Black and white photo of crumbling stone steps with grass growing among the stones

In Review

The Politics of Memory

Courtesy Laura Nasrallah

By Laura Nasrallah

At a small hilly archaeological site in Turkey, you can look down from the midst of the ruins onto a flat plain with pale yellow wheat fields ripening and large square cabbage patches so densely colored that they look both purple and green in the distance. Turn around, face the hill, and you are met with an ethical quandary that has to do with memory and loss. A Byzantine city wall neatly bisects a little bouleterion, or council meetinghouse, used from the Hellenistic through the Roman period. In the Byzantine wall are spolia: fragments of other buildings, bits of statuary, cut-up inscriptions. The question: Do you keep the later wall or fully excavate to the next level? Which layer of history is to be memorialized—a shrunken Byzantine city, gathering its defenses closer, or a council house with marble benches ending in exquisite lion-clawed feet, a little jewel of civic engagement even in the Roman period? And, if the Byzantine wall is not removed, what memories would remain lost within it—whose fragmented sculptural body might lie in the wall, and what might those inscriptions surely embedded within teach us about another time period in this little city?

Of course, the Byzantine wall should remain; the little bouleterion peeking out from under it, the steps up between marble benches of the Roman period now neatly trodden by the newer Byzantine wall. My students, colleagues, and I recently stood on the site considering the issue; we had just hiked up from an ancient theater cluttered with altars for Roman emperors and hung with a bright red banner depicting Ataturk in military dress (children from the nearby village, we were told, were to perform there that evening). We were headed soon to Selçuk, a town near Ephesus, where I would make sure that students saw the one remaining column of the ancient Temple to Artemis, but where we would miss the nearby fourteenth-century Isa Bey Mosque and a new sculpture in the town center, recalling war and displacement, both of which consist of considerably more than a column.

When people ask to see photographs from my recent trip, I thank them and demure, knowing that only boredom and strained politeness would result. What I captured by camera offers an amputated experience of Mediterranean travels: a thousand-plus photographs of toppled inscriptions and half-consumed foundations, preferably Hellenistic to middle Byzantine only, my students and colleagues usually only visible on the edges in the form of a shoe or a bright jacket receding in the distance. Even when many layers of a city still exist, even when a city or site offer up many possible levels of commemoration for the taking, we choose to ignore certain strata, digging down with our eyes, or carefully framing our photographs so that modern buildings and, for that matter, the living are excluded. Similarly, travel guides that we all purchase for our summer travels favor one time period over another, selecting memories for us as we go without explaining the politics of their own choices. These books echo back the monuments of a preferred period, simply asserting, “This was important then,” rather than reading the monumental—whether manifest in literature or in stone—as part of a struggle within and between communities about what is worth remembering.


Two recent books deal with social memory and the construction of identity in antiquity, and reading them has helped me to sharpen my questions in preparation for and reflection upon my work and recent travels. These books consider how ancient communities of the Greco-Roman world shape their memories in literature and in the built environment and the politics of these projects of memorialization. Neither is a light read, but both are worthwhile: they deal carefully and deftly with ancient sources but have broader implications, offering insights and frameworks that help in the analysis of memory and memorialization in other times and places. One helps the reader to consider the politics of commemoration, and the necessity of “reading” various monuments in relation to each other both in space and over time. The other challenges the reader to consider how communities produce literary monuments that form, cultivate, and control memories out of violent and traumatic events.


Archaeologies of the Greek Past: Landscape, Monuments, and Memories, by Susan Alcock. Cambridge University Press, 236 pages, $25.

Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making, by Elizabeth Castelli. Columbia University Press, 360 pages, $40.

How do communities produce literary monuments that form, cultivate, and control memories out of violent and traumatic events?

Susan Alcock’s Archaeologies of the Greek Past: Landscape, Monuments, and Memories uses both material and literary evidence to demonstrate ways in which various ancient societies are compelled to remember and to forget. Three case studies focus the book: Greek cities, especially Athens, under the Roman empire; Crete—usually treated in its Minoan period—in the Hellenistic period and under Rome; and the seeming invisibility of indigenous Messenian history during the period of Spartan control.

Alcock’s research has often centered on materials at which others have barely glanced; in these marginal topics she has found treasures. She has written on the techniques of landscape survey, which allow for an analysis of the archaeology of the rural and humble rather than only the urban and monumental; in the midst of a surge of scholarly interest in the literature of the Second Sophistic, a Roman-period movement that turned to all things classically Greek, she has looked for material evidence of it; she has focused on Greece and its archaeological remains not in the classical and Hellenistic periods, where all eyes are, but in the Roman period. Scholars had previously read this as a period of sad decline and somewhat pathetic Greek attempts to articulate identity under another empire. For me, Alcock’s treatment of this very subject—the longest case study in Archaeologies of the Greek Past—is the most exciting part of her book.

