Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.08.12

Irad Malkin (ed.), Ancient Perceptions of Greek Ethnicity. Center for Hellenic Studies Colloquia, 5.   Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2001.  Pp. 418.  ISBN 0-674-00662-3.  $50.00.  

Reviewed by Margaret C. Miller, University of Toronto (
Word count: 3181 words

Ethnicity is in high fashion both in the news media and in scholarship about classical antiquity. An important intellectual advance in anthropology of the past generation was the recognition that, however much its participants believe (or want to believe) that it is innate, ethnicity is a construct -- a fact already recognised by Herodotos.1 Irad Malkin, in planning a colloquium on "Ancient Perceptions of Greek Ethnicity" at the Center for Hellenic Studies in 1997, gathered a group of scholars to address the question from a wide variety of perspectives, both analytical and geographical, and across a broad time frame. The CHS colloquium format encourages genuine exchange of ideas at a formative stage of research. The resulting volume, despite its multiple authors, has a clear unity of method and approach, so that the papers constitute a consensual dialogue even when they do not overtly relate to one another. It provides an excellent and timely overview of the many facets of ancient perceptions of Greek identity.

Ethnicity is defined by one participant as "the sense of peoplehood arising from shared blood, history, territory, language, and customs" (McInerney, p. 51). With a little pushing it can often be observed that a social group so defined is actually more heterogenous than it will admit or that the features that seem primordial in fact go back only a short while. Mythological ancestors can be invented to give the illusion of shared blood; language can be used to unite as well as divide (how significant dialect difference is will depend on circumstance). The full range of characteristics used by groups to articulate common identity appears over the millennium of Greek experience addressed in this volume. Ethnic identity is found characteristically to be articulated at moments of crisis and is contingent on circumstance: while most categories of distinction and description are employed in every situation, the relative importance of the criteria varies from one case to another.

The papers are organised in a loosely chronological order. Each era has its own characteristic formula(e) for constructing ethnicity (though no formula is exclusive to any one period). The archaic world of the early iron age bases its ethnic definition on mythic genealogy, a strategy of group definition termed "aggregative" by Jonathan Hall.2 The era of the Persian and Phoenician Wars encouraged ethnic formulations based on a perceived contrast with non-Greeks, termed by Hall "oppositional." In the Later Classical, Hellenistic and Roman periods, a definition focussed more on education and lifestyle suited the increased scope of the Greek world. Readily acquired features such as speaking Greek or knowing Greek history were the basis of what is called the "cultural" basis of ethnic definition. A parallel global shift from high to low value attached to (mythical) descent also occurs: a sense of hereditary kinship through a common ancestor is fundamental to early ethnic expression but is essentially gone by the Roman Imperial period, when the Roman projections of Greek ethnicity were based largely on a kind of nostalgia for the "glories of Greece" that is, for the distant, itself almost heroic, past.

The differences of perspective over time are shaped by the dominant ideology of each age. The discovery that ethnic identity in the archaic period is mostly defined through group descent suits the aristocratic ideology of the archaic period, where genealogy played a definitive role. The development of "oppositional" formulations in response to outside threat are in fact symptomatic of an emerging polis democracy which created internal homogeneity by placing the Other beyond its borders. In the Hellenistic period, with the reassertion of class distinctions, especially in those regions in which Greeks dominated native populations, one might see the increasing importance of learnable "cultural" traits as a by-product of the oppositional definition, in its movement away from what's "bred in the bone" to "what's learned in the polis." ("Cultural" is an unfortunate choice of term as all ethnic traits under discussion can in some sense be regarded as "cultural.") A sense of belonging was, of course, crucial to the Roman empire and could only be achieved by means of focus on identity through learned characteristics. We might therefore regard "culturally" determined ethnicity as characteristic of imperial ideology, a view not incompatible with the fact that its origins go back to the days of Macedonian ascendancy.

A brief outline of the different contributions is given below, as it would do an injustice to the rich texture of the volume to try to clump the papers by method, material, or period. But first the complementarity of the papers should be highlighted. It is, for example, a rare paper that does not address Herodotos' definition of τὸ Ἑλληνικόν (8.144.2). The accounts of mythopoiesis by McInerney and Sancisi-Weerdenburg highlight the importance of mythic genealogy to Greek constructions of ethnicity; myths figure significantly also in the papers of Malkin, Thomas and Saïd. Konstan, Saïd and Spawforth on the Roman period articulate, as it were, different facets of the same picture, yielding a fuller understanding of imperial Greece. Thompson and Gruen on Egypt and Israel within the Hellenistic world, though written from the different perspectives imposed by strikingly different bases of evidence, give parallel pictures of the relationship between the native population and the dominant Greek "ethno-class".3 The most famous case, that of Macedon, recurs; Hall's discussion is underscored by Saïd's analysis of the fourth-century rhetoricians and the implicit findings of Thompson and Gruen that the Hellenistic peoples without hesitation incorporated Macedonians within their category "Greek." Whether ethnicity can be identified on the basis of material remains is hotly contested, and the three papers treating material culture by Morgan, Antonaccio, and Cohen well represent the range of the problems and possible solutions.

