Ancient history professor Irad Malkin of Tel Aviv Univ recommending my book The Secret of the West (2007) in his book on the Ancient Greek colonies networks in November 2011 (shortcut).

Borrowing some concepts from modern physics, Malkin attempted to show in this book that network theory may help to understand and interpret Ancient Greek colonization of the Mediterranean basin. Malkin aimed at applying the ideas of physicists Watts and Strogatz ("small world" networks) and of physicists Alberts and Barabasi ("scale invariant" networks). The idea was excellent. However, regrettably, Malkin mostly failed in this bold attempt, due to an inefficient and disorganized writing. For example, he tends to use twenty lines when one would be needed, and one line when twenty would be needed.

(Irad Malkin: A Small Greek World – Networks in the Ancient Mediterranean, Oxford University Press, 01 Nov 2011, ISBN 9781108296892.

Safety copy from internet version May 2020. Source.
The Secret of Science


A Small Greek World:
Networks in the Ancient Mediterranean

Irad Malkin

Oxford University Press
01 Nov 2011
ISBN 9781108296892

Editor's Description

Greek civilization and identity crystallized not when Greeks were close together but when they came to be far apart. It emerged during the Archaic period when Greeks founded coastal city states and trading stations in ever-widening horizons from the Ukraine to Spain. No center directed their diffusion: mother cities were numerous and the new settlements ("colonies") would often engender more settlements. The "Greek center" was at sea; it was formed through back-ripple effects of cultural convergence, following the physical divergence of independent settlements. "The shores of Greece are like hems stitched onto the lands of Barbarian peoples" (Cicero).

Overall, and regardless of distance, settlement practices became Greek in the making and Greek communities far more resembled each other than any of their particular neighbors like the Etruscans, Iberians, Scythians, or Libyans. The contrast between "center and periphery" hardly mattered (all was peri-, "around"), nor was a bi-polar contrast with Barbarians of much significance. Should we admire the Greeks for having created their civilization in spite of the enormous distances and discontinuous territories separating their independent communities? Or did the salient aspects of their civilization form and crystallize because of its architecture as a de-centralized network? This book claims that the answer lies in network attributes shaping a "Small Greek World," where separation is measured by degrees of contact rather than by physical dimensions.


Pages 22-23

(...) It is no accident, for example, that Corinth was the mother city of both Corcyra (Corfu) in the Ionian Sea and Sicilian Syracuse (both founded around the same time) (47), since to reach Sicily from mainland Greece, it was wise to make a maritime journey “up” before “descending” with the northeasterly winds (the entire Athenian navy repeated the pattern when sailing to besiege Syracuse in the late fifth century).

Finally, maritime straits such as Messina, the Bosporus or the Crimean Bosporus did not wait for modern strategists to evaluate their importance, and Greek colonies were settled, sometimes in pairs, to control them (48).

Networks may be transformed, especially with the proliferation of permanent nodes and the intensification of flows. Dormant for long periods, trade networks underwent a period of intensive activation and qualitative change. It started during the first part of the eighth century, with “proto (or pre) colonial” contacts (49). The second half of the century witnessed an intensive founding of new cities that qualitatively changed the more ephemeral networks of trading stations (emporia). “Towns are like electric transformers”, says Braudel (51).

The eighth century started the process of transforming disparate maritime cultures into a Mediterranean civilization based on ties among mostly city-oriented nodes. Phoenicians, Greeks and to some degree Etruscans were founding new settlements, thus signalling a social and political model diametrically opposed to what the far more affluent ancient Near East had to offer. Instead of a multiethnic empire, with a "King of Kings" at its head and “subjects” for a population, they created networks of numerous, independent, political communities made up of “citizens”.

This became a longue durée contrast between the political cultures of the ancient Near East and the Mediterranean, expressed in the conflicts between Greeks and Persians and replicated in later periods, especially by the conflicts between the Mediterranean republics and the eastern empires of Byzantium and the Ottomans (52).

The transition to intensive connectivity among cities and emporia may be illustrated by a Greek literary representation of a Phoenician example: The Odyssey describes a floating Phoenician emporion, a ship anchoring for one year, trading with the natives, yet making it impossible for the Phoenicians traders to ever return because, just before leaving, they also abduct the prince Eumaios, who ends up as Odysseus’s pig farmer in Ithaca (53.

