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Reviewed by:
  • Mercury’s Wings: Exploring Modes of Communication in the Ancient World ed. by F. S. Naiden, Richard J. A. Talbert
  • Andrew M. Riggsby
F. S. Naiden and Richard J. A. Talbert (eds.). Mercury’s Wings: Exploring Modes of Communication in the Ancient World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. xxxiv, 419. $85.00. ISBN 978-0-19-538684-4.

The editors propose “an initial exploration of a new field” (communications in the ancient world) in a collection of seventeen compact chapters. The scope ranges in time from the founding of the Egyptian state to the rise of Islam and in space across the Mediterranean basin and the Near East, briefly extending to South Asia. The first two of four roughly equal sections treat topics that might be thought inherent to the idea of communications: (1) networks (constraints and opportunities presented by the Mediterranean environment; libraries as network nodes; communication in trade networks; battlefield communication) and (2) modes (in particular nonverbal ones: Hittite and Neo-Assyrian monuments, image types under the Roman Empire, music, and gesture). The latter two are structured around ideas that were found more distinctly, if contingently, important for the world under study: (3) communications with the gods (synthetic studies of communication in Mesopotamian religion and Christianity and more particular ones on Greek pilgrimage and oracles) and (4) the cross-cultural communications that necessarily arose in the great multicultural empires (two chapters on diplomatic communication, the special case of Egypt, Roman coinage, and mapping).

The individual contributions generally aim at sophisticated description of the range of possibilities within their chosen areas of inquiry, rather than at defending narrow theses. In some cases this involves a mini-survey; more often it is a matter of carefully selected case studies. There is no way 350 pages or so could cover the enormous range of time, space, and practice the editors have chosen for themselves; but the wide variety of materials considered and the questions asked of them offer an important skeleton, and they are likely to serve well for what is meant to be an inspirational work rather than a capstone to the field.

The one thing I felt lacking, even given the preliminary nature of the project, was more theorization of the notion of “communication.” Despite raising some important specific questions, the editors do not ever quite define the term, and few of the individual contributors (even ones who are in some narrower sense more “theoretical”) address it at all. Jennifer Trimble’s use of a distinction between “transmission” and “ritual” views of communication (and the editors’ appeal to a similar “informative” / “affective” distinction) hints at a number of important parameters that need to be developed, but both specific frameworks seem to me to cut off discussion by premature dichotomization. As it stands, the book immediately suggests a lot of future work that essentially fills in its matrix, whether that means doing full-length studies of topics briefly discussed here (as has already been done in a few cases) or—probably more to the point—by transposition. What could be learned by taking the questions of chapter X and applying them to the material of chapter Y (or some other analog)? What is less clear is how to build up from there analytically. Suppose that in the near future [End Page 581] we actually have an abundance of such studies. How would we move from aggregating them to integrating them? A particular case of this, but perhaps an especially important one, is the connection between utilitarian and, let us say with the editors, affective communication. Several contributors note these operating side by side in particular cases, but the connection, if any, typically remains opaque. Is there a way to bring them together, or is this a sign that we really are dealing with two distinct phenomena?

In any case, the individual essays are clear, informative, and (in the areas in which I am competent to judge) convincing in their particulars, and the editors have gathered an impressively rich and wide body of work. Anyone interested in the “classical” world or the neighboring civilizations stands to learn a great deal from the collection, and I expect it...


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pp. 581-582
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