Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.09.12

Khan, H.A., The Birth of the European Identity: The Europe-Asia Contrast in Greek Thought 490-322 B.C. Nottingham Classical Literature Studies, Volume 2, 1993. Nottingham: University of Nottingham, 1994. ISBN 0-904857-07-7 (pb).

Reviewed by Balbina Baebler, Balbina, University of Bern (

NCLS 2 contains eight papers delivered at the Second Symposium held by the Nottingham Classics Department on 26 May 1993 (four main papers, each accompanied by a response) and an additional contribution by L. Canfora who was not present in person.

1. John E. Ziolkowski, National and Other Contrasts in the Athenian Funeral Orations (p. 1-35). The author is well aware that group loyalties (family, village, polis etc.) were always overriding 'national' patriotism in Ancient Greece; thus he uses the term 'national' in the title "guardedly but in the non-technical sense" of Diogenes Laertius'1 distinction between Greeks and non-Greeks, as he states at the beginning of his paper.

He then considers the six surviving Greek funeral orations2 as a corpus of material, a quite promising approach,3 and develops his argument by discussing several charts: Chart I (p. 3) shows the frequency of the words 'Asia', 'Europe', 'Hellas + Hellenes' and 'Barbaroi' in these orations; its examination (p. 4-6) leads him to conclude that "the terms 'Europe-Asia' are usually equivalent to 'Hellene-Barbarian' and 'Europe' is basically the same as 'Hellas', reserved primarily for occasions when 'Asia' is chosen to emphasize the great numbers of the invaders" (p. 7).4 Surprisingly, there are few or no references to the barbarians as inferior, effeminate, cruel etc.; the term 'barbarian' in the funeral orations has either the historical meaning of Persians or the generic one of non-Greeks (p. 7). Chart II deals with the names of individuals in the funeral orations (p. 9-10); like N. Loraux,5 Z. believes the reason why Athenian heroes don't appear in this context is that "the tradition substitutes the demos for the hero" (p. 10). Chart III lists all the names, including forms of Barbaros and the other terms from charts I and II; Z. states that these names occur almost always in the epainos section of the speech. More interesting is chart IV ('Names That Occur in More Than One Speech', p. 12f.), for it shows how funeral orations reflect changes in the political circumstances; there is a clear correspondence between Lysias and Plato; Demosthenes and Hypereides had much more specialised programs than the speakers earlier in the fourth century.

Part 2 of Z.'s paper examines the events mentioned in the speeches (p. 14-20): while neither Thukydides nor Gorgias refers specifically to historical events, the others give surveys of Athenian historical exploits and familiar myths; more or less the same "events" are found in all orations (see p. 17, 19), but with different individual emphasis (p. 18, 20). There is a stress on going to war for Dike or against Hybris; the Trojan War seems to have lost propagandistic appeal in the fourth century.

Part 3 (p. 20-26) deals with rhetorical antitheses and contrasting expressions as such (Athenian/other, Greek/Barbarian etc.), carefully taking into account the actual circumstances (e.g. the problem of Greek cities on the continent of Asia).6 There is obviously a great variety of types of contrast in the speeches: "In their changed attitude towards the Barbarians and the breakdown of the Europe-Asia contrast, the later speeches in fact show a transition to the cosmopolitan and synchretic tendencies of the Hellenistic age" (p. 26). This conclusion is particularly interesting because it contradicts the communis opinio that in funeral orations traditional themes and examples were recited with little or no changes year after year; it shows that funeral orators though following a familiar tradition reflect the political and historical circumstances of their own epoch.

2. Edith Hall, Drowning by Nomes: The Greeks, Swimming, and Timotheus' Persians (p. 44-80). Since early times, H. states, swimming and diving were "implicated in the construction of ethnic and national identities"; "the ability to swim well" was usually -- except for knightly heroes of the Middle Ages -- a "reason for ethnic pride and the image of drowning enemies recurs in ... celebrations of victory ..." (p. 44). Heroic swimming feats can be found in Roman history and myth,7 and powerful swimmers like Julius Caesar are felt to be particularly manly (Suet. 1, 64; Vit. Caes. 49, 3-4), while weak and effeminate men like Antony (Plut. Vit. Ant. 29) or Caligula (Suet. Cal. 54) are either bad or absolute non-swimmers (p. 47). In an interesting excursus (p. 47-49) H. shows how in the nineteenth and twentieth century swimming became connected with racist and nationalist discourses.8

After this introduction H. convincingly shows that "such an implication of swimming in ethnic identity and ethnic pride was already clearly discernible in the archaic and classical periods of Ancient Greece" (p. 47). Plato, Nomoi 3. 689d3 and the explanation of the proverb MH/TE NEI=N (Suda s. v.) attest that saying of someone he "doesn't know swimming" means "he is totally ignorant". Maritime warfare made the knowledge of swimming necessary for Athenians.9 In spite of that, Greek literature says very little about swimming as such, surely because -- as H. suggests -- it was in Ancient Greece no formal competitive sport performed at public games (p. 52). However, the literary evidence carefully put together by H. (p. 49-54) shows that from Homeric times onwards abilities of swimming are "regarded as necessary and admirable accoutrements of Greek manhood" (p. 53); they belong "to the panhellenic self-definitions constituted by the corpus of heroic literature and art". It is not surprising, then, that barbarian males lack this ability, as far as we can judge from Hdt. 8, 89, Thuk. 7, 29.

