BMCR 2007.07.46

Cultural Borrowings and Ethnic Appropriations in Antiquity. Oriens et Occidens. Studien zu antiken Kulturkontakten und ihrem Nachleben 8

, Cultural borrowings and ethnic appropriations in antiquity. Geschichte. Stuttgart: F. Steiner, 2005. 314 pages : illustrations, map ; 25 cm.. ISBN 3515087354. €44.00.

[The contributions to this volume are listed at the end of the review.]

This volume, edited by one of the leading specialists in the field of cultural interaction in antiquity, sets out to explore ‘the intriguing practice whereby ancient peoples visualized themselves as part of a broader cultural heritage, discovered or invented links with other societies, and couched their own historical memories in terms of a borrowed or appropriated past.’ The papers presented in Gruen’s book cover an impressively wide range of subjects such as Greek, Roman and Jewish literature as well as Greek art and archaeology, Oriental studies and late antique history.

As it is impossible to deal with all or even most of them in this review, although all do deserve a detailed discussion, I will limit myself to a discussion of a selection of papers, adding afterwards some general observations on the collection as a whole. The choice of papers discussed here is, of course, due exclusively to the preferences (and lack of competence in certain subjects) of the reviewer and does not imply any comment on the papers that are not included.

In his paper, ‘Genesis 1.11 and its Mesopotamian Problem’ (pp. 23-36), Ronald Hendel (RH) investigates how ancient Israel constructed its cultural identity in contrast to older Near Eastern cultures. Israel, RH states, was well aware of its role as a ‘relative latecomer in the ancient Near East, and that Mesopotamian civilization was far older and more glorious’ (p. 24); therefore, Israel sought to define its origins as ‘a new beginning, a supersession’ which aimed at depreciating the older and therefore more authoritative culture of the others (ibid.).

RH then identifies three different strategies by means of which this goal is achieved in the narrative of Genesis 1-11, namely appropriation, mimicry, and inversion (ibid.), the first of which is subsequently subdivided further into one type of appropriation in which ‘the foreign feature is fully domesticated and its foreign origin effaced,’ on the one hand, and a second type in which ‘the feature is only partially domesticated and its foreign flavor is retained,’ on the other (p. 25). RH cites as examples for the first type the biblical flood story the Mesopotamian origins of which are completely effaced in order to use the story as a medium to assert an Israelite cultural perspective: thus the flood comes to serve ‘as a crisis that inaugurates the new era of the Noachic covenant, which in turn anticipates the covenants with Abraham and Moses’ (p. 26). The J primeval narrative, on the other hand, is introduced as an example of the second type of appropriation as in the story of the Garden Eden the Oriental setting and Mesopotamian location constantly remain present. Yet, this same Mesopotamian setting is given a decisively ambiguous note as in the sequel of the story, it is associated with Adam’s punishment and the expulsion from Eden and thus marked both ‘as a place of beginnings but also of transgression, where paradise was lost and life of pain and mortality began’ (p. 28).

RH then discusses mimicry which, he states, ‘entails the reproduction of a foreign or dominant discourse laced with subversive humor or irony’ (p. 29), as an example of which he presents the account of Nimrod. Being the name of an archetypal Mesopotamian warrior-king, in Hebrew it means ‘let us rebel’ or ‘we will rebel.’ Behind this ambivalence RH detects ‘a subtle subversion’ as to an Israelite ear the name ‘Nimrod’ expresses the implicit desire to rebel against the same Nimrod, ‘the exemplar of Mesopotamian kingship and hegemony’ (p. 30-31).

Finally, RH deals with the story of the Tower of Babel as an example of ‘inversion.’ In this account, the Mesopotamian significance of the Tower as the cosmic axis which links heaven and earth is turned upside-down, ‘making it an axis of transgression and evil’ (p. 31). Thus, ‘the most famous Mesopotamian city is pictured as a ruin in primeval times’ (p. 33).

In general, RH’s reading of Genesis 1-11 offers some fascinating insights into the process of how texts subtly subvert narratives of dominant cultures by integrating them into a different cultural framework and thus endowing them with a new meaning.

Jan Assmann’s (JA) paper on ‘Periergia: Egyptian Reactions to Greek Curiosity’ (pp. 37-49) is of particular interest to classicists as it explores the downside of the well-known Greek fascination with and the concomitant investigation in Egyptian culture. Whereas classicists like myself seem to concentrate on the Greek side of the process, JA redresses the balance and shows how the Egyptians might have perceived this Greek interest in their culture.

