Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.7.26

Renato Oniga, Sallustio e l'etnografia. Biblioteca di "Materiali e discussioni per l'analisi dei testi classici" 12. Pisa: Giardini editori, 1995. Pp. 147. ISBN 88-427-0258-7.

Reviewed by James E. G. Zetzel, Columbia University,

The excursus on the geography and ethnography of Africa at Sallust, Bellum Jugurthinum 17-19 which is the principal topic of Renato Oniga's slender and learned volume contains the strange and curious report that among the progenitors of the North-African populations of historical times were the "Medes, Persians, and Armenians" who had participated in the expedition of Hercules to Spain (BJ 18.3-4). As a painful instance of modern attempts to extract prehistory from ancient ethnography, O. cites (81) the 1937 Pauly-Wissowa article of F. Windberg on Numidia, who fantasized (O.'s word) about the African experiences of "blond, blue-eyed men ... of Aryan origin" who formed a part of "the Berber race." Windberg's article is not only a useful warning against reading ancient ethnographic discussions as if they were the work of modern anthropologists; it is also a reminder of the ethnocentric and racialist presuppositions that have been a element in modern anthropology itself, not to mention their effect on other academic disciplines (including Classics) and on the beliefs and attitudes of people at large. Such attitudes have of course not disappeared, and the demonization of the Other still has catastrophic and bloody consequences; but without naive self-satisfaction, it is possible to think that we approach the study both of other peoples and of others' studies of other peoples with just a little more awareness of the inevitable narrowness and bias of our own preconceptions than was once the case.

The study of ancient ethnography has a long and distinguished tradition in modern scholarship, but it is really in the last generation that it has entered the mainstream of the study of ancient literature. A few texts reasonably take pride of place in this: among the Greeks, Herodotus and the Hippocratic Airs Waters Places; among the Latins, Tacitus' Germania. In an important study published fifteen years ago, Richard Thomas investigated the importance of ethnographic categories in a number of major works of Latin literature, not least the Georgics and the Aeneid;1 a great deal of significant work, duly cited by O., by Maurizio Bettini and others has explored the mapping of Roman concepts onto the enlarging world which they met, conquered, and tried to control intellectually as well as militarily.

Other than specialists, most of us have a far greater familiarity with Sallust's first work, the Bellum Catilinae, than with either the Bellum Jugurthinum or the all-too-fragmentary and unfinished Historiae, and that is unfortunate. The BC lends itself to a caricature of Sallust the disgruntled and failed politician, looking with acerbic gaze, Catonian attitudes, and Thucydidean categories on the corruption of Rome and the failure of traditional morality; it leads to a concentration on Sallust as above all an analyst of politics within Rome (thus, among others, the important works of Earl and Syme).2 That is, of course, a major element in the later works as well as the BC, but it becomes progressively less central as his subjects move beyond Italy to Africa in the BJ and the entire Mediterranean in the Historiae. Hence, as O. rightly notes, the increasing importance of discussions of geography and ethnography, of "digressions" which set the stage for military action and characterize the peoples and places with which the Romans had to deal. The BJ explores the interaction between domestic politics (and corruption) and foreign affairs (and corruption); and as C.S. Kraus has recently observed, there is a very close relationship between the character of the war with Jugurtha and the nature of the land and its inhabitants in a "thematics of disorder" to which both the treacherous Jugurtha and the shifting sands of Numidia are central.3

O.'s monograph does not attempt to deal with the literary function of geographic and ethnographic descriptions in Sallust's works, nor, except through occasional observations, does he confront the close relationship between ethnography and historiography in general.4 His goal is far more limited: to reveal, through close textual analysis of significant passages, both the inherited categories of ethnographical thought that appear in Sallust and the ways in which Sallust is revealed as a writer of considerable expertise in the complex traditions of Hellenistic ethnography. These two goals are sometimes distinct and sometimes overlapping; but what emerges, often obliquely, is a very different Sallust from the narrowly political pessimist whom one often encounters. We have become used to acknowledging in the Roman poets the profound importance of Hellenistic doctrina; O.'s Sallust belongs in that company, and it is a very interesting place to meet him.

