The American School of Classical Studies at Athens

Meet a Member: Eliza Gettel

Moira Lavelle

Eliza Gettel is a PhD candidate in Ancient History at Harvard University. She is working on a dissertation on political institutions of the Greek world under Roman imperium. She is an Associate Member at the American School through the Andrew W. Mellon Mediterranean Regional Research Fellowship Program.

Q: What are you researching at the moment?
A: I’m working on my dissertation about the koinon, or the so-called federal state structure that existed in the Greek world: how various forms of this structure survived under the Roman empire within the province of Achaea and how they transformed along with their new social and political context.

Q: How did you get interested in this topic?
A: I was doing coursework at Harvard and happened to be reading about koina in the Classical and Hellenistic period and taking a course on Roman Greece simultaneously. I was learning about how these structures were very common and very embedded in the social and political life of Greece in the Hellenistic period, but then I realized that, when we turn to talking about Roman Greece, koina don’t really play a part in our historical narratives. And, I wondered why and ended up with a dissertation topic!

Q: What is a koinon?
A: It translates literally to “common thing” or “public thing”. It was a cooperative regional political structure that city-states would join due to external and internal pressures. They would give up some of their autonomy to benefit from cooperation with other cities within the complicated politics of the Greek world, especially given pressure or intervention from larger cities, like Athens and Sparta, or the growing empires of the east and west. Because of the cooperative institutions that these koina had that dispersed authority between civic and regional levels of governance, we often use our modern term ‘federal state’ to translate the Greek term koinon. In fact, koina became models for developing and thinking about American federalism and the European Union, so it’s a concept we’re somewhat familiar with.

Q: What resources are you using to conduct your research?
A: I work with a lot of inscriptions that are found on sites and in museums across Greece and epigraphic publications in the Blegen. I’m also trying to take an archaeological approach to how these koina survived so I’m utilizing the archeological publications in the Blegen, and going on School trips that travel through regions where these structures existed- Boeotia, Achaea and so on. 

Q: What are you able to do on site that you can’t get in the library?
A: The general impression that emerges out of scholarship is that the koinon structures in the province of Achaea were vestigial and too fragmentary under the Roman Empire to accomplish much, and imperial officials simply found them convenient for indirect rule in the eastern part of the empire. But when you travel to these sites and see the monuments and inscriptions they set up, you see that local individuals were still invested in these structures despite their limited autonomy, and they were still interested in portraying themselves as active members of these koina.
For instance when you walk around Olympia and you walk between all these scattered stone bases, you start to pick out that a lot of them are honorary inscriptions to individuals that were involved in the Achaean koinon in the Roman imperial period. They were setting up statues to people higher up the Roman imperial food chain but also to elites who were involved in more local, regional politics.

Q: What questions are you looking to answer in your research?
A: Why were local elites still invested in the koinon under the empire? Also, how were they using the koinon to think through the emerging intangible mysterious political superstructure that we now call the Roman Empire? If you lived in mainland Greece in the early 1st century CE you didn’t know what an empire looked like, or at least in the way that we think about the Roman Empire. We tend to read our knowledge of the eventual form that the Roman Empire took back into the earlier periods of the empire’s development. I am trying to think around that hindsight that we have and understand how these preexisting koina not only scaffolded the increasingly unequal power relationships made possible by the new political superstructure but also how they therefore shaped the local experience and conceptualization of Roman power.

Q: What brought you to the ASCSA?
A: I wanted to have a semester to research and write in a library where everything is concentrated in one place, and where I had access to the sites where my material has been found. I’m here on the Andrew W. Mellon Mediterranean Regional Research Fellowship Program through the Council of American Overseas Research Centers (CAORC). It’s a fellowship that has enabled graduate students and early postdocs to research at one or more CAORC institutions. I’m spending the fall here, so that I can join some of the trips, specifically the ones to Aetolia and Boeotia. Then next summer I will be at the American Academy in Rome, which fits my project well because it bridges the Greek and Roman worlds. I’m really grateful for the fellowship’s flexibility to allow me to access both research centers and engage with the dynamic scholarly communities in both Athens and Rome.

Q: What is your favorite restauraunt in Athens?
A: It’s called Kotsourbos, in lower Pangrati. And the other week I went to the Black Sheep, which is very good!

Q: If you were a Greek god or goddess, which one would you be?
A: Usually my go-to is Athena, so I think I’ll stick with that. I like owls a lot, I have some owl necklaces, I think I can pull off Athena.

Q: Q: Where else in Greece would you like to visit?
A: I really like the islands, and there are a few that are high up on my list. Andros is high up on my list, as well as Tinos, and I need to go back to Santorini to see ancient Thera since I haven’t been back since the site reopened.

Q: What do you get from your experience at the American School?
A: I like the community feel of the American School. The American School’s emphasis on training graduate students sets it apart from a lot of other places. There’s a large graduate student community here. There’s a nice balance between being in the library and talking to other grad students who are at a similar stage in their research to yours. I can also turn to specialists at lunch or dinner to get help with understanding French scholarship or tricky parts of Greek inscriptions. A lot of informal advising about academia at large also happens over ouzo and meals, which is really helpful! It’s a very welcoming community.