Dr. Irad Malkin

By Jacob Kramer

Ancient Colonisation in a Comparative Perspective

Malkin sketches out the concept of fairness and equality within Greek (colonial) enterprises, their central position within these colonial societies, and how these mindsets translated to practice, analysing colonies such as Cyrene, Syracuse, Megara and even Sparta. He argues that the distribution of lands to settlers ought to be studied in the wider context of a broader framework of collective distributions by lot, with which it shares a broad range of values, conventions and also vocabulary, instead of essentially a “land problem.” They were part of a broader Greek framework of ‘fairness’ decided by chance. Malkin emphasises that this approach to egalitarianism was not an ideology, but a frame of reference. We see similarities in colonial land distributions and inheritance by lot, in which each heir would get an equal share. Colonial ventures would allow heirs to both receive a whole kleros, instead of splitting it (which, over the generations, would result in an proliferation of infinitesimal plots). In this way, Greek societies kept ‘re-starting’ on a more-or-less egalitarian basis by founding new colonies (and thus giving new lots to colonists).

The use of lots in this way implies a certain ‘horizontal’ vision of society in which the values of fairness and equality are complimentary. This vision was not only concerned with the principle of fairness, but also about the results derived therefrom. Of course, the knowledge that can be derived from foundational decrees and (some) ancient texts are necessarily limited. Malkin points out these were prescriptive, describing a situation or process that ought to be.  This may be pointed out as a weakness; the research seems to be mostly focused on the literary evidence. References to archaeological findings etc. are rather sparse. Malkin recognises this, and argues that we are bound to find deviations and incompleteness (perhaps archaeological finds that seemingly contradict the thesis) but we know of the presence of a mindset that underpinned these colonial ventures, and that is equally important and no less of a historical fact. Nor was this equality necessary long-lasting or absolute. Even if the assigned portion of land was equal for everyone, this didn’t preclude settlers from bringing existing wealth with them, or acquiring more. Equality (in terms of wealth) would not last after successive generations, but the starting point of the colony was this concept of equality. It denoted a certain societal minimum of equality and sharing of resources in the community (at the start of the colony). Eventually this mindset broadened to incorporate more abstract ideals, such as “equal portions of law for each” i.e. equality of rights (isonomia) —  the basis of democracy (although they are not synonymous). With recurring large-scale colonisation, societies effectively ‘restarted’ on this egalitarian footing. 

What I would’ve liked to see mentioned and discussed is the role and position of gender this Hellenic framework of equality and the concept of ‘fairness’, i.e. the (in)ability of women to hold kleros, issues of inheritance and so forth, but I can imagine why it was not included in the core discussion. Even though both the time and ‘venue’ were far from ideal, I found myself engrossed in the presentation. Even with millions of potential distractions at my fingertips, sat in the comfort of my own home, the presentation kept me interested and focused. I’ve come across Dr. Malkin’s work before, and I was thrilled to hear him speak in person (albeit digitally).