Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.07.45

Greg Woolf, Tales of the Barbarians: Ethnography and Empire in the Roman West. Blackwell Bristol Lectures on Greece, Rome and the Classical Tradition.   Chichester/Malden, MA:  Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.  Pp. viii, 167.  ISBN 9781405160735.  $89.95.  

Reviewed by M. Shane Bjornlie, Claremont McKenna College (


Any political and cultural narrative of the Roman Empire would be incomplete without an understanding of the people referred to as “barbarians” in classical texts. Greg Woolf’s recent monograph on ethnography clearly recognizes this. Tales of the barbarians examines how authors of the Roman Empire wrote about foreign peoples of the West, but it approaches this topic with keen sensitivity to how ethnography as a writing practice also relates to cultural plurality and identity in empire. That Greek and Latin sources imposed caricatures on foreigners is already familiar ground in modern scholarship. However, the process by which these sources rendered portrayals of barbarians has never been so exactingly sketched. Woolf draws from a rich comparative sampling of authors (roughly Polybius to Ammianus Marcellinus) to reconstruct ancient ethnography as a particularly dynamic form of writing and the result is genuinely illuminating. Woolf finds that ethnographic writing constantly renegotiated the relationship of the past to the present in a manner decidedly more complicated than traditional Quellenforschung would suggest. As a result, this book should be preliminary to debates about the historicity of barbarian culture and its impact on the Roman Empire. Although Woolf examines the ethnographic habit found primarily in earlier imperial authors, the book also offers instructive qualifications to the study of barbarians in Late Antiquity, where the topic of ethnography enters conversations about barbarians somewhat less frequently. Woolf’s book serves as an important reminder that the picture of barbarians received in literature is dependent on conventions and traditions generated in a Greek and Roman cultural setting, rather than on cultural settings beyond the frontier.

The introduction briefly delimits some of the basic concepts and methodology used in the book: the analysis is informed by post-colonial theory and by the work of anthropologists and historians of modern empires interested in how writing about foreigners transformed not only the subjects but the concept of empire. For Greek and Latin authors of the Roman Empire, writing about barbarians offered a variety of ways to characterize empire. Narratives about Roman expansion into western Europe and Africa are particularly revealing in this respect because, as Woolf claims, these authors regarded the West as terra nullius, as not having prior civilization. This attitude facilitated “the creation of new histories in the Roman West” (pp. 3-5).

Chapter One traces the descriptive contours of ancient ethnography. An important feature of ethnographic descriptions, Woolf notes, was the correspondence between two themes: emphasis on the remoteness or incomprehensibility of new regions, and the use of details that attached them to discourses familiar to the reader (snippets of Greco-Roman myth, tangents from famous historic episodes, observations of noted writers). This juxtaposition of the foreign with the familiar formed one of the dominant conventions of ethnographic writing.

Woolf also introduces the concept of the “middle ground” as a period of initial contact between Greco-Roman and foreign culture in which information exchange facilitated the creation of new histories. Woolf notes, “Telling stories on the middle ground was a process of gift exchange, one that created relationships of value to both sides” (p. 28). Locals inserted themselves into the Greco-Roman cultural matrix by translating fragments of prestigious, classical narratives to their own past (e.g. claiming the Trojan diaspora as an origo); for newcomers, middle-ground dialogue often confirmed their own cultural authorities (e.g. the veracity of Homer proven on far shores). These mutual attempts to find cultural common ground provided the genesis for new traditions that would eventually join the stock of later ethnographic writing. Story-telling on the middle-ground (itself a process of blending local tradition with received literary narratives) created new narratives used in the literary production of history. Woolf also emphasizes (importantly) that this process was contingent upon how authors viewed themselves as participants in the cultural experience of empire. For example, ethnographic descriptions that suggest either strangeness or propinquity often corresponded to conditions of conflict or cooperation between parties. Understood in these terms, ethnography was not a simple process of compilation that assimilated prior knowledge about people to new information; ethnographic descriptions were selectively fashioned tableaux drawn from complexly interactive sources of knowledge.

Chapter Two examines the stock of paradigms that Greek and Latin authors used to explain the difference of barbarians from “civilized” peoples. Genealogy, geography and astrology all provided constructive frameworks. For example, genealogies allowed ethnographers to map relations between groups of people across different parts of the Mediterranean world (e.g. Trojan diasporas). Similarly, geography allowed authors to map not only environmental causes (e.g. climate) but also cultural causes (e.g. proximity to other more or less civilized peoples) to account for the particularities of a group. Woolf suggests that these paradigms (particularly the genealogical) often originated in middle-ground exchanges that subsequently entered the ethnographic discourse. Additionally, Woolf draws attention to the incompatibility of certain paradigms. For example, incompatible genealogical and environmental explanations are often found in different texts discussing the same people. Ancient ethnographers rarely attempted to create a theory offering a comprehensive rationale for the multiplicity of conflicting paradigms. Instead, authors chose selectively from the range of available material in ways that suited their immediate needs. It would seem that “scientific” objectivity was never at issue.

Chapter Three shifts from the conventions for describing and explaining the barbarian to a consideration of the impact of Roman Empire on ethnographic writing. Woolf argues that the world view of ancient ethnographers was informed by empire in a much less direct fashion than previously assumed. Woolf finds very little evidence that ethnographic writing changed as a consequence of the Empire’s expansion or the acquisition of new information from the frontier (pp. 61-62). Where empire did have an impact was in the increased availability of texts. The expansion of Rome’s political power in the Greek east stimulated Hellenistic intellectual tastes among Roman elite, which in turn influenced the accumulation of texts and the growth of literary communities. Woolf argues that ethnographic research was primarily based in libraries, not in the field or through exploration. Although the claim of autopsy does figure prominently in ethnographic writing, it is itself an ethnographic convention, while the theoria of previous commentators was more widely relied upon.

