BMCR 2008.09.45

The Greeks and Us: A Comparative Anthropology of Ancient Greece. Translated by Janet Lloyd

, , The Greeks and us : a comparative anthropology of Ancient Greece. Malden, MA/Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2007. xiii, 159 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (some color) ; 23 cm. ISBN0745639011 $22.95 (pb).

Marcel Detienne’s new book does not systematize fields of information in the manner of his most renowned earlier works.1 While visibly engaged in the same enterprise as, say, The Masters of Truth in Archaic Greece, The Greeks and Us is a more programmatic and polemical book. It proposes a double-disciplinary approach to the ancient Greeks in which history conjoins with anthropology, so that while continuing to amass and assess historical knowledge of the Greeks in particular, one also looks at them as at one culture among many, always available for comparative study with other human communities at varying distances (temporal, spatial, conceptual distances) from the modern West.

Detienne characterizes the enterprise he proposes as comparative (4) and experimental (10). Comparison first of all means denying oneself the indulgence of “uniqueness”- thinking, whether that be the thought of the Greeks’ own appearance in history or of a modern nation’s special status as heir to the Greek legacy. Comparing means denying the singularity of the thing compared. “[C]omparativism is more vibrant and more stimulating if ethnologists are able and willing to lend an ear to dissonances that at first seem ‘incomparable'” (12).

The comparative method so described might recall Aristotle’s distinction between history and poetry, history telling what things did happen to which individuals and poetry what general kinds of things might happen. But although Detienne’s history does play a recognizably Aristotelian role, the anthropology he calls for does not search for poetry’s generalizations. The empiricism at work in his book is rather the kind that seeks out differences among observed phenomena. Detienne pursues the stubborn datum that a hastier theorist would force into generalizations, that he instead will inspect for the ways it does not fit such generalizations. He speaks of anthropology’s “taste for dissonance,” a taste that leads one to examine “the components of neighboring configurations, each of which, with its own particular differential features, may help an attentive comparativist to spot the deviation from the norm that distinguishes . . . the particular formula of one micro-configuration of politics” (125). Each political possibility is marked by such a deviation.

Although Detienne was always concerned to distinguish and differentiate, more than some early reviewers of his books acknowledged, he has recently taken to foregrounding that aim. Thus an article from 2001 that anticipates themes from the present book describes Ignace Meyerson’s method approvingly: “Ruptures, discontinuities, forms of change: such was the preferred quarry of a comparativist method trained to root out differences.”2 This present emphasis on differentiation sometimes even leads Detienne to qualify his own earlier claims. Looking back on Masters of Truth he describes that older book as crudely bisecting the population of archaic Greek “truth-tellers” with its “contrast between a principle of ambiguity and the principle of contradiction”; today he would “emphasize the diversity of the configurations that include the figure of Aletheia and the comparison that should be made between the orientations of the various frameworks encountered during that first reconnoitre” (73; emphases in original).

From the start The Greeks and Us also insists that the comparative method be “experimental” (see 11-13). Detienne’s actual comparisons show how the process works. He experiments by interrogating massed anthropological data to separate cultural practices into different types. Somewhat as a zoologist might sort species with circulatory systems by asking which circulations are open and which are closed, Detienne asks of newly literate cultures which ones have official scribes instead of a generally literate populace (47). Itemizing the varieties of public assembly that appeared in ancient Syria, modern Ethiopia, and among nineteenth-century Cossacks, among others, he proposes asking what qualifies a resident as a citizen in each case (112) and which participants may call themselves equal (113).

One surveys roughly similar phenomena, in other words, and derives general conceptual categories from that first survey. The experimentation consists in seeing to what degree the categories fit each culture in turn and how each culture reacts “to the series of questions that now arise” (13-14). This is “doing anthropology with the Greeks” (1, 9; emphasis in original) inasmuch as it makes ancient Greek culture one social configuration among others and a convenient foil to those others that might have seemed nothing but strange or inconsequential in the absence of the comparison.

