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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Water and Identity in the Ancient World Workshop

22-23 March 2010

Large expanses of water have played a key role in the emergence and consolidation of political and cultural identities. The ancient Greeks, for instance, conceived of themselves and their colonies as 'frogs around the pond' of the Mediterranean, which served as an 'ecumenical' water-way for travel, commerce, and exploration. Insularity, or island existence, is an important element of Greek and Roman geographical thought. Indeed, the contrast between land-based and water-based power defined major periods in Greek and Roman history, whether we think of the Persian wars, the protracted struggle for hegemony between Athens and Sparta, or the rise and expansion of Rome. In the wake of the conflict with Persia, the watershed between Europe and Asia marked by the Bosphorus - a strait which forms the boundary between the European part of Turkey and its Asian part - took on added ideological significance, which it has not lost to this day. In Roman times, the Rhine, which marked the border to unconquered Germany, constituted the limits of Rome's imperial reach. Before it became incorporated into the empire, Britain was detached by the ocean and was sometimes identified with ultima Thule. From the Greek and Roman point of view, water played a key role in the contact zone at the frontier between civilization and barbarity.

This workshop will study the geopolitics of the ancient Mediterranean and north western Europe (both in their uniting and their dividing facets), in dialogue with experts from various periods and cultures. The individual days of the workshop will focus on the ancient Mediterranean (first day) and the 'outer Atlantic' (second day), linking the two aspects through a comparative perspective. The workshop thus aims to enhance our understanding of how water functions as a defining element of communal identity, from antiquity to the present. Themes that will be discussed include the importance of water in the ancient Egyptians' perception of their identity; the meaning of the 'Bitter sea' as a boundary for the Persian empire; Greek notions of insularity; the role of rivers in the definition of the territory and of colonial identities in the Greek colonies of Southern Italy; the island identity of Britain and the role of the Rhine in defining the edge of Roman imperial territory.

 The workshop will include papers by some of the leading experts in the field of Mediterranean studies (Nicholas Purcell, Oxford), Greek insularity (Christy Constantakopoulou, Birkbeck), Greek colonization (Mario Lombardo, Lecce) and Roman identities in the Atlantic region (David Braund, Exeter). Other speakers include: Adam Rogers (Leicester), Martin Pratt (Durham, Geography), Johannes Haubold (Durham, Classics), Penny Wilson (Durham, Archaeology) and Robin Skeates (Durham, Archaeology).

 The two-day workshop is open to all but numbers are restricted so please contact the organizers if you wish to attend. For more information please contact Dr Richard Hingley ( or Dr Paola Ceccarelli (