These conclusions enable H. to throw new light on a fascinating text, the Persians of Timotheos of Miletus (p. 57). The last third of this poem is preserved in a papyrus of the 4th century B. C. discovered in 1902 near Abusir and edited in 1903 by U. v. Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (PBerol 9865). One result of the great excitement the papyrus caused was that its content was more or less overlooked (p. 58). Other fragments of the poem are quoted in ancient authors; H. first discusses three fragments cited by Plutarch in contexts of Hellenic freedom and independence.10 The papyrus seems to begin during the narrative section, which relates four episodes of the battle of Salamis in an patriotic and even "triumphalist" tone (p. 61). H. notes that T.'s barbarians are dying with typical 'barbarian' grief and lamentation (111-13, 151); they show servility against their king but also towards the victorious Greeks (166) and take up abject physical positions of supplication (157-8, 189) (p. 62 f.). A chorus-like group of barbarians (including Mysians and Lydians) laments, "sitting on shores, naked, freezing and weeping", while an inhabitant of Kelainai delivers (at the knees of a Greek holding him by the hair) a speech that is a rather humorous linguistic caricature; at last Xerxes laments the fate of his men and land (p. 63-65). H. then gives an excellent analysis of the "first barbarian voice", a 56 line episode of a Persian drowning; she shows that the motives of barbarians dying in the water and corpses being battered against the coastline is a profoundly Aischylean motif (p. 67), while giving the victim direct speech is an invention of Timotheos, who moreover concentrates on the barbarian's physical struggle in the water and relates with gruesome details his desperate fight for breath (p. 67-69). Thus T. gives us an impressive antitype to the swimming Greek (p. 71); as H. convincingly shows, the Greek cultural pride in their prowess in the water (which proved itself e. g. in the Persian sea-battles) lies also behind Timotheos' drowning barbarian.

M. Hose's response (p. 81-89) deals above all with the date and audience of Timotheos' poem; he argues for a date after 412 and for performance in a place belonging to the Peloponnesian league.

3. Juan Antonio López Férez, Los escritos hipocraticos y el nacimiento de la identidad europea (p. 90-123). L. F. examines a well-known though puzzling text: the Hippocratic treatise De aëribus, aquis, locis, a work that falls outside many categories but is in itself a coherent whole, dealing with the central theme of the dependence of man's nature on his geographic surroundings. L. F. analyses the chap. 12-24, which discuss the differences between Asia and Europe. The theme of these differences (diaphorai) was popular since the first historiographers; here, however (chap. 12), they are for the first time located in the nature of the earth and its products (p. 93). This links the treatise with the aetiological literature of Democritus and his school (p. 95). In chap. 13 the sea of Maeotis is designed as the border between Europe and Asia; chap. 14 deals with the different nature and manners of peoples, including a paragraph about the Macrocephali. Chap. 16 informs us that the Asians are less industrious than the Europeans and have a more placid (even cowardly) character because of the uniform, temperate and equable climate of their country (p. 99). Chap. 17-22 describe the peoples of the extreme border of Europe; the inhabitants of this region are like each other, living in intense coldness, while the other peoples of Europe are different from one another because of the frequent changes of climate. With regard to the political institutions, the treatise in a generalizing manner opposes Asia, ruled by despots, to Europe, where peoples have no kings.

On the grounds of these reflections, L. F. suggests as date of composition of the treatise the years 425-420, but Vivian Nutton in his response (p. 124-130) points out that this is far from certain (p. 124). Nutton thinks that the perspective of the treatise is that of the author's own travels, and probably a perspective of the North Aegean (p. 127). The treatise, which in Antiquity didn't attract much attention (even among Hippocratics), became famous only in the sixteeenth century (p. 128 f.).

4. Stephen Usher, Isocrates: Paideia, Kingship and the Barbarians (p. 131-145). This article deals with "élitist" (p. 131) Isocrates, whose authoritarian paideia is "attuned to autocracy" (p. 132). The decline of the polis in Isocrates' day made him prefer a political system which would not allow ordinary people to "choose badly", and encourage powerful individuals to use their position up to the logical limits of autocracy (134 f.). Persian monarchy as a model may lack a moral dimension; Isocrates, however, can still find use in this model even without that dimension: it exhibits continuity, absence of rivalry and dissension and hence decisiveness (Ad Nicocl. 19; p. 137). For Isocrates, a single leadership is essential in war, and with this idea he addresses Philip of Macedon,11 whom he hopes will lead a Panhellenic expedition against Persia. As to the war on the 'Persian barbarians', U. argues that Isocrates' opinion is "conventionally anti-barbarian, but ... he did not think all of them irredeemable, in spite of major disabilities (Antid. 293-4)" (p. 143). According to Isocrates, barbarians are inferior to Greeks because of their lack of paideia, but with Athens -- i. e. Isocrates himself -- providing this education, the Asian archetype of monarchy would become an ideal rule for both Greece and Asia (p. 144 f.).

