Monday, August 16, 2010

Phil Paine revamps his blog

One of the most original blogs on the web is, which has been around for some years and which I have often quoted and linked to. (Phil and I are long-time friends and sometime collaborators, and have taught each other a lot.) But the blog has up to now been difficult to reference. So I cheer the reorganization of Phil's on-the-net home. The old material is being migrated into the new format, and new material has been appearing since Phil reintroduced the blog on August 1.

Phil recently read Peter M. Edwell's Between Rome and Persia, about the ancient Middle Eastern cities of Palmyra and Dura Europos and commented thereon:

What inter­ests me is that Palmyra had a fully oper­a­tional boule and demos on the clas­si­cal Greek model.

It’s con­ven­tional to dis­miss any form of urban democ­racy in such a late period as a degen­er­ate left­over from ear­lier times. Demo­c­ra­tic insti­tu­tions died, we are told, with the arrival of the Great Empires, and any­thing that looks like them must be a hol­low ghost, not a dynamic idea. Given Palmyra’s his­tory, this inter­pre­ta­tion doesn’t seem plau­si­ble. Palmyra was never a Greek city. It’s inhab­i­tants were semitic, and its ear­lier gov­ern­ing insti­tu­tions were said to be an alliance of 26 semitic tribes. The boule and demos struc­ture was adopted at the time when Parthian and Roman influ­ences were strong, long after the Seleu­cids had departed. The Roman Emperor Hadrian vis­ited the city, and the Palmyrenes were care­ful to enact a tar­iff struc­ture con­ge­nial to Rome, but there was no ques­tion of Rome inter­fer­ing in the city’s inter­nal gov­er­nance. No Roman polit­i­cal terms or cus­toms were adopted. The ter­mi­nol­ogy and insti­tu­tions were entirely Clas­si­cal Greek, and not some Hel­lenis­tic hodge­podge derived from the Seleu­cids. This would indi­cate to me that we can­not inter­pret this kind of gov­er­nance among the Palmyrenes as being any kind of “left­over” or impo­tent for­mal­ity car­ried over by unthink­ing, habit­ual Hel­lenism. More likely, demo­c­ra­tic ideas remained avail­able to city-dwellers in many places, and where con­di­tions were favourable, such as in a pros­per­ous trad­ing cen­ter that the large empires found strate­gi­cally nec­es­sary to leave to their own affairs, they could be called up and employed. I think that we will even­tu­ally come to real­ize that there is a sig­nif­i­cant ele­ment of con­ti­nu­ity in demo­c­ra­tic ideas from Antiq­uity onwards, much to the con­trary of cur­rent ortho­doxy on the matter.

There will be more good stuff to come.

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