Irad Malkin's "Introduction" (1-28) to the volume rapidly moves from "who is a Greek?" to bigger questions ("what is ethnicity?"), setting the stage for the other contributors' thoughtful analyses and insightful employment of comparanda (anthropological studies figure frequently in chapter bibliographies throughout the volume). Malkin firmly resists the temptation to force the chaotic phenomena into an orderly range of discrete elements, and points out the instructive parallels between modern and ancient debates about ethnicity.

David Konstan, in "To Hellenikon ethnos: Ethnicity and the Construction of Ancient Greek Identity" (29-50), focuses on three "moments." First, in the aristocratic world of Homer, there is neither an indication of ethnic difference between Trojans and Achaeans, nor even much a sense of common ethnicity among Achaeans. The second "moment" discussed is ca. 400 B.C., a transitional period characterised by a range of criteria for defining Greekness: at the end of the fifth century the oppositional definition inspired by conflict with the Persian empire lingers, the myth of autochthony in Athens holds strong, but also cultural features increasingly emerge as a basis of distinction, as when Thucydides in Perikles' funeral speech lauds a refined life-style. By the time of Pausanias, autochthony had lost its ethnic charge; the sense of Greek ethnicity was based on a "collective memory" (p. 41) of Greece's glorious past. The heuristic value of such a diachronic account is that it makes visible the circumstantial motivation for changes in ethnic definition.

Jeremy McInerney, in "Ethnos and Ethnicity in Early Greece" (51-73), finds that analysis of the Greek use of the term "ethnos" shows that it is usually best translated "people" rather than "tribe" and that some Greeks, at least (Herodotos), were aware of deliberate projects to shape, define, and limit a specific ethnos (Ionians). Such modulations over time are attested in anthropological studies of more recent societies, and can be reconstructed in antiquity by analysis of incompatible strands of regional myth, the tell-tale sign of past ethnopoiesis. Ancient Phocis, where each pocket had its own separate myth of descent, provides an excellent example of such a process. Mythopoiesis allowed the emergence of two separate eponymous heroes named Phocus, who were essential to the formulation of Phocian identity and hence the Phocian federation.

In addressing the contentious question whether or how community can be identified or defined archaeologically, Catherine Morgan, in "Ethne, Ethnicity, and Early Greek States, ca. 1200-480 B.C.: An Archaeological Perspective" (75-112), makes a plea for cautious consideration of all possible archaeological evidence (and, tacitly, for collection strategies designed to elicit such evidence). Any reliable (i.e. broadly based) analysis needs to identify parallel patterns of behaviour manifested through artifact placement and use rather than mere parallelism of assemblages from one site to the next. Her strategies for research in this area are most intelligible when exemplified in case studies of the Pharae Valley in Achaea and the Spercheios Valley in Thessaly.

Carla M. Antonaccio, with "Ethnicity and Colonization" (113-157), reveals the complexities of specific regional experience: Sicily, with its various native populations and cities founded by a variety of Greek ethne, had many ethnicities, which had complex linkages on and off the island. Nonetheless under conditions of crisis "Sicily" could be constructed as a distinctive entity whose primary attribute was locative, the geographical fact of being an island. Yet sub-groupings continued to create identity from internal oppositions, whether Hellenophone or Sikel. On the question of how/whether artefact assemblage can be associated with cultural identity, Antonaccio argues that on Sicily the archaeological evidence for the pre-Greek culture can provide a kind of "datum point" that makes visible the indebtedness of the distinctive qualities of Sikeliote Greek cultural expression to the culture of the native Sikels.

Jonathan Hall, in "Contested Ethnicities: Perceptions of Macedonia within Evolving Definitions of Greek Ethnicity" (159-186), advances his prior work on Greek ethnicity by addressing the ancient question whether Macedonians were or were not Greeks. His convincing explanation of this debate in the fourth century is based on the principles that defining "Not A" aids the definition of "A"; and that where there is manifest disagreement on the categories included in "Not A", such disagreement can be ascribed to otherwise traceable shifts in attitude to the definition of "A". That is, while some viewed the question of Macedonian ethnicity on the basis of mythical genealogy, the Archaic "aggregative" definition, others used cultural criteria, a by-product of the Classical "oppositional" definition; and even the argument from "culture" could be variously manipulated.

