BMCR 2008.05.22

Panhellenism and the Barbarian in Archaic and Classical Greece

, Panhellenism and the barbarian in Archaic and Classical Greece. Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2007. xxvi, 262 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 9781905125142. £45.00.

In this book, Mitchell skillfully takes on the formidable task of examining the phenomenon modern scholars refer to as Panhellenism. Although the term panhellenismos did exist in antiquity, Mitchell begins by stressing that it should be seen as distinct from the modern understanding: ‘No ancient ever used the term Panhellenismos or any term for the phenomenon or phenomena usually held to be embodied in Panhellenism’ (xv). As is made explicit here and throughout the book, however, ‘there was in antiquity a sense of Panhellenism’ (xv). Scholars generally agree on two points: that Panhellenism was ‘closely associated with Greek identity’ and that it was used ‘by individual city-states for imperialist gain’ (xviii). On the other hand, as Mitchell shows in the introduction, there is little agreement on the date of its development (was it pre or post Persian Wars?) or its nature (was it cultural or political, negative or positive?). This contention is unsurprising because the diversity of ancient uses of the term ‘make Panhellenism difficult to pin down’ (xviii). Then again, the need for definitive categories is a modern ‘disease’, so perhaps we should not expect Panhellenism to be a straightforward concept (xx). Mitchell takes a nuanced approach, defining the term as ‘a supple and integrated set of themes, stories and representations, which together have an internal coherence and create a thematic unity’ (xix). Mitchell sees Panhellenism as ‘fundamental to the formation and maintenance of Hellenic identity’ and against the conventional view argues that, although the Persian Wars were ‘central to Hellenic identity and to Panhellenism’, they were not ‘the crucial turning point’ (xx).

The book is divided into five chapters which together aim to ‘develop a framework for understanding Panhellenism’ politically, culturally and temporally (xxii). Each chapter has a number of subheadings and includes extensive endnotes, many with detailed discussion of other scholars’ work. Some would perhaps be better placed in the body of the text — for instance, the lengthy note 32 of Chapter 2 on early uses of the term Panhellenes. One of the strengths of this book is Mitchell’s use of a variety of source material, which she approaches with a sensitivity to context and genre. The book also includes sixteen black and white figures of vases and relief sculpture, a general index and an index locorum (the latter a testament to the author’s extensive use of literary texts).

The first chapter, “Panhellenism and the community of the Hellenes”, seeks to ‘define the relationship between Panhellenism and the Hellenic community’ (xxiii) and to consider how communal identities were formed and maintained. Questions central to this chapter are: How did Panhellenism function to imagine the Hellenic community into being and what role did the war with the barbarian play in the formation of Hellenic identity? Mitchell stresses how people, and more broadly communities, can have multiple identities, which can change and develop over time and under different circumstances. Community is ‘imagined’ and the identity given it ‘structures the ways in which it thinks about itself in the past as well as in the present and the future’ (2). Mitchell maintains that there was sense of Hellenic community ‘at least by the mid sixth-century’ (3), and draws upon cult and the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, which she argues ‘attempts to define the community’ (rather than just the local community) by encouraging wide worship and listing places that ‘belonged to the god’ (6). Even though the terms “Hellenes” and “Hellas” do not appear in the poem, Mitchell argues that it defines Hellenes and limits the boundaries of Hellas, thus working ‘to create a Panhellenic framework for the cult of Apollo’ (7). One of the more interesting topics in this chapter is the discussion of how the Persian Wars were ‘reinvented as a symbol of unity in the face of the common barbarian enemy’ (10). Although the enemy was usually the Persian King, by the end of the classical period ‘the “enemy” was not necessarily fixed’ (12). Post Persian Wars, some Greek city-states made overtures of alliance with the Persians and eventually, as the Macedonians became a viable threat to Greek autonomy, the rhetoric shifted ‘from the King to Philip’ (13). Mitchell shows that the barbarian threat, whether real or perceived, was a useful means of creating ‘unity through a shared past’ but it was also used to idealize the past and to avoid talking about the ‘real war’ that existed amongst the Greeks, who were never really united, not even during the Persian Wars (as Herodotus notably illustrates). While the polarization between ‘free Europe’ and ‘slavish Asia’ allowed the Greeks to define themselves and their values in opposition to what they perceived Asia to be, popular morality about Greeks and barbarians ‘was under theoretical pressure’ (29) — sources attest to a questioning of how different Greeks and barbarians really were. In view of this, Mitchell concludes that ‘it is too simple … to talk only of an opposition between Greeks and barbarians, or Self and Other’ (29).