Reading Latin and Greek texts such as Apuleius’ ‘Metamorphoseis’ and the ‘Corpus Hermeticum’ alongside Egyptian inscriptions, JA convincingly concludes that Egyptians observed an at best ambiguous attitude towards the Greek interest; often the latter was regarded as an intrusion into areas of knowledge which should better be kept concealed from the eyes of outsiders, and JA even identifies some cases of ‘hellenophobia’ (p. 45). I was wondering, however, whether the Greeks ‘in the encounter with Egyptian culture’ really, as JA states on p. 45, ‘became aware of a difference which they described as innovativeness vs. conservatism and curiosity vs. self control and submission,’ or if we should rather say that the Greeks constructed this difference between themselves, the ‘innovators,’ and the Egyptians, the ‘conservative preservers,’ maybe as a counter-reaction to the same Egyptian reluctance to grant the Greeks unlimited insight into their culture.

Moreover, I was wondering, is it possible to speak of an ‘anxiety of influence’ on the part of the Greeks which they sought to come to terms with by exploring and subsequently redefining Egyptian culture in the above terms of innovation vs. conservatism? In this case, we might view Greek ‘curiosity’ as part of a ‘cultural imperialism’ rather than as an expression of genuine interest in the foreign, so much older culture. The exploration, appropriation and subsequent re-interpretation of Egyptian culture in Greek terms might then be conceived of as an attempt to fade out the possible threat that Egyptian culture might have presented to Greek claims of cultural hegemony. Put otherwise: can we conceive of Greek curiosity in terms of, mutatis mutandis, ‘orientalism’? Furthermore, is it possible to determine if the Egyptians were aware that Greeks might have regarded their culture as a potential threat to their, the Greeks’ self-definition, and therefore sought to maintain their cultural superiority by denying the Greeks full access to it?

In his ‘Heroen and Grenzgänger zwischen Griechen und Barbaren’ (pp. 50-67), Hans-Joachim Gehrke investigates what ‘ethnicity’ meant to the Greeks and to what extent the dichotomy between Greek and non-Greek was really based on strictly ethnic differences: were ‘Greek’ and ‘Barbarian’ really incompatible in the sense of binary oppositions or are we dealing with differences in quality (‘eine qualitative … Grenze,’ p. 51) rather than with a general, insurmountable opposition? (p. 51) Gehrke focusses on Greek heroes such as Sarpedon and Telephus, but also Herakles and Perseus, as examples of figures who overcome ethnic differences by means of granting and accepting hospitality and establishing relationships by marriage (p. 59).

As such, Gehrke argues, they mirror the ‘mobility’ of the archaic Greek elite, whose members were keen on going beyond the boundaries of their own communities by establishing connections with members of others; like the Greek heroes, they crossed the boundaries and were ‘Grenzgänger.’ Thus blurring to a certain extent the Greek and the Oriental, they testify to a certain flexibility of the ‘internalized boundary’ (‘innere Grenze,’ cf. p. 51) which separates Greek and non-Greek: rather than the paradigmatically ‘Other,’ the Barbarian is the ‘fremde Nachbar’ or ‘nächste Fremde’ who is as much familiar as he is foreign.

Erich Gruen’s (EG) contribution, ‘Persia Through the Jewish Looking Glass’ (pp. 90-104), discusses the ambivalent relationship between Jews and Persians. On the one hand, EG states, Jews were certainly obliged to Persian generosity insofar as, e.g., Cyrus made possible the return of the Jews to Israel and the reconstruction of the Temple; on the other hand, this raises the question of how Jews tried to come to terms with this almost total dependence on a foreign rule as it is described, for instance, in Deutero-Isaiah and Ezra-Nehemiah: after all, ‘grateful Jews huddling under the protection of the powerful prince is not the most uplifting image’ (p. 90). EG therefore sets out to re-examine the depiction of Persian rulership in such different Jewish texts as Deutero-Isaiah, the Book of Ezra, the Book of Daniel and the Book of Esther.

EG shows that in all these texts the authority of Persian rule and their merits towards the Jews is somewhat undermined: generally, all actions taken by the Persian ruler in favour of the Jews are explained as motivated by God and part of his larger projects, and, additionally, the Persian ruler is often depicted as naïve and even ‘clownish,’ depending on Jewish wit and wisdom and having to ‘borro[w] their moral and intellectual superiority from the Jews’ (p. 102). Thus while not denying that their people benefited from Persian power, Jewish writers constructed their stories so as to ‘reconceiv[e] the situation in ways most comfortable and pleasurable for their own self-image’ (p. 102).

