BMCR 2004.04.26

Hellenicity: Between Ethnicity and Culture

, Hellenicity : between ethnicity and culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. xx, 312 pages : maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 0226313298. $50.00.

The subject of ethnicity in the ancient world, and the related but not identical topic of cultural identity, have generated a wide-ranging and stimulating debate about the nature of ancient culture and society in recent years. In particular, the ethnicity and identity of the Greeks is a complex topic because of the great diversity of Greek culture and because of the intricacies of the Greeks’ own views on their culture and that of the peoples with which they came into contact. This book represents a very valuable addition to the literature on the ancient Greeks’ conceptualisation of their own ethnic identity and its relation to their culture. In it, Hall returns to a theme that he covered in some detail in his earlier work Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity. This present work seeks to offer a wider coverage of the topic and offers a more wide-ranging discussion of the evolution of Greek identity from Bronze Age Greece to the Classical period. However, it retains the same basic underlying assumption that early Greek identity was aggregative and relatively weak, while a strong common Greek identity was developed as an oppositional reaction to the Persian wars and was a relatively late development. The epilogue looks forward to the cultural complexities of the Hellenistic Greek world, but these are essentially outside the scope of the volume.

The main argument of the book is that a common consciousness of Greek ethnic identity was a relatively late development, only reaching fruition in the period after the Persian wars, and by way of the unifying creation of the stereotype of the non-Greek ‘barbarian’. Hall places this firmly in the context of cultural identity rather than ethnicity, seeing it as a result of the Greek reaction to the Persian wars rather than any innate development towards a sense of ethnic unity. This conclusion is reached by way of a densely argued and sometimes very technical reappraisal of Greek strategies for defining their own identities.

The first chapter rehearses the difficult question of how to define ethnicity, and provides a dense but very useful discussion of key theoretical concepts and approaches to the study of ethnicity. It provides a welcome introduction to the major anthropological approaches to the subject and how they can be applied to ancient evidence. This concern with methodology is central also to the second chapter. This provides a review of Greek mythology concerning origins, approaching the topic from a number of different angles, and focuses not just on the ancient evidence but also on modern interpretations from the 19th century to the present. This allows the author to tackle not only the disparate ethnogenesis myths of the Greeks themselves but thorny questions of interpretation such as the 19th and 20th century preoccupation with migration and the possibility that the emergence of the Greek language and culture from the 9th century BC onwards represents a population movement rather than cultural evolution. The review of archaeological evidence for the transition from Mycenaean to Greek periods emphasises the growing evidence for continuity and rightly questions the assumptions about the relationship between population movement and material culture which underlie the Indo-European migration thesis. Hall presents a very strong case for the need to rethink our methodologies for dealing with material culture and its ethnic implications. In discussing the Greek mythologies of foundation, he concludes that the disparate traditions of Greek origins reflect multiple regional identities rather than representing the breakdown of a single tradition and places considerable emphasis on the primacy of local or polis identity over that of the wider group identity.

The theme of variation in the ethnic identity of early Greece is developed further in Chapter Four, which deals with the formation of Achaian, Dorian and Ionian identities. Hall perceives the development of Achaian identity as having its origins in the colonisations of the 8th century BC and in the processes of identity-formation in the colonial environment of southern Italy. He also identifies a similar process in the formation of Ionian and Aitolian identities in the eastern Aegean, seeing it as arising from a need to define a coherent identity within the multi-ethnic world of the Near East. However, he strongly argues that these Greek identities arose from a wish for inclusion within a wider world of multiple ethnic groups rather than an oppositional situation in which the Greeks defined themselves against other groups.

Hall also provides a rather polemical chapter attacking in very specific terms the idea that the period of intensive Greek colonisation in the 8th and 7th centuries BC was instrumental in crystallising Greek ethnic identity. This has been seen as a period in which a form of oppositional identity may have come into play for the first time. Hall, however, rejects the centre-periphery model, which argues that since the strongest ethnic identities are oppositional, the process of settlement in non-Greek areas, bringing the Greeks into close contact with other populations, is likely to have had a significant effect on crystallising the Greeks’ sense of their own identity. Instead, he posits a situation in which the Greek elites interacted with their non-Greek peers without a strong sense of difference or of ethnic boundaries. The strongest impulse, he argues, is towards the reinforcement of regional identities in the Greek mainland and self-identification by reference to these. He argues strongly, for instance, that an marked Achaean identity developed, both in the western Greek colonies and in the Western Peloponnese, as a result of the Greek/colonial interaction. Although this chapter covers an admirable amount of ground and variety of evidence, there are some weaknesses. There is a tendency in some places to conflate the colonising processes of the 8th century and those of later foundations, such as the 6th century Phocaean foundations. The focus of the chapter is mainly on the colonies of the Western Mediterranean, and the discussion of the non-Greek populations is fairly cursory. The basic problem is that colonial Greek identities and their relation to the overall question of Greek ethnicity is such a wide-ranging topic that it is not possible to do justice to it in a single chapter. Nevertheless, this chapter raises some stimulating questions for further debate.

The process of ethnogenesis is discussed most fully in Chapter Five, which examines in detail the Homeric Catalogue of Ships and Catalogue of Women as evidence for the development and usage of the common ethnic name Hellenes. In so doing, he links the concepts of Hellas and of the Hellenes closely to the area around Delphi and to the role of the Amphiktyonies. The role of the major sanctuaries in creating a common Greek identity is not, however, confined to Delphi, and Hall makes a strong case that Olympia also played a central role in defining and reinforcing a common Greek identity.

The final chapter is both the most stimulating in the issues it raises and their implications for our understanding of Greek identity and at the same time the least satisfactory. The broad outline of Hall’s thesis is that a well-defined common consciousness of Greek identity developed relatively late in reaction to the Persian wars. He sees the rise of the figure of the barbarian in Classical Greek literature and art as significant, arguing — rightly, in my view — that the development of Greek identity and consciousness of the ‘otherness’ of barbarians are two elements of the same process. The chapter explores the changing Greek concepts of barbarism and ‘the other’ through various sources, notably Herodotos, and argues that the development of this oppositional identity also marks the point at which the Greeks in general, and the Athenians in particular, definitively began to prioritise culture over ethnicity as the primary marker of identity. The chapter concludes with a discussion of Isocrates and the rhetoric of panhellenism. The amount of ground covered in the final chapter is substantial, but it focuses mainly (perhaps inevitably, given the bias of our available sources) on Athens, and a more extensive discussion of this Athenocentric bias would have perhaps enhanced this section of the book.

Although some of the lines taken by Hall are open to argument — his insistence on the lack of development of variant Greek identities as a result of the colonial environment is one example, as is the over-emphasis on Athens in the final chapter — the book is very well argued, and the development of Greek identity is covered in impressive detail. It also presents a very wide range of evidence in support of the author’s case, including the archaeology of the Greek and colonial worlds, various forms of literary and mythological source material, and discussion of the linguistic development of Greece. The other great strength of the book is its discussion of anthropological methodologies for examining ethnicity, which Hall presents with great clarity. Overall, this is an important and stimulating book, which provides an important and timely re-evaluation of the ethnic identity of the Greeks.