While the first chapter considers how community developed and was maintained, Chapter 2, “Defining the boundaries of the Hellenic community”, aims to define and limit the audience of Panhellenism. This chapter primarily focuses upon the archaic period since, Mitchell maintains, the Greeks only came to define themselves as a community in the sixth century (40). However, because ‘the processes through which the symbolic community was realized were long, slow and complex’, the chapter begins with a discussion of how the community bond first began to form through cult and perhaps also kinship in the early Iron Age, after the collapse of Mycenaean civilization (39). Mitchell posits that Hellenic identity began as ‘an elite identity’ and for evidence draws upon the Homeric poems, migration myths and the Olympic games (39). While the Homeric poems helped to create ‘a synthesis of local traditions’ (42), migration myths were developed to connect colonists to the mainland of Greece (though Mitchell points out later that confrontation with the Other does not always result in a strong oppositional identity). Mitchell maintains that a Greek consciousness probably originated with the colonists of Asia Minor but that this consciousness was ‘soon accepted on the mainland’ (62). Homer’s Odyssey in particular reflects a time ‘when the Greeks were wandering … and exploring’ and recognizes similarities and differences between men, as well as gods and beasts (49). Mitchell is careful to point out, however, that difference need not always be viewed as threatening. Although there were assertions of cultural difference, relations between Greeks and barbarians could be positive. In such cases, identifying difference may not be as important; however, once a group of barbarians was seen as a threat, polarization was encouraged (as seen most notably in the years following the Persian Wars). As Mitchell states, ‘it is probably … predatory incursions on the communities of Asia Minor that gave rise to or intensified ideas of a symbolic community’ (61). At the same time, Panhellenic sentiment was not always strong — even though the Greeks might have recognized communities in Asia Minor as Greek, they did not always follow through on their promises of protection (the Spartans’ failure to aid the beleaguered Ionians in Hdt. 1.152 is a primary example). Mitchell concludes that for Hellenic identity there was no single moment of creation but rather that there were multiple “moments of realization” (65). Identity was continually invented and reinvented, ‘told and retold, made and remade to meet the demands of individual states as well as the needs of the whole community’ (65).

It is in Chapter 3, “The symbolic community: utopia and dystopia”, that Mitchell really focuses in on the question of the importance of the Persian Wars to the formation of Panhellenic identity. Mitchell’s pragmatic and refreshingly unromantic view of the Greek community at the time of the Persian Wars is in contrast to what is often considered to have been a pivotal moment in the formation of Panhellenism. In arguing against the idea that the Greeks were largely united ‘as a community’ against the Persians, Mitchell pointedly observes that ‘it is striking how few poleis formed the resistance to the Persians’ (77). Although she does not deny that the Persian Wars were important to the development of Panhellenism, she argues rather that the wars ‘came to represent unity and the idealized condition of the Hellenic community’ and were used ‘as the basis for a utopian vision of the symbolic community’ (78). This unity was undermined by quarrels between city-states and ambitious individuals and it is this ‘history of conflict’ that ‘made the need to tell strong Panhellenic stories of unity so important’ (80). The Greeks were, of course, well aware of their history of conflict and were at times critical of themselves for being ‘unable to cohere politically and to put the interests of the whole above those of the parts’ (92). Drama is notable in recognizing stasis amongst the Greeks, and Mitchell draws upon Aristophanes’ Peace and Lysistrata and Euripides’ Phoenician Women as examples. Mitchell concludes that Athenian drama both reflects upon and ‘challenges society’ largely by ‘encouraging society to reflect on itself and to change’ (103). Indeed, much of our evidence for a Greek idea of Panhellenism can be found in Greek critiques of it.

