BMCR 1995.10.14

1995.10.14, Georges, Barbarian Asia and the Greek Experience

, Barbarian Asia and the Greek experience : from the archaic period to the age of Xenophon. Ancient society and history. : Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. xx, 358 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 9780801847349 $42.50.

Books on the Greeks and the barbarian “other” are not exactly uncommon these days; one has only to think of the recent works of François Hartog and Edith Hall. 1 Pericles Georges’ (henceforward G.) book, however, differs a little from these two works. For where Hall and Hartog focus primarily on well-defined areas, Herodotus and tragedy, G. takes as his subject the representation of “barbarity” throughout Greek thought from the first encounters with non-Greek peoples down to the mid-fourth century. He does not, however, attempt to be encyclopaedic—rather he selects what he sees as “certain critical episodes” (p. xiii) and attempts to use these to illustrate the development of the Greek concept of the barbaros.

This gives the book something of the look of a revised Ph.D. thesis (if it is such there is no explicit indication in the text), but for the most part the work hangs together well. The first chapter, “Mythology and Representation: the Greek Appropriation of the World” (pp. 1-12), examines the Greek use of mythology to determine their position vis-à-vis the outside world, from the Dark Ages and Archaic period, when the Greeks were still searching for self-definition, all the way through to the Hellenistic period, when the object of mythopoesis was, more often than not, the establishment of one’s right to be considered Greek. Along the way G. has some interesting things to say about the origins of the earliest Greek myths, and if one does not always believe him, one is at least always stimulated to thought.

Chapter Two, “Asia and the Image of Tyranny” (pp. 13-46), looks at the Greeks of Asia Minor, their dealings with the Lydian kingdom, and the links in the depiction of the “public face” of tyranny between Lydia, the Greeks of Asia and those of the mainland. Again G. leads the reader to considered thought, and makes some interesting observations, such as that the depiction of the Lydian monarchs in the sixth century as if they were Greek rulers arises from the fact that Greek tyranny borrowed much of its ideology from Lydia, as part of a two-way process of cultural mixing (“not only did the Lydian monarchs Hellenize; the Ionian Greeks Lydianized,” p. 38). G. is also particularly good on the religious aspect of the relations between the Ionians and their neighbours, where the syncretism of Greek and native deity helped to smooth over relations between the incoming Greeks and those already settled in Asia.

This chapter also effectively displays one of the great strengths of G.’s work, brought even more to the fore in Chapter 3, “Tabula Rasa: The Invention of the Persians” (pp. 47-75). G. never loses sight of the fact that the barbaroi were not simply mannequins upon which the Greeks projected an identity, but real human beings with their own beliefs and agenda, and tries as best he can not only to reconstruct what the Greeks thought the Persians were doing, but also what the Persians thought the Persians were doing. The virtue of this is that from a better understanding of what the Persians actually did and how they actually thought, it is possible to better comprehend the Greek representation of them. G. is particularly effective in his explanation of why the Persians respected some temples but burnt others—temples of Greeks that had revolted from Persia had become homes of false demons that needed to be burnt to destroy the demons and set up true worship there. But, as G. also makes clear, Persia’s Greek agents did not try to explain this to the Ionians and the other Greeks; rather they presented Persian acts in a framework that would be comprehensible to the Greeks.

Chapter 4, “Aeschylus: The Human Fabric of the Persae” (pp. 76-114), is a thorough examination of Aeschylus’ earliest extant play and the Persian mentality depicted therein. The Persian Elders have a slavish mind-set, which makes the Persian empire an emasculated power. Darius is as responsible for the Persian defeat as Xerxes, for though he ruled with sophrosyne, he laid the seeds for the future—Xerxes is, after all, a product of Darius’ reign. Aeschylus’ Xerxes at the end fails to learn the lesson of his defeat, and will return to his old ways, as indeed he must, for as G. rightly points out, the real Xerxes was still on the Persian throne and still at war with the Greeks under Athenian leadership.