Less convincingly, Woolf suggests a disconnect existed between ethnographic writing and the experiences of elite Romans who visited the provinces, assembled libraries and became patrons of intellectual communities. It seems apparent enough that ethnographic writing rarely reflects the kind of information that an administrator or military officer might bring home from the provinces and that ethnographic treatises offered little of utility for the practical matters of governing a province (pp. 85-88). Nevertheless, dismissing the likelihood that a middle-ground exchange also occurred between patron and scholar in elite cultural settings perhaps assumes too much about the Roman capacity to compartmentalize social experiences. Woolf’s earlier observation (pp. 72-79) that the re-distributive flow of people and ideas encouraged authors to envision empire as universal suggests productive interaction between literary and social contexts. As Woolf notes, although much of the practice of writing ethnography occurred in dialogue between author and accumulated texts, the daily evidence and experience of empire nonetheless provided a framework for imagining a unity for geographical and chronological pluralities.

The fourth and final chapter investigates the longevity of ethnographic conventions and narratives. Woolf demonstrates the sharp dissonance between the claims of later (2nd-4th century AD) ethnographers and contemporary realities in the provinces. Despite the long acculturation of regions such as Gaul and Britain to Roman rule, authors like Tacitus and Ammianus Marcellinus still portrayed the western provinces as barbarian, underscoring the entrenched traditionalism of ethnographic writing. As Woolf vividly captures it, the “Gauls would always remain belligerent flies caught in rhetorical amber” (p. 114). But even in this later period, as Woolf notes, ethnographic writing maintained a steady, if troubled, contact with the middle ground. The relative stability of the frontiers allowed information concerning even more remote regions to filter into the established ethnographic discourse. Contemporary middle-ground information, however, could threaten established ethnographic concepts and made managing a panoptic whole difficult for authors. When writers encountered middle-ground accounts that were confusing or irreconcilable, they reverted to received ethnographic tropes, the results of which could be something of a chimaera of literary and contemporary knowledge. Woolf explains the inertia of archaic tropes with reference to a common feature of ancient Mediterranean culture which typically viewed itself in apposition (either positively or negatively) to a concept of the “uncivilized.” In other words, the barbarian was necessary intellectual equipment for defining society, even when there were no true barbarians.

Short and written in a lively style, this book will offer much to an academic audience already invested in the debates concerning empire and identity, ethnography and ethnogenesis and Mediterranean literary culture. The contributions made to those wider fields of study are landmark. Woolf has provided a first step toward a comprehensive understanding of the place of the barbarian in Roman culture. Tracing a methodical path through the complicated genesis and transmission of ethnographic knowledge over more than five hundred years, the book manages an otherwise unwieldy range of material with commendable care. The sources are explained at appropriate length and their selection is colorful and distinctly interesting. As a result, this book illustrates quite clearly how Romans located themselves on a cultural axis using eastern Greek and western barbarian antipodes. Particularly instructive is the contribution of the middle ground. The model Woolf proposes for interaction between middle-ground and literary traditions deepens the understanding of the generation of ethnographic histories.

With all that there is to commend this book, few will agree with everything that Woolf has said. This is a positive acknowledgement of the importance of the broader implications of Woolf’s study and a measure of the new field of questions that the book has raised. One anticipates, for example, that Woolf’s use of the middle ground, as productive as it is in the book, may require further exploration. Although well-supported in modern anthropology, the imprint of the middle ground in ancient literature still seems rather tenuous (though certainly tenable). The difficulty of substantiating who contributed what to newly emergent traditions or even differentiating between traditions formed on the middle ground and those invented in the literary imagination is particularly pronounced for scholars working with ancient texts.

As a final comment, this reviewer was mildly surprised that Woolf does not explain his use of the term “barbarian”, particularly given the book’s relevance to the formation of identity in the Roman Empire. It is not always clear in what sense the term “barbarian” actually applies to many of the peoples of the western provinces discussed in the book. This is, in part, a problem located in the book’s citations, which never include the Latin or Greek from quoted primary sources. In more than a few quoted passages, the authors (Livy, Pliny, Tacitus, Ammianus Marcellinus) actually preferred the terms gens or populus as opposed to barbari. The same applies for cognates used by some authors writing in Greek (Polybius, Diodorus). Although such terms are translated accurately the in quoted texts, Woolf’s discussion about these texts often returns to the term “barbarian.” This is an important matter: these terms potentially carry very different connotations with respect to the way Romans understood the capacity of other peoples to assimilate to “civilization” and it is not the case that the terms were always interchangeable. Some explanation of the semantic range of terminology used to describe “barbarians” seems necessary.1

With respect to editorial care, typographical errors are various, although not intrusive. The index, however, is rather scanty and less than helpful. By contrast, Woolf has rendered the topic in crisp and elegant prose. This reviewer suspects that, like good ancient ethnography, Woolf’s contribution will very soon take on a life of its own.


1.   A parallel case may be found in Alan Cameron’s recent study of late-antique “pagans”, which begins with a concise survey of the historical use of the term paganus, an exercise that yielded some fairly surprising results with respect to a term largely taken for granted: Alan Cameron. The Last Pagans of Rome. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2011) 14-25.

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