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Civic and Cultural Identities in a Changing World

Analyzing the mortuary practices of the postclassical Peloponnese

T. (Tamara) M. Dijkstra, M.A.


Promotor: Prof. S. Voutsaki

Co-promotor: Prof. O.M. van Nijf

Period of employment: 1 January 2012 - 31 December 2016

Financed by: NWO


How do people deal with the loss of their political autonomy, and how do they negotiate their position in a globalizing world? This may sound like a modern dilemma, but it was a burning question in the Hellenistic and early Roman period (300 BCE – 100 CE) when the independent cities of the southern Greek mainland became subjugated to the Macedonians, got caught in the wars between Hellenistic kingdoms and subsequently fell victim to the encroaching Roman power. The Greek city-states were gradually relegated to a marginal position in a new global order marked by high levels of personal and social mobility. The central question of this project is how social divisions, ethnic identities and cultural orientations were redefined at the level of the region, the city, the family and the individual.

Historical Context

The project focuses on the Postclassical Peloponnese because it is at this time that the traditional holders of power (e.g. Sparta and Argos) decline as Macedonian garrisons are installed in the Peloponnese, and new centres (Messene, Megalopolis) emerge in the precarious political climate marked by competition between Hellenistic monarchs, but also by new alliances between the cities of Southern Greece (the Achaean and Aetolian Leagues). In the Roman period the political balance is redefined with the foundation of Roman colonies (e.g. Patras and Corinth), but also by the renewed significance of Sparta (largely due to the potency of the ‘Myth of Sparta’).

These political changes had significant economic ramifications as the Greek mainland suffered from devastation during the numerous wars that were fought, was exploited by the Roman overlords but was also incorporated in expanding economic networks.

Social changes were pervasive; there was a growing social differentiation and polarization between the wealthy and the poor. At the higher end of society there is and increased competition for power between traditional elites and influential newcomers, which resulted in new (mixed) oligarchies.

On a cultural level we see that the uncertainty of the present is countered by a new interest in the glorious past, demonstrated in the prominence of ancestor cults, (fictive) kinship relations and (re)invented traditions. Furthermore, we are dealing with a complex and multidirectional process of cultural transfer in which traditional Greek values were redefined and reasserted and sometimes in order to adapt to, resist, but also benefit from external forces and influences.

Aims and Approach

The aim of the project is to understand the effects of shifting power balances and wider processes of globalization on local social structures and local identities after the demise of the classical polis. The subject is studied by means of an in-depth study of mortuary practices. In light of recent mortuary theory, funerary ritual is here seen as a strategy of self-representation, as expressing and shaping different aspects of personal identity such as gender, age, status, ethnic and cultural affiliation, political identity, etc. This means that death provides an opportunity to make lasting statements about one’s status and identity, to affirm communal values and beliefs surrounding death, but also to assert relationships with local, regional and supra-regional political entities. Burial practices therefore can provide invaluable insights into shifting social divisions, personal identities, cultural orientations and political values.

The large amount of funerary evidence from thePostclassical Peloponnese, characterized by an almost overwhelming diversity in forms and practices, allows us to study change and continuity over time, among different communities and across the social body. This is best done by taking an interdisciplinary approach, which integrates archaeological evidence (spatial organization, tomb construction and elaboration, treatment of the body, grave gifts, imagery) with epigraphic data (epitaphs), onomastics, funerary legislation and literary sources.

Research questions

The aim of the project can be summarized in two main questions:

1) How did globalization affect local social structure, culture and identity in the Postclassical Peloponnese?

2) How did these effects differ among regions, cities, social groups and individuals?

Last modified:23 July 2018 1.29 p.m.