Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.07.71

Ton Derks, Nico Roymans (ed.), Ethnic Constructs in Antiquity: The Role of Power and Tradition. Amsterdam Archaeological Studies 13.   Amsterdam:  Amsterdam University Press, 2009.  Pp. 368.  ISBN 9789089640789.  $65.00.  

Reviewed by Omar Coloru, Università di Pisa (
Word count: 2551 words

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This book is a collection of thirteen studies on ethnicity in the period ranging from Archaic Greece to Early Medieval Western Europe. The essays presented in this volume are the result of two meetings held in 2001 (VU University Amsterdam) and 2004 (Museum Het Valkhof at Nijmegen) respectively, in the framework of the research programme entitled The Batavians. Ethnic identity in a frontier situation. The starting point from which all the authors undertake their research is the view of ethnicity as a mutable, subjective construct adopted by groups and communities for various purposes. Actually, the aim of the volume, as stated by the editors, is to show that ethnic identity is a phenomenon "often related to questions of power, religion, law, class and gender" (p.1). Although sometimes miscellany volumes may present an uneven quality in the papers, it must be pointed out that in this particular case we met up with a remarkable exception, characterized by very good works each presented in a homogeneous structure of sub-headings and final conclusions that makes them easy to follow for readers.

The book, dedicated to the memory of Prof. Dick Whittaker (who passed away shortly before the volume to which he had contributed could be published), opens with a useful introduction by the editors, where the main issues and conclusions which come out from each contribution are briefly resumed displaying not only the points of agreement between authors, but also the differences in their opinions and approaches, in order to stimulate further discussion amongst the readers. The core issue on which the contributors differ is the question whether ethnicity can be reconstructed through the analysis of material culture or not. Most of the authors seem to agree with Jonathan Hall's opinion1 that it is impossible to reconstruct the ethnic identity of societies that have not left any written source, while others are more optimistic.

In her learned study, Catherine Morgan focuses on ethnicity in the early archaic Greek mainland, a period and an area where written records are limited, so that data from material culture are thought to play an important role as a means of expression of ethnic identity. She begins by analysing the western colonial world, a choice justified by the fact that both the regions experienced long-term interconnections that prevent them from being treated as separate entities. Morgan points out that colonies "redefine themselves in relation to their Greek and native neighbours as well to as their mainland geographical, political and ethnic heritage" (p.13). Corinth and Achaia more generally, for example, had interacted with the Corinthian Gulf area, the Ionian Islands and Italy well before the beginning of the colonization in the 8th century. Morgan, therefore, sets the foundation of new settlements, together with a series of experiences brought by the Corinthians and Achaians to the colonists, into a long continuity of exchanges. Morgan then moves on to a survey of the recent scholarship on early Greek ethnicity and its developments, discussing in particular Hall's view and expressing her criticism of it: that, on the one hand, it could lead one to think that ethnicity cannot be studied in the Greek world before the introduction of alphabetical writing, and that, on the other hand, it would exclude from the analysis a consistent part of the population with limited or no writing skills. Concentrating research on habitus, i.e., material culture considered as an expression of a particular lifestyle, and showing that political communities were interdependent entities makes it possible to predict "points of tension where identity would be likely to have become a particularly important issue" (p. 29) and allows one to "move beyond the adoption of alphabetic writing to examine the longer term history of identity construction" (ibid.).

Jan Paul Crielaard studies the origin, development and changing of the ethnonym "Ionian", with special attention to the construction of the ethnic identity of the "East Ionians" who settled along the coastal area between the Hermos and the Maiandros rivers, and the islands of Samos and Chios. He examines literary sources comparing them with archaeological data in order to estimate when and how "Ionian" traditions and foundation myths were invented. The East Ionians' case is interesting because of their proximity and interactions not only with other Greek populations like Dorians and Aiolians, but also with non-Greek elements like Lydians and Karians. Moreover, we must add Egyptian and Near-eastern influences, as East Ionians served as mercenaries in those areas, while contacts with the Mediterranean and the Black Sea world were also frequent thanks to trade. Ethnic identity of the East Ionians turns out to have been soft and permeable towards other cultures, at least until the Persian invasion that represented the real point of no return for the creation of a Greek identity as a "sense of separateness, self-awareness and superiority" (p. 73).

