Dr. Ed Bispham

By Britt Postema

‘Under Eastern Eyes?’  Roman Republican ‘Colonization’ through some Classical and Greek Hellenistic Filters

Even from its earliest days as a monarchy, Rome set itself up as a colonizing power. Confiscating and settling conquered territories was a means of extending Rome’s sphere of influence – a practice that was continued under the Republic, and, later, under the Empire. While, over the years, scholars have worked hard at creating lists of colonial foundations, one just has to take a step back to see that the history of Roman republican colonization, the focus of the research presented, is a skeletal history at best. Unfortunately, the literary and epigraphic record from this period is rather slim. Aside from archaeological evidence, how can we learn more about the nature of colonial ventures during the republican period? This is exactly the question that Ed Bispham asked himself during the presentation of his research (‘Under Eastern Eyes?’  Roman Republican ‘Colonization’ through some Classical and Greek Hellenistic Filters) at the 2021 conference: Ancient Colonialism in a Comparative Perspective. 

Bispham asserts that, in comparison with the literary and epigraphic records available for classical and Hellenistic Greece, the Roman record is quite slim. There are several valuable sources, such as Livy, Velleius Paterculus, Strabo and more, but their accounts are fragmented. Bispham suggests that we can study the Greek record and ask ourselves the question in what ways these eastern records can help us think about colonization in the (mid)republic. While not all extracted information is transferable, it can raise new questions and help us to understand colonization in the context of the ancient world. 

By analyzing Greek inscriptions and records, such as fragments of Lokrian community law and the Lumbarda Psephisma, Bispham argues that the Greek East can give us more insight into a wide range of colonial realities, such as the access to shared land, laws, land distribution, the relation between mother city and colony, and the colonists and their incentives for moving to the new settlements and staying there. The information contained in these literary and epigraphic sources allows us to raise questions that would otherwise escape us. And, by combining them with existing Roman records, it could provide a deeper understanding.

Bispham certainly makes a strong case for true comparative analysis between the Greek and Roman world and their colonial realities. By doing so, he is also combatting an old problem, namely the tendency to dissociate the Greek and Roman world as if they were not two interacting agents in the Mediterranean world. A note should be made, however. His proposed research is fascinating and will likely prove valuable to the continued research of Roman colonial ventures, but as of yet there are no substantive conclusions, something Bispham also admits. Additionally, further research would be required to ascertain to what extent we can transfer the knowledge extracted from the Greek record to the Roman reality. In conclusion, Bispham has provided us with a valuable and truly comparative approach for the continued research into Roman republican colonization.