Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.02.11

Thomas Harrison (ed.), Greeks and Barbarians.   New York:  Routledge, 2002.  Pp. xv + 336.  ISBN 0-415-93959-3.  $24.95 (pb).  

Contributors: J. Redfield, S. Goldhill, S. Saïd, F. Lissarrague, E. Hall, A. Morpurgo Davies, J. Rudhardt, P. Briant, F.Hartog, F.W. Walbank, R. Browning, and W. Nippel

Reviewed by Jan P. Stronk, Ancient History, University of Amsterdam (
Word count: 2921 words

This book is a collection of 12 articles written by various specialists: the papers are divided in 4 sections. All articles discuss, one way or another, the differences and complexities of the at-titude of Greeks towards what they called Barbarians. The criteria for selection of these studies has been, as Harrison (henceforth H) states (p. 9): "to cover a wide chronological span, to present a range of ancient sources and of sub-themes, to display a broad spectrum of foreign peoples, and to give some sense of the variety of modern approaches". Most papers were originally published in the period between 1984 and 1997: the exception is the article by Wal-bank, which was published as early as 1951.1 H has provided the book with a general in-troduction and done the same for each of the four sections. Though some uniformity has been imposed (e.g. regarding the abbreviations used), this has not been done for spelling, punctua-tion, and modes of referencing. The book is concluded with a so-called intellectual chronology, a guide to further reading, a bibliography consisting of the books referred to by the editor in the various introductions, and a general index.

Each group of people, according to H in the general introduction, creates its own identity by opposing itself to others, especially foreign peoples. The Greeks were no exception to that rule. Their, one might say, natural opponents were the peoples living to their north (a.o. Thracians), south (mainly Egyptians), and east (predominantly the Persians). The emphasis of the Greeks on their own identity may be discerned since the time of Homer, though how they viewed these 'barbarians' varied significantly over time, responding to the history of events. Moreover, the Greeks were aware that they formed not at all a homogeneous group themselves.

The purpose of this book is "to survey as wide a range as possible of the Greeks' responses to foreign peoples; it is also to examine the influence of the Greeks' ideas and images in later Greek and European history, and to represent the richness and diversity of modern scholarship on these themes"(p. 8). Nevertheless it concentrates on the classical period, specifically that of Athens, being the origin of most sources. To what extent the representations of barbarians, as formed by the Greeks, correspond to reality has not been an issue: new investigations have shown that the Greeks needed stereotypes, no matter how incorrect, to represent their "others" in order to establish a recognizable image of themselves. Only a few, among them Herodotus, made some attempts to straighten the general picture. The main reason, however, not to enter this discussion is that where we need Greek sources to write or rewrite a specific country's history (Thrace or Persia, e.g.), this "should depend upon the prior reading of Greek repre-sentations in their own terms" (p. 13). The importance of the sources has for the re-viewer been the cause to pay relatively much attention to this part of the book.

A book like the present one could not have been compiled even in the early 1980's, due to fundamental changes within, and outside, classical studies since that time. To assume, how-ever, that nowadays there is an established consensus between scholars concerning these matters would be a major mistake. The discussions on various aspects of the Greeks' attitude towards foreigners still are on-going, as this book clearly shows.

Section 1 discusses the sources we have. Though not the earliest source that may be used, Herodotus' Histories provide a natural starting point. Chapter 1 (pp. 24-49) is formed by James Redfield's 'Herodotus the Tourist' (1985). Describing other peoples, Herodotus notes their characteristics, especially those odd to the Greeks. His travel is an unsystematic journey past weird attractions. His observations are, from an ethnographer's point of view, interesting and useful, not least because they define Herodotus' view of what he thought to be Greek. His main interests were the peoples' material culture, the relationship between culture and personality, and the laws and regulations. He collects them as a dedicated foreigner, happy with his own culture.

