Introduction to Carving Communities

‘Carving Communities in Stone: Inscriptions as Media of Hellenistic Inter-City Relationships’ (working title) is an individual PhD project, funded by the Dutch research council (NWO), running from September 2015 to 2021. It is conducted at the University of Groningen under supervision of Professors Onno van Nijf (Chair of Ancient History), Luis Lobo-Guerrero (Chair of History and Theory of International Relations) and Christina Williamson (Assistant Professor in Ancient History).

The main question that this project seeks to answer, is how inscriptions that recorded inter-polis interactions in the Hellenistic world functioned as a medium for the formation of a sense of community between cities.

Start of an inscription on the Prienean temple of Athena recording the arbitration by the city of Rhodos of a border conflict between the cities Priene and Samos (IKPriene 132-133: 196-191 BCE). Photo: British Museum. Click to enlarge.

By shedding light on this question my research not only contributes to our knowledge on the Hellenistic world, but also to our understanding of the creation of communities that cross national borders in general. A prime example is the contemporary idea of a collective European identity, and how it could take a sustainable shape in the context of diverse cultural influence.

Inscribed decree in which the city of Aptera honours the Koan doctor Kalippos (IG XII 4.1.171: second half of 2nd C BCE). Photo: author. Click to enlarge.

To better understand how inscriptions recording inter-city relationships functioned as media with their own agency in society, I have developed an approach focusing on three aspects of the comprehensive media strategy that inscribing was a part of: the connectivity language that inscriptions recording inter-city relationships were formulated in; the coordinating events (section still under construction) where the information contained in them was broadcast; and the cosmopolitan spaces where these inscriptions were set up.

As material, I have used the inscriptions from two Hellenistic cities, which serve as case studies: Kos, an island in the Aegean Sea; and Priene, a city on the Turkish coast near the island Samos. These cities form excellent test cases, since they both flourished in the Hellenistic period and each of them provides a large corpus of decree and decree-like inscriptions recording inter-city relationships. 

The case studies. Map:Google. Click to enlarge.
An impression of the Hellenistic world and its cities. Map: Ian Mladjov. Click to enlarge.


After the death of Alexander the Great, his empire fell apart under various kings. After this fragmentation, the Greek world would never again reach political unity on a similar scale as under Alexander’s leadership. Yet increasingly, the various existing and newly founded cities in this enormous area started to connect with each other. Greek temples, theatres and market squares came to dominate the civic environments of new as well as old cities throughout the area of Alexander’s conquests, and Greek political structure as well as the Greek language became the norm in many of them.

Decree about the swearing of an oath to seal a treaty between the city of Kos and the nearby island Kalymna (IG XII 4.1.152: 208 BCE or shortly after). Photo: author. Click to enlarge.

The idea for this project was born from the realisation that at about the same time, the Hellenistic world saw an enormous rise in the production of inscriptions that record contacts between Greek cities. Good examples of such inscriptions are records of cities exchanging judges and of official festival visitors, records of arbitration in conflicts between cities, treaties, and honorific decrees for citizens of other cities. Written in Greek and remarkably uniform in shape, formulas and idiom, these inscriptions are yet another hallmark of the cultural integration of the Hellenistic world.

Simultaneously, they show how many cities, despite the hegemony of Alexander’s successors, still claimed a certain amount of autonomy. Although collaboration in political or military matters was often impossible, and a certain amount of rivalry still existed, cities clearly used the available institutional instruments – and even developed new ones – to forge relationships between them.


My research aims to contribute to our understanding of the development of connectivity and uniformity between cities in the first part of the Hellenistic period (ca. 330-150 BCE). Since inscriptions were an important medium for inter-city contacts in this period, my central question is what function these textual monuments had in this community-building process. How did publishing texts on stone contribute to the cultural convergence and connectivity of these cities? How did inscriptions promote the creation of a sustainable Greek community, despite the lack of political unity?

Theoretical background

I will interpret these developments from an innovative theoretical framework. A concept like globalisation, for instance, usually used for large-scale cultural convergence in the modern world, may be useful in interpreting the processes at hand in the Hellenistic period. The notion of mediatisation, the idea that a society in which a particular medium is increasingly used is shaped by it to a certain extent, could on the other hand help us understand the function of inscriptions in this process. Another important concept for my research is Benedict Anderson’s imagined community, which proposes mechanisms through which groups of which the members do not necessarily know each other can still feel connected (like in modern nation-formation).

To gain insight into these processes, I have developed a method to approach the function of inscriptions through three aspects of media strategies employed in their publication. Read more about this in the following sections: