Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.06.49

Benjamin Isaac, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity.   Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2004.  Pp. xiv, 563.  ISBN 0-691-11691-1.  $45.00.  



Reviewed by James H. Dee, Austin, Texas (jhdee1243@aol.com)
Word count: 3810 words

First things first: this massive and important work by the Lessing Professor of Ancient History at Tel Aviv deserves to be studied carefully by anyone concerned with the nature of racism and cross-cultural prejudices, whether ancient or modern. It covers more ground more extensively than any other work that I know of, and it offers an immense quantity of references to primary and secondary literature which alone might justify the relatively modest cost of the volume.

The book comes with laudatory dust-jacket statements from Glen Bowersock ("a revolutionary work") and Martin Ostwald ("comprehensive, intelligible, and truly magisterial"); the latter and Erich Gruen are among those thanked for having read the whole text. One could hardly imagine a more eminent trio of patrons, though it may be observed that neither of the two-sentence statements by Bowersock and Ostwald expresses full assent to the principal arguments of the book -- which hardly matters, since what they do say is fully justified by the extraordinary quantity and quality of the material so painstakingly assembled.

A bare catalogue of its contents will help readers understand the scale on which the work is laid out: Introduction (pp. 1-51); Part 1, Stereotypes and Proto-racism: Criteria for Differentiation (53-251), comprising Chapter 1, Superior and Inferior Peoples (55-168), Chapter 2, Conquest and Imperialism (169-224), and Chapter 3, Fears and Suppression (225-251); Figures 1-10 (unpaginated); Part 2, Greek and Roman Attitudes towards Specific Groups: Greek and Roman Imperialism (255-500), comprising Chapter 4, Greeks and the East (257-303), Chapter 5, Roman Imperialism and the Conquest of the East (304-323), Chapter 6, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Syrians (324-351), Chapter 7, Egyptians (352-370), Chapter 8, Parthia/Persia (371-380), Chapter 9, Roman Views of Greeks (381-405), Chapter 10, Mountaineers and Plainsmen (406-410), Chapter 11, Gauls (411-426), Chapter 12, Germans (427-439), and Chapter 13, Jews (440-491); Conclusions to Part 2 (492-500); End Conclusions (503-516). The Selected Bibliography occupies pp. 517-539, followed by an Index of Sources (541-552) and a General Index (553-563), the brevity of which is a clear warning that it can only hint at the riches of the preceding pages.

All this is set in a compact typeface, with an even smaller font in the copious footnotes, so that a rough estimate for the whole text (at ca. 500-600 words per page) would approach 300,000 words, i.e. 50% more than the Iliad and Odyssey put together. The word "copious" is a considerable understatement: there are, ni fallor, 1,906 footnotes in the work, agreeably placed at page-bottom; some are excellent bibliographical essays in miniature. More remarkably, many of them provide the Greek or Latin passages which are given in translation in the body of the text; every user capable of reading the original languages will be grateful to the Princeton Press for this splendidly altruistic gesture of generosity, because it saves an enormous amount of time that would otherwise be spent looking up hundreds of excerpts -- a tedious process even if one had immediate access to digital sources such as the TLG and PHI files. No one could be expected in a three-month period to look up and verify the thousands of references given in those notes, but where I have checked, the accuracy level is very high.

The notes are not without problems, however. Typos, especially in Greek, are liberally sprinkled throughout (a few even in the English of the main text), and many of them are so overt (e.g. rough-breathing marks instead of an apostrophe where a final vowel is elided, or obviously wrong characters, as when dêloî becomes dgloî [p. 182 n. 48]) that one doubts the footnotes in their present form could have been included in the pre-publication drafts sent to his advisers. In addition, the nature of many typos in both Greek and Latin seems to indicate that those texts were freshly keyboarded at each point rather than being copied and pasted from an existing database; a diagnostic example is the tiny discrepancy that occurs when the Hippocratic Airs is quoted with ὡρὲων at p. 110 n. 199, but correctly as ὡρέων at p. 353 n. 7 -- and, curiously, the Latin enclitic que is often printed as a separate word. Whatever the reason, those who pay close attention to the footnotes (a magnifying glass may be needed) will find a disconcerting number of slips in words, letters, diacriticals, and punctuation, especially at the end of quotations. Another annoyance is that the start- and stop-points for translated passages in the text and the Greek/Latin in the notes do not always match up; also, with bothersome frequency, a translated passage is given without the original being present in the notes or vice versa -- and quotations in French and German are never translated. Overall, one might commend to Princeton's attention the anguished cry of a reviewer from two decades ago: "Wake up, sub-editors at Yale U. P.," (Class. Rev. 34 [1984] 305, P. V. Jones reviewing P. Vivante, The Epithets in Homer, with reference to style rather than details; cf. Class. Bull. 71 [1995] 54).

