BMCR 2004.09.12

Material culture, mentality and historical identity in the ancient world

, Material culture, mentality and historical identity in the ancient world: understanding the Celts, Greeks, Romans and the Modern Europeans. Kyoto: Kyoto University, 2004. viii, 68 pages. ISBN 9784990192907

The title of this collection of papers given at a one-day conference in Kyoto, Japan, is very grand and promises more than is delivered. The conference was held as part of a larger ongoing project ‘Towards a Center of Excellence for the Study of Humanities in the Age of Globalization’ at the University of Kyoto, this component being that focused on ‘European Identity from a Historical Perspective’. By gathering together scholars who focus attention on aspects of identity in the geographical areas of Classical Greece, Asia Minor, Iron Age Europe and the Roman empire, the editor Minamikawa (henceforth M.) was hoping to develop discussion about the many different ways people identified themselves in the past, in relation to the popular topic of identity. Sadly, it is difficult to determine what sort of discussion ensued, as there is little hint in the papers, or in the commentaries about it. Moreover, the majority of the papers say very little that is new about identity. This is not to say that they do not contribute anything to the current debates, but there is nothing groundbreaking in the contributors’ works.

The idea behind the conference is impressive, as M. brings together three areas that generally tend to remain mutually exclusive in deliberations on identity: Greek, Roman and Iron Age. Though there has been discussion on the topic between those who study the Iron Age and the Roman provinces, and between the Roman provincial specialists and those who study Roman Italy, as well as between Hellenists and Romanists, particularly those specialising in Roman Italy and the Roman east, rarely does one see an attempt to bring all of these specialists together in a single arena. It is also commendable that M. intended to organise discussion between historians, philologists and archaeologists, though there is only one archaeological paper, and there is very little in any of the papers discussing artefacts or structural remains, while for the term mentality one sees very little theoretical debate beyond the basic introductory concepts of how people may have perceived themselves in the past.

The majority of these debates on identity are taking place amongst scholars in Britain, though there are scholars in America and continental Europe who are also involved in these discussions. Thus, on a personal bias, I think the conference would have been far more successful had it been held over a longer period of time involving many more scholars of the above-mentioned disciplines. I would also have expected to see names such as Woolf, Wells, James, Cornell and Lomas,1 for example. Nonetheless, as this was the first conference of its kind in Japan, perhaps M. intends to hold longer and more detailed ones in the future. It would be useful to have more debate of this type placed outside of Europe and North America.

This volume is divided into three sections: ‘Ancient Greeks’, ‘Celts’, and ‘Ancient Romans’. Each section contains two papers followed by a small commentary. The first session, on the ‘Ancient Greeks’, has a paper by Kurihara, ‘Quiet Athenian and Civic Identity’. Kurihara examined the idea of apragmosyne (quietism) in relation to how those who chose to withdraw from public and/or political life identified themselves as Athenians. She questioned whether there was a difference in the perception of civic identity between those who were enthusiastic about contributing to public life and those who chose to remain separate and away from the public arena. She notes that the latter were criticized and their civic identity was in some ways denigrated. The importance of her paper lies in its contribution to the idea that one’s identity is based on a number of facets, one being civic. The second paper in the first section is D’Hautcourt’s ‘Embracing Defeat: Becoming Roman and Staying Greek: An Identity Crisis?’ He attempts to look at how people living in different areas of Greece and Asia Minor reacted to Roman occupation. He begins by making a comparison between how the Japanese reacted to Japan being opened by Commodore Perry with the Roman occupation of the East. The Japanese reacted in a non-militaristic fashion, and in comparison D’Hautcourt notes that not all the eastern areas occupied by Rome reacted in a belligerent manner against the Romans, for the Romans, although taking control of an area, were basically content to let people maintain their identity as long as taxes were paid and they obeyed Roman laws. In support of his theory, D’Hautcourt provides information from three inscriptions that show people could maintain a sense of their own Greekness under Roman rule through practicing traditional religious ceremonies and rituals and through euergatism. Again identity is shown as being flexible and dependent upon many factors. One could say that people living in areas under Roman occupation were Roman, but at the same time they considered themselves in many respects to be Greek. These two papers are discussed by Shoji, ‘Reconsidering “Greek Identity” and the Outlook for Future Research’, who points out that both papers are important because they demonstrate the fluidity of identity and do not settle for the simple observations about Greek identity, which are often based on an oversimplified dichotomy between that which is Greek and that which is barbarian or other. Place and time are noted as being elemental in the ways identity can change and be maintained.