Irad Malkin examines the role of the outsider's view on Epirus in his "Greek Ambiguities: Between 'Ancient Hellas' and 'Barbarian Epirus'" (187-212). Epirus provides an interesting parallel to Macedon in that the ancient sources reflect the full spectrum of attitudes about its ethnicity: it is Greek (having good genealogical links through the Nostoi), it is primitive Greek (how "we" used to be); it is barbaros (customs alien to those of the Corcyran and Corinthian colonists on the coast). Malkin argues that despite many features that would normally allow a region to be deemed Greek (notably language and mythology), the outsiders' impression of the colonisers and then historiographers (of the south) left an indelible stamp on later perception of the region. This reiterates the importance of the viewer's perspective and the relativity of the question.

Herodotos' fascination with ethnicity permeates his Histories, which is regarded as the world's earliest extant anthropological study as much as its earliest extant history. Rosalind Thomas, in "Ethnicity, Genealogy, and Hellenism in Herodotus" (213-233), chooses four cases -- the Macedonians, the Spartans, the Athenians, and the Ionians -- and finds in each a polemic. Different criteria for defining Greekness emerge: genealogy plays a role, but is undercut by overlayering of genealogies linking east and west; language plays a role, as does religious practise; self-perception also appears. Herodotos' own ethnic liminality (from a mixed Carian-Dorian Greek city, writing in the Ionic dialect), as well as that of what we might call his temporal/social space (in the interculturation zone between the Persian Empire and the Greek world), poised between the traditional aristocratic stress on genealogy and the culturally-focused shifts of the fifth century, explains his preoccupation and his articulations. He should provide the benchmark for "oppositional" ethnicity but refuses to do so, with his mixing of family trees and constant discussion of cultural traits exchanged across the east/west divide.

Beth Cohen shows in her "Ethnic Identity in Democratic Athens and the Visual Vocabulary of Male Costume" (235-274) that in classical Athens, dress was used in art as in life as a conscious indicator of Athenian distinctive identity. The fabrication of Athenian ethnicity seems to start with the democracy; dress alludes to the heroic models for Athenian democracy -- Theseus, the eponymous heroes, the Tyrannicides -- who serve as exemplars of the different age categories (ephebe; mature citizen). In a number of instances Athenian men seem to wear specific items of recognizably foreign dress. An utterly heterogenous range of dress appears on the youths and men of the Parthenon frieze, from full "athletic" nudity through chitoniskos and chlamys or draped himatia to foreign garments like the Thracian alopekis and the sleeved chiton. On this monumental expression of Athenian citizenry the message conveyed is one of supreme self-confidence, where "cultural co-optation" (p. 243) is fully part of Athenian self-perception.

Suzanne Saïd, in "The Discourse of Identity in Greek Rhetoric from Isocrates to Aristides" (275 299), endeavours to show how historical circumstance shaped the rhetorical expression of Greek ethnicity, by contrasting two periods: the fourth century BC (Isokrates and Demosthenes) and the first centuries AD (Dio and Aelius Aristides). In the fourth century, the polis-structure was largely intact, though the rising predominance of Macedon upset a complacent "oppositional" definition: battle-lines were drawn up on the basis of whether or not the Macedonians were to be viewed as Greek. A definition on the basis of education and custom implied greater flexibility in categorization; and the Athenians had begun to lay claim to being the metropolis of more than the Ionians (a near obsolete-category). Both trends blossomed by the early imperial period, when incorporation within the Roman empire shaped "Greek" thought processes. Individuals could learn or forget how to be Greek (which included a knowledge of past traditions) and fit on a sliding scale where Attic stood at the "most Greek" pole.

The potential for microhistoric analysis of Ptolemaic Egypt renders this variegated society fertile ground for analysis of ethnic definition, as Dorothy J. Thompson shows in her "Hellenistic Hellenes: The Case of Ptolemaic Egypt" (301-322). The imposition of a "Greek" minority over a native Egyptian population adds issues of social privilege. Tax structures favoured "Greeks" and the conveyors of Greek culture: teachers, athletic coaches, actors, and victorious athletes.4 Yet individual recipients of the exemption allowed to the so-called "tax Hellenes" are manifestly Egyptian, and funerary monuments bear witness to the profound biculturalism of some of the upper classes, who could move easily from one milieu to the other, depending on circumstance. In the case of Hellenistic Egypt, culture was no mere byproduct of descent-based ethnicity, but the active principle of definition.

