shore
perspective is consistent throughout periods that historians like
to maintain as distinct, precisely the Dark Ages (ca 1200 – 750 BCE)
and the early Archaic Period (ca eighth-sixth century BCE).
Odysseus observations may belong to either one, thus providing
a longue durée to the history of Greek settlements and city foundations.
Greek have been accumulating the experience of accumulating
the same patterns of choices of sites, advancing relatively
little inland, and also serving short-distance navigation
and cabotage trading (long distance trading done via short
hops and changing agents) (144), while keeping in touch by
means of lines of long-distance sailing (lines that were growing
longer due to further settlements). This Mediterranean movement
in space, following a consistent pattern of experiencing sea and
land from ship to shore, not only created a “Greek” network but
also informed the pattern for further settlements. [This
paragraph gives a good example of hapless style...]
Maritime connectivity obviously depended on the technology of
shipbuilding and ship-related matters. Long-distance shipping
represented a technology alien to the great Near Eastern empires,
and the frustrated ambitions of the Persian king to rule the
sea provides a good illustration of what he failed to achieve.
[Another good example of awkward reasoning and style]
“Technology in general embodies and enforces a particular way
of being in the word, a particular conception of human
relatioms (145). Can we speak of ancient ships as providing
this type of technology of communication? It appears so. No one
in Antiquity had a monopoly over shipbuilding, just as no one had
a monopoly over maritime routes. Ships, relatively free to
move across maritime spaces (in contrast to controllable routes
over land and river) could skirt around controlling hubs.
The result in the Archaic Mediterranean was the creation of numerous,
independent political communities. It is no accident, perhaps,
that the few maritime civilizations in the Archaic Mediterranean,
namely the Etruscans, the Phoenicians and the Greeks, all developed
city-state cultures and that all expanded by means of maritime
colonization, some more significantly than others (146).
Moreover, both the Greeks and the Phoenicians, we know too little
the Etruscans, retained a sense of wider connectedness (e.g. through
Delphi for the Greeks or the annual religious expeditions to Tyre
and the god Melqart by Phoenicians) (see chapter 4).
Note 146 (on page 49):      Note the interesting ideas
advanced by David Cosandey (2007 ) about the role of the sea and
what he terms articulations thalassographiques for the spread of
scientific knowledge and the rise of the West.
Review of Malkin’s A Small Greek World
March 11, 2013
Recension publiée par Archeological Networks
The end of 2011 for me was marked by the publication of two new
networky books. The first one was Knappett’s An Archaeology of
Interaction, which I reviewed for Antiquity (and I wrote a more
in-depth review on this blog). The second one was Irad Malkin’s
A Small Greek World, my review of which finally appeared in the
journal Classical Review. You can access it on the journal’s website,
download it from my bibliography page or read it here.
IRAD MALKIN. A small Greek world. Networks in the ancient Mediterranean.
xix+251 pages, 18 illustrations. 2011. Oxford: Oxford University
Press; 978-0-19-973481-8 hardback $60.
History books too often read like a series of unconnected events,
dates, places and people, the sum of which is considered the historical
narrative. In ‘A Small Greek World’ Irad Malkin does the exact
opposite by focusing on the ties that bind and give meaning to
historically attested entities. The reader is taken on a guided
tour through the web of countless historical relationships between
people, places and cultural practices in the Archaic Mediterranean
and Black Sea. One is invited to explore this “Greek Wide Web” as
a set of nodes and links to appreciate its small-world network
structure and how long-distance links were instrumental to the
emergence of “Greek civilization as we know it” (p. 5). At least,
this is the hypothesis Malkin advocates in his latest book.
The introductory chapter sets out Malkin’s network perspective, which forms
the book’s main innovative contribution to the study of ancient history
(mainly due to an adoption of concepts from physics), which is why this
review will be largely concerned with evaluating this aspect of the book.
Malkin adopted the concept of small-world networks from two physicists,
Duncan Watts and Steven Strogatz, who use the term to refer to a range
of networks with a high degree of local clustering and a low average
shortest path length. This means that although nodes are largely only
connected to nodes within their cluster, every so often a link appears
that bridges the gap between clusters and facilitates the flow of material
or immaterial resources between clusters. Malkin was also influenced
by two other physicists, Albert-László Barabási and Réka Albert, who
coined the term scale-free networks for networks that exhibit a power-law
distribution in the number of their nodes’ links. For the creation of this
type of network structure, Barabási and Albert suggested a process of
preferential attachment in which nodes are continually added to the network
and preferentially create links with nodes that are already well connected,
thus giving rise to super-connected hubs.
In this book Malkin argues that during the Archaic period, people and places
around the Mediterranean and Black Sea were connected in a way that resembled
a small-world structure, driven by processes of preferential attachment.
Malkin stresses throughout the book that it was the long-distance links
and decentralization of the small Greek world that facilitated the emergence
of what he calls Greek civilization.
