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Social Network Analysis and Ancient History

Diane Cline

This paper demonstrates the utility, and sometimes futility, of using Social Network Analysis (SNA) in ancient history. I have been experimenting with Social Network Analysis and the free downloadable tool NODEXL in the study of Pericles, Philip II, Alexander the Great, as well as the Amarna Letters, and I have also explored limiting factors and will discuss where it might not work, as well. My conclusion is that SNA is particularly useful for pointing the researcher towards a topic for future exploration, and is not an end in itself but a tool for noticing patterns that might not be evident from a linear reading of ancient sources in text form. SNA produces visualizations based on relationships, or networks, drawn from texts. It can show cliques or clusters, structural holes, and provide quantitative analysis of the tight-knittedness of social groups, allowing for comparisons between them.

While the past decade has seen a slight increase in the use of Social Network Analysis by ancient historians and archaeologists, some literature already exists. In 1990, Michael Alexander and James Danowski of the University of Illinois at Chicago published an article entitled "Analysis of an ancient network: Personal communication and the study of social structure in a past society," analyzing Cicero's letters for social relations between senators and knights. However, their article appeared in a Dutch journal devoted to social networks and its publication went virtually unnoticed by ancient historians. In 1993, John Padgett and Christopher Ansell studied the rise of the Medici family in the 15th century through social relations, although it too escaped notice of most historians, having been published in the American Journal of Sociology.

Most network analysis studies involving the ancient world to date have been done by archaeologists and have usually been concerned with artifacts, for those too have discernible networks, usually based on excavation context and association, but also involving areas of origin in the case of imported objects. Such scholars include Tom Brughmans on networks in archaeology; Carl Knappett on material culture and Cyprian Broodbank on island interactions during the Aegean Bronze Age; and Fiona Coward on ancient Near Eastern artifacts. One of the most thorough studies is that by Shawn Graham, published in 2006, on Roman brick-layers in central Italy. Studies concerned specifically with texts and ancient history are fewer, but have been spearheaded in recent years by Irad Malkin of Tel Aviv University, who has convened a conference and been an advocate for using a network approach to understand relations between individuals and city-states in the classical period.

In my oral presentation I review this literature briefly, then demonstrate the usefulness of Social Network Analysis by showing my analyses of the social networks of Pericles, Philip II, and Alexander the Great. In all cases I demonstrate how one can search for patterns by gender and ethnicity, by clique or cluster, and also use the graphs as teaching tools or data visualizations to serve as guides to complex stories, such as the conspiracies in the narratives of Philip and Alexander.

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