But all this too is of minor importance, for the real question is what the book contributes to our understanding of classical racism. The provocative title itself whets the appetite for something iconoclastic, since most of us in Classics have been raised in the belief that racism, as we usually conceive it, was absent from the Greco-Roman world. So it is almost disappointing to see, even before one has finished the text of the front-cover dust-jacket, that the eye-catching word "racism" has been softened to "proto-racism," in essence, racism without its modern pseudo-scientific component, and the identification of elements of proto-racism becomes the principal goal of the work from that point forward. Even so, the author's vast documentation of the less edifying aspects of Greek and Roman attitudes and behavior toward other peoples near and far has a powerful and sobering cumulative effect.

There are additional self-imposed limits to the investigation. Alert readers will have noticed the absence of any chapter on "blacks" or "Africans," however those terms might be defined. Isaac refers instead to the well-known works of Frank Snowden, Lloyd Thompson, and others, though one would have welcomed the application of his incisive intelligence to this often bitterly-disputed realm. There is, apart from the ten Figures (clear black-and-white photographs of pottery, sculpture, and coins), no treatment of artistic representation; again, there are recent discussions of "the other" or "the barbarian" in Greek and Roman art which make this omission less serious, e.g. Beth Cohen (ed.), Not the Classical Ideal, which is mentioned at several points. The book draws most of its evidence from an impressively broad spectrum of literary texts, from Herodotus to late antiquity, concentrating on historical, biographical, philosophical, oratorical, panegyrical, scientific, geographical, and medical works. Homeric and other poetic texts are less frequently cited (except for Juvenal, an always quotable -- but perhaps not always reliable -- source on foreigners); mention of the Iliadic narrator's much-admired even-handedness toward the Trojans (who are not listed in the General Index) would form a welcome counterweight to the hostility against barbaroi so often on display elsewhere.

Since the author's focus is on text-based expression of racially charged ideas, with their concomitant notions and stereotypes about cultural or ethnic superiority and inferiority, there is little need to explore the doubtless more complex real-world sociohistorical interactions of individuals and groups in specific places and times, whether in Athens, Rome, Alexandria, Ephesus, or other Asian and European cities and towns (perhaps even, as noted in the recent PBS program From Jesus to Christ, Sepphoris in Galilee), where "multi-cultural" populations can be documented and traces of their "negotiation" of ethnic identities, status boundaries, and inter-group rivalries and conflicts can occasionally be followed in some detail. Thus the Index of Sources does not have (and would not be expected to have) a single item from any of the standard collections of epigraphical or papyrological material. A few inscriptions are in fact cited in the text (e.g. P. Oxy. at p. 174, n. 14; Meiggs-Lewis at p. 274, n. 36, and p. 353, n. 4), but they do not come from the sort of "real-world" contexts to which I refer. For a suitable contrast, one may compare, inter al., Robin Lane Fox's Pagans and Christians and Dorothy Thompson's treatment of Ptolemaic papyri in Irad Malkin's Ancient Perceptions of Greek Ethnicity -- and wonder what other discoveries await anyone with the patience to dig into those colossal repositories.

If one is looking for "racism" or "proto-racism" in antiquity, one has to define the terms with some care. Isaac has an extended statement on "racism": "An attitude towards individuals and groups of peoples which posits a direct and linear connection between physical and mental qualities. It therefore attributes to those individuals and groups of peoples collective traits, physical, mental, and moral, which are constant and unalterable by human will, because they are caused by hereditary factors or external influences, such as climate or geography. The essence of racism is that it regards individuals as superior or inferior because they are believed to share imagined physical, mental, and moral attributes with the group to which they are deemed to belong, and it is assumed that they cannot change these traits individually" (23). The fall-back expression "proto-racism" is subsequently defined more simply: "The term proto-racism, then, may be used when Greek and Latin sources attribute to groups of people common characteristics considered to be unalterable because they are determined by external factors or heredity" (38).

In both these definitions, one misses what might have been thought an essential element in "racism," namely, the irrational and usually violent hostility directed at individuals or groups, who typically become victims of the dominant group in ways that go well beyond the realm of "attitude." The only hint of this aspect of "racism" comes in the phrase "regards individuals as superior or inferior," a curiously anodyne expression which hardly seems adequate to sum up what racists have said and done in the last century, to mention no others. This soft-focus approach has consequences that emerge in the quoted definition of "proto-racism," where even the element of superiority vs. inferiority has been removed, leaving the word's meaning shorn of the one powerful quality that would justify the linkage (and baggage) which the word "racism" itself automatically carries. Thus defined, "proto-racism" might without contradiction encompass positive feelings about a group to which common (admirable) characteristics might be attributed and considered unalterable by reason of hereditary or other determinism. That would surely be an unexpected and undesirable result.

By contrast, Ian Haney López, Professor of Law at the University of California at Berkeley and author of White by Law, compares two Supreme Court decisions of May 1954, the famous Brown v. Board of Education and the less-famous Hernandez v. Texas (New York Times op-ed, May 22, 2004). Speaking of the latter case, he says, "Because both sides insisted that Mexican-Americans were white, Hernandez v. Texas forced the court to confront directly a question it would sidestep in Brown: under precisely what circumstances did some groups deserve constitutional protection? Hernandez offered a concise answer: when groups suffer subordination." Isaac's "proto-racism," like the Hernandez case, does not appeal to skin color as a determining factor, but his definition passes over the sort of oppression, racially-based or not, which prompted the court to act, and this may have the unwanted effect of directing attention away from the question of deliberate, group-based maltreatment of alleged inferiors.

That said, one can only be grateful for the daunting mass of material and the clarity of discussion that fill the entire volume -- "lucid" is a word of high praise which Isaac occasionally uses for the work of others, and, most appropriately, it applies to his own writing as well. This means the reader will not encounter the off-putting buzz-words and jargon that turn up in much modern writing about race, prejudice, multi-culturalism, post-colonialism, and the like. Isaac sometimes cites scholars who exemplify those tendencies but has not allowed their stylistic proclivities to influence his own presentation.

This is evident from the outset: the Introduction lays out the principal themes and structure of the book and addresses the fundamental background of such concepts as race, racism, racialism, racial or ethnic prejudice, and xenophobia in their ancient and modern manifestations. There is abundant and wide-ranging discussion of many topics, encompassing, for example, in a few pages numerous references to primary texts by and secondary texts about Buffon, Voltaire, Hume, Kant, and Helvétius as examples of the sometimes baleful influence of classical ideas on European thought since the Enlightenment. Likewise, his 24-page treatment of race and related concepts brings in work by anthropologists, historians, sociologists, lexicographers, and even biologists (from Darwin to L. Cavalli-Sforza) -- a section which instructors and students will find especially helpful as a compact overview of this complex and controversial subject.

Chapter One, by far the longest in the book (114 pages -- and 437 footnotes), presents Greek and Roman views on the impact of the environment on peoples, inheritance of acquired characteristics, and "purity" of descent and autochthony, with sections on modern eugenics and the "science" of physiognomics -- that strange pseudo-discipline which culminated in Cesare Lombroso's notorious claims about "criminal types." Those who have not made a systematic search for these themes in classical texts will almost surely be surprised at their pervasiveness and at the ease with which some of the best minds in antiquity were seduced into such stereotypical thinking. Isaac is particularly successful in this chapter in showing how the ancient ideas were revived, adapted, and sometimes perverted by such writers as Jean Bodin, John Arbuthnot, Montesquieu, Hume, Herder, Kant, Lamarck, Lysenko, Cuvier, Hegel, Blumenbach, Thomas Jefferson, and John Stuart Mill. In contrast to other recent scholars, Isaac takes seriously the Athenian claim to be autochthonous -- not as historical truth, but as a significant element in Athenian self-understanding and self-projection (114-124 and especially note 254). Susan Lape's forthcoming study of Athenian citizenship will surely offer instructive discussion on this issue.

