BMCR 2007.09.56

La comunicazione linguistica fra alloglotti nel mondo greco. Da Omero a Senofonte. Studi e testi di storia antica 13

, La comunicazione linguistica fra alloglotti nel mondo greco : da Omero a Senofonte. Studi e testi di storia antica ; 13. Pisa: ETS, 2003. 346 pages ; 22 cm.. ISBN 8846708369 €20.00.

Maria Elena De Luna’s careful, well-researched study of Greek authors and foreign languages in the Archaic and Classical periods began as a doctoral dissertation, formally at the University of Genoa, in fact written at Siena (Genoa’s consortium partner) under the direction of Mauro Moggi, Siena’s senior Ordinarius of Greek History, himself a significant scholar on Greeks and barbarians, and director of the series in which this volume appears. De L. further acknowledges the assistance of C. Brillante, M. Bettini, and M. Bettalli, also distinguished professors at Siena.

Given current interest in Greek relations with non-Greeks both historically and in imagination, De L.’s book is timely and joins an ever-increasing number of publications on her topic. She notes (47) the scholarly consensus that Archaic and Classical Greeks were basically indifferent to foreign languages. Except in part for Herodotos, she does not challenge this consensus (“i Greci, assolutamente indifferenti alle lingue straniere”: 166), but discusses what limited evidence we have for foreign languages in nine Archaic and Classical authors. Homer, Hipponax, Aeschylus, Sophokes, Euripides, Herodotos, Thucydides, Aristophanes, and Xenophon each get a chapter, of which Aeschylus’s, Herodotos’s, and Xenophon’s are the longest. Her main contribution is lexicographic; comparative anthropology is also a focus.

Ch. 1 (“The perception of linguistic diversity in Homer”) begins with a good discussion of terminology (e.g. ἀλλόθροος, designating foreigners especially by reference to their alien language). While Iliad sometimes notes that the Trojan army did not speak Greek but a mix of different languages, otherwise Greeks and Trojans converse without interpreters, and warriors on both sides are assimilated to Greek heroic values. Homer displays no prejudice against alloglots (28). However, De L. suggests, the greater confusion of the Trojans’ speech (see e.g. Il. 2.803-804, 4.437-438) is a harbinger of later Greek representations of barbarians. In part 2 of this chapter, De L. considers why Homer calls only Carians βαρβαρόφωνοι, a question which Strabo discussed, concluding that the term refers to Hellenizing Carians who spoke Greek badly. De L. broadens that conclusion, arguing that the term means more generally “speaking badly.” Nonetheless, she commends Strabo for pondering the problems of acculturation between Greeks and Carians.

Ch. 2 (“The presence of γλῶσσαι βαρβαρικαί in the fragments of Hipponax”) focuses on the question whether that poet’s frequent use of non-Greek words reflects the popular mixed language of Ionia (Hipponax worked in Ephesos and Klazomenai), as some have thought, or was a sophisticated literary device. De L. argues for the latter, profiting from excellent work on early Greek lyric especially by B. Gentili, A. Aloni, and G. Tedeschi.

De L.’s third chapter (“The voice of the barbari in the tragedies of Aeschylus: modes of representation”) begins (62-74) with a good discussion of Persians, even if going well beyond the specific issue of alloglossia. In addition, its bibliographic frame of reference, while interesting, is sometimes outdated (very little after 1980), especially on a key issue, whether Persians presents the Persians or the term βάρβαρος negatively. After Edward Said, Edith Hall’s 1995 edition of the play raised a storm of controversy (among Persians students) by arguing that Aeschylus was the first “orientalist,” scorning the decadent East.1 De L. argues this question against G. Paduano (1978), in particular claiming (71) that the Athenian audience, a few years after defeating the Persians, “could not have heard the term [ βάρβαρος ] in its neutral sense.” On this central point we need more detailed arguments, not least because Dareios is presented favorably, and especially in light of the modern tendency to look at Attic tragedy as subversive of community values (though I think Persians is not). Otherwise, De L. usefully presents Aeschylus’s efforts to inject foreign sounds, words, and names into his text. More briefly, on Suppliant Women (Danaids fleeing Egypt), De L. has a good discussion of what foreigners Aeschylus calls ξένοι, and which βάρβαροι, especially in the light of the Danaids’ descent from Io, a Greek.

Ch. 4 (“Signs of linguistic alterity in the work of Sophokles”) briefly discusses a handful of foreign words in the fragments of Sophokles (including κάνναβις), the scene in Ajax which mentions Teucer’s γλῶσσα βάρβαρος and Agamemnon’s ancestor Pelops “the βάρβαρος Phrygian,” and one occurrence of ἀλλόθροος in Philoktetes, where it means only “foreign.”