These network ideas are not expressed and validated in a quantitative manner,
however, since historians of antiquity are considered not to possess enough
data to identify such patterns and processes with any statistical significance
(pp. 19, 25). Instead, Malkin takes a qualitative approach by adopting the
vocabulary of network science, and the key features of small-world and
scale-free network models in particular, and applies it to a series of
historical examples in chapters two to six. Regardless of this, Malkin
does consider his qualitative network perspective more than a mere description
of the historical Greek network and stresses the explanatory value of his
approach. The aims of the book are therefore twofold: to point out networks
and processes of network formation through numerous examples, and the
interpretation of the implications of describing structures and processes
using a formal network vocabulary.
Chapters two and three illustrate reverse processes of the emergence of
identity (as identified by Malkin through abstract as well as concrete
historical examples) through networks. In chapter two the Rhodians’
dispersal overseas is seen as the reason for the consolidation of the
island identity of Rhodes. Chapter three turns this process on its head
by arguing for the emergence of the Sikeliôtai identity of Greeks from
all over converging in Sicily. The altar of Apollo Archêgetês, only
accessible to the Greek residents of Sicily, is considered the earliest
expression of this ‘Greeks away from home’ identity.
Chapter four brings Herakles the Greek and Melqart the Phoenician
to the stage as examples of the existence of mythical and cultic networks,
facilitating coexistence and peaceful mediation as well as justifying
antagonism between ethnic groups.
Malkin continues his series of example networks by focusing on the
Phokaian network in the western Mediterranean in chapters five and six.
Most interestingly, the evolution of this network is seen as changing
from a many-to-many structure to one consisting of local clusters
dominated by hubs with long-distance links, giving the example of
Massalia and the coastal zone in southern France (described as a
middle ground). In chapter six Malkin explores the similarities in
cults (Artemis of Ephesos) and institutions (nomima) of the Phokaian network,
which are considered to express the Phokaian’s self-perception.
The concluding chapter rephrases many of the examples into a rich
description of Malkin’s small Greek world hypothesis, which shows
strong similarities to his previous work on the emergence of Greek
identity but now seen from a network standpoint.
The sheer number of examples and the detail to which they are described
makes the book’s narrative difficult to follow in places. Indeed,
for most chapters the approach taken and crux of the argument are
not clearly stated in the introduction and conclusions. At times
this leads one to loose track of the bigger picture and the general
aim of the book. The figures are of high quality although they are
limited (with the exception of chapter one) to maps indicating the
places mentioned in the text.
The descriptive first aim of the book is definitely achieved,
through the identification of historical links, networks and
problems that are better served by a networks approach. The second
aim of interpreting the implications of the network perspective is
very thorough as far as the description of the small world hypothesis
is concerned. In this reviewer’s opinion, however, it does seem
underrepresented in one important respect: the absence of convincing
argumentation why the emergent property that is “Greek civilization”
could not have emerged on a “Greek Wide Web” with a structure other
than the hypothetically identified small-world.
Malkin’s discussion of the alternative network structures advocated
by Braudel (pp. 42-44), Horden and Purcell (pp. 44-45), and Jean-Paul
Morel (p. 153) does not give the impression that the likeliness of his
hypothesis is any greater. On the other hand, Malkin rightly argues that
dynamic network processes add explanatory power to these structures,
and he illustrates this throughout the book for his own hypothesis.
Malkin seems to be very aware of this issue when stressing that “The
identification of connections and particular networks falls within the
historian’s search for ‘what was there’ (the factual, or the truth level);
the suggestion that network dynamics forms the Greek ‘small world’ is by
contrast an interpretation, but to my mind it is one that has a high
probability of being right” (p. 207). Yet the book too often reads like
a summing up of historically attested ties in a one-to-one relationship
with complex network concepts that are by no means exclusive to small-
worlds (e.g. emergence, self-organization, hubs, fractal patterning,
preferential attachment, decentralization, multi-directionality, phase
transitions, clustering) to allow for disregarding alternative network
structures out of hand. The innovative network perspective is also only
to a limited degree utilised to revisit concepts like ethnicity, Greek
civilization, and identity. It is a new hypothesis that focuses largely
on explaining past processes of emergence from given states.
Malkin, therefore, piles up evidence for his hypothesis to create the
fascinating concept of the small Greek world, which will no doubt prove
a rich and useful perspective for future research. However, he does not
increase its credibility through falsifying other possible structural
incarnations of this network approach. ‘A Small Greek World’ illustrates
the potential of a network perspective for understanding the emergence
of Greek culture and identities (concepts that themselves are by no means
less ambiguous than the ‘small Greek world’ hypothesis), but it is really
only a starting point that requires further formalisation and explicit
confrontation with the implications of alternative hypothetical network
Tombrughmans, 11 March 2013.