The second chapter, "Conquest and Imperialism," focuses on the many statements made in antiquity by Aristotle, Thucydides, Plato, lesser figures like Strabo and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and various Roman authors from Cicero to Tacitus, that because barbaroi were naturally inferior, they were suitable to be conquered and enslaved. This was a subject less attractive to later European thinkers, perhaps in part because, in the ancient view, the ancestors of most of the populations of post-Renaissance Europe were themselves counted among the barbaroi who deserved to be slaves. A more promising (and ominous) proto-racialist theme occupies the last part of the chapter, "Brutes and Animals" (194-215): the assertion that some foreign peoples are bestial, savage, and even cannibalistic by nature -- absolute markers not merely of inferiority but of utter depravity, meriting not subjugation but annihilation. The section begins with an unsettling juxtaposition of quotes: an epigraph from Romeo and Juliet (3.3.108ff.), followed by a passage from an October 1943 address by Himmler to an SS cadre in Posen, on the necessary indifference of the patriotic German to the inconsequential sufferings of Russian women being worked to death by the Nazis. It may be noted that most of the ancient exempla are set in places or times far removed from everyday experience and often purely imaginary, whereas the most poisonous modern instances (e.g. Americans vs. African-Americans and Indians, Nazis vs. Jews and Slavs) have involved accusations against groups which lived in proximity to -- and could not escape from -- their persecutors. The section concludes with a brief survey (215-224) of mass murder in antiquity, an unedifying topic on which, to judge from its absence in Isaac's notes, there seems to be remarkably little secondary literature.

The third chapter, "Fears and Suppression," surveys in 23 pages several curious permutations in Rome of the idea that foreigners were degraded beings who deserved to be conquered and enslaved. The first is that if sufficient numbers of these non-Roman outsiders are brought to the city, even as slaves, they will corrupt Roman culture with their (eastern) luxuries and immoral barbarian ways -- an idea summed up in the title of the opening sub-chapter, Vincendo victi sumus (Plin. N.H. 24.5.5, referring to Greek medicine), itself an apparent allusion to Horace's famous Graecia capta line (Epist. 2.1.156), of which Isaac disconcertingly says, "This represents satire in the age of Augustus" (225). Such thinking is of course not confined to the ancient world: Samuel Huntington's controversial new book, Who Are We? The Challenges to National Identity, draws similar conclusions about the threat posed to "traditional" American culture by unchecked immigration from non-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant parts of the planet. In both cases, highly selective and subjective choices regarding "evidence" merely confirm the xenophobic prejudices that underlie such statements. A second permutation reverses the first: if the newly-conquered peoples are not from effete eastern regions but the battle-hardened northern and western parts of Europe, then the introduction of the luxuries and comforts of civilized society will cause their tough character to soften -- and perhaps even make otherwise recalcitrant and rebellious tribes more willing to tolerate the Roman yoke. Such are the paradoxes of simplistic thought about civilization and wildness, equally troubling to Greco-Roman moral ideologues and to the likes of Osama bin Laden.

The second part of the book, on Greek and Roman attitudes towards specific groups, occupies pages 255-500, almost exactly half of the text; but it is not necessary to engage in an extended discussion of each chapter here, since in some respects Part 2 has the effect of running a Sort-by-Ethnicity program over the data assembled in Part 1. Readers will have noted from the summary in the third paragraph above that different groups receive very different amounts of space: the chapters on Parthia/Persia, Mountaineers and Plainsmen, Gauls, and Germans together have fewer pages than the chapter on the Jews, a disproportion all the more striking because, as Isaac quotes from Arnaldo Momigliano, "the Greeks lived happily in their classical age without recognizing the existence of the Jews" (Alien Wisdom, p. 78). Regardless of their varying lengths, each of these sections provides an excellent introduction to the kinds of interactions that took place between Greco-Roman culture and certain foreign ethnicities. Isaac displays an impressive command of the scholarly literature on each subject and shows considerable sensitivity to the nuances and gradations that distinguish the classical responses to each particular group.