Chapter 4, “Cultural contestation”, examines how the Greeks ‘developed oriental motifs in both the archaic and classical periods’ and discusses the ‘Panhellenic war against the barbarian and especially the fear … that was integral to it’ (113). By the end of the fifth century ‘fear of the barbarian … had become institutionalized as part of civic culture’ (137). This chapter makes it clear that Mitchell is not concerned with “the barbarian” per se but The Barbarian (the Persian). This is doubtless due to her view that ‘the Persian Wars … ensured that, whatever other “barbarians” the Greeks might confront, the Persians became the enemy — and the threat — par excellence‘ (129). That said, the title of the book is somewhat misleading, as it points to a wider discussion of barbarians when in fact the focus is rather more restricted (much could be said, for instance, about Greek views of non-Asiatic barbarians). One of the main arguments in this chapter is that the Greeks were contrasting themselves with non-Greeks well before the Persian Wars, which do not mark so much a separation between two periods, archaic and classical, but rather ‘a strengthening of a particular position and idiom’ (124). At the same time, however, ‘Greeks also adapted Asian cultural forms as a positive means of self-expression’, a position notably taken by Margaret Miller in her seminal Athens and Persia in the Fifth Century BC (114).1 While recent scholarship has argued that the early Greek embrace of Asian ideas might make Greek culture ‘simply an adjunct of Asia’, Mitchell holds the more nuanced view that the Greeks used Asian art as a vehicle for exploring their own identity — ‘Once new techniques had been mastered … the Greeks set out to create something of their own’ (119). It can hardly be doubted that the Greeks, although influenced by Asiatic works particularly in the earlier periods, came to “own” their art and literature. While there are similarities between the heroes Achilles and Gilgamesh, for instance, Mitchell maintains that the former expresses ‘how a man can be greater’ than Fate whilst the latter expresses the ‘inescapable fate of mankind’, the focus upon the individual being characteristically Greek (118). Another example, which Mitchell does not discuss, might be the Greek interest in the human form — while the archaic kouros is heavily influenced by Egyptian (and perhaps Asiatic) sculpture, by the classical period the Greeks had (literally) broken away from a foreign prototype, developing a highly naturalized and quintessentially Greek statuary that allowed for a progressively more flexible exploration of the form and movement of the human body. Although some sources do allow for the possibility that some barbarians should be emulated (e.g. Plato’s depiction of Cyrus in the Laws 3.694a), there was also the idea that the barbarian was naturally inferior to the Greek, due in no small part to differing customs and an alleged luxurious life-style and a lethargy — inducing physical environment. One does not have to look far for such references in Greek literature and Mitchell supplies several examples from Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes, amongst others. A seemingly obvious omission here is Aristotle’s discussion of the natural slave in Book 1 of the Politics, where he claims that because barbarians have no natural ruler, the barbarian and the slave are the same by nature (1252b9).2 In short, while derogatory references to barbarians are frequent in Greek sources (and so have frequently been a source of discussion amongst scholars), this chapter’s main contribution is its measured view of a number of sometimes conflicting representations. As Mitchell points out, although the Greeks might have claimed to be afraid of the Persian threat, by the second half of the fifth century they were in frequent (and often willing) contact with the Persians (138). Moreover, while the Persians were criticised for their “slavish” form of government, the Athenians had similar imperial ambitions of their own and Greek sources do sometimes represent monarchs in a positive, even democratic way (149).