The first two chapters of O.'s book deal with ancient ethnography in two different ways. The first chapter gives a chronological survey of ethnographical writing embedded in historiography, starting, as one might expect, from Herodotus, but paying due attention both to Hellenistic historians, above all Polybius, and to the monographic literature that arose concerning particular foreign lands in the aftermath of Alexander's conquests. He also discusses Roman ethnography, including a valuable contrast between the different perspectives of Sallust and Caesar. The second chapter also deals with Sallust's ethnographic antecedents, but descriptively: O. discusses above all the geographic and climatological determinism best revealed in Airs Waters Places and, more briefly, the categorization of peoples through their ways of life, the distinction between nomadism, hunting, and agriculture which serves both as an anthropological criterion and as the basis of narratives of the development of civilization.

The core of the book, however, is the three chapters which follow devoted to BJ 17-18, the prehistoric sections of the excursus on Africa. O. does not give a complete discussion of the passage, but in effect offers a detailed commentary on selected words and sentences. In this respect, he displays great learning and supplies fascinating material, but the focus on Sallustian ethnography is not always maintained. Chapter 3 largely concerns BJ 17.5-6, the description of the terrain and the nature of its inhabitants. O. begins with a stylistic analysis (asyndeton and tricola), comments on interesting elements of Sallust's diction, then cites parallels from Airs Waters Places, Herodotus, and Posidonius, compares descriptions of northern peoples (Gauls and Germans) to Sallust's description of Africans, points out ramifications of this description elsewhere in BJ, and attempts to relate the ethnographic description to the historical events of the war as described by Sallust. Much of what he says is valuable, but his tendency to expatiate on each separate point exhaustively makes it hard to discern a single line of argument.

The inconcinnities of this chapter, moreover, are echoed in the discontinuities between the focus of successive chapters; in this too, O.'s monograph resembles a commentary more than an essay. If Chapter 3 tries to demonstrate the relevance of the excursus on Africa to the larger themes of the BJ, Chapter 4, which concerns the phrase uti ex libris Punicis qui regis Hiempsalis dicebantur interpretatum nobis est (BJ 17.7), locates Sallust within the traditions of Hellenistic ethnography and local history. O. surveys various possible sources for the fama and auctores to whom Sallust refers in this sentence, ranging from anonymous Hellenistic chorographic writers on North Africa to Tanusius Geminus and Varro, using some very strained argumentation about Sallust's relations with the latter. It is the libri Punici, however, that are central to O.'s concerns. He shows first that the Numidian kingdom, both in Jugurtha's time and in the time of Hiempsal II (c. 80-60 BCE) was as closely connected to the Hellenistic world as to the Punic world of destroyed Carthage; that the reference to the translation of "Punic books" is a fiction, as the work was almost certainly written in Greek; and that internal evidence (the reference to Catabathmos at 17.4) shows that Sallust's source was in fact probably written in the period of Hiempsal II. He gives a detailed analysis of the story purportedly told in this source of the partial descent of the Africans from survivors of Hercules' expedition to Spain, with parallels from other Hellenistic texts, showing that the historical work of Hiempsal II, like that of his successor Juba II, was designed to provide a mythical aetiology and context for the Hellenization of Numidia. The range of materials cited by O. is broad, and his handling of it deft. It explains more about Sallust's models than about Sallust himself, but, as noted above, it performs a valuable service by placing Sallust in the context of Hellenistic learning in Rome. Chapter 5 is a more extended analysis of the ethnography of BJ 17, and combines the approaches of both the preceding chapters, examining Sallust's account both in terms of the ethnographic systems it reveals (alimentary code and manner of life) and in terms of the learned tradition, in particular the uses of etymology and myth to explain national origins and local names. Equally significant is his linking (74-75) of Sallust's diction concerning the nomadic life with the parallel passage in Lucretius Book 5 and his exploration (78-79) of the parallels between the description of aboriginal life in Sallust and comparable passages concerning primitive Italy. Richard Thomas had argued that Evander's account of early Italy (Aen. 8.314-36) was in fact deliberately modelled on Sallust's Africa; the breadth of material cited by O. suggests that the parallel is not the result of imitation, but of the common use of a very widespread theme.5

