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 2023. 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 open a larger version.

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 state 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 open a larger version.

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 open a larger version.
An impression of the Hellenistic world and its cities. Map: Ian Mladjov. Click to open a larger version.


After the death of Alexander the Great, his empire fell apart in various kingdoms. 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 open a larger version.

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 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 one another. Although the role that inscriptions could play in this process was hinted at by John Ma in his important article Peer Polity Interaction (2003), he never further elaborated on the mechanisms that made this possible.


My research aims to contribute to our understanding of the development and maintenance 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?


I interpret these developments from an innovative theoretical framework: I approach the Greek world of cities as an imagined community, rooted in an attitude of cosmopolitanism. The role of inscriptions in bringing this about is understood as a mediatisation effect, made possible by the nature of inscribed decrees as performative speech acts.

Inspired by the texts of the inscriptions themselves, which tell us in intention clauses how their publication was expected to affect their audience, I bring this conceptual approach into practice by focusing on three aspects. These three aspects are: connectivity language that inscriptions used to describe inter-city relationships; cosmopolitan spaces where these inscriptions were set up; and coordinating events where the information contained in them was broadcast.

The Greeks cleverly combined these three aspects, I argue, in a comprehensive media strategy that ensured the community-forming effect of inscribing decrees. An introduction to each of the aspects can be found through the buttons below.