U.'s view that the Egyptians had a special position in Greek eyes, because neither Herodotus nor Isocrates calls them barbarians, is rightly contradicted in the response of Paul Cartledge (p. 146-153), who points to Herodotus' catalogue of eighteen ways in which the manners and customs of the Egyptians are the "exact converse of ... those of the Greeks"; Herodotus therefore could not have been Isocrates' mentor (p. 150 f.). Like Cartledge I rather doubt that "Isocrates, despite his Athenocentrism retained the capacity for a more enlightened approach to the Barbarian in general and/or to particular barbarians" (p. 149). Cartledge convincingly points out that Isocrates' cultural Athenocentrism would have strongly encouraged, if not predetermined, a polarised and negative view of the barbarian Other (p. 149 ff.).

Luciano Canfora, L'idea di Asia in Isocrate e Demostene (p. 156-161). C. compares the view of Persia which the two orators exhibit in their speeches with the political reality of the Persian empire in the second half of the 4th century B.C. Demosthenes' attitude can best be seen in the Fourth Philippica (32 ff.): The orator, who according to Plutarch12 sent letters to the Great King asking for money and help against Macedonia, clearly saw that Persia liked to play the Greeks off one against the other, but he thought that Athens might actually profit from this policy. For him, it was most important that the 'barbarian', the 'common enemy', stayed far away at Susa or Ecbatana and presented no danger, while the real threat, Macedonia, was at Greece's doors (32 ff.; p. 156 f.). Isocrates, on the other hand, already in the final part of his Panegyricus (138 ff.) insisted that Asia was much weaker than the Greeks imagined and that the Persian empire was vulnerable, thereby exploiting a theme that seemed politically useful in 380 B.C. According to C., Isocrates was therefore politically much more advanced than Demosthenes who in 341/40 still believed that Persia played a decisive role in Greek politics; Isocrates was also more far-sighted than Xenophon who, although having seen the weakness of the Persian empire himself, continued to idealize it in his Cyropaedia. From this point of view C. sees Isocrates as an important forerunner of a new political climate.

Among these papers the one of E. Hall is clearly outstanding; it provides an intense analysis of Timotheos and pursues an interesting phenomenon far beyond Antiquity. A lot of material is also covered by the paper of Ziolkowski and by the interesting responses of Nutton and Cartledge. On the other hand, I don't see much that is new in Usher's contribution; more than one third of his paper simply consists of Greek text. Is it really necessary to cite the texts one is dealing with at such length (compare the other papers), when everyone who has to deal with a book of this kind probably has an appropriate library at hand?


  • [1] Diog. Laert., Lives of Eminent Philosophers 1.33.
  • [2] Thuk. II 35-46 (Pericles' speech of 431 B.C.); Gorgias fr. DK 82 B 6 (perhaps right after the Peace of Nicias in 421); Lysias or. 2 (during the Corinthian War 394-387 B.C.); Plato's Menexenus (after the Peace of Antalcidas 387); Demosth. or. 60 (after the battle of Chaironeia 338 B.C.); Hypereides or. 6 (after the Athenian defeat in the Lamian War 322 B. C.).
  • [3] See also the response by J. Roy 36 ff.
  • [4] When Macedonia became the principal threat to Greece, the Hellene-Barbarian antithesis "was restricted to historical allusions to the fifth-century situation, when Barbarians usually meant the Persians" (p. 7).
  • [5] N. Loraux, The Invention of Athens: The Funeral Oration in the Classical City (1986) 66.
  • [6] Roy in his response (p. 36-42) points out that the epitaphios is a specifically Athenian institution, so that the comparisons discussed by Ziolkowski may not have had the same meaning for other Greeks.
  • [7] H. refers to Virgil, Aen. 603-4; 9, 815-18; 11, 565; Livy 2, 10; 2, 13).
  • [8] E. g. in the Nazi propagandist L. Riefenstahl's 1936 film 'Olympiad', where the 'Aryan swimmer' is drawn from imaginary Spartans.
  • [9] H. cites the anonymous commentary on Aphthonius' Progymnasmata in C. Waltz, Rhetores Graeci ii [1835] 44f.
  • [10] Life of Philopoimen 1,11; Life of Agesilaus 14, 2; How Young Men Should Listen to Poetry 11.
  • [11] Whose Greekness he proves with what U. calls the "Heracles-connection", Letter to Philip II 40 (p. 40).
  • [12] Life of Demosthenes 20, 4-5: A whole 'documentation' of Demosthenes' anti-Macedonian actions is said to have been found by Alexander in Susa.