In Ch. 5, “Euripides: the absence of a border between Greeks and barbarians?,” barbarians everywhere confront Greeks, but Euripides often does not distinguish them. Greeks sometimes sing in “barbarian” ways; the term barbaros has mostly become metaphorical and can include Greek behavior — De L. wrestles with passages (and interpretations) implying a more chauvinistic approach. In all this, of course, it is important to keep in mind Euripides’ potential inconsistencies, and the danger of interpreting passages outside their dramatic contexts, as De L. herself can recognize. She includes good pages on Phoenician Women, the Phrygian slave in Orestes, and Bacchae, ending her discussion (138) with three lines on the sophists’ possible influence on Euripides. This discussion could be expanded, for, as she notes (see also the opening of ch. 6, and 188 n. 140), some contemporary sophists also refused to distinguish Greeks and barbarians. She ends with a lengthy “appendix” (138-151) on the “Greek vocabulary of acculturation,” μιξέλλην, μιξοβάρβαρος, and related terms, from the later fifth century down into the Roman empire.

Ch. 6, “Herodotos: the journey of a Greek among alloglot peoples,” discusses various topics, including the historian’s lack of prejudice against foreigners, his representations of Scythians, Egyptians, and others in relation to language, twenty pages on interpreters in Herodotos, his overlapping uses of the terms φωνή and γλῶσσα, his interest in foreign languages (although his work includes relatively few foreign words), and bilingual oracles, She also calls attention to an excellent paper by P. Vannicelli, that Psammetichos’s bekos experiment was essentially Ionian.2 Compare generally T. Harrison, “Herodotus’ conception of foreign languages” which briskly covers more ground than Herodotos (De L.cites this work on p. 175 n. 78), and now Rosaria Vignolo Munson, Black Doves Speak: Herodotus and the Languages of Barbarians (Harvard 2005; for the title see Hdt. 2.55).

Although De L.’s decision to focus her study of alloglossia on single authors works well for some authors and makes her monograph the first of its kind, Ch. 7 (“Occurrences and implications of language as a factor in the pages of Thucydides”) most clearly reveals some limitations of that approach. Like Sophokles, Thucydides has little to say about foreign languages. Therefore, De L. expands his few mentions (e.g., that Themistokles learnt [presumably] Aramaic) into broader discussions ranging well beyond the historian. These include comments on interpreters (cf. chs. 6 and 9), δίγλωσσος, the Greek concept of dialect, “Assyrian letters” (Thuc. 4.50.2), and representations of the Aitolians and Tydeus esp. in Homer and Aeschylus. At the end of the chapter, following C. Antonetti, De L. concludes that Thuc. 3.94 calls the language of one group of Aitolians “particularly unintelligible” (“and they are said to eat raw meat”) to heighten the opposition between Athens and its enemies.

True to De L.’s linguistic orientation, Ch. 8, “The language of the βάρβαροι and the ξένοι in the comedies of Aristophanes,” chiefly analyses several nonsense (?) Persian and Thracian words in Acharnians and Birds, and the language of the Scythian archer in Thesmophoriazousai. It concludes with remarks on the playwright’s use of non-Attic dialects, following S. Colvin and others, that he tried to reproduce these reasonably accurately.

In Ch. 9 (“Meetings and collisions between alloglots in Xenophon’s Anabasis“) De L. states outright that Xenophon expresses no interest in the languages of the locals he and his men encountered (283). This chapter offers a fluent account of the march of the 10,000, highlighting episodes involving interpreters or other interactions with native speakers. Bilingual speakers are mostly non-Greek. Although De L. cannot remedy the main problem confronting her project, that by her own account her authors were not very interested in foreign languages and very few alloglots are found in Archaic and Classical Greek literature, her book makes a good contribution to the current discussion, chiefly on the meanings and uses of Greek words. There is much to admire. The writing is clear and to the point. She deals directly and sensibly with the evidence. While advancing no dramatic new theses, her conclusions are reasonably argued and judicious. Always courteous, she does not shy away from critical discussion. In her first sustained argument (26-29) she reasonably disputes Philippe Gauthier’s interpretation of ἀλλόθροος. She challenges Paduano on Aeschylus’s Persians, and G. Nenci (192, 195-99) on the meaning of φωνή in Herodotos. Her principal contribution, on the meanings and uses of various words, will want to be considered by all those interested in the Greeks and foreign languages. In addition, wider knowledge of Continental work in these areas will be useful especially to Anglo-American scholars.