“Empires mess with people’s minds,” Alcock begins, and from there we rush with her on the hunt for the ambiguities and complexities of Greece under Rome. Pliny, at one time a Roman governor in the east, writes to a Roman colleague: “Remember what each city once was, without sneering because it has ceased to be so.” But, Alcock emphasizes, Greek struggles for identity under Rome weren’t a mere exercise in nostalgia: nostalgia became a strategy whereby Greeks shored up their memories of their great past and used these to barter for a special place within the empire. At the same time, the Roman empire’s power derived in part from its ability to appropriate the famed paideia or education of the Greeks—to become Greek, in some ways, even as they often mocked the Graeculi, the “little Greeks.”

Blackand white photo of ruins on a hillside, with broken columns in the foreground

Courtesy Laura Nasrallah


Romans colluded with elite Greeks in constructing the ancient agora in Athens as a kind of living memory theater or museum, as Alcock details. Romans and Greeks alike sought a glorious and usable past in the ancient and venerable space of the Athenian agora, where Socrates had walked and taught, where Athena and her ship had sailed by on many a Panathenaic procession, and still did, where Pergamene and other kings had offered rich benefactions in the form of buildings. There, as my students and I just saw, a Roman benefactor built an odeion, or lecture hall, so large as to obscure sight lines; it dominated a once breathable space. In the Roman period, a classical temple, originally located elsewhere in the province, was erected in alignment with it. Roman builder’s marks and the dating of ceramic finds at the temple’s foundation indicate that this classical temple was not original to the agora; rather, it was dismantled stone by stone and rebuilt there, interrupting the agora’s broad open space, where democratic public assemblies had likely once occurred.

The reuse of a temple was not just a matter of economics: it would have probably been cheaper to build a new temple on the site. Rather, the placement of this “wandering temple” can be understood as a mnemonic moment. This moment did not only recall memories of the classical past but also evoked, shaped, controlled those memories. The old-new temple was likely dedicated to Ares, the god of war, and perhaps associated with some members of the Julio-Claudian imperial family; thus the modern was in a way made ancient and more venerable by being housed in a classical temple. Citizen and tourist alike, wandering the agora in the first century ce, might wonder: How long has this monument been here? How ancient was the Romans’ association with Athens, and long had the god of war made his home in the heart of philosophical, democratic Athens— however problematic and elite that philosophy and democracy had been?

During the same time period, Alcock argues, despite a monumental amount of oratory and writing about the Persian Wars and Greek struggle and freedom against barbarian oppression, we have little archaeological evidence of refurbishing of shrines at Marathon or elsewhere. Instead, it seems, this potentially subversive past was remembered through games and competitive oratory, and the Romans themselves adopted its rhetoric, choosing to forget that they themselves were sometimes titled barbarians and an oppressive empire. Instead the Romans understood their eastern enemy of Parthia to be a new Persia, and their role to be one of defending freedom and peace. This despite the taxes.

Alcock’s great ability to read ancient spaces lies in part in a very simple insight, one that can be translated to many fields of study: Don’t forget to look at the whole landscape. That is, if we focus only on one building, on one literary text, on one issue, we miss the ways in which monuments interact with each other and transform the space into which they are inserted. A re-erected temple or a new odeion—not to mention objects such as altars and statues of emperors that were strewn around the Athenian agora and the civic spaces of Greek cities around the empire—produces new memories within a community. Alcock challenges us to see that people meander and move through a world populated with buildings and texts that speak, in a way, to one another, and to the pedestrians wandering among them. Don’t forget to listen for the rhetoric of the landscape within the city and the rhetoric of the city within the empire. Alcock encourages us to put our ear to the very rocky ground, listening for what are considered usable memories, pasts convenient for present appropriation.


Elizabeth Castelli’s Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making looks more to literature than to archaeology to help us to think about how violence engenders memory. But the questions that Castelli employs have deep similarities with Alcock’s project: How are stories of martyrs framed and reframed in communities’ editing and ritual use of these narratives, not to mention the building of chapels and production of art that memorializes the martyrs? That is, Castelli helps us to think about the stratigraphy of individual stories in her close readings. But her work also offers a broader lens, analyzing how a discourse of martyrdom develops in a landscape of violent Roman spectacle and Christian re-casting of that spectacle. Maurice Halbwachs’s theory of social memory as well as Michel Foucault’s forgetfulness of some early Christian martyr narratives focus Castelli’s own work. Perhaps the impulse to curl up with a nice cup of coffee and some violent martyrdom stories strikes you as odd, but Castelli’s range and interpretation are so compelling that I wanted to rush back to the letters of Ignatius, the prison diary of Perpetua, the speeches of Pionius, the narratives of Thecla’s ascetic deeds and apostolic mission, among other texts that Castelli treats, to read these anew through her lenses.

