Localism in Hellenistic Greece: Reflections from Hans Beck

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Localism in Hellenistic Greece explores, in exemplary fashion, how ancient societies positioned themselves in a swiftly expanding world. Read the full blog post by co-editor Hans Beck:

“Never underestimate the importance of local knowledge.”

A few years back, amidst global streams of money and financial assets, a major international bank promised its clients to increase their wealth through intimate knowledge of local investment conditions. The campaign was launched at a time when I had started to think about the power of the local – not in the arena of global capitalism but in a rather different socio-cultural environment. As a historian of the remote past, my research interests gravitate toward the world of ancient Greece. From the early 2010s, a new tidal wave of network studies had wielded immense impact over how we conceive of Greek culture in antiquity. Fast-paced, hyperconnected, intertwined, a hybrid of entangled cultures in the eastern Mediterranean: the network paradigm deeply altered the ways in which we talk about the ancient Greeks. At the same time, I began to wonder if there was a flip side to ancient Greek globalization. What was the role of the local horizon – the small, manageable world of the city and its surrounding countryside? Sure, Greek cities were interconnected with others, but how did experiences of the global resonate in discourses and practices on the ground?

Local often insinuates confinement in place and meaning. It suggests an implicit relation to something of greater exposure. This is even clearer with the noun, when the term “locals” is used in a patronizing sense, referring to people with a limited understanding of prevailing complexities in the world. All the while, local also triggers a different intervention. As early as 1983, the acclaimed movie Local Hero captured the desire for deceleration and secludedness in times of rapid change. In the movie, both are found in Ferness, a fictional village along the remote shores of Scotland’s North Atlantic coast. As the plot unfolds, Ferness becomes emblematic of an authentic lifestyle. Widely connected with the outside world by land and sea, the magnetic force of place nevertheless ties the lead characters to the local horizon: its natural environment, social practices, and patterns of reasoning. Ferness is the opposite to global networks and faceless corporations so beautifully debunked by Canadian author Naomi Klein. The innate quality of the local is however only understood if and when we delve into an embodied environment, a place where the abstract current of global culture translates into the lived experience.

The world of Hellenistic Greece is a posterchild of all this. Variously labelled the “Age of Experiment,” “of Conquest,” or “of Revolution,” scholarly approaches to the Hellenistic Age have always been subject to sociocultural discourses of the day. Current interest in the gripping narrative of cultural globalization lends the latest fascination to the period. The rapid growth in connectivity, propelling the dynamic fusion of societal interactions across Hellenistic Eurasia, marked a macroscopic movement that, almost naturally, attracts ancient historians and globalization scholars alike. Coupled with a new wave of postcolonial studies that urge us to carefully consider the mechanics of transculturality and rethink the governing ideas that steer conversations about cultural centre and periphery, the local-global entanglement of the Mediterranean world and the Afro-Asian landmass make the Hellenistic Age more immediate than ever. 

There is however a local caveat. Greece itself has long been seen as a cultural space belittled by Alexander the Great and the fainting force of his conquests. True, the notion of throwback into local demise has come under scrutiny in recent scholarship. But the return of the local to the core agenda of Hellenistic scholarship progresses only slowly – I believe this is the case also because the local paradigm tends to make the ancient Greeks less modern and fanciful than they appear in narratives of networks and ubiquitous cultural connectivity. When I talked to Sheila L. Ager about my intent to “go local” in the Hellenistic Age, that is, to lend depth to notions of locality, localism, and boundedness in place, we felt that the Waterloo Institute for Hellenistic Studies provided a congenial intellectual environment to push this further. So, we put together a team of scholars from Canada, US, UK, Germany, Italy, and New Zealand to explore how the people in mainland Greece, from Thessaly to Cape Tainaron, responded to the changes around them. The goal was to delve into their local discourse environments, to unravel conversations about their place in a world that had grown so much larger. Our collective effort brought forth curious results. Most eminently, it taught us that, when dealing with ancient Greek history, we should never underestimate the importance of the local.

Learn more about Localism in Hellenistic Greece, here.


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