‘Celts’ is the title of the second section and its two papers offer historical overviews of the scholarship relating to ideas about Celticity. The first paper, by Hikida, ‘The Celts and Gauls’, examines the philological sources on the term ‘Celt’ by discussing the uses of the terms Celtoi and Galatai in Greek and Celtae, Galli or Galatae in Latin. He quotes a number of ancient authors to demonstrate how the terms were used as geographical identifiers rather than ethnic markers. Celtoi, for example, was used by Strabo to describe those who lived in the west. In other literature, though, the term was used to distinguish people who lived beyond the geographical boundaries of the empire, perhaps, according to Hikidu, as a form of ethnic marker. Hikidu further illustrates the use of the terms in later periods and how their use contributed to arguments for the existence of a pan-Celtic society. In the end Hikidu argues that a thorough review of classical literature mentioning these terms might help with our understanding of how the Greeks and Romans viewed the societies they referred to as Gauls and Celts. From an archaeological perspective, Carr’s paper, ‘Killing the Celts: The Death of a Paradigm’, provides a sound overview of the debates that have been taking place in British archaeology over the use of the term Celt in the Iron Age and compares them with scholarship in continental Europe. This paper is a useful introduction but would benefit from more specific archaeological examples. Minamikawa is the discussant for these two papers and he mainly points out the necessity for scholars of the various disciplines in the subject to confer with one another about their ideas and theories, basically reiterating the ideas for which the conference was held. At the same time he wishes to look at the historical background of Celtic studies to see how the term is being used in a modern context for people to identify themselves in a political sphere, such as Welsh, Breton and Scottish, for example.

The final section, on the ‘Ancient Romans’, has a paper dealing with the Imperial period by Katherine Clarke, ‘Ever-increasing Circles: Constructing the Roman Empire’. Her inquiry asks what the term Roman meant to the Romans and how they distinguished themselves from others in terms of legal, linguistic, cultural, geographical or shared history. She also asks how Romans thought of themselves in juxtaposition to the identity attributed to them by others and how the Romans could maintain an identity when they were incorporating new places into their empire. Her examination mainly considers the authors Strabo and Tacitus. She notes that in literature the idea of a core-periphery view does not hold true. This, in archaeological terms, is the understanding that identity grows more distinct and different when one moves farther away from a cultural centre, such as Rome. There has been much archaeological debate about this being an overly simplistic means of interpretation, and Clarke notes in the literature geographical proximity to Rome did in no way enhance peoples’ status as Romans. According to Strabo, places like Naples were seen as more barbaric than Britain and India. Tacitus felt that those living in Rome ultimately lost their original values that made them Roman, and these could be found in newly conquered areas such as Britain. The final paper, ‘Past Imperfect: The Formation of Christian Identity in Late Antiquity’, by Christopher Kelly, looks at classical literature in the early Christian period. The author mentions Julian the Apostate, who wrote an edict on education in which he asserted that classical literature should be taught not just as a matter of culture but because it was inseparable from religious beliefs. Kelly is mainly concerned with Christian identity and how it related to Roman or classical identity. He discusses how the Christian writers made a chronology or time frame juxtaposing the scriptures with classical myth and history. The frame was set up with two vertical lines of dates. Kelly points out that in order for Christians to have an identity with the classical past, such histories had to be created to demonstrate a sense of parity with the classical world. Neil McLynn comments on the final papers in ‘Six Authors in Search of a Character: Vicious Circles and Crooked Lineages’. He wants to know how the contemporary readers of Roman commentaries would have understood differences in identity, if at all. He wonders how important identity was to those who were writing and why, concluding his paper by stating that ‘The struggle for identity began at home; but (as, I suggest, our six authors in these papers together show) the further abroad it was taken, the easier it was to score the points which, under the rules of the game, counted as success’ (68). Therefore, when under threat, moving from their homeland or even facing change within their homeland, people would have a greater need to define themselves, but as shown, and has been argued many times before this book was published, identity was and is always fluid.

The six papers all contribute to recent scholarship, the final section being the most scholarly of all of them. Nonetheless the collection of papers does not add much to a very lively debate.


1. Cornell, T., and Lomas, K. (eds.) 1997. Gender and Ethnicity in Ancient Italy. London: Accordia Research Institute, University of London; James, S. 1999. The Atlantic Celts: Ancient People of Modern Invention? London: British Museum Press; Wells, P. S. 1995. ‘Identities, Material Culture, and Change: ‘Celts’ and ‘Germans’ in Late-Iron-Age Europe’. Journal of European Archaeology 3 (2): 169-85; Wells, P. S. 1999. The Barbarians Speak: How the Conquered Peoples Shaped Roman Europe. Princeton: Princeton University Press; Woolf, G. 1998. Becoming Roman: The Origins of Provincial Civilisation in Gaul. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.