How are stories of martyrs framed and reframed in communities’ editing and ritual use of these narratives?

Through these narratives as well as others, the reader moves from Antioch to Carthage, from Smyrna to Iconium and Egypt, shifting around the Mediterranean basin to see how different early Christians make meaning out of suffering, and how various early Christian communities take up stories of martyrs and form and re-form meaning for their own communities. Our early Christian materials pre-date the modern terminology of “autobiography,” so Castelli applies the concept of “self-writing” to think about the ways in which some of these martyr narratives claim to be the very diaries or speeches of the dying themselves, and the power of these stories for the communities that would pick up, edit, perform, and use them. Castelli also uncovers the politics of such use: stories of unjust death, retold in the right way, are powerful ammunition for one’s own religious and political goals. For example, the community that wove together Pionius’s speeches and who read the narrative of his death remembers a martyr who is a noble Christian, full of clever retorts for the increasingly violent Romans: his tongue is mightier than their swords. But this community, in a disturbing cycle of violence, also memorializes Pionius’s vicious anti-Jewish rhetoric.

If Alcock reminds us that empire messes with people’s minds, then Castelli forces us to think more about how empire does that: through the spectacular, in every sense of the term. Amphitheaters, theaters, odeia (lecture halls), hippodromes: the Romans used and built monumental spaces for spectacles. Christians (and many others) were deeply concerned about the ethics of these performances, which included everything from speech competitions to plays to mock naval battles to gladiatorial combats between humans and between humans and beasts. What does it mean to see, especially to see such violence? Christians questioned. How is the eye a conduit for evil—how might scenes of violence infect the mind through the eyes? Early Christian communities tested various techniques for remembering violent acts: for putting together again, in ritual and literature, stories that often literally involved dismemberment, whether in the form of scattered letters or a prison diary that ends too soon or the wrecked body of the dead.

Castelli’s narrative does not end in the late antique Mediterranean world, however, but in twentieth-century Littleton, Colorado. She analyzes the complicated application of the term “martyr” to Cassie Bernal, the young woman who is said to have answered “yes” to the question, asked at gunpoint, of whether she believed in God. Castelli’s move into the 1990s forces us to ask questions about present-day rhetoric of martyrdom and construction of memory and memorials. Her inclusion of the story of Cassie Bernal, coming as it does just after rich analyses of the stories of the death of Euphemia and the strange life and persecutions of Thecla, forces us to turn back to those ancient materials with new eyes. In cases ancient and modern, the death stories of young women are mutable and malleable, their meanings subject to debate as women sometimes figured as brave fighters are also represented as passive, feminine, even brides of Christ. No matter the date of the source, Castelli encourages us to ask: Who takes up the rhetoric of martyrdom in order to form or to explain religious identity, and why?

Even in these days of multiple recording technologies, of instant telling and retellings of stories, a story like that of Cassie could so quickly emerge and so quickly be contested; the politics of her memory remind us of political nature of the compelling memorial literature and structures of antiquity.

“The art of losing isn’t hard to master;/ so many things seem filled with the intent/ to be lost that their loss is no disaster,” Elizabeth Bishop writes in the poem “One Art.” But loss, as Bishop knew, is in fact a bitter thing. In the twenty-first century United States, as in other times and places, loss and control of memory are powerful anxieties. We see evidence of this in small, some even trivial, ways: movies such as Blade Runner or Memento, a surging interest in scrap-booking, scholars’ recent work in digging through archives to find materials previously considered insubstantial. Or we can find evidence in the intimately painful—a father’s friend has Alzheimer’s—or in the public agony of wrangles over memorials for the events of September 11, 2001, or the Oklahoma City memorial, which freezes time for its visitors, producing and framing memory, encouraging the reliving of a past moment in the present. Examples small and large, more and less agonizing, point to a cultural occupation with how memory is retained and a cultural fear of the disaster of memory’s loss.

In fact, Castelli’s book does not end with Columbine High School in 1999, but in its epilogue moves to the ethics of memory, considering her own responses to the events of September 11, 2001, in her home town of New York City. And Alcock’s book toward the end reflects on a scholar who brings together the lost story of the Messenian rebels under Sparta and fear about the distortion or disappearance of stories about the Holocaust. Both books reflect on the “critical vulnerability of memory,” in Alcock’s words, and even more on the complex politics of memorializing—analyses that help us to consider any place or time, including our own.

Laura Nasrallah is Assistant Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School. Her most recent book is An Ecstasy of Folly: Prophecy and Authority in Early Christianity (Harvard Theological Studies).

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