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Durham University

Durham Centre for Roman Cultural Studies

Water and Identity

Water and Identity in the Ancient World

Department of Classics & Ancient History, Ritson Room, Durham University 
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 of Rome. In the wake of the conflict with Persia, the watershed between Europe and Asia marked by the Bosphorus took on added ideological significance, which it has not lost until this day. On the Roman side, the Rhine, which marked the border to unconquered Germany, and Britain, situated in the North Atlantic and often identified with ultima Thule, constituted the limits of Rome’s imperial reach. 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 project would 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. More precisely, we intend to run two workshops, one centered on the ancient Mediterranean, the other one on the ‘outer Atlantic’, and linked by a comparative perspective: both will look at instances where water functions as (or is perceived as) a defining element of communal identity. We are interested in definitions of identity linked to water, and in exploring those factors that make these turn out to be ‘marine identities’ (Rainbird 2007), with more general implications of connectivity and networking of communities around water expanses, or on the contrary, bounded identities, linked to a real or perceived insular status (where the boundary may be water, but also walls cutting an isthmus to form a peninsula). We shall thus explore issues of marginality and definition through the use of water and frontier systems from the Ancient Mediterranean (the Near East, Greece, and Rome) to the Atlantic (Roman Britain: Hadrian’s Wall, as well as the Roman limes along the Rhine and Danube).


22 March, 9.30am to 10am
Welcome and coffee

10 am to 1 pm
Paola Ceccarelli (Durham), Introduction. Water, identity and culture: some issues.
Penny Wilson (Durham), Twin Towns: The Relationship Between Towns Separated by Nile branches in the Egyptian Delta Johannes Haubold (Durham), The Achaemenid empire and the sea.
Robin Skeates (Durham), The place of the sea in the construction of identities in Maltese prehistory.
Buffet Lunch
2pm to 6.30 pm: 
Mario Lombardo (Lecce), Small and Big Islands in Greek  Colonisation.
Flavia Frisone (Lecce), Rivers and identity in 'colonial' scenarios. River names and land constructing in Greek Western apoikia.
Christy Constantakopoulou (Birkbeck), Identity and resistance: discourses of insularity in the Aegean world.


Zena Kamash (Oxford), From the Euphrates to the Thames: exploring attitudes towards water in Roman Britain and the Near East.
John Donaldson (International Boundaries Research Unit, Durham), Water Boundaries and Geopolitics in the Modern World.
General discussion.
Conference dinner
23 March, 9am to 1pm
Steve Willis (Kent) Sea, Coast, Estuary, land and Culture in Iron Age Britain
Jon Henderson (Nottingham) Expressing difference: Western Atlantic Identities in the first millennium BC
Adam Rogers (Leicester), Water, identity and myth in Late Iron Age and Roman Britain: some case studies.


Richard Hingley (Durham), Hadrian¹s Wall as an inlet of the sea?
Nicholas Purcell (Oxford), discussant
Michael Shanks (Stanford), discussant

Organizers: Paola Ceccarelli and Richard Hingley