Coming after the extraordinary detail lavished by O. on a few sentences of the BJ, the chapter that follows, on the ethnographic passages of the Historiae, seems rushed and cursory. The fragments show, not surprisingly, a similar use of the same methods: "mythology, aetiology, the contrast between civilization and savagery, the relationship between man and environment" (96). O. contents himself, largely, with pointing out the presence of these themes; and, more than in the chapters on BJ, he focusses on a single (lost) source for Sallust's ethnographies -- including the mysterious fragments on Sertorius and the Isles of the Blest -- in the works of Posidonius. That is not impossible, but it seems once more to turn a Roman writer, whom O. has shown to be an active participant in the learned Hellenistic tradition, into the purveyor of potted information from a single source.6 The discussion on the famous description of the Black Sea is particularly cursory and disappointing, and O. has singularly little to say about the role of ethnography in the Historiae as a whole.7

O.'s final chapter concerns the location of a mysterious fragment cited by Priscian (from Censorinus) from the BJ (but not preserved in the manuscripts) concerning the Moors and their ideas that the Antipodes were to the south of Ethiopia and lived a blessed and just life in the manner of the Persians. O. elucidates the content of this sentence thoroughly, and connects it with the various ethnographic commonplaces and Hellenistic concerns that he discussed in previous chapters; and he shows, to my mind convincingly, that the sentence is genuine and that it indeed belongs in the BJ after 19.6, not in the Historiae.

Taken as a whole, O.'s monograph contributes usefully not only to the interpretation of Sallust, but to the understanding of the goals and methods of Hellenistic ethnographic writers and of their Roman followers. But the virtue of the book is in the details, and in the combination of historiographical learning with close reading of individual sentences. O. does not really attempt to integrate either ethnography or Hellenistic learning into a full-scale analysis of Sallustian historiography, but anyone who attempts to write such a study -- and a new one is indeed needed -- will have to take this careful and precise investigation into account.


1. R. Thomas, Lands and Peoples in Roman Poetry (Cambridge, 1982).

2. D. C. Earl, The Political Thought of Sallust (Cambridge, 1961); R. Syme, Sallust (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1964).

3. In C. S. Kraus and A. J. Woodman, Latin Historians (Greece & Rome New Surveys in the Classics No. 27, 1997) 22. Recent important studies of BJ (cited by Kraus) include T. F. Scanlon, "Textual Geography in Sallust's The War with Jugurtha," Ramus 17 (1988) 138-75 and D. S. Levene, "Sallust's Jugurtha: an 'historical fragment'," JRS 82 (1992) 53-70; Kraus's own study of BJ will appear next year.

4. Cf. Kraus (above, n.3) 49 n.135: "One should emphasize that the ethnographical impulse is inseparable from the historical one."

5. Thomas (above, n.1) 96. At p.99 O. adduces another Lucretian parallel for Sallust's description of earthquakes at Hist 2.28.

6. I have not checked the Posidonian material thoroughly, but it is perhaps worth observing that O.'s Posidonius is the more expansive version of Theiler rather than the restricted one of Edelstein-Kidd. Even though the heyday of Panposidonianism is past, a degree of caution is in order.

7. On this topic see Kraus (above, n.3) 39-41. I note that in this chapter in particular, O. makes extensive use of the 1991 Colorado dissertation of Paul Keyser, Geography and Ethnography in Sallust. I have not read this work, and thus can not make comparisons; the summary published in Dissertation Abstracts 52-09A, p.3257 is uninformative.