Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.07.12

Valérie Fromentin, Sophie Gotteland, Origines Gentium, Collection Etudes 7.   Bordeaux:  Editions Ausonius, 2001.  Pp. 395.  ISBN 2-910023-24-9.  EUR 55.00.  

Contributors: Dominique Briquel, Jacques Jouanna, Michel Casevitz, Olivier Curty, Dominique Lenfant, Sophie Gotteland, Estelle Oudot, Francis Prost, Jacques des Courtils, Pierre Debord, Alain Bresson, Pierre Aupert, Raymond Descat, Christopher P. Jones, Nathalie de Chaisemartin, Askold Ivantchik, Damien Nelis, Paul M. Martin, Agnès Rouveret, Éric Foulon, Didier Marcotte, Lucienne Deschamps, Filippo Coarelli, Pascal Arnaud, Alain Billault, Catherine Dobias-Lalou

Reviewed by Eva Valvo, Università di Pisa (
Word count: 2749 words

Origines gentium is a collection of 27 papers, which have been presented at three round tables held in Bordeaux in 1996 and 1997. They are all written in French, except one, which is in Italian. The approach of these conference proceedings is varied, since the authors of the articles are experts of history, archaeology, philology and literature; indeed, these differences in methodology are one of the main points of interest of the book.

The volume is complemented by three useful indexes that make the reader's work easier: a list of ancient sources (divided into literary sources on one side and inscriptions, manuscripts and papyri on the other), an index of toponyms and an index of proper names (organised in two categories: one of peoples and one of humans and gods).

The common theme of these papers is the origin of cities and peoples, seen as a means of building ethnic identity and bearing political, economical and religious consequences. Ancient authors have frequently debated this subject, often providing different versions and interpretations of the same tradition about the origin of a people or a city.

The pioneer study about the so-called topic of the "origo gentis" is an article by Elias J. Bickerman published in 1952.1 In fact, after the publication of this article, several monographic studies were published on the origin of particular peoples or cities, but no comprehensive study was made on the topos of the origo gentis. The papers presented at Bordeaux approach the subject from a wider perspective and develop some of the themes pointed out by Bickerman.

The articles are divided into three major sections, corresponding to the three above-mentioned round tables, which were opened by an introduction of Dominique Briquel. This review, rather than attempting to summarise each article, will present instead the main themes of each section, mentioning single contributions when necessary.

The first round table concerns general issues: these articles deal with the approach to the concept of ethnic difference in ancient Greece, with special attention to the language used. Particularly inspiring is Jacques Jouanna's contribution about the origin of the perception of the difference between peoples and consequently of the notion of the origo gentis. According to Jouanna, we cannot take the model of the origo gentis for granted since Greek writers before Herodotus did not know it and tended to perceive humanity as a whole; the global perspective on the human race was more influential than the idea of different peoples or races (sometimes indirectly alluded to as linguistic difference). Homer and Hesiod perceived a difference, which was historical rather than geographical. After this "prehistoric" premise, Jouanna passes on to the first authors interested in ethnography, who deal with the causes of the partition of humanity into races and peoples: not only Herodotus, but also the anonymous Hippocratic author of a treaty called On Airs, Waters, and Places. Both agree on the division of the world into continents (even if their partitions are slightly different) and provide a catalogue of various peoples and their habits, often discussing also their origin. The main difference between the two authors is that Herodotus is more interested in the origin of single peoples while the Hippocratic author deals rather with the general causes of the diversity of humankind. These causes are seen either as due to nature (φύσει) or to culture (νόμῳ): natural causes are primary (above all climate) while cultural ones are secondary (habits, way of living and political system). Herodotus' historical model and Hippocrates' scientific one will continue to be present in and influence Greco-Roman thought.

Michel Casevitz illustrates the concept of demographic melange in ancient Greece, commenting on the words that were used in this context. There are just a few terms with positive connotations signifying purity, unity and autochthony (as if terminological simplicity corresponds with ethnic clarity), like καθαρός, ἀμιγής and εἰλικρινῶς. In a different way, the context of demographic melange shows a varied and complex terminology, indicating the negative connotation and idea of confusion connected with diversity. In particular, Casevitz exemplifies the occurrence of the root *mei-g/k and explains the difference between μιξοβάρβαροι and μιξέλληνες: the former being non-barbaric peoples or persons having some barbaric feature (i.e. language or habits), the latter being non-Greeks presenting Greek traits.

The other round tables are divided geographically: the second one is devoted to Greece and Asia, while the third is related to the Roman world (Italy, Gaul and Africa).

The section on Greece and Asia is divided into three sub-sections: continental Greece and Cyclades, Minor Asia and islands, and "Haute-Asie".