The next two chapters, 5, “Herodotus’ Typology of Hellenism” (pp. 115-166), and 6, “Herodotus’ Typology of Barbarism” (pp. 167-206), are, as the titles indicate, a matched pair. In the former, G. proceeds through various Greek groupings, and demonstrates how Herodotus shows that these Greeks are little removed from barbarian origins. In the latter, G. does the same for the barbaroi; here Herodotus appears to be showing how close many of the barbarians are to being Greek. G.’s central point in these chapters is to show how, so far as Herodotus was concerned, the division between Greeks and barbaroi was not, as later Greeks would see it, an uncrossable gulf. Rather, it was a matter of evolution; many of the people who were now Greek had once been barbaroi (including, according to G., the Athenians), and the barbaroi had the potential to become Greek. In this context the debate on the constitutions in Book III takes on a new resonance; for, G. asserts, Herodotus genuinely believed that the debate took place, and that this was a moment when the Persians could have become Greek, had they followed Otanes’ advice and become democratic; but Darius decided upon monarchy, and so the Persians remained barbaroi. Whether one believes this or not, one cannot deny that the idea is intriguing, and that it is well-argued.

Up to this point, G. has been dealing with the Greek conception of barbaroi down to the defining moment of the Persian War of 481-479 (even though Aeschylus and Herodotus wrote after this time, their themes were of this period). In the final chapter, “Xenophon: the Satrap of Scillus” (pp. 207-246), he leaps more than a century to one of the most philobarbarian writers of Greek Antiquity. He has much of interest to say, pointing out for example that, whereas for earlier writers the barbaroi were natural slaves, to Xenophon the finest of them were noble men to be admired, and natural servility was a characteristic of the Athenian democratic masses; to Xenophon Persia is a source for a morality that Greece has abandoned (hence his great moral tract centres on the person of the barbaros Cyrus). G. even revives the idea, often seen as unfashionable these days, that the Persia of the Cyropaedia is not entirely divorced from the historical Persia, or at least is Xenophon’s rose-tinted view of it. Nonetheless, this last chapter is rather uneasily attached to the work as a whole; the sudden leap from Herodotus to Xenophon, passing over such important writers as Thucydides (who admittedly had little to say on the matter of barbaroi) and Euripides (who had rather more) is a dislocation for the reader, and one wonders whether this final chapter wouldn’t have been better as a separate article, which would then leave a rather more coherent work on the conception of the barbaros in the Archaic period.

One must be careful with this work, however, as G. could in places have been more careful with his arguments. So, for instance, at p. 21 one finds the comment “we have noticed how the Iliad links the Lycian’ kings of Miletus with Corinth through Bellerophontes and Glaucus.” Homer, however, neither links Bellerophon with Corinth, nor Glaucus with Miletus, merely linking Bellerophon and Glaucus. That the further links do occur elsewhere in Greek literature is undoubted (indeed, G. gives his readers the references earlier), but whether Homer knew of them is impossible to say, and there is no sign of them in the Iliad. Elsewhere he also has a tendency to be a little sloppy (e.g. Caunus is in Caria, not Lycia as G. states on p. 227). There are a few misprints (of which the most confusing is “Apollodorus” for “Apollonius” on p. 5), erroneous references (e.g. 2.173.1-3 on p. 138 should be 1.173.1-3) and a few works cited in the text which are absent from the bibliography (I counted six missing), and the indexing is not perfect (attempting to consult G.’s note on the Lydian deity Artimu, I found the page number given in the index, 34, to be incorrect; Artimu is mentioned on p. 35, but her first mention is on p. 29). None of these points, however, should be allowed to detract from the overall value of this work, which is a significant contribution to the study of Greek perceptions of the non-Greek world and contains much material that any scholar interested in Graeco-Persian relations will want to dip into repeatedly.

  • [1] F. Hartog, The Mirror of Herodotus: The Representation of the Other in the Writing of History (Berkeley, 1988); E. Hall, Inventing the Barbarian. Greek Self-Definition through Tragedy (Oxford, 1989).