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The central question: what was Hellenization  


View toward Segesta


Mediterranean connections

The eighth century BC is normally seen as a watershed in world history. In the Late Bronze Age (c. 1600-1200 BC) palace-based civilizations had spread as far west as Greece, and had extensive contacts with eastern Sicily, southern Italy, and Sardinia. After 1200 these contacts declined. Regular Phoenician voyages to the west only resumed around 950-900. Then, after 800, they increased enormously in scale, and Phoenicians and Greeks began settling around the coasts of the west Mediterranean. By 700 the level of east-west interaction far eclipsed anything seen in the Bronze Age. Over the next four centuries many societies around the Mediterranean’s western shores took on Greek and Phoenician scripts, artistic styles, mythological systems, urban forms, technology, military methods, and economic networks. This process is commonly called Hellenization (although “Phoenicianization” might sometimes be a better word), and may have laid the socioeconomic foundations that made possible the Roman political unification of the Mediterranean basin, the spread of Christianity through it, and its eventual bifurcation into the Islamic and Christian Middle Ages. In this grand narrative, the Hellenization that began in the eighth century BC was an epochal turning point.

In the 1990s, driven perhaps by the growing interconnectedness of our own world and the traumatic changes wrought by this globalization, historians have been thinking more and more about this grand narrative, and challenging many of its key theses. Our research at Monte Polizzo has grown out of this new movement. We ask a simple question, that we believe cuts to the heart of the matter: what was Hellenization?


Sicily as a test case

There are two obvious ways to approach this question. First, we could look at the literature and archaeology of Greek and Phoenician settlements in the west, examining the process from the perspective of the Hellenizers (and/or Phoenicianizers); or second, we could look at the archaeology (since very little written evidence survives) of the indigenous communities that came into contact with the settlers. In the twentieth century most research followed the first path, often beginning from very simple models of the transmission of culture from higher, more civilized peoples, to lower, backward ones. At this point in the history of research, the second path clearly offers the highest payoff, and only by focusing on indigenous communities can we hope to produce a broader synthesis of the process of Hellenization. This is why we are excavating at Monte Polizzo.

Monte Polizzo is an ideal place to try to understand Hellenization. Sicily is often described by terms such as the crossroads of the Mediterranean, the bridge linking Europe and Africa, or the stepping-stone between east to west. More than anywhere else, Sicily was where the great demographic, economic, and cultural forces of the archaic Mediterranean met. In the sixth century BC, both Phoenicians and Greeks had settled around the shores of western Sicily, where they rubbed shoulders with indigenous peoples whom the Greeks called Elymians and Sicans. In no other part of the Mediterranean did such a variety of cultures share such a small space, and here the first period of Hellenization played itself out with particular clarity—and brutality.


Different types of answer

Our question about Hellenization calls for two distinct kinds of answers. The first kind operates at a relatively high level of abstraction. Monte Polizzo is an ideal test case to see how well archaeologists can understand the relationships between human agency and grand processes. Men make their own history, but not in ways of their own choosing. At Monte Polizzo we can observe how a small community (probably no more than 2000 people) responded to demographic processes that were beyond its control, and how local decision-making channeled these vast impersonal forces toward particular outcomes. Hellenization was a huge process worked out by millions of people across several centuries. When we look in detail at small places, as archaeologists inevitably do, we find huge differences between them; yet when we stand back and confront a mass of data from a large area, as archaeologists also inevitably do, we find broadly shared patterns at a higher level of abstraction. We want to understand better how large-scale long-term history is constituted out of very intimate events on a human timescale.

The second kind of answer is much more particular. Since the sixteenth century, Sicilian antiquarians have argued that the fusion of Greek, Phoenician, and indigenous societies produced a unique culture. In one version of this story, Sicilian culture since the eighth century BC has been more open to new ideas and influences than any other. It reached its zenith in the 1220s AD, when Frederick II, the stupor mundi, presided over the world’s most glittering court at Palermo. In another version, expressed most powerfully in Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard, the Phoenicians and Greeks pushed Sicily onto a very different trajectory:

We are old, Chevalley, very old. For over twenty-five centuries we’ve been bearing the weight of superb and heterogeneous civilizations, all from outside, none made by ourselves, none that we could call our won. We’re as white as you are, Chevalley, and as the Queen of England; and yet for two thousand five hundred years we’ve been a colony …

This violence of landscape, this cruelty of climate, this continual tension in everything, and even these monuments of the past, magnificent yet incomprehensible because not built by us and yet standing round us like lovely mute ghosts; all those rulers who landed by main force from every direction, who were at once obeyed, soon detested, and always misunderstood. Their only expressions were works of art we couldn’t understand and taxes which we understood only too well and which they spent elsewhere. All these things have formed our character, which is thus conditioned by events outside our control as well as by a terrifying insularity of mind.