The first three papers of this section concern the myth of Athenian autochthony, seen from different points of view. Dominique Lenfant's noteworthy contribution examines the perception of ethnic melange and cultural loans in classical Athens. Demographic melange was often considered as a sign of political and military weakness, in opposition to the aristocratic ideal of purity (corresponding with the Athenian myth of autochthony); but still, this myth had some limits, represented for example by the practice of naturalisation. The concept of cultural loans, on the other hand, includes in the discussion the already mentioned Hippocratic treaty and Herodotus, in both of which ethnic identity is defined by uses and habits. Herodotus describes the customs of peoples by differentiation or similarity with Greek ones; the case of similarity is explained by way of cultural loans (that is to say, he puts forward the theory of "diffusionism" against that of evolutionism). Moreover, the concept of imitation suggests a hierarchic criterion whereby the model is supposedly superior to the imitator. Nevertheless, Herodotus also identifies a constructive kind of imitation: the Greeks are able to imitate with discernment. Finally, Lenfant takes into account the political connotation of cultural loans: except for the fact that the introduction of foreign customs is often seen as moral decadence and corruption, the imitation of other peoples' institutions or habits sometimes implies political sympathy for another state.

Sophie Gotteland discusses an indirect aspect of the myth of Athenian autochthony: the way Athenian orators depicted the origin of other Greek cities. The vision Athenians had of themselves depends on their perception of others and vice versa, while the latter can change in different contexts. Athenians built their own identity according to the "rhetoric of antithesis", which opposed them against the Other and which did not differentiate between the others: Athenians were autochthons, while all the others were migrants, viz. inferior. Migration has negative connotations because it is strictly connected with the unjust expulsion of the previous inhabitants, a non-natural link with the land and a non-legitimate authority upon it. Moreover, Attic orators present migratory groups as ethnically non-homogeneous and lacking unity. However, when other Greek cities are taken into account without referring to Athens, migration and ethnic melange can even appear as positive: this is the case of Greek colonies, praised just for their origin, which represented a solution to the need for land.

Estelle Oudot's paper deals with the perception of Athenian autochthony under the Roman Empire. The changed political situation also involves a transformation in the concept of autochthony: either this motif is not mentioned at all or it is minimised or it undergoes an inversion so that Athens is considered a country open for anyone, being above all a cultural centre. This inversion arises from the need to solve the question of the coexistence of Rome and Athens, giving the latter an exclusively cultural role while not interfering with the political power of the former.

The usefulness of these three articles is that together they analyse a single question from different angles, giving us a better understanding of its complexity.

Francis Prost discusses the role of the founding hero in the Cyclades: this often mythical figure made it possible for a city to distinguish itself from the others (while remaining part of a common tradition), to concentrate its political life around the tomb of the hero, and to define its civic identity and history.

Two articles that appear less related to the topic of origo gentis open the sub-section about Minor Asia and islands: Jacques des Courtils' paper on the usefulness of Lycian archaeology for finding out something more about the mostly unknown Lycian people and Pierre Debord's study of the Mysians, not in connection with the question of their origin, but with their geo-ethnographical definition.

More interesting is Alain Bresson's analysis of Greek and Carian presence in Rhodes' Chersonese. Bresson maps out different versions of the foundation of the Chersonese provided by various literary sources: some legends talk of peaceful cohabiting by Greeks and Carians while others testify to a hostile relationship or a deterioration of their previous alliance. The common aspect of these traditions is the obliteration of the Carian past to the advantage of the new Greek component, as if the Chersonese Greeks wanted to distinguish themselves from their Carian neighbours.

Christopher Jones and Nathalie de Chaisemartin discuss the example of the Carian city of Aphrodisias. Jones compares the examples of Aphrodisias and Ilion, two beneficiaries of the Roman Empire, to which they had equally close relationships, though of different kinds. Ilion was considered consanguineous with Rome because of the Trojan ancestors of the Julii, while Aphrodisias was linked to Rome not by blood-relation but by friendship, since it enjoyed the protection of Aphrodite, divine ancestor of Rome. Relations between cities were often established on a mythical, rather than a political, basis. De Chaisemartin, on the other hand, uses the example of Aphrodisias to examine some political and ideological aspects of origin-legends under the Roman Empire. While Jones' argumentation is mainly based on inscriptions, de Chaisemartin takes iconography as a point of departure: the numerous Trojan figures in Aphrodisian art demonstrate a wish to emphasise the relationship with Troy and consequently with the powerful Roman Empire. In the Roman perspective, however, this mythical connection would legitimise the power of Rome in Minor Asia. It is interesting to see how these two approaches, having different standpoints and using different sources, together give a more composite view of the exemplary situation of the same city.

The sub-section concerning "Haute-Asie" contains a single article by Askold Ivantchik about the Greek legends on the origin of the Scythians. Herodotus tells three different versions of the myth, which have already been considered by Jouanna from a different perspective. Ivantchik analyses this myth, comparing it with archaeological sources (vases and coins).

The third part of the book is divided into three sections: Rome, Italy and Gaul, and Africa. Damien Nelis and Paul Martin deal with the origin of Rome.

Nelis examines the Roman myth of the origin through the aetiological epic of the Aeneid. Vergil's interest in different legends of the origin of Rome fits perfectly with Augustan ideology: Augustus tried to harmonise the legend of Romulus and Remus with that of Aeneas, thus synthesising the connection with Mars and Venus. In fact, the Aeneid combines Homeric epic and Augustan history, by way of various literary techniques: prophecy, ekphrasis, genealogy, anachronism, ktisis, aition.

