The Cyclades and the Roman Empire

The Cyclades are a group of islands located in the Aegean midway between Greece and Turkey. Today, they are well known as places of beauty, religious pilgrimage and tourism. Contrary to this idyllic view, in the Roman period, they were used by pirates as safe havens and as places of exile for Rome’s unwanted. At this time, the Cyclades in were seen as insular and desolate and were rarely discussed in contemporary literature. The historical stereotyping has overshadowed alternative views of the Cyclades as places of tourism and cult as well as industry and trade in the Roman period. More recent archaeological data indicates that we still have a lot to learn about the Cyclades and their contribution to the Roman Empire.

The aim of the work I am undertaking at the moment is part of a wider interest I have in understanding the impact (or not) on individual locations when they become part of the Roman Empire. In this respect, I am particularly interested in the diversity of continuity and change, even in a single province, which is often sidelined through categorization according to administrative unit and even stereotyping as parochial and unsophisticated by the ancient sources. In the case of the Cyclades, through a study of a range of connections which can be understood in terms of local and Imperial networks, I am looking at ways of being able to show the rich variety of different relationships individual islands had with each other and Rome which have been somewhat overshadowed by labels of insularity and their reputation as places for exile. There were certainly degrees of awfulness when it came to exile. Many exiles feared the tiny island of Gyaros which is said to have been barren with little water. Other islands, although small may have had at least some pleasant qualities. Kythnos had hot springs and a reputation for producing excellent cheese! Some of the larger and wealthier islands such as Andros and Naxos were also used for exile and often petitions were made for more lenient sentences to be spent on these islands. Evidence from inscriptions, such as dedications to exiles in thanks for their investment, indicates that some exiles had a positive impact on the islands they were forced to live in and some may have generated a temporary boom by attracting a range of new visitors (friends, family & clients) in their exile.

CycladesThere were other, more positive reasons to travel to the Cyclades in this period, and even then tourism (commonly religious tourism) was popular, particularly to locations like Ios to see the supposed site of Homer’s tomb or to the Sanctuary of Dionysus on Andros where according to ancient sources such as Pliny, the water from the river there would taste of wine on certain occasions. The aims of my work are to examine the archaeological evidence for occupation, trade and personal connections in the Cyclades in order to show that there were multiple different kinds of relationships between various Cycladic islands and Rome. The application of network analysis enables a means of understanding how these various relationships can work, some personal or economic, temporary or permanent within a single entity such as the Empire. Already it is clear that Melos took full advantage of its mineral resources (Alum for medicinal products) and its location to become quite an active part of the Roman Imperial network. Archaeological survey and excavation on the island have revealed mosaics, sculptures, theatre, baths and other public buildings. More recent work on other islands such as rescue work on Amorgos and survey work on Keros should in time help to provide a more illuminating view of the diversity of roles the Cycladic islands played. In any case, by the late Antique it is interesting to note that far from being insular, the Cycladic islands are of the first places to have early Christian churches constructed in the eastern Mediterranean.

Rebecca Sweetman, senior lecturer, University of St. Andrews


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