The first of the book’s six chapters describes the comparativist and cross-disciplinary enterprise. Some of the remaining chapters are more methodologically oriented than others, stopping to comment on how a topic should be treated; some attend more closely to anthropological and historical examples while others at a greater remove from primary sources review trends in modern scholarly uses of those sources. Still each chapter focuses on a different subject, the book moving from the nature of myth (chapter 2) to the multiform arrivals of writing (chapter 3), from a reappraisal of Detienne’s own “masters of truth” (chapter 4) to autochthony and national identity (chapter 5), finally to the origins of democratic deliberation (chapter 6).

The range of topics alone indicates the programmatic nature of the book. Perhaps this description also suffices to show that The Greeks and Us is a polemic. Intellectually the polemic works against the approach that would say (as Detienne complained in 2001), “A myth is a myth; a rite is a rite.”3 Experimental comparison constantly undoes such inclinations to broad thinking. In this respect James Frazer is one of Detienne’s antipodes: Frazer “notes all the similarities, paying scant attention to the differences” (25). In the phrase of the undergraduate exam, Detienne is calling on Hellenists to “compare and contrast” and not merely to roll recurring motifs up into all-purpose essences of motherhood, ritual, and human equality.

When cross-cultural generalization simplifies variegated phenomena into a universal concept, the intellectual failing can also turn politically invidious. Suppose you collect all deliberative assemblies as manifestations of that universal structure “democracy.” Then rather than differentiating among the many forms that assembly takes it will be tempting to order them as more or less democratic, according to their greater or lesser closeness to that universal structure. One case will stand as the sudden appearance of democracy where none had existed before, another as its fullest realization. The Greeks find themselves entangled in both developments, for historians had made them miraculous first fathers of the modern West and also made modern nations the Greeks’ worthy descendants and complete final manifestations of democracy, logic, science. Detienne’s real target accordingly is the West’s cultural chauvinism and the corollary exceptionalism of Western nations (7). To this end he stresses the great differences between his title’s “us” and “Greeks,” to resist the two parties’ assimilation into a single culturally legitimizing genealogy. “Comparison, but not of a parochial kind, is an immediately effective way of escaping from the claustrophobic sense of being trapped between an endless ‘Greek miracle’ and an incurably obese ‘Western civilization'” (102).

It does not invalidate Detienne’s argument that classicists have already argued for political positions close to his. Detienne’s own contributions to the comparative study of Greece — working alongside, to name two, Jean-Pierre Vernant and Pierre Vidal-Naquet — played a telling part in showing scholars how to complicate the relationship between Greek antiquity and modernity, and how to escape the (far from harmless) received wisdom about myth and reason and political universalisms. Nevertheless the fact remains that what Greek history needs at present are not more proposals for anthropological comparisons but the comparisons themselves, the kind only a scholar of Detienne’s stature can deliver. This book’s most memorable passages are those in which Detienne takes close looks at historiography in Japan, Israel, Rome, and China (44-57); at complexities of divination in Hesiod and the Homeric Hymns (67-68), at the warrior assembly developed by the Cossacks (118-119). In such places details about the shape of meeting places and the content of royal annals do vividly situate Greeks as “one micro-configuration of politics.”

The least compelling pages on the other hand are the ones that engage in critique of modern nationalistic ideology. The book’s argument then sometimes shuttles between ancient autochthony and modern national identity (e.g. 82-83) with undeniable mastery but also in a way that results in knotty and obscurely resolved cultural comparisons.

Certain of the contrasts in such critiques run the risk of simplifying ancient Greece in the very effort not to domesticate it as cultural chauvinists do, simplifying it even in the honorable effort to distance Western moderns from ancient Greeks. One of Detienne’s purposes in treating autochthony, for instance, is to bring out its associations with political founding (78) and its unlikeness to what one might assume to be its contemporary equivalent, the idea of native or indigenous people. Ruling founders account for autochthony: Detienne cites a myth about Poseidon and the establishment of Athens, Poseidon both burying and merging with the city’s