The Histories are, therefore, essentially Greek: written by a Greek, for Greeks, about Greeks and others, and describing those others from a Greek point of view. The peoples most thoroughly described are the Scythians and the Egyptians, as different from each other as from the Greeks, but both adversaries of the Persians. Both, too, are prototypes: the Scythians of 'hard peoples', the Egyptians of 'soft peoples'. The perfect centre, where originally a delicately balanced mixture of spheres existed, is Ionia. Like Persia, however, Ionia gradually softened, unlike the rest of Greece. The softening of the Persians is the main cause for their defeat by the Greeks. The contrast between soft and hard thus becomes a way of understanding the dynamics of history: Herodotus' warning is that also the Greeks may become soft and suffer of moral collapse, especially when they lose touch with their ancestral laws and institutions.

In 'Battle Narrative and Politics in Aeschylus' Persae' (1988) Simon Goldhill argues (pp. 50-61) that the Persae was meant as an example for the Athenians to avoid, the hybris that had corrupted Persia. Power should be used correctly, notably in a political context, and proper institutions, framed in constitutions, should be developed. It is an important aspect of the opposition of Greeks and Persians. The questions of the Persian queen concerning Athens are answered by the chorus: their answers underline that the Athenians are hoplites, that the country's wealth is used to defend themselves and not for luxury, and that the Athenians are subjects to no external man but have a collective authority. Their (temporary) leaders are, moreover, accountable to the city. The play underlines the value of the collectivity. If this assumption is correct, the Persae is the first written indication of major fifth-century topics, i.e. the oppositions of tyranny and democracy, barbarian and Athenian.

Suzanne Saïd discusses in chapter 3 (pp. 62-100) 'Greeks and Barbarians in Euripides' Tragedies: The End of Differences?' (1984). If we take only the complete extant plays into ac-count, Euripides of the three tragedians most frequently uses the word barbarian and most often brings Greeks and barbarians face to face. It apparently has escaped the attention of many critics that Euripides' portrayal of the barbarian is far from simple: now a born slave, now a fully-fledged human being. Saïd argues that Euripides fundamentally questions the validity of the Greek/Barbarian distinction. Basically, the main distinction between Greeks and barbarians in Euripides' plays is their costume, especially the opulence of barbarian dress, an opulence, however, that frequently has passed into Greek hands. Stripped of that, and unwilling (or unable) to make a distinction by speech, Euripides probably used music, exotic rhythms or cries, to identify his barbarians.

The irreconcilable difference between the Greeks, who are free, and the barbarians, who are by nature slaves ruled by tyrants, is, however, certainly present in Euripides' plays, though it may be questioned whether the image should be taken here as seriously as in the fourth century BCE (e.g. with Isocrates). In Euripides' plays like the Iphigenia in Aulis the 'natural inferiority of the barbarian to the Greek' seems a hollow slogan. Agamemnon is there no more master of his own actions than he intends the barbarians to become (by the way, Agamemnon is described as little more than a barbarian, being of Lydian origin, by Achilles (l. 952-3.)). Also in other plays confessed Greek superiority is put in perspective, or even invalidated, by the context.

It appears that in Euripides 'barbarian' is much more a moral connotation than an ethnic dis-tinction: βάρβαρος can just as easily be used to denounce the behaviour of the Greeks. In Euripides the real ethnic and geographical boundary between Greeks and barbarians appears to have vanished. Instead, the 'barbarian origins' of Greeks, e.g., of the Thebans, is expressly stressed in the Phoenissae 658-9 and the Bacchae 170-2. Euripides emerges as a true contemporary of the sophist Hippias, who claims that 'from the point of view of nature, all men belong to the same family, the same house and the same city' (p. 99).

In chapter 4 (pp. 101-124) François Lissarrague discusses in 'The Athenian Image of the Foreigner' (1997, originally in Italian) the Greek identities in Greek iconography. His main source is the Attic pottery of the sixth and fifth centuries. His starting point is the so-called François Vase of the archaic period, specifically the frieze on the foot of the bowl picturing the battle of the Pygmies and the cranes. The motif persisted in Attic iconography, though it underwent a gradual transformation. The originally minuscule men confronting giant birds become deformed dwarfs, using 'barbarian' weaponry and wearing Scythian caps (possibly an allusion to skythizein, drinking wine neat, something considered not-done in civilized Greek society), as depicted on a rhyton by the Brygos Painter of c. 480 BCE. The parody of the epic hero and the huntsman hero is further elaborated by the potter Sotades (c. 460) and contemporary potters: the otherness of 'the other' is clearly attractive for the Greeks.