The aim of Hans-Joachim Gehrke's original essay is to show that the concept of Intentional history, i.e., ethnic construction of collective identities, is applicable not only to ancient societies but also to the construction of European traditions. The victory at Marathon allowed Greek identity to be associated with freedom for the first time. With time it was used to serve purposes differing from the original ones. In Athens it was seen as a historical extension of mythical fights against barbarians and monsters in order to reinforce Athens' role as defender of the Hellenes. The myth of Marathon was taken on again by the Attalids and brought to bear upon their victories over the Galatians; emperor Gordian III used it during his campaign against the Sassanians who were considered the new threat to the Greco-Roman world. Finally, in modern times Marathon has become a symbol of the battle for western civilization and values.

Bert van der Spek brings us to Hellenistic Babylon, illustrating the relationships between the autochthonous population and the new Greco-Macedonian colonists. Babylon had an age-old familiarity with multi-ethnicity. Under Seleucid rule, however, cuneiform tablets attest to a sort of apartheid status at a political level, where the local community appears to be separated from that of the colonists. Nevertheless, reality might have been more fluid, and it is unlikely that the two groups lived in ghettos divided by a wall. Possibly a stable Greek community was introduced only during the reign of Antiochus IV. Greek culture flourished as well as political institutions. Just to mention some examples, astronomical diaries let us know the existence of the peliganes, i.e. the members of the Macedonian elder council, and the politai, a term that designated the citizens belonging to the Greek community which held its assembly in the theatre of Babylon. On the other hand, Babylonian institutions remained vital too, and the central government communicated with both Babylonian and Greek authorities.

The essay by Karl Strobel explores the effects of the invasion of the Galatian tribes on Central Anatolia and the continuity of Galatian ethnic identity and historical traditions under Roman rule. Special emphasis is given to the survival of the Celtic language (spoken alongside Greek) until Late Antiquity, a fact that is considered an important sign of the strength of identity within this group. Evidence of that can be seen either in local onomastic or in religious traditions: in this regard it is interesting to note that the foundations of ancient Anatolian towns (Ankyra) and shrines (Pessinus and Tavium) are attributed to the Galatians by the literary tradition.

Douwe Yntema offers an interesting analysis of the objects found in the Mesagne (Brindisi) burial (around 170 BC), trying to give a possible picture of the ethnic identity of the deceased. Yntema examines material culture and literary sources, paying particular attention to the case of another famous fellow-countryman of the dead, the poet Ennius, who used to say he had three identities: Apulian, Greek and Roman. According to Yntema's hypothesis, the man of the Mesagne burial could represent a good parallel.

Nicole Belayche studies the foundation myths of Roman Palestine towns. The creation of the province of Syria-Palestina in the 1st century AD and the Jewish diaspora produced favourable conditions to strengthen the status of pagan populations. At this time, many cities claimed divine origins to integrate themselves within the Greco-Roman world. Old towns with a long tradition in Greek mythology simply kept using their figures, while Roman colonies, with the single exception of Aelia Capitolina, generally stuck by their own traditions using Roman foundation myths only to enhance their political status. In this context, Greek myths could also be grafted onto both local Semitic and Roman traditions. Finally, cities like Scythopolis defined their origins via Greek models as a means of distinction from the neighbouring Jewish population.

The essay by Dick Whittaker deals with ethnicity on the frontiers of Roman Africa. Whittaker draws our attention to the considerable number of tribes recorded in Africa Proconsularis by ancient authors (516 populi according to Pliny the Elder) and by inscriptions, noting that "little attempt has been made to comprehend African ethnicity in terms of historical contingency and context-based identity" (p. 191). Roman frontiers in general created two types of ethnicity, one in reaction to Roman power, the other in association with it, thanks to the enrolment of nomads in military units as auxiliaries. The concluding part of the essay is dedicated to the analysis of Romanization, as an ethnic term. It appears to have promoted the (re)discovery of identity amongst the nomads, which was employed to define their ethnic alterity, but did not lead to the creation of physical or cultural barriers. Whittaker expresses his doubts on the possibility of studying ethnicity via material culture saying that "being or becoming Roman cannot be measured by cultural change but by political integration" (p. 202).

Greg Woolf takes the Frisian Revolt of 28 AD as a starting point for examining Roman ethnography about Germania. Classical authors interested in describing history and culture of other people sought information from mediators who were already part of two worlds. Ethnographic knowledge, far from being a product "of internal Greek and Roman discourse" (p. 215), was instead created on the middle ground through the encounter between local people (familiar with Roman culture and education) who reported their traditions in a Greek or Roman fashion and ancient ethnographers who brought with them their own store of preconceived notions.