Two omissions may be noted. First, although De L.’s title indicates that her subject is foreign languages “in the Greek world,” the subtitle “From Homer to Xenophon” implies an important qualification. She largely passes over what is not in her nine authors, including the philosophers, historical data, material in other authors, and most inscriptions or graffiti from areas where Greeks and non-Greeks interacted (see 179 n. 96 for Greek graffiti in Egypt, and her fascinating but too brief discussion of bilingualism in Epiros, also relegated to a note [226 n. 33]), even when this material might shed light on her authors, as I mentioned for the sophists. In Archaic Ionia as Santo Mazzarino and later scholars including Ian Morris and Leslie Kurke have discussed, a number of poets including Sappho took a fancy to “luxurious” Lydia and used fancy Lydian words — in contrast to Hipponax’s street words — in their poetry, issues recently central to Archaic literary history. (By contrast, Greek hostility to non-Greek populations can be traced on Lesbos [for example in Alkaios], and on Chios [as Ion records].) Produced quite possibly in 444, Sophokles’ Ajax on the foreign parentage of Teucer and Agamemnon needs to be viewed in the context of Perikles’ citizenship law of 451/0 (first enforced in 445) restricting marriages with foreigners and provoking a debate on the question of foreign blood. Thucydides’ silence about foreign languages is striking (although not atypical) in the light of his own, mixed Thracian ancestry and the years he spent in exile in Thrace, issues that could be raised. I sometimes also found myself craving wider literary or historical perspectives from which to view these authors’ mentions (or non-mentions) of foreign words or speakers, for example in the complex genres of Attic drama as I have noted. Did any Greeks develop any kind of mixed language (cf. Herodotos’s Geloni [De L. 196-97] and Ps.-Xen. Ath. Pol. 2.8 [a passage she does not mention] that the Athenians’ language was “mixed from all the Greeks and barbarians”), which De L.’s authors mostly ignored, for reasons to be explained? What parallels exist for the trilingual Greek-Lycian-Aramaic inscription (establishing a religious cult) now in the little museum at Fethiye (Telmessos) on the SW coast of Turkey, and what do such texts signify? As a major historical part of comunicazione, did Greek traders require foreign counterparts to negotiatate in Greek? or were traders of such low social status that no one bothered to note that many were at least functionally bilingual? De L.’s discussions of her authors might well be enriched by expanded perspectives on her material.

Secondly, the volume would benefit from a concluding chapter, to address some of the broader issues raised by its themes. At various points De L. makes suggestive generalizations, for example that more frequent contacts between Greeks and non-Greeks in the Archaic age sharpened the Greeks’ sense of the division between them (61). However, she does not discuss such points in detail. Her discussions of some important issues, such as interpreters, are scattered among different chapters. Above all, of course, the question remains why intelligent, well-travelled Greeks were indifferent to foreign languages (or were disinclined to mention when they learned them). The Greek sense of superiority over barbaroi as a consequence of slavery was surely a contributing factor (although Munson denies that sense for Herodotos), but other factors will have been important as well. De L. offers careful treatments of a number of lexicographical problems. It may be hoped that this able young scholar will continue her research into the linguistic relations of Greeks and non-Greeks, and present her thoughts on the many important issues and questions her topic raises.

Finally, this volume’s physical quality, its elegant type and warm caffe color, handsome production and low cost are a tribute to everyone involved. As with my last two reviews for BMCR (both of books by senior scholars), only the bibliography could be more perfectly done. To inspire greater care by future writers, I mention that here, how far to capitalize book titles varies within languages; some places of publication are listed in unexpected languages (including Latin) with less than perfect consistency; whether to leave a space between authors’ initials varies; Hunter’s Policing Athens is misdated (1994, not 1996) and its title should include the phrase Social Control in the Attic Lawsuits, 420-320 BC; Gauthier’s 1973 essay is listed out of order; Frost 1980 (cited in 219 n. 14) is missing. Not least in a book about alloglossia, there might have been fewer errors in French and English entries, of accentuation, spelling, and others, e.g. “Cawkell” for (G. L.) Cawkwell. However, De L. is not the worst offender, and the body of her text is far superior—in fact, nearly (“di di” 132, “half-bread” 142, “del” 195, and one Greek accent 227) perfect.


1. Although De L.’s knowledge of bibliography is generally excellent, I note that C. W. Müller, K. Sier, and J. Werner, eds., Zum Umgang mit fremden Sprachen in der griechisch-römischen Antike (Stuttgart 1992) includes several essays relevant to her authors; for Herodotos, see also Javier Campos Daroca, Experiencias del lenguaje en las “Historias” de Heródoto (Almeria 1992). In addition, like De L.’s, the major chapters of Pericles Georges, Barbarian Asia and the Greek Experience. From the Archaic Period to the Age of Xenophon (Baltimore 1994), are devoted to Aeschylus, Herodotos, and Xenophon. See now D. L. Gera, Ancient Greek Ideas on Speech, Language, and Civilization (Oxford 2004).

2. “L’esperimento linguistico di Psammetico (Herodot. II 2): c’era una volta il frigio,” in Frigi e Frigio : Atti del I Simposio Internazionale, Roma, 16-17 ottobre 1995, eds. R. Gusmani, M. Salvini, and P. Vannicelli (Rome 1997) 201-17.