Megarian Moments. The Local World of an Ancient Greek City-State

International Symposium at McGill University

Date: May 5 to 6, 2016

Organizers: Hans Beck and Philip J. Smith (McGill)

Confirmed participants: Franco De Angelis (UBC), Klaus Freitag (RWTH Aachen), Peter Funke (WWU Münster), Alex McAuley (UBC), Adrian Robu (Fribourg), Elke Stein-Hölkeskamp (Cologne), Daniel Tober (Bryn Mawr), David Yates (Millsaps). With a public outreach lecture in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts on the evening of May 4. Click here for the full program


The quest for local discourses in ancient Greek city-states resembles the exploration of dark matter. The existence and properties of such discourses are inferred from their effects on the visible manifestations of the polis. But their actual conduct in the city-state remains by and large invisible. We do catch a glimpse of them during moments of violence, in war or during domestic strife, when daily interactions give way to turmoil. Between such violent discharges, however, the polis life is mostly mute.

The 'Fountain House of Theagenes' in Megara, the largest of its kind in Archaic greece.

The 'Fountain House of Theagenes' in Megara, the largest of its kind in Archaic greece.

The rising prominence of local histories of individual city-states documents the desire for a more diverse and multi-layered understanding of Aegean Greece. Assembled from in-depth studies of diverse bodies of sources, local history crafts suggestive narratives of continuity and coherence. Yet more often than not the endeavor amounts to an accumulation of ‘attested islands’, i.e., isolated events and engagements, with a wide gulf of silence between them.

The study of localism entails a nuanced approach. The notion of localism expresses itself in the full breadth of the human experience. The small scale polis settlements in Classical Greece were prone to a peculiar form of localism, or parochialism. Their inhabitants prided themselves, for instance, in local distinctions (arts, crafts, culture, success in non-violent competition), and they valued their crops; they treasured their diets and cuisines. And they cherished customary forms of behavior as expressed in clothing, hair styles, dances, and music, all of which are considered proper only if in accordance with society’s prevailing tastes and traditions – its “regime of truth”, in Foucault’s terms. From there, it was only a small step to their understanding of history and politics, both of which were locally encoded, reinforcing the ties between the people and the land. The local discourse environment that arose from these encodings constituted a normative force that deeply impacted the inhabitants of a city-state. To be sure, this process was open to adaption and change; but its inherent quality made it both robust and resilient to erratic events in politics.

‘Megarian Moments. The Local World of Ancient Greek City-State’ attempts to disclose the longevity of assessments and worldviews as they prevailed among the people of Megara. Couched between two akropoleis, surrounded by an extensive hinterland, and connected to an exceptional harbor, Archaic Megara was one of the prime cities of the day. Their later history, however, forced the Megarians to look after the survival of their local world first and foremost. The workshop is designed to unearth the city’s local discourse environment that cut across these varied fortunes.  

A case-study in Hans Beck’s research program on localism in the ancient Greek world, the event is funded by the Anneliese Maier Research Prize. For more information, click here.