In his study, Nico Roymans analyzes the importance of the cult of Hercules for Batavian integration into the Roman Empire. Communities conquered by the Romans needed to redefine their identity by linking it to Greco-Roman mythology. Roymans points out that myths of Trojan descent, in association with worship of Mars, were generally spread in several cities of Gaul and possibly Britannia, but Hercules was a more popular god along the lower Rhine frontier. Thanks to a syncretistic process, local gods were assimilated to Roman deities allowing non-Roman communities a "new kinship bond while keeping their local identity" (p. 223). The cult of Hercules Magusanus provided the Batavians with this link and at the same time represented a strong factor of cohesion amongst the members of this quite recent ethnic group.

Ton Derks offers an up-to-date inventory of inscriptions mentioning Batavians, with the aim of studying Batavian image and self-image. He believes in the great potential of epigraphy to convey "subjective feelings of belonging" (p. 240). Data shows that, even if the Batavian community ceased to exist in the late 3rd century AD, the denomination of this group was still used in some auxiliary units in the late 5th century. Collective acts of worship by soldiers belonging to the same ethnic context (but serving in mixed units) and funerary inscriptions give a prominent value to ethnicity, but it appears to be imperceptible in documents recording everyday life aspects, as suggested by the Vindolanda tablets. Nevertheless, feelings of ethnic difference can be pinpointed when interacting with the social context of a fort through "subjectively selected details of cultural practices, such as horse riding" (p. 256). We quickly list some major issues: the ethnic 'Batavian' was used only abroad; the terms natione and domo indicate a strong ethnic identity; the use of civis and civitas are rare amongst Batavians, probably because of their strong military imprint. In fact, they continued using tribal affiliation even after the grant of Roman citizenship, perhaps because of the positive qualities (e.g. strength, bravery) associated with their tribal name.

Frans Theuws studies the possibility of finding a relationship between specific burial rites and ethnic identity in Late Antique Northern Gaul. The presence of weapons such as axes, lances, bows and arrows in 4th to 5th century burials from this area was generally interpreted as a symbol of the Germanic origin of the deceased. Theuws convincingly overturns this view, putting forward the hypothesis that these burial goods can refer to hunting as a sign of prestige, control of landscape, virtue but also in the sense of overcoming death. This burial ritual should be linked to new claims on land by local families mostly not belonging to the elites, but willing "to create an ancestor to perpetuate the family's claims" (p. 314).

Finally, Jos Bazelmans provides a detailed survey on the continuity of the use of the ethnic "Frisians" by groups who settled in the Northern and Western Netherlands from the first century AD to the early Middle Ages. This unusual persistence caused many scholars to believe that the inhabitants of that area had kept calling themselves Frisians for many generations. However, new data from archaeology have revealed a hiatus in populations along the coastal area of the Netherlands during the Late Antiquity. Bazelmans thinks that the Frisian name was reintroduced by the Frankish elite, who had access to classical knowledge, when organizing the northern frontiers of the empire.

A few minor misprints do not interfere with the overall quality of this work.

In conclusion, the volume represents a welcome contribution to the studies on ethnicity both for its multidisciplinary approach and for providing grounds for reflection on this stimulating issue.

Table of Contents

Ton Derks-Nico Roymans, "Introduction", 1

Catherine Morgan, "Ethnic expression on the Early Iron Age and Early Archaic Greek mainland. Where should we be looking?", 11

Jan Paul Crielaard, "The Ionians in the Archaic period. Shifting identities in a changing world", 37

Hans-Joachim Gehrke, "From Athenian identity to European ethnicity. The cultural biography of the myth of Marathon", 85

Bert van der Spek, "Multi-ethnicity and ethnic segregation in Hellenistic Babylon", 101

Karl Strobel, "The Galatians in the Roman Empire. Historical tradition and ethnic identity in Hellenistic and Roman Asia Minor", 117

Douwe Yntema, "Material culture and plural identity in early Roman Southern Italy", 145 Nicole Belayche, "Foundation myths in Roman Palestine. Traditions and reworking", 167

Dick Whittaker, "Ethnic discourses on the frontiers of Roman Africa", 189

Greg Woolf, "Cruptorix and his kind. Talking ethnicity on the middle ground", 207

Nico Roymans, "Hercules and the construction of a Batavian identity in the context of the Roman empire", 219

Ton Derks, "Ethnic identity in the Roman frontier. The epigraphy of Batavi and other Lower Rhine tribes", 239

Frans Theuws, "Grave goods, ethnicity, and the rhetoric of burial rites in Late Antique Northern Gaul", 283

Jos Bazelmans, "The early-medieval use of ethnic names from classical antiquity. The case of the Frisians", 321

Index of names and places, 339

List of contributors, 343


1.   Jonathan Hall, Hellenicity. Between ethnicity and culture, Chicago/London 2002, p. 24.

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