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Reviewed by:
  • Archaeologies of Colonialism: Consumption, Entanglement, and Violence in Ancient Mediterranean France
  • Jonathan P. Conant
Archaeologies of Colonialism: Consumption, Entanglement, and Violence in Ancient Mediterranean France. By Michael Dietler (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2010) 464 pp. $60.00

At its core, Dietler's important new study is an astute examination of the complex encounters that took place between indigenous inhabitants of the lower Rhône basin and various foreigners—Etruscans, Greeks, and Romans—all of whom made their way to France's Mediterranean littoral between the late seventh and first century B.C.E. Given that the textual sources for these encounters are generally late, Dietler's analysis prudently emphasizes the material record over the written one, additionally drawing from the tools of cultural anthropology to read the archaeological evidence in a broad cross-cultural perspective. Dietler further understands foreign-indigenous encounters in ancient Mediterranean France through the lens of colonialism, defined as "the projects and practices of control marshaled in interactions between societies linked in asymmetrical relations of power and the processes of social and cultural transformation resulting from those practices" (18).

The first three chapters develop the theoretical framework that structures Dietler's approach. In the modern period, education in classical literature helped to shape the discourse surrounding European colonialism. In turn, colonial ideas profoundly influenced scholarly understandings of ancient indigenous-foreign encounters, which were all too often imagined in terms of a unidirectional flow of Greco-Roman culture to less "civilized" regions of the Mediterranean. Dietler argues instead that specific cultural motivations governed indigenous societies' consumption of—or lack of interest in—foreign goods and practices, and that such goods and practices took on new meanings in their indigenous contexts. He cites the "complex process by which alien colonists [End Page 453] and native peoples became increasingly entangled in webs of new relations and through which there developed a gradual transformation of all parties to the encounter" (9). A similar case has been made for other periods and places in Mediterranean history, but rarely, if ever, has it been argued with the theoretical sophistication deployed by Dietler.

The next five chapters explore specific aspects of indigenous-foreign exchange, including questions of ethnicity and identity; the intensifying social importance of violence in Mediterranean France, from about the time of the foundation of the Greek colony of Massalia (Marseille) onward; the changing character of local urban and ritual landscapes; the new taste for wine that developed within indigenous societies; and how the trade in this wine also contributed to Etruscan and Massalian economies and societies. A brief conclusion presents an excellent synopsis and diachronic re-evaluation of the major findings of the book, including a succinct consideration of the early Roman imperial period.

Dietler's analysis is subtle, nuanced, and perceptive, but, in the end, not entirely convincing about the utility of colonialism as a category of analysis when applied to the lower Rhône basin before the Roman period. Dietler himself broaches this question with respect to the Etruscan and Greek presence in southern France—the main focus of the book—but ultimately seems to conclude that these peoples' contacts with indigenous societies can indeed be understood in terms of "colonial encounter." Until the second century B.C.E., however, it is by no means certain that regional asymmetries of power favored the foreign settlers. To be sure, their interactions with local populations proved to be prefatory to Roman colonialism (23), but framing the inquiry as a whole in terms of "colonialism" does not clearly further our understanding of the social processes at work in the ancient southern Rhône basin any better than Dietler's far more compelling concept of "entanglement."

All in all, Dietler has produced an outstanding work of scholarship that is sophisticated, intelligent, and insightful, and that deserves the close attention of scholars of all tendencies who are interested in cross-cultural encounter and social change both in the ancient Mediterranean and well beyond.

Jonathan P. Conant
Brown University
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Additional Information

ISSN
1530-9169
Print ISSN
0022-1953
Pages
pp. 453-454
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-29
Open Access
No
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