This conclusion also emerges from the study of sculpted vessels, Beazley's 'Head-vases', pre-dating Sotades. Frequently these vases are double-headed canthari, representing predominantly female heads. Representations of (ordinary) men are excluded from these cups, most commonly used during symposia. The other type of cup frequently used during such events was the rhyton, a drinking-cup usually in the shape of an animal head. It all seems to reflect the words quoted by Diogenes Laertius (I.33): "He said that he was grateful to fate for three reasons: first, for being a man and not an animal; second, a man and not a woman, and third, a Greek and not a barbarian" (p. 110). Elimination of being either animal, woman, or barbarian apparently defines a man as a true Greek.

The perfect way to depict a Greek is as a warrior, specifically as a hoplite. In Greek vase painting barbarians are recognizable by physical appearance, costumes, and, above all, weap-onry. Especially archers are portrayed as second-rate fighters, cowards who fear direct combat: where they fight in support of Greeks they are mostly depicted as Scythians or Thracians. It need not surprise us that, from the beginning of the Persian Wars, Persians have been most frequently portrayed as archers.

Section II discusses themes. It consists of 3 chapters: Edith Hall's 'When is a Myth not a Myth? Bernal's 'Ancient Model'' (1992) is chapter 5 (pp. 133-152), Anna Morpurgo Davies' 'The Greek notion of Dialect' (1987) chapter 6 (pp. 153-171), and Jean Rudhardt's 'The Greek Attitude to Foreign Religions', originally published in French (1992) chapter 7 (pp. 172-185).

What constitutes Greek national identity? It is blood (not very prominent in the sources), lan-guage, and religion. The identity is, moreover, formed and preserved in myth. Greek mythol-ogy, however, does not deal with the Greek nation as a whole but with groups: family, broth-erhood, city, ethnic origin (Dorians, e.g., or Ionians). Greek thoughts (subjective ethnicity), however, are not identical with reality (objective ethnicity): Hall demonstrates that appropriation by the Greeks of foreign elements may offer at least as good an explanation of certain Greek myths, showing foreign (e.g. Phoenician or even Egyptian) influences, as Bernal's theory, explaining these elements by mass migrations from these regions into Greece.

Until the development of the Hellenistic koine there was, in fact, no more a single Greek language than a consistent Greek mythology. This raises the problem to what extent we may speak about Greek dialects (like Doric, Ionic, Attic, Aeolic). Morpurgo Davies offers ar-guments for the thesis that even so a kind of notion of what one should consider as 'Greek' must have been present.

Any notion of a difference between Greek 'religion' and foreign religions is, argues Rudhardt, absent in Herodotus and, probably, most Greeks. In fact, there is not even a Greek equivalent for our noun 'religion'. What they saw when abroad were essentially Greek gods, though with other names and served by different rites, due to other laws and regulations. This image was enhanced by the fact that within Greece itself worship for the several gods varied from city to city. This attitude has two consequences: on the one hand the Greeks are not prone to accept imported foreign cults, on the other hand it never crosses their minds to alter the beliefs or forms of worship of others, even less to destroy them.

Section III is on peoples. It consists of two chapters: chapter 8 (pp. 193-210) is Pierre Briant's 'History and Ideology: The Greeks and 'Persian Decadence'' (1989), and chapter 9 (pp. 211-228) François Hartog's 'The Greeks as Egyptologists' (1986), both originally published in French.

As stated by H in the Introduction, writing the history of another country on the basis of Greek sources "should depend upon the prior reading of Greek representations in their own terms" (p. 13). This is exactly what Briant does. Looking at the representation of Persians (it would probably be dangerous to write the Persians) by various Greek authors he argues that this representation depends more on the political reality within Greece at any given moment than on the actual situation within Persia. A particular phenomenon is the alleged decadence and 'feminization of the palace' (p. 202) in Persia, a recurring theme in Greek literature and inseparably connected with the conception of the 'soft' (cf. chapter 1). Here, too, the Greek picture was far from realistic: "All evidence shows that in 334 the Achaemenid empire was not the moribund entity complacently described by Plato, Xenophon, Isocrates and others." (p. 210).