I fully agree with EG’s conclusions that in the texts he discusses, Persian power and its relation to the Jews are depicted in terms which are favourable for the Jews and portray the latter as actually pulling the strings. I am less certain, however, whether such narrative strategies can really be described as a ‘Jewish appropriation’ (p. 102). This assertion seems to rely heavily upon EG’s repeated statement that these stories have little to do with history, i.e. they do not relate ‘what really happened’ but present a story which is mediated through Jewish eyes (cf., e.g., p. 94. 102). In so doing, EG seems to presume that something like an ‘objective,’ unmediated historiography, in which ‘the events relate themselves,’ does in fact exist and that this provides the point of reference for our reading of the versions of Jewish-Persian history offered, e.g., in Deutero-Isaiah or I Ezra; it is only, it seems to me, on this condition that we can actually say that history has been ‘appropriated’ by the Jews as it makes us look upon the events through Jewish eyes.

Yet, especially in the last decades, such notions as ‘objective’ history have become highly doubtful, since historiography always means narrating events, and a narration, be it fictional or historical, necessarily presupposes a narrator who pre-selects, judges and orders … who, in short, interprets the events (see, e.g., Hayden White’s works and cf. Peter Novick’s study of the objectivity question in American historical writing, That Noble Dream). A historical narrator can, of course, do this in a more or less conscious, a more or less tendentious way, but he cannot circumvent it (see also the balanced discussion of these issues in Dominick LaCapra’s works, especially his History & Criticism, Ithaca/London 1985).

Hence historical narrators always make us look at the events through their eyes and from this point of view every historiography is an account ‘through someone’s looking glass’ and as such an ‘appropriation.’ But did the Jews in the texts discussed by EG really ‘appropriate’ originally Persian historical accounts and turn them into the foundation of their own version of the past in the same way as they did, e.g., in Genesis 1-11 as discussed by RH in his contribution (see above)? If we follow RH’s interpretation (based on Homi Bhaba’s studies) of the term ‘appropriation’ as an incorporation of foreign customs and narratives into your own culture and making them an essential part of your own self-image and cultural identity by re-interpreting them, there seems to be a difference between the process described by EG and that analysed by RH. This points to the general question of what we are talking about when using the term ‘appropriation’ or ‘borrowing,’ to which I shall return briefly towards the end of the review.

The way non-Greek communities, especially in Southern Italy and Asia Minor, adopted Greek mythological narratives into their own cultural repertoire is the subject of Andrew Erskine’s (AE) paper, ‘Unity and Identity: Shaping the Past in the Greek Mediterranean’ (pp. 121-136). He explores how Greek myths were incorporated into the founding legends of non-Greek cities and thus provided Greeks and non-Greeks with a common cultural background on which they could communicate: ‘When the Daunians or the people of Circeii take on a Greek mythological past they are doing so in conjunction with the Greeks; it allows both parties to talk to each other and to accept each other in a setting in which the Greek as coloniser was originally an intruder’ (p. 125).

It is in stark contrast to the non-Greeks’ readiness to adopt Greek stories as their own (and, especially in Asia Minor, to adopt as their own even those stories which are told about themselves by the Greeks, cf. p. 128) that Greeks, AE points out, usually refuse to adopt non-Greek material, such as, for instance, descent from non-Greek peoples: ‘Foreign influence there undoubtedly was, but in the area of historical and mythical traditions there is very little sign that the Greek view of the past took account of what their non-Greek neighbours thought and said’ (p. 130). Trojans and Amazons, AE says, cannot be regarded as being borrowed from other nations as they appear only in Greek myths and thus being ‘as Greek as they are not Greek’ are ‘safe’ insofar as they are part of a common (Greek?) mythology (p. 134). Regarding this last point it seemed to me that AE was trying a little too hard to explain away a certain ambiguous element in a community’s construction of its self-image; as Gehrke has pointed out in his contribution (see above), the boundaries between Self and Other were after all not as strict as we might expect, and apparently we always have to allow for a certain ambiguous element in a community’s self-definition in contrast to the outside. It was my impression that such a flexible view might prove fruitful also regarding the Greeks’ attitude towards the Trojan War and the Amazons as part of a Greek cultural heritage.

Discussing the importance of the Greek mythical past for Greek cities, AE justly stresses the role of myth as an important (the important?) link that connected Greeks all over the world. The flexibility of mythical narratives permitted Greek cities to create a mythical past that provided their own town with a distinct and unique local history while at the same time connecting it with other Greek cities and common Greek tradition in general. All Greeks, no matter where they were living, used the same stock of mythical characters and stories, which identified them as members of a Greek community:

Since the Greeks are scattered and not concentrated in a single region, they will approach the past in a different way from a people whose identity can be defined within a fairly limited geographical area. For them the past is a way of uniting as Greeks, whether through the assurance which shared knowledge of the past brings or more directly because of ties of kinship ( sungeneia), ties that could be real or based on heroic genealogies (p. 131).