In the final chapter, “Time, space and war against the barbarian”, Mitchell considers ‘the war against the barbarian as a means of controlling both time and space’ (169). The chapter argues that war was a ‘means … of creating unity among the Hellenes’ and that the powerful rhetoric of war both ‘connected the past to the present’ and was a ‘way of projecting a future’ for the Greeks (169). Mitchell begins with an examination of archaic literature, this time with an interest in how the ‘imaginary journeys’ found in stories of travelers (e.g. Odysseus, Jason, Io) worked to develop a conception of and limit to “whole-world-space” (177), locating the Greeks ‘within a wider spatial and ethnic context’ (180). In doing so, the Greeks both envisioned themselves as part of a wider, unified world and drew boundaries between themselves and those they perceived of as ethnically distinct. The chapter also considers how the Greeks modeled themselves on past heroes in order to become ‘new heroes in an apparently continuous heroic age’ (172). Since Greeks ‘had no sense of progress’ (as illustrated by Hesiod’s five ages of mankind), the continuous war against the barbarian allowed them to ‘imagine [the Panhellenic community’s] future in more glorious terms’ (170). Mitchell concludes that the only true Panhellenic hero, however, was Alexander, who managed to unite Europe and Asia under one rule. For Alexander, Panhellenism ‘provided a framework in which he could both act and project plans for the future’ (194).

The book ends with an Epilogue, which largely pulls together conclusions from the preceding chapters. Mitchell reiterates her primary conclusions that Panhellenism was multi-layered and flexible and that, in fact, it ‘was not always clear who the barbarians were’ (204). The example she draws upon here is the question of the Macedonians’ ethnicity (or at least that of the royalty). It was certainly possible to hold ‘simultaneously contradictory beliefs’ about barbarians and the matter is further complicated by the fact that identities could ‘sit in parallel with each other’ — for instance, one could simultaneously be Athenian, Ionian and Greek (206). The epilogue also addresses the use of Panhellenic themes in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, in which Panhellenism continued to be manipulated to serve the needs of various political and cultural environments.

In short, this is a very well-written and carefully researched book that makes a significant contribution to the study of Panhellenism, the development of Greek identity and the Greek perception of the (Persian) barbarian. Its contribution is not so much that it provides new evidence (the vast majority of sources Mitchell draws upon have already been widely discussed) but rather that it draws together a variety of often fragmentary sources to form a cohesive and illuminating discussion of the development of Panhellenism, its purposes, and uses. That said, this is not a book for beginners, nor does it claim to be — Mitchell often assumes a familiarity with Greek terminology and sources and many words written in Greek font are not transliterated. A few minor quibbles: Each chapter is divided into several subheadings and, while this should help with organization, I found that the headings were sometimes confusingly similar to each other — for instance, Chapter 3 includes the subheadings: Realizing the community; The beginnings of community; The moments of realization of the Hellenic community. I would also have liked to see some initial discussion of the relationship between this book and the one that scholars will likely compare it to, Jonathan Hall’s influential Hellenicity: Between Ethnicity and Culture. Mitchell refers to Hall on several occasions, but a more explicit engagement with his work and the relationship between the two seems lacking. Moreover, sometimes Mitchell uses the term “Hellenes” and sometimes “Greeks”. I have not counted instances but it appears that the former is more commonly used in the earlier chapters while the latter appears more in the later chapters. In addition, in the epilogue “Oliver 1984” is referred to, but this work does not appear in the bibliography. That said, these few minor quibbles hardly detract from what is a highly praiseworthy and fascinating book, one that will certainly not become dusty on my shelf.


1. See also Keith DeVries’s discussion of “The Nearly Other” in Greek literature and art. While Phrygians are usually depicted negatively in the literary sources, ‘the opportunity was not taken’ to do so in the art, where they often appear noble and brave, even Hellenized (347). “The Nearly Other: The Attic Vision of Phrygians and Lydians”, Beth Cohen, ed. Not the Classical Ideal (Leiden 2000): 338-63.

2. Mitchell provides a parenthetical reference to this in Chapter 1, page 23, but does not discuss it.