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Ancient history, the Brazilian way

Researchers from the Labeca give a broader meaning to the concept of the Greek poli

Labeca collectionTemple of Apollo in Poseidonia in southern Italy Labeca collection

The combination of two words, ancient history, only reinforces prejudices, since the first is usually associated with an area of study that deals with matters long closed, and that seem to no longer have an impact on our lives. The idea of something even older only makes the discipline seem further away from us and thus less interesting and less important; a crass error, to use a classical expression. A group of Brazilian researchers from the Laboratory for Ancient City Studies (Labeca), which is linked to the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology (MAE-USP) via a project that has received financial help from FAPESP, is reassessing one of the most important concepts of the classical age and one that is at the root of modern ideas about democracy and the city – the poli – by redefining this Greek concept. “One of the main results of our research is that the perception of what the Greeks called polis was not only a community of citizens, as political scientists want us to believe, nor was it an urban settlement conceived following the institutionalization of politics, as all manuals preach when dealing with democracy in Athens and the oligarchy in Sparta,” explains Maria Beatriz Florenzano, coordinator of the project and director of Labeca. “The poli, after all, is a ‘community of place’, as Aristotle wanted: it comprises a human group for whom the territory occupied has a significance that goes beyond material use for life or survival. The territory is impregnated with symbolic meaning, whether the expression of a disperse religiosity, political power,  the expression of specific social groups, and so on and so forth,” adds Eliane Hirata, a researcher at Labeca.

“The basic proposal of this research at Labeca was to promote a study of the organization of the Greek poli in order to offer a more complete view of this ancient society in the archaic and classical period (8th century BC to 4th century BC). We started from the principle that space and the constructed environment incorporate elements of the social, political, economic and ideological systems, and are an instrument of human communication, are records of the history of societies, are historical documents. Hence, our wish to study the territoriality of polis,” says Maria Beatriz. “We work with a macro-view of the distribution of society in the space. We do not treat houses in an isolated way, but we look at where they were placed in the streets. We investigate what this placement means in terms of the organization of society,” she said. The results of the study, however, go beyond reconfiguring the concept, because starting from this common theme, with a focus on the organization of the space in such polis, there is a convergence of several strands of study on religion, women’s place in society, the theater, economics, urban planning etc.. A clear example of this type of research is that which is being done into different Greek sanctuaries. “From the distribution of the shrines in the landscape (urban and rural, in relation to residences, civic areas, walls, ports, etc.) we’re trying to understand what role Greek religiosity played in the organization of society; what role a specific deity played relative to a particular group; how the distribution of shrines reveals contacts with groups that were not Greek, and so on,” says Maria Beatriz. These studies, which appear removed from the main issue of the polis, are in fact pieces that are important to compose the picture that is being assembled by Labeca from the spatial organization of Greek cities.

Labeca collectionView of the Doric temple of Apollo in Caulonia in southern Italy Labeca collection

“The polis inaugurated a way of living together that prioritized citizenship, i.e. caring for and valuing life in common. From the way the polis are structured, a centralizing political power was not part of the Greek experience. They represent the basic reference framework that articulates and gives meaning to all Greek achievements,” observes Elaine. There was a particular spatial organization: the union of a central, urban nucleus, called ásty and a territorial area earmarked for those agricultural activities that were essential for subsistence, known as khorá in Greek. This integration of space and therefore of people resulted especially from religious practice that involved the people in rituals that brought them together, whether at urban shrines or those on the border (extra-urban). “Some processions, for example, left shrines located in the so-called urban area and ended their journey in the sacred areas on the borders. This is where community rituals were held that reinforced the ties between the various groups that formed part of the polis,” notes Maria Beatriz. The great milestone occurred at the end of the 8th century BC with the definition of a specific space for ritual, an inroad into the realm of the profane: the creation of the temple. “The invention of the temple was not a significant change in cultural practice, but a decision taken by a community of citizens in the sense of making something monumental, i.e. marking the presence of a sacred building in the landscape. The temple became the emblem of the polis, a consignment of the power and prestige of one city vis-à-vis the others, an expression of its identity. In the structure of a competitive culture, like that of the Greek one, shrines play a definitive role,” notes Eliane.

“What archaeology reveals is that, it was as from the building and ‘monumentalization’ of these buildings that religion and, undoubtedly, the common state religious service became the center of the institutional creation of polis and that both religion and worship always acted as the integrating elements in the community,” says Maria Beatriz. Also according to the researcher, the fact of finding so many temples on the outskirts of urban centers, even outside the walls, and the establishment of spatial links between them and the settlement, show how the definition of a precise territory was on the agenda of these communities, that were beginning structure themselves into what later became known as  polis. Archaeological data reveal that already by the 8th century BC the first organization of the polis appeared and that by the 7th century BC they had become fully consolidated. “These temples had the function of marking the territory of an emerging poli, as if they were a possession marker; they also had to perform the function of protecting this common territory from the ‘others’, whether they were Greeks or barbarians. It is accepted, today, that the position of these temples on the borders allowed for a symbolic passageway from the poli to the outside world,” states the professor. In addition, community members, when moving between a central temple and a temple outside the urban area during the festivities or worship rituals to a deity, experienced the space of their city, took possession of it and became integrated with all the other members of the community in this possession of a defined piece of land. “They felt part of the same whole: the poli.”

