Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.12.29 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.12.29

Rebecca F. Kennedy, C. Sydnor Roy, Max L. Goldman (ed.), Race and Ethnicity in the Classical World: An Anthology of Primary Sources in Translation.   Indianapolis; Cambridge:  Hackett Publishing Company, 2013.  Pp. xviii, 405.  ISBN 9781603849944.  $19.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Naoíse Mac Sweeney, University of Leicester (


Sourcebooks are an invaluable tool for students and teachers alike, and sourcebooks focused on particular themes can be especially useful. The compilation of the first such sourcebook on the theme of race and ethnicity in classical antiquity was an ambitious task, but one that Kennedy, Roy and Goldman have tackled with gusto. The result is an accessible volume filled with clear translations of a wide range of classical texts, with little in the way of apparatus and additional information. This has the virtue of preventing readers from getting sidetracked and confused, and making the topic easily approachable by students, particularly those not familiar with classical antiquity. However, more advanced students and specialists would have benefitted from a greater recognition within the book of the complex and problematic nature of both the theme and the evidence base.

The book opens with a brief introduction (6 pages), followed by six maps based on the writings of Homer, Hecataeus, Herodotus, Strabo/Eratosthenes, Pomponius Mela, and Ptolemy. The main body of the book comprises a selection of Greek and Latin passages offered in translation, each reflecting in some way on the theme of race and ethnicity. This is followed by a short list (4 pages) of recommended editions of classical texts, and an equally concise bibliography of wider reading (4 pages). The sources themselves are organised into two main sections – ‘Theories’ and ‘The Peoples of the Ancient World’. The first section is by far the shorter, and occupies roughly one quarter of the book. It begins with a chapter covering passages from Homer and Hesiod; and one with selections from Pindar to Hyginus dealing with origin myths for humanity as a whole, as well as for Greeks (framed as either Hellenes or Danaans, or in two specific cases also the origins of the Spartans and Boeotians) and Romans. This is followed by three chapters presenting what the book’s compilers consider to be the three main theories of human difference that were present in the ancient world: difference due to environment; difference due to genetic inheritance; and difference due to cultural factors. In each chapter, passages are arranged roughly by chronology. The second section of the book begins with a chapter offering different descriptions of the known world in its entirety, from Pindar to Ptolemy. This is followed by nine further chapters, organised geographically (Egypt; Libya, Carthage, and Numidia; Ethiopia and Beyond; Persia, Media, Babylon, and Parthia; Judea and the Jewish Diaspora; Arabia; India, China, and the Edges of the World; The Black Sea Region; and Gaul, Germany and Britain). Throughout the book, each passage is prefaced with a short (usually one sentence but sometimes as long as three) summary outlining its content and context, while chapters open with a paragraph of introduction. Passages vary from several lines to several pages in length, and there are occasional footnotes to clarify points of information in the text.

The structure of the book makes it easy to consult. It is both logical and helpful to begin with a section introducing ancient ideas of ‘self’ (taken broadly) and approaches to explaining human variation, and to move on from there to exploring ancient descriptions of the ‘peoples’ of the world. However, there are some issues to be raised regarding structure and organisation. Firstly, it would have been useful to have a more detailed explanation of the chapter divisions in the first section. It is unclear, for example, why Homer and Hesiod are dealt with in their own separate chapter (Chapter 1), rather than being integrated into the other chapters. A fuller discussion of the tripartite division of ancient ‘theories’ into the environmental, the genetic, and the cultural would also have been welcome, perhaps at the start of the relevant chapters. In the general introduction, the editors acknowledge that the division is problematic (p. xvi), but do not engage in a discussion of the topic. Other structural problems surface in the second section. In a supposedly comprehensive survey of the ancient world, the regions of Anatolia, Thrace, and the Iberian peninsula are conspicuous by their absence. Similarly, within the Levant, the only region and population group included is ‘Judea and the Jewish Diaspora’ (Chapter 11), while no mention is made of other Levantine groups such as Phoenicians, Syrians, and Philistines. The rationale for these exclusions is not explained by the editors. In addition, a confusing organisational anomaly occurs in Chapter 10 on ‘Asia: Persia, Media, Babylon (sic), and Parthia’. This chapter includes a sub- section on ‘Parthia’, but no similar subsections for Persia, Media, and Babylonia. Indeed, there are no other subsections given over to specific regions elsewhere in the book, and in the absence of any editorial comment, the need for a special section on Parthia remains unexplained. Finally, while passages on Greek and Roman views of ‘self’ are included in the first section, there is no section devoted to the topic of how Greeks viewed Romans, and vice versa.

In any book of this type, difficult decisions must be made concerning the selection of sources, and inclusion and exclusion of passages. Indeed, each scholar of ancient ethnicity would doubtless present a different collection of texts if tasked with compiling such a sourcebook. It is a strength of this book that it includes not only many classic passages which have become standard reference points for the subject, but also sections of less-cited texts. In addition to Herodotus and Livy, we find Antiphon, Babrius, and Ctesias. A range of genres are also represented, from more obviously geographic and ethnographic tests such as Pseudo-Scylax, Strabo, and Pliny; to the elegiac of Ovid, the drama of Euripides, and the romance of Achilles Tatius. There are some peculiarities, however, which raise questions about the selection process. Why, for example, are passages from the Odyssey included but not the Iliad? Why does Chapter 4, on genetic theories, feature only Greek and no Latin texts? Having some explanation of the factors informing the selection of passages may aid the reader at several points. One particularly important instance of this is the inclusion of an inscription in Chapter 10 (no.16; CIL XI.137, a funerary monument for a Parthian man from Ravenna). This is the only inscription in the entire volume, and it is clear neither why, if epigraphic material in general was to be included, more inscriptions do not appear in the book; nor why, if epigraphic material in general was to be excluded, this particular inscription merits special and unique consideration. Given the particular benefits and challenges of working with epigraphic evidence, a general policy of either inclusion or exclusion would have been defensible. In contrast, the presence of a single inscription in this manner does not encourage a reflective approach that takes into account the nature of the source material.

In general, a more critical approach to the sources throughout the book would have been desirable. In their introduction, the editors state that the sourcebook will include only written sources, as evidence from material culture and iconography “can be difficult to present and interpret” (p. xiv). The implication, perhaps unintended, is that written sources are not difficult to interpret. It would have been preferable to communicate the opposite – i.e. the need for careful and critical engagement with the source material. As has long been established, the ‘facts’ about identity and ethnicity in classical antiquity cannot be straightforwardly read from the texts. It is now widely accepted that, rather than passively reflecting social realities, our source material (such as that presented in this book) was part of an ongoing discourse which was constantly shaping and re-shaping ancient identities. Given that the nature of the theme – race and ethnicity – engenders heated debate and politicised argument, a more explicit acknowledgement of historiographic problems would have been good. A stronger theoretical framework may have helped with this. Reference is made in the general introduction to the distinction between ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’, but the terminology is not used consistently throughout the book, and the suggested further reading does not include many of the more recent works on the topic.

Overall, this book is a useful volume, presented in a handy, accessible format. Used in conjunction with critical frameworks, it is a valuable resource for students of ancient identity and ethnicity.

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