The Greek representation of Egypt, rather than the reality the Greeks faced there, is the logical subject (within the framework of this book) of Hartog's article. He shows that the Greek rep-resentation of Egypt was not a static but a dynamic one: over the centuries it shifts, though not necessarily in the direction of a more realistic picture. Instead of a country of wonders and marvels, with peculiar laws, institutions, and history, it gradually became no more than a source for all kinds of religious manifestations.

Section IV consists of three 'Overviews' of the history of Greek identity and the Greek-barbarian antithesis. Frank Walbank's 'The Problem of Greek Nationality' (pp. 234-256) has become a classic since it first appeared (1951). Robert Browning's 'Greeks and Others: From Antiquity to the Renaissance' (1989) constitutes chapter 11 (pp. 257-277), and the last contri-bution (pp. 278-310) is by Wilfried Nippel, 'The Construction of the 'Other''. This article was originally published in Italian (1996).

One might try to summarize Walbank's views in a number of paragraphs, but his exposition is so scholarly and at the time so visionary (we should remember that it was first published as early as 1951!) that any attempt to epitomize it would detract from its merits. This reviewer is convinced that anyone with the slightest interest in the subject should read this article him-self/herself.

This eulogy might be taken as an indication that the reviewer considers the other studies, either in the book or in this section, of less value. Let it be clear: this is not the case. The two remaining chapters in this section are of considerable interest, especially for the historian of ideas, and for classicists they may be eye-openers. Browning investigates the Greek-barbarian antithesis, first in the Roman and especially the Byzantine period (the latter with the formal problem of being officially a continuation of the Roman Empire, though conceptions, language etc. were essentially Greek). How these problems evolved (and gradually dissolved) is fascinating reading.

The same may be stated on Nippel's contribution, although its angle differs slightly. Where Browning mainly focuses on the antithesis Greeks-barbarians, Nippel also draws attention to the Greek concepts of colonies and colonialism on the one hand and its counterparts in modern history on the other. Also such embarrassing notions as the 'natural born slave', a concept already used by Aristotle (e.g., Politics, 1252b7, 1254a15ff.) and misused in modern history, are treated. It shows that imaging (or mis-imaging) 'the other' still is an actual subject.

Altogether these 12 papers give a coherent view on a number of aspects of the relations between Greeks and barbarians. The purposes outlined in the Introduction are fully met. Moreover, the book is well-edited, both textually and in appearance. If I must complain, it is about the fact that, in Part III, I missed a contribution on Thracians and/or Scythians.2 Such a contribution would have complemented Redfield's article in Part I, just as it is complemented by Briant's article.

Six of these articles have been translated (by Antonia Nevill), from French or Italian into English specifically for this book and also all passages in Greek were provided with a transla-tion into English. In principle, I prefer the original text, because every translation, no matter how good,3 necessarily loses some nuances of its original. Though translations may make previously inaccessible literature available for new groups of readers, their use here suggestes that the editor aims at a wider public than specialists, as does the fact that he willingly limits the scope of the book. On the other hand, the quality of the contributors and the contributions seemingly contradict this idea. It may lead to the conclusion that H had no clearly defined view of his audience: the only certainty is that it was not exclusively intended for classicists or ancient-historians.4 Nevertheless I think that for both of them this book should be obligatory reading, if only to modify the generally Hellenocentric ideas still all too frequently prevailing in our trades.


1.   In discussing each article I will indicate its original date of publication between brackets.
2.   Likely candidates might have been two contributions from W. Burkert, O.Réverdin, and B. Grange (eds.), Hérodote et les peoples non grecs, Entretiens Hardt 35, Genève 1990, i.e. D. Asheri, Herodotus on Thrace and Thracian Society (pp. 131-169) or even J. Harmatta, Herodotus, Historian of the Cimmerians and the Scythians (pp. 115-130).
3.   Some checks at random showed that Nevill's translations are very adequate, to say the least.
4.   I have been informed that H intends this volume to be (one of) the first of a series to be compiled on the same principles: in this process, no doubt, his goals regarding his audience will become obvious. One may look forward in anticipation whether all intended future volumes will meet the standards set by this volume.

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