Since 1860, both these versions of the story have been used to justify treating Sicily differently from northern Italy. Hellenization is a crucial element in Sicilian self-understandings. Agrigento, Selinunte, and Segesta function as shrines to local identity, and the sixth


century BC is the twilight of Sicilian freedom.


Measuring Hellenization

We are far from being the first archaeologists to raise these questions. Since the 1980s Sicilian archaeologists have carried out major excavations and surveys in inland western Sicily, often taking Hellenization as the central issue. They have developed three main indices for studying the process: pottery style, housing, and religious ritual. The indices are well chosen, and we too focus on them, but also add a fourth index, diet.

Stanford’s excavations concentrate on the highest point of the town, conventionally called the acropolis. We made this decision because Sicilian archaeologists who have excavated the upper parts of other sixth-century sites have found distinctive deposits and buildings that they have interpreted as sanctuaries. They have often seen significant borrowings from Greek culture in these sanctuaries, and have argued that this demonstrates extensive Hellenization in the sixth century.

We want to define better what “the sacred” meant in sixth-century BC western Sicily, and the extent to which this concept was expressed spatially and through material culture. Some archaeologists have proceeded by defining deposits as religious on the basis of how much they look like Greek sanctuaries, and then concluding that religion was heavily Hellenized. We think that we might get better results by comparing the deposits at the highest point of Monte Polizzo (acropolis zone A) with those from other parts of the site, to determine just what was different about the activities on the highest point of the site and (a) whether sacredness is the best explanation of these differences, (b) if so, what sacredness was, and (c) how sacred space was bounded. Only then will we be in a position to start discussing the Hellenization of religion.

To understand the boundaries of the sacred in western Sicily, we are excavating zones B-D, asking whether there are discontinuities in activity that might mark transitions between sacred and non-sacred space, or whether changes were gradual. We are also interested in the social dimensions of sacredness. The deposits in zones C and D seem to be conventional domestic remains, which can be compared with those at House I and Portella Sant’Anna to see whether proximity to zone A correlates to any other differences in activities and deposits.

Since 2000, we have been developing excavation methods that, we hope, will lead to answers to these questions [METHODS PAGE]. And although the project is still at an early stage, we have begun to accumulate results, which in turn are leading to a whole new set of questions [RESULTS AND NEW QUESTIONS PAGE].




Mediterranean connections

Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell, The Corrupting Sea: A Study in Mediterranean History (Oxford 2000)

Ian Morris, “Mediterraneanization,” Mediterranean Historical Review 14 (2002)

Andrew Sherratt and Susan Sherratt, “The growth of the Mediterranean economy in the early first millennium BC.” World Archaeology 24 (1993) 361-78

John Boardman, The Greeks Overseas (revised ed., London 1999)

Sabbatino Moscati, ed., The Phoenicians (Florence 1988)

Maria Eugenia Aubet, The Phoenicians in the West (revised ed., Cambridge 2001)

Michel Gras, La méditerranéen archaïque (Paris 1995)

Critical views of Hellenization and Hellenic identity

Jonathan Hall, Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity (Cambridge 1997)

—— Hellenicity: Between Ethnicity and Culture (Chicago 2002)

Michael Dietler, “The Iron Age in Mediterranean France: colonial encounters, entanglements, and transformations,” Journal of World Prehistory 11 (1997) 269-357

Irad Malkin, ed., Ancient Greek Perceptions of Ethnicity (Cambridge, MA, 2001)


Sicily as a test case

Robert Leighton, Sicily Before History (London 1999)

Emilio Gabba and Georges Vallet, eds., La Sicilia antica (3 vols., Naples 1980)

Franco De Angelis, “Ancient past, imperial present: the British Empire in T. J. Dunbabin’s The Western Greeks,” Antiquity 72 (1998)

—— “Archaeology in Sicily, 1996-2000,” Archaeological Reports for 2000/01, 145-201

—— Megara Hyblaia and Selinous: The Development of Two Greek City-States in Archaic Sicily (Oxford 2002)


Sicilian narratives

Moses Finley and Dennis Mack Smith, A History of Sicily (2 vols., London 1968)

Giovanni Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leopard (New York 1961)

Giovanna Ceserani, “The charm of the Siren: the place of classical Sicily in historiography,” in Christopher Smith and Jonathan Serrati, eds., Ancient Sicily from Aeneas to Cicero (Edinburgh 2000) 174-193


Measuring Hellenization

See under “Results and new questions




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