Seeing Greeks through the eyes of others is a useful antidote to the study of the many ways that Greek-speakers could slice the cake of their own ethnicity. Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg outlines with characteristic clarity and sophistication what (little) can be said about how Persians viewed Greeks in her "Yauna by the Sea and across the Sea" (323-346). Persians, to judge from their artistic renderings and lists of the "peoples" of their empire, had some difficulty distinguishing western Anatolians one from another and possibly only bothered to separate Greeks into the categories Yauna "of the mainland, dwelling by the sea, and dwelling across the sea" because they knew that they were politically disorganized. As a tactic of imperial control, Persians did try to learn enough about their subjects' cultures to find ways of expressing their right to rule in local idioms. The claim that Perseus was the distant ancestor of Persians through his son Perses, found in Herodotos, is suspected to be a Persian rather than Greek instance of politically expedient mythopoiesis.5 Sancisi-Weerdenburg properly insists that what Greeks say Persians say about Greeks cannot be considered in this context because of a suspicion that the attributed words are the product of an inventive Greek attempt at self-definition through contrast. Erich S. Gruen, in "Jewish Perspectives on Greek Culture and Ethnicity" (347-373), shows how Hellenistic Jews responded (variably) along the lines of two typical reactions to foreign control: by vilifying their oppressors with the usual range of monstrous characteristics and by countering the alien's cultural predominance with the claim that all that was notable in Greek culture was learned from the Jews (Moses is here pivotal). What is more surprising, perhaps, is the evidence that some Hellenistic Greeks seem to have known about and accepted such claims, in accordance with the long-standing ascription of aspects of Greek culture to the Near East. In a sense, Gruen's contribution is better paired with Thompson's rather than Sancisi-Weerdenburg's, as it addresses the "internal Other's" perception of Greek ethnicity even while it provides a complementary picture of the kinds of hostility and accommodation to be found in the subject population.

Anthony Spawforth, in "Shades of Greekness: A Lydian Case Study" (375-400), discusses the Hadrianic and Antonine privileging of one facet of Greek experience (that of classical Athens) over all other times and places. Such an attitude on the part of the world power of the day inevitably had an impact on the attitude of Greek speakers throughout the "east" at a time when Hellenism would seem, in the first instance, to have supplanted all local traditional cultures. Yet precisely the exclusion from the Greek ideal of all Hellenophone peoples of "Asia" (who thus had to "Atticize" to be acceptable; see also Saïd, p. 290) may have contributed to a curious revitalisation of local ethnic expression. In Sardis and Lydia in the Roman period, for example, though the Lydian language seems to have been dead for a couple of centuries, Lydian cults and institutions were revived or even invented. Both in his intrusive introduction of Lydian matters and in his decision to write his book on Old Greece, Pausanias can be seen to reflect both trends.

In his Introduction, Malkin raises the question whether "ethnicity" is an appropriate concept for the pre-modern world. It would seem that the answer of this volume is a resounding "yes" but with the caveat that the term must be viewed within the Greek perspective so long as the account is not dominated by facile hard distinctions. Ethnicity emerges as such a chimerical construct that it is perhaps best addressed as here, through several voices, each case study revealing another facet of a complex question.

The book is handsomely produced, though the illustrations for the papers by Cohen and Sancisi-Weerdenburg are regrettably murky. It includes two clear maps and concludes with a list of contributors and a regrettably rather mechanically-produced index. There are few printing errors, nothing that would cause misunderstanding. I noted two missing bibliographical references: p. 296, n.26 (Bowersock 1995); p. 343, n.66 (Sancisi-Weerdenburg 1997). For the latter, presumably one of the following is intended: "Persian Food: Stereotypes and Political Identity," in J. Wilkins, D. Harvey, M. Dobson, eds., Food in Antiquity (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1995) 286-302; or "Crumbs from the royal table. Foodnotes on Briant pp.297-306", Topoi Suppl. 1 (Lyon 1998), 333-45.6


1.   As admirably illustrated by McInerney, pp. 57-59.
2.   The terms are introduced from Jonathan Hall,Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity (Cambridge 1997).
3.   This useful term was invented by Pierre Briant to describe the Persians of the Achaemenid Empire and seems very applicable to the situation in Hellenistic Egypt, and possibly also elsewhere in the Hellenistic world: "Ethno-classe dominante et populations soumises dans l'empire achéménide," in H. Sancisi-Weerdenburg and A. Kuhrt, edd.,Achaemenid History, III: Method and Theory (Leiden 1988) 137-173.
4.   Based on P.Hal. 1.260-264, where "actors" is supplied for a lacuna; presumably the lost word(s) included "technitai" (an observation I owe to E. Csapo). The term embraces all manner of poets and musicians as well as theatre personnel and so strengthens Thompson's point.
5.   An important insight that was anticipated by P. Georges,Barbarian Asia and the Greek Experience (Baltimore 1994) 66-67.
6.   I am most grateful to W.F.M. Henkelman of the University of Leiden, one of the editors of her memorial volume, for his help in retrieving these references.

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