“Starting from the principle that the occupation of space is the design of society in the land, we cannot understand spatial organization in a Greek city without taking into account this ‘setting’ of the various spheres of society, including religion. We can say that the poli does not exist without religion. Hence our interest in pointing to / mapping out religious spaces materially in order to be able to measure the penetration of religion in the space occupied by polis; in such a way as to be able to unravel the relationship of cults with specific group activities; in such a way as to be able to understand how cults installed in areas remote from the urban center operated, in the sense of legitimizing possession of a particular piece of land, and so on,” says Maria Beatriz. The territory thus occupied by polis, she continues, assumes a great diversity of values that go beyond its immediate use for survival: these are spaces full of energy that define how far the autonomy of a poli goes, up to what point the Greeks understanding of “civilization” went. “Frontiers in Ancient Greece were not drawn up nor looked after as were the frontiers created in the contemporary world in the modern age and which were and still are being consolidated in the world today. They were much more fluid and the territory was guarded by sacred energies, by small settlements and by the founding of new polis. Shrines were erected throughout the territory and often entered into the dispute between cities, because their domain was seen as adding prestige and power.”

WAGNER SOUZA E SILVANaxos, Sicily: partial view of the walled structureWAGNER SOUZA E SILVA

However, the poli was also created in distant places during the ancient Greek expansion in the Mediterranean, which the researchers from Labeca prefer to call apoikia (in the sense of something far from the oikos, the house) instead of colonies in southern Italy and Sicily, founded in the 8th century BC when the poli was still only an sketch of what it would become and did not have a consolidated statute. “Far from their homeland, these groups that originated from many places, had to enter into agreement in order to expropriate land from others and to organize effective occupation. They had to constitute governments, distribute plots of land among the settlers and establish rules and concepts. They came with their own heritage, but in building their new households they had to be creative. The organization of space was an area that received a lot of attention and these Greeks used spatial organization to create a visual language of their own identity.” This language made its way back to Greece and helped consolidate the polis: the orthogonal grid as an organizing element of the specialization and complexity of society; the marking of the grave of the founding ancestor in the agora; the urban walls and their opening to the territory and the use of religious architecture that was made monumental in order to indicate power and identity are all elements that were consolidated in the Greek apoikias of the west and all that was Hellenic absorbed. “These are elements that saw an enormous spread in the Hellenistic period and that persist until today as a visual mark of ancient Greek identity,” notes Maria Beatriz.

In this movement Athens was the great exception and not the rule, as the ancient books teach us. “Most of the texts written by ancient authors and preserved until today were written in such polis and many of them are about them. Archaeology, however, allows us to take a broader and more sophisticated approach to the world created by the Greeks in the Mediterranean, since it retrieves material data from other Greek ‘polis’ (some data suggest that there were 1037 of them). We cannot leave Athens on one side, but we have to try to know the others better in order to understand Greek society in its most extensive sense and in all its complexity. Hence, in Labeca, we have broken away from the ‘Athenocentric’ view of Greek history and have defined Greece as the ‘Greek world’, spread along the edge of the Mediterranean, from southern Spain to the Black Sea, a coast on which the Greeks settled and created what we call ‘Hellenicity’: a specific identity, in which ‘monumentalization’ participated in a subtle power game. The first buildings constructed from permanent material and therefore ‘monumentalized’ in ancient Greece, were the temples. This somewhat explains that the integration bias of the communities that were organized after the 8th century B.C. in the form of polis, was a bias that had religion as a fundamental aspect. Thus, the area of religious construction acquired an importance such that it became a way of consolidating power, both of the autocratic rulers as well as the tyrants of the archaic and classical age, and of democratic leaders, like Pericles in Athens. The ‘monumentalization’ of temples throughout Greece and in the apoikias of the west point to an identification of political power with divine power and to a manipulation of political power by means of religion.”

However, how can ancient Greece be studied from a point as distant as Brazil? “As we have always been archaeologists we know the financial and legal difficulties to carry out archaeological excavations in any of the modern countries where the Greeks settled in the past. Therefore, we have assumed a line of research that has been developed in recent archeology, which is that of ‘landscape studies’ and ‘constructed environments’. Rather than carrying out monographic studies on a single poli, for which we would depend on archaeological excavations, we look for themes where, from excavations already carried out and published, we can establish relationships between larger blocks of documentation,” says the coordinator. Today, the country has important researchers in the field of ancient history, who with their studies are contributing, just as Labeca does, to the international discussion on important issues, based on a “Brazilian way” of studying antiquity. “Keeping up to date with international studies is always a challenge, especially when studying Antiquity. Brazilian specificity lies in our experience with social and cultural situations that can be very valuable when it comes to understanding Antiquity (and criticizing the present one), such as social inequality, social exclusion, patrimonialism and patriarchalism, a peripheral situation, and others,” explains Pedro Paulo Funari, a professor of ancient history and classical archeology at Unicamp.

“Studying ancient history in Brazil today has two important aspects: knowing the history of the country itself and seeing how the uses of the ancient past are linked to different forms of discourse and everyday practices, and also through specialization in universities, learning to look for more dynamic interpretations that indicate the social, gender or ethnic diversity on which these societies were built. As we live in a country with a very acute social and cultural diversity, I think that one of the contributions of this type of study is the possibility of producing more plural, interpretive models about the ancient world,” guarantees Renata Senna Garraffoni, a professor of ancient history at the Department of History at the Federal University of Parana, who recently won a scholarship from the British Academy in England to study Roman gladiatorial games. According to the professor of ancient history, Glayson José da Silva, from the Federal University of São Paulo, “we have research into ancient history that is aligned with centers of excellence abroad; a science that asks more questions and is more concerned about understanding than explaining.”