Even so, there is of course much more that can be said regarding the numerous individual tribes whose names are recorded in the surviving texts; after all, in contrast with such readily-definable collectivities (comparatively speaking) as Athenaioi or cives Romani, there was in antiquity no unitary, diachronically-stable entity called e.g. Galli or Germani, only the dozens or hundreds of tribes lumped together by those generic terms. In all too many instances, we lack sufficient information about the self-definition of these groups (especially in their own languages) and the degree to which they would have accepted such blanket expressions, which by mere use create an affiliation that may oversimplify or misrepresent what they perceived as reality. Isaac's chapter on the Germans takes a step in this direction by focusing briefly on specific subsets, thereby exposing some of the complexities that lurk beneath the surface of generalized discussion. This issue bears on the matter of racism and proto-racism because one frequently finds on closer inspection that the qualities universally ascribed to a generic entity like "the Germans" are not in fact shared equally -- or at all -- by some of the tribes routinely placed within that category.

The one chapter which does deserve particular attention is on Roman attitudes toward the Jews, a chapter strategically placed at the end so that readers will have passed through Isaac's treatment of the other ethnicities first and will thus have the fullest possible context against which to judge similarities and differences -- though he might have used the attitudes of other Hellenes towards the "strange" post-Lycurgan Spartans as an instructive comparandum. He is careful, here as elsewhere in the book, to insist on the distinction between what might be called the Remote Other and the Other Next Door; typically, much stronger feelings of xenophobia are aroused when an established population comes to realize that a sizable group of "aliens" has come into their midst, bringing all their potentially threatening "foreign" ideas and customs. This matters because, unlike e.g. the Parthians and the Germans, who were rarely encountered in and around Rome itself, there seems to have been a noticeable Jewish community in the city from the late Republic through the Empire -- and, as happens all too often, increased familiarity with the practices of a different culture did not lead to unanimous approval.

Isaac has good reason to concentrate on the details of this complicated and frequently adversarial relationship, since, as he notes candidly in the Introduction (50f.), he can hardly be expected to maintain detachment when he is involved on a daily basis in the long-range consequences of antisemitism. The chapter accordingly begins with a review of modern definitions of antisemitism (442-446) and a survey of the evidence for the legal status of Jews in Rome and the provinces (447-450); both sections are worthwhile, but the retrospective element in the first makes clear how difficult it is for present-day scholars to approach the circumstances of the ancient world independently of current preconceptions -- of course many would say that such "objective" independence is a priori impossible to achieve. The remaining sections of the chapter deal with "The Social Sphere" (450-465, with valuable treatment of the contentious issue of proselytism) and "The Jewish Religion" (466-478, focusing on dietary restrictions, the sabbath, circumcision, accusations of human sacrifice and cannibalism, and the absence of genocidal intentions). Isaac takes pains to differentiate between ancient Roman antipathy toward Jews, which focused on their alleged antisocial separateness and certain peculiarities in their religion, and modern antisemitic idées fixes, such as the notion that all Jews are wealthy merchants or the mythology of the "blood libel." Finally, there is a brief coda, "Jews and Christians" (484-491), which demonstrates that, unlike Judaism, which was due a certain degree of respect simply because of its long existence, Christianity was a newcomer religion and thus automatically less entitled to tolerance from Roman authorities. Isaac's general conclusion is worth noting: Roman antipathy to the Jews, in spite of its often forceful expression, is not racist or even proto-racist by his definition; medieval and modern attitudes are not direct descendants from the ancient world but an amalgam from many sources.

In sum, then, in spite of the various cautionary remarks made in this review, the book deserves high praise and a warm welcome; it will henceforth be an indispensable starting-point for any future discussion of the difficult and perennially important issue of racism.

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