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Maritime Networks and Moral Imagination: Samothracian Proxeny as an Archaeology of Coalition

Sandra Blakely

Emory University

Hellenistic proxenia decrees from the island of Samothrace offer a case study in the challenges as well as the potential for network analysis to blend qualitative and quantitative data, bridge civic practice and ritual promises, and make productive use of non-Mediterranean comparanda. Samothrace is as rich in proxenic inscriptions as the granting city is under-explored archaeologically and poorly attested in historical documents. Excavations on the island have focused on the sanctuary of the mystery cult, positioned just outside the city walls. Four inscriptions from within those walls confirm that its proxenia entailed maritime benefits - asylia, access to the boule, eisploun and ekploun in pursuit of trade. All of these would render Samothrace’s port more welcoming, and are consistent with historical arguments, since Weber’s Wirtschaftsgeschichte (1923), for the maritime functionality of proxenia decrees.  The economic attractions of a Samothracian visit are deduced from its broader historical setting rather than any curated collections of material evidence. The island’s Greeks seem the pioneers of Odryssian trade, benefiting from cooperative relationships with the Thracians who controlled overland networks and the river routes that tied the coasts to inland centers. The geospatial range of the island’s proxenoi corresponds to one of five routes which ran into the Hellespont from prehistoric period onward; Samothrace itself figures in three of these sealanes, suggesting that the promise of its mysteries – safety at sea – was a more natural function of the island than its one poor harbor would suggest. The epigraphic data help us deduce what neither remains nor texts reveal: the island’s chief export may have been connectivity itself, and its proxenic decrees the civic realization of the island’s mystic promise.

Network analysis offers a methodology for synthesizing the face to face encounters in which the island’s proxenia would be realized. The numerical data alone, however, fall short of the potential of the inscriptions. Proxenia represents a moral network: it both rewards past behavior and enjoins future collaboration and relies, as Mack has argued, on emotional intensity as well as economic calculation (W. Mack, Proxeny and Polis, OUP 2015). This recommends an approach through the archaeologies of coalition and consensus and collective action theory which have been applied to case studies in regions from the American southwest to southeast Asia (E. DeMarrais, “Making pacts and cooperative acts: the archaeology of coalition and consensus”, WA 48.1:1-13).  These offer models for integrating qualitative data - including mythic, emotional and ritual dynamics – into quantitative analysis. Brought to Samothrace, this approach yields a more nuanced model for dominant nodes in the island’s network, one which foregrounds the potential for some sites to prefer the mythic to the civic deployment of Samothracian affiliation.  The dynamics of collective action theory offer resonance with the scale and decentralization of the proposed network, and foreground the flexibility which underwrote the longevity of proxenia as well as the promise of the rites.  

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Social Networks and Interconnections in Ancient and Medieval Contexts

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