Think, by contrast, of Phoenician Motya, a tiny offshore island in western Sicily that served as a permanent base of commerce and contact also with Carthage, itself a major Phoenician foundation (from Tyre) dating back perhaps to ca. 800. The distinction between the temporary emporion and the permanent colony (the two forms of settlements existed side by side) (...)

Note 52 (on page 22):      For a wide-reaching emphasis on the role of the long and fragmented European seashore as the longue-durée cause of the Rise of the West, see Cosandey (2007). Cf. Mollat du Jourdin (1993).

Pages 44-45

One of the fascinating achievements of The Corrupting Sea (124) is the emphasis on Mediterranean micro-regions.  Many of the Braudelian patterns appear in each of these regions, although Braudel presumed them to be applicable only to the Mediterranean as a whole.  For example Braudel’s “mountains” where people are less prone to be subjects of central authority, emerge when observing the Lebanon together with the Biqa valley, as containing a whole spectrum of characteristics (e.g. climatic, economic, social) that according to Braudel could be depicted only with very wide brushstrokes. 

The Mediterranean, therefore, still appears as it does in the Braudelian model (“the Mediterranean is exchange” or “the whole Mediterranean consists in movements in space”) but more as a network connecting the micro-regions or micro-networks, with the added recognition that the pattern itself is replicated within each micro-region (or conversely, what happens in each is replicated in the entire Mediterranean). In other words, micro-networks are structurally similar to the mega-network within which they exist or with which they coalesce. 

Finding the correct vocabulary is not easy. The term “connectivity” which appears throughout the Corrupting Sea seems to have been appropriated from communication theory. I believe that the micro-regions are equivalent to “fractals”, a concept borrowed from fractal physics and chaos theory (125).

It is curious that a prominent example used by the mathematician Mandelbrot, who developed fractal theory, was maritime, fitting the Mediterranean context of this book. He observed that sections of coastlines replicated the patterns and contours of much larger sections. Fractals are everywhere.  A section of a snowflake replicates the entire snowflake, that of a tree leaf, the entire leaf -- in fact the entire tree, and so on. In a sense, each micro-region in Horden and Purcell's Mediterranean is also a fractal of Mediterranean networks (126). 

In sum, instead of looking at nodes as solid points, we may now, with greater sophistication, approach the issue of micro-regions serving as regional network clusters. In historical terms (rather than environmental terms), this involves observation of areas such as Sicily (chapters 3, 4) or southern France and Spain (chapters 5, 6), the regions that constituted a middle ground of settlement and cultural transfers. (...)

Note 125 (on page 45):      Mandelbrot (1967, 2004); Peitgen, Jürgens and Saupe (2004); cf Cosandey (2007) pp.563-69.

Pages 48-49   

Greg Dening, in his suggestive book Islands and Beaches (142), elaborates on the themes of the shore as a middle ground of commerce and settlement, both for people arriving from ship to shore and for those coming from the hinterland to the beaches. Odysseus had already observed that the island across from the terrible Cyclopes was “good-to-settle”, not least because the Cyclopes possessed no ship (143). 

The observation may serve as a blueprint for Greek perspectives of settlement, consistently maritime since the Dark Ages (settlements in the Aegean and Asia minor) and the Archaic Period (city foundations in the Mediterranean and Black seas).  One advantage of the network approach immediately comes to the foreground: the ship-to-shore perspective is consistent throughout periods that historians like to maintain as distinct, precisely the Dark Ages (ca 1200 – 750 BCE) and the early Archaic Period (ca eighth-sixth century BCE). Odysseus observations may belong to either one, thus providing a longue durée to the history of Greek settlements and city foundations. 

Greek have been accumulating the experience of accumulating the same patterns of choices of sites, advancing relatively little inland, and also serving short-distance navigation and cabotage trading (long distance trading done via short hops and changing agents) (144), while keeping in touch by means of lines of long-distance sailing (lines that were growing longer due to further settlements). This Mediterranean movement in space, following a consistent pattern of experiencing sea and land from ship to shore, not only created a “Greek” network but also informed the pattern for further settlements. [This paragraph gives a good example of hapless style...]