Paul Martin approaches the issue of Doppelmonarchie in early Roman history, showing the existence of different versions and using various examples (Aeneas and Latinus, Numitor and Amulius, Romulus and Remus, Romulus and Lucumon, Romulus and Titus Tatius, Ancus Marcius and Tarquin). It is possible to distinguish various structural systems, which share the suppression of one of the two kings:

1) real double monarchy on a single people (occurring rarely);
2) synoecism (from two kings and two peoples to one king and one people);
3) association with power (not a real double monarchy, since only one is the actual king);
4) power-Ersatz;
5) usurpation (by elimination of the other king, by refusal of power-alternation, or by appropriation after partitioning).

None of these systems corresponds with a real double monarchy, so the different legends have been built in order to serve various ideologies and regimes.

The section devoted to Italy and Gaul is opened by Éric Foulon's paper on Polybius, which has a different approach compared to the other articles since it analyses the theoretical point of view of the ancient historian about the history of the origins. Polybius considers three kinds of history writing: genealogy (strictly connected with the myth), history of colonisation (placed between history and myth), and the pragmatic genre (being the "real" history). Polybius chooses the last genre, which can be both new in form and content and useful from a moral and political point of view. The history of the origin of a people or a city lies outside the domain of the pragmatic genre and it is therefore rejected by Polybius. Nevertheless, he goes back to the far mythic origin of the Achaeans because he wants to confer upon his own fatherland an ancient prestige. Likewise, the fragments forming the so-called "Archaeology of Rome" deal with the mythic origin of the city of Rome, which represented a second fatherland for Polybius.

The papers which follow deal with the origin of various Italic populations.

Didier Marcotte delves into an interesting issue: the way Greek authors considered Italic populations and Rome. The most common tendency was to see Rome as leader among many undistinguished Italic cities, although for some it was a Greek city straight away. We have noticed above how the Athenian antithetical rhetoric left no room for differentiating among the others.

We have already seen how mythic origin-legends were used for political aims. Dominique Briquel gives us another example of this use concerning the city of Lanuvium. We have two different versions of the origin of Lanuvium, one handed down by Appian (II AD) and the other by Fabius Pictor (II BC). Both legends are linked to the Greek tradition of nostoi: Appian tells us that Lanuvium was founded by Diomedes coming back from Troy, while an inscription in Sicily based on the authority of Pictor testifies that the founder of the city was the eponymous Lanuvius/Lanoios, Aeneas' ally. Briquel maintains that -- even if it may appear less probable -- Appian' version is the oldest one, whereas the Lanuvius/Lanoios-legend may have been created in order to establish a better relationship with Rome thanks to the link with Aeneas.

Lucienne Deschamps' contribution concerning the origin of the gens salentina explores a relevant point: Varro asserts that an association of Cretans, Illyrians and Italics formed this population, putting forward the idea that union and a well-balanced melange of different elements makes a nation stronger. Such a notion is quite far from the Greek common opinion about demographic melange, as we have already seen.

Pascal Arnaud's article concerns the peculiar case of the Ligurians and the way a geographic concept was built and transformed. From the very beginning, the Ligurians are known as an autochthonous Italic population, but they are also said to be living in Corsica, Sicily and Spain. Arnaud assumes the Ligurians are a geographic concept, instead of ethnic, trying to shed light on the confused and contradictory information about this population. The main point is the confusion between Greek λιγύς and Latin Ligus, Liguris. It is probable that the Greek word was used at first to signify someone with a strident voice or maybe even "barbaric". This population was often linked with a wonderful land in the far West, but when Iberians, Celts, Britons and the inhabitants of Thule took on their role, the Ligurians became limited to the area of Marseille. There is no trace of Italic Ligurians until 236 BC, when they are mentioned in the Acta Triumphalia Populi Romani, but these are probably connected with an Italic tradition independent of the Greek one. Geographers under the Roman Empire have tried to harmonise these two different traditions, causing an even worse confusion.

The last section concerns Africa and contains an article by Alain Billault about the Ethiopians and their origin, viz. another fabulous population. The first source mentioning the Ethiopians is Homer, who considers them a people living in the extremity of the world. Diodorus also talks about them and believes they are a prestigious kind of autochthons, being the very first inhabitants of the world, celebrated for their virtue and their piety. During Hellenism, they became a counterpart to India, and in the III century BC this opposition was inverted: spiritual superiority was then characteristic of Eastern peoples, and the Ethiopians lose any former fame of goodness.

In conclusion, this collection of papers with its diverse viewpoints and its broad perspective including different periods and lands may be appealing to and inspiring for scholars of various disciplines.


1.   Elias J. Bickerman, "Origines gentium", Classical Philology, XLVII, 1952, pp. 65-81; reprinted in id., Religions and Politics in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods, Como, 1985, pp. 399-417.

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