Ancient borders, modern issues.

The front page of the Washington Post of 18 September 2011 featured a column entitled “Disputed Territory” discussing China’s territorial claim over the Spratly Islands – the claimant arguing that shards of Chinese pottery unearthed there entitle China to “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea. This is just one of the more than 200 border disputes currently being fought on all five continents. In the 21st century, border disputes are among the first causes of war.

This will not surprise the students of ancient Greek history. History apprises us that border disputes between neighboring cities were the first cause of was in the Archaic and Classical periods. Sparta’s perpetual conflict with Argos over the Kynouria, Athens’ dispute with Megara over the hiera orgas, and the fight between the Phocidians and the Lokrians over some pastures of  Mount Parnassos are among the best-known examples of such conflicts. Inscriptions offer a wealth of details over border regulations and international arbitrations. It looks as though not much has changed since Antiquity: today too the scramble for natural ressources across borders leads to friction.

Borderland studies have attracted some scholarly attention in the past decades. Recently, anthropological studies have focused on understanding social life in the borderland[1], while geographers, students of political science and law, and sociolinguists have each studied borders from their a particular angle – and added to our understanding of life in the borderlands. Can this multidisciplinary approach be helpful to the classicist? Can pre-modern or even contemporary border issues help us understand ancient borders?

Borderland studies can help us better to understand the cultural, political and material differences between the populations living on both sides of a border separating two ancient Greek states, or to establish comparisons between ancient and pre-modern times. They also examine how the balance of power between two neighbors has an influence on the border. Some studies show that populations straddling a border can develop dual economic and social ties that are ignored or dismissed by one side’s governing authority. Perhaps we find an echo of this ambivalent situation in Aristotle, who mentions a law banning the people living near the border to take part in deliberations about waging war against a neighboring state, “because their private interest makes them incapable of deliberating well” (Politics, VII, 1330 a 20).

The evidence about ancient Greek borders is scant. Greek borders are not well known – and, consequently, little studied – as they are hard to find on the ground and distant from the cities, which have monopolized the attention of classical scholars. But recent trends in archaeology may change all this, and shift scholarly attention to ancient borders. Thanks to the development of surface surveys and landscape studies, archaeologists have been able to gather new evidence for studying ancient borders and the populations lining them. Thanks to markers such as settlements, pottery and other artifacts, archaeologists can undertake diachronic studies of borders and speculate on such issues as the identity and economy of borderlands, the connectivity[2] between neighboring microregions (the ways in which they interact), the evolution of border settlements and the dynamic nature of a border on the long term.

At the Center, we recognize the importance of archaeology for the study of borders: fellow Jennifer Gates-Foster is examining the material components of frontier culture in Upper Egypt during the Hellenistic area (see her blog here), while I am studying the borders of Attica and the role they played for Athens during its long history, from the formation of Attica to its integration into the Roman Empire. Expect to hear more from us in the following months.


[1] See for example I. W. Zartman (ed), Understanding Life in the Borderlands. Boundaries in Depth and in Motion, The Univeristy of Georgia Press, Athens and London (2010).

[2] On the meaning of this concept, see P. Horden and N. Purcell, The Corrupting Sea. A Study of Mediterranean History, Blackwell, Malden and Oxford (2000) 123.