Maritime connectivity obviously depended on the technology of shipbuilding and ship-related matters. Long-distance shipping represented a technology alien to the great Near Eastern empires, and the frustrated ambitions of the Persian king to rule the sea provides a good illustration of what he failed to achieve.   [Another good example of awkward reasoning and style]

“Technology in general embodies and enforces a particular way of being in the word, a particular conception of human relatioms (145).  Can we speak of ancient ships as providing this type of technology of communication? It appears so. No one in Antiquity had a monopoly over shipbuilding, just as no one had a monopoly over maritime routes.    Ships, relatively free to move across maritime spaces (in contrast to controllable routes over land and river) could skirt around controlling hubs. The result in the Archaic Mediterranean was the creation of numerous, independent political communities. It is no accident, perhaps, that the few maritime civilizations in the Archaic Mediterranean, namely the Etruscans, the Phoenicians and the Greeks, all developed city-state cultures and that all expanded by means of maritime colonization, some more significantly than others (146).

Moreover, both the Greeks and the Phoenicians, we know too little the Etruscans, retained a sense of wider connectedness (e.g. through Delphi for the Greeks or the annual religious expeditions to Tyre and the god Melqart by Phoenicians) (see chapter 4).  

Note 146 (on page 49):      Note the interesting ideas advanced by David Cosandey (2007 [1997]) about the role of the sea and what he terms articulations thalassographiques for the spread of scientific knowledge and the rise of the West.

Review of Malkin’s A Small Greek World

March 11, 2013

Recension publiée par Archeological Networks

The end of 2011 for me was marked by the publication of two new networky books. The first one was Knappett’s An Archaeology of Interaction, which I reviewed for Antiquity (and I wrote a more in-depth review on this blog). The second one was Irad Malkin’s A Small Greek World, my review of which finally appeared in the journal Classical Review. You can access it on the journal’s website, download it from my bibliography page or read it here.

IRAD MALKIN. A small Greek world. Networks in the ancient Mediterranean. xix+251 pages, 18 illustrations. 2011. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 978-0-19-973481-8 hardback $60.

History books too often read like a series of unconnected events, dates, places and people, the sum of which is considered the historical narrative. In ‘A Small Greek World’ Irad Malkin does the exact opposite by focusing on the ties that bind and give meaning to historically attested entities. The reader is taken on a guided tour through the web of countless historical relationships between people, places and cultural practices in the Archaic Mediterranean and Black Sea. One is invited to explore this “Greek Wide Web” as a set of nodes and links to appreciate its small-world network structure and how long-distance links were instrumental to the emergence of “Greek civilization as we know it” (p. 5). At least, this is the hypothesis Malkin advocates in his latest book.

The introductory chapter sets out Malkin’s network perspective, which forms the book’s main innovative contribution to the study of ancient history (mainly due to an adoption of concepts from physics), which is why this review will be largely concerned with evaluating this aspect of the book.

Malkin adopted the concept of small-world networks from two physicists, Duncan Watts and Steven Strogatz, who use the term to refer to a range of networks with a high degree of local clustering and a low average shortest path length. This means that although nodes are largely only connected to nodes within their cluster, every so often a link appears that bridges the gap between clusters and facilitates the flow of material or immaterial resources between clusters. Malkin was also influenced by two other physicists, Albert-László Barabási and Réka Albert, who coined the term scale-free networks for networks that exhibit a power-law distribution in the number of their nodes’ links. For the creation of this type of network structure, Barabási and Albert suggested a process of preferential attachment in which nodes are continually added to the network and preferentially create links with nodes that are already well connected, thus giving rise to super-connected hubs.

In this book Malkin argues that during the Archaic period, people and places around the Mediterranean and Black Sea were connected in a way that resembled a small-world structure, driven by processes of preferential attachment. Malkin stresses throughout the book that it was the long-distance links and decentralization of the small Greek world that facilitated the emergence of what he calls Greek civilization.

These network ideas are not expressed and validated in a quantitative manner, however, since historians of antiquity are considered not to possess enough data to identify such patterns and processes with any statistical significance (pp. 19, 25). Instead, Malkin takes a qualitative approach by adopting the vocabulary of network science, and the key features of small-world and scale-free network models in particular, and applies it to a series of historical examples in chapters two to six. Regardless of this, Malkin does consider his qualitative network perspective more than a mere description of the historical Greek network and stresses the explanatory value of his approach. The aims of the book are therefore twofold: to point out networks and processes of network formation through numerous examples, and the interpretation of the implications of describing structures and processes using a formal network vocabulary.

