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Rhodes, the Cyclades, and the Second Nesiotic League

John Tully

The history of the Cyclades in the Hellenistic Period has traditionally been framed around the Antigonids, Ptolemies, Rhodians, and Romans, external powers which sequentially dominated the region, and operated both directly, and through essentially vassal bodies such as the First and Second Nesiotic League. 

Here, I propose an alternative approach.  I take as my focus the most studied (because believed to be best attested) hegemony/Protektorat/επικράτηση (Recently: Berthold; Buraselis; Reger; Sheedy; Stephanaki; Wiemer): the Rhodian domination in first third of the second century bc, which has traditionally been connected to the Second Nesiotic League.  I identify a different trajectory: I argue first, that the Second Nesiotic League was not an imperial body, and, second, that Rhodes was not able to establish imperial domination in the Cyclades at this time.  Instead, the intermittent Rhodian activity visible at this time forms part of an inherently competitive involvement by Rhodes in the region throughout the Hellenistic period.  This approach then nuances our understanding not only of Rhodian and other external involvement, but also well as Cycladic regional dynamics and structure more generally throughout the Hellenistic period.

First, I reconceptualise the Second Nesiotic League. Rather than a permanent body indicating imperial structure, it was an occasional organization which formed as required in the context of warfare, - in this case, the Second Macedonian War and the war with Antiochus.  On this analysis, the fact that it is only attested in the 190s bc, and, like the other island leagues, is much less well attested than its contemporaneous continental counterparts is not the result of differential loss of evidence, but reflects the nature of the marine environment in which the islanders operated.  The closest analogue is not the Achaean or Aetolian leagues, but the Hellenic League against Persia discussed by Herodotus.  Occasional Rhodian involvement in this body thus points to the size of the contingent Rhodes will have contributed, but does not point to ongoing Rhodian domination after the conflicts for which the League (re)formed.

Second, I compare the evidence for Rhodian activity in Caria and Lycia from 200-167 bc with that for the Cyclades.  I argue that the consistent engagement there contrasts with the (lack of) evidence for involvement in the Cyclades during the war with Antiochus and the Third Macedonian War.  Where Rhodes did engage in the Cyclades, such as during the Second Macedonian War, it was explicitly in a competitive context: Livy has the Rhodians bring the Cyclades into an alliance against Philip; the epigraphic honours for Rhodian commanders are precisely for their prowess in protecting the islands against external attack.  These actions could have evolved into ongoing domination, but the evidence for Rhodian non-engagement later in this period already outlined above indicates that that was not the case.  Instead, once the competitive Antigonid threat reduced, so too did Rhodian engagement.

Finally, I embed this Rhodian activity in the broader narrative of Rhodian and other activity in Hellenistic period.  I point to evidence for Rhodian competitive engagement with Cos in the Cyclades early in the third century, and for Rhodian engagement after 167 bc, a time when Rome is traditionally thought predominant.  Rather than 200-167 bc forming an exception, it is part of this longer narrative of varying Rhodian engagement contemporaneously with other powers. 

In conclusion, I compare Rhodian engagement with Antigonid and Ptolemaic.  Although thinner, I argue that the evidence points to the same conclusion: a different structural relationship between the islanders and external powers than traditionally conceived.  The Hellenistic Aegean was a multipolar space in which different powers competed for status, relevance, and allegiance, not a unipolar grid of ineluctably vertical relationships.  Only in the first century, with the ravages of Rome's Mithridatic and internal wars, did these fundamental dynamics change.

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Empires, Kingdoms, and Leagues in the Ancient Greek World

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