This observation of AE’s seems indeed crucial for our understanding of how Greeks defined themselves as ‘Greeks’ though often they lived far away from Greece, were not even born Greeks, such as Strabo, Diodorus or Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and some of them might even have never seen Greece at all. Benedict Anderson’s concept of ‘imagined communities,’ I thought, might provide a useful model in order further to illustrate this process: in order to feel like a part of a larger community what matters is less how much you really share with others you conceive of as members of your community, than how much you think you share with them; and mythical narratives obviously play a crucial role in the construction of such an imagined community which, in turn, indispensable for cultural identity in general.

Much more could be said about the individual papers presented in this volume which, as said above, cover an impressive range in both subject matter and time, reaching from archaic Greece to ‘The Theodosian Empire (408-450) and the Arabs’ (Fergus Millar, pp. 297-314). Generally speaking, the diversity of subjects is one of the strengths of this volume as it gives the reader an excellent idea in how many areas of human life interaction with and imagination of other cultures play a crucial role and which different forms this can take on. All papers offer thought-stimulating, fascinating new insights into their subject matter, and every reader interested in inter-cultural exchange and the construction of a community’s imaginaire will gain considerably from reading them.

Yet, at the same time, this same diversity also makes the collection of essays as a whole seem at times a little incoherent, especially because every author seems to have more or less her own view of what the terms ‘cultural borrowing and ethnic appropriation’ cover and how to approach them. Some papers, such as Hendel’s and Gehrke’s, offer a theoretical discussion of these notions, but most of the papers do not (and, probably, do not have to); thus at least this reviewer, though often in full agreement with the conclusions drawn in the individual papers, found it sometimes difficult to relate them to the overarching topic of the book. Hence, in my view, a discussion at the beginning of the volume of some models of how cultural exchange and interactions work, what ‘appropriation’ means and which different strategies of ‘borrowing’ and ‘appropriation’ (more conciliating and more hostile ones?) there are, would have been of enormous help to guide the reader through the wealth of material. As it stands, the book leaves one with the impression of having learnt a lot about particular texts, artefacts and forms of cultural exchange between individual communities, but not very much about what ‘cultural borrowing and ethnic appropriation’ is about in general and which role it plays in the general framework of cultural interaction.


ERICH S. GRUEN, ‘Introduction’ (p.7)

STEPHANIE DALLEY, ‘Semiramis in History and Legend: a Case Study in Interpretation of an Assyrian Historical Tradition, with Observations on Archetypes in Ancient Historiography, on Euhemerism before Euhemerus, and on the So-called Greek Ethnographie Style’ (p. 11)

RONALD HENDEL, ‘Genesis 1-11 and its Mesopotamian Problem’ (p. 23)

JAN ASSMANN, ‘Periergia: Egyptian Reactions to Greek Curiosity’ (p. 37)

ηανσ ‘Heroen als Grenzgänger zwischen Griechen und Barbaren’ (p. 50)

M. C. MILLER, ‘Barbarian Lineage in Classical Greek Mythology and Art: Pelops, Danaos and Kadmos’ (p. 68)

ERICH S. GRUEN, ‘Persia Through the Jewish Looking-Glass’ (p. 90)

JOSEF WIESEHOEFER, ‘Rome as Enemy of Iran’ (p. 105)

ANDREW ERSKINE, ‘Unity and Identity: Shaping the Past in the Greek Mediterranean’ (p. 121)

Ann Kuttner, “Do you look like you belong here?”: Asianism at Pergamon and the Makedonian Diaspora’ (p. 137)

GIDEON BOHAK, ‘Ethnic Portraits in Greco-Roman Literature’ (p. 207)

IRAD MALKIN, ‘Herakles and Melqart: Greeks and Phoenicians in the Middle Ground’ (p. 238)

JONATHAN M. HALL, ‘Arcades his Oris: Greek Projections on the Italian Ethnoscape?’ (p. 259)

MICHAEL SOMMER, ‘Palmyra and Hatra: “Civic” and “Tribal” Institutions at the Near Eastern Steppe Frontier’ (p. 285)

FERGUS MILLAR, ‘The Theodosian Empire (408-450) and the Arabs: Saracens or Ishmaelites?’ (p. 297).