Chapters two and three illustrate reverse processes of the emergence of identity (as identified by Malkin through abstract as well as concrete historical examples) through networks. In chapter two the Rhodians’ dispersal overseas is seen as the reason for the consolidation of the island identity of Rhodes. Chapter three turns this process on its head by arguing for the emergence of the Sikeliôtai identity of Greeks from all over converging in Sicily. The altar of Apollo Archêgetês, only accessible to the Greek residents of Sicily, is considered the earliest expression of this ‘Greeks away from home’ identity.

Chapter four brings Herakles the Greek and Melqart the Phoenician to the stage as examples of the existence of mythical and cultic networks, facilitating coexistence and peaceful mediation as well as justifying antagonism between ethnic groups.

Malkin continues his series of example networks by focusing on the Phokaian network in the western Mediterranean in chapters five and six. Most interestingly, the evolution of this network is seen as changing from a many-to-many structure to one consisting of local clusters dominated by hubs with long-distance links, giving the example of Massalia and the coastal zone in southern France (described as a middle ground). In chapter six Malkin explores the similarities in cults (Artemis of Ephesos) and institutions (nomima) of the Phokaian network, which are considered to express the Phokaian’s self-perception.

The concluding chapter rephrases many of the examples into a rich description of Malkin’s small Greek world hypothesis, which shows strong similarities to his previous work on the emergence of Greek identity but now seen from a network standpoint.

The sheer number of examples and the detail to which they are described makes the book’s narrative difficult to follow in places. Indeed, for most chapters the approach taken and crux of the argument are not clearly stated in the introduction and conclusions. At times this leads one to loose track of the bigger picture and the general aim of the book. The figures are of high quality although they are limited (with the exception of chapter one) to maps indicating the places mentioned in the text.

The descriptive first aim of the book is definitely achieved, through the identification of historical links, networks and problems that are better served by a networks approach. The second aim of interpreting the implications of the network perspective is very thorough as far as the description of the small world hypothesis is concerned. In this reviewer’s opinion, however, it does seem underrepresented in one important respect: the absence of convincing argumentation why the emergent property that is “Greek civilization” could not have emerged on a “Greek Wide Web” with a structure other than the hypothetically identified small-world.

Malkin’s discussion of the alternative network structures advocated by Braudel (pp. 42-44), Horden and Purcell (pp. 44-45), and Jean-Paul Morel (p. 153) does not give the impression that the likeliness of his hypothesis is any greater. On the other hand, Malkin rightly argues that dynamic network processes add explanatory power to these structures, and he illustrates this throughout the book for his own hypothesis. Malkin seems to be very aware of this issue when stressing that “The identification of connections and particular networks falls within the historian’s search for ‘what was there’ (the factual, or the truth level); the suggestion that network dynamics forms the Greek ‘small world’ is by contrast an interpretation, but to my mind it is one that has a high probability of being right” (p. 207). Yet the book too often reads like a summing up of historically attested ties in a one-to-one relationship with complex network concepts that are by no means exclusive to small- worlds (e.g. emergence, self-organization, hubs, fractal patterning, preferential attachment, decentralization, multi-directionality, phase transitions, clustering) to allow for disregarding alternative network structures out of hand. The innovative network perspective is also only to a limited degree utilised to revisit concepts like ethnicity, Greek civilization, and identity. It is a new hypothesis that focuses largely on explaining past processes of emergence from given states.

Malkin, therefore, piles up evidence for his hypothesis to create the fascinating concept of the small Greek world, which will no doubt prove a rich and useful perspective for future research. However, he does not increase its credibility through falsifying other possible structural incarnations of this network approach. ‘A Small Greek World’ illustrates the potential of a network perspective for understanding the emergence of Greek culture and identities (concepts that themselves are by no means less ambiguous than the ‘small Greek world’ hypothesis), but it is really only a starting point that requires further formalisation and explicit confrontation with the implications of alternative hypothetical network structures.

Tombrughmans, 11 March 2013.


Created: 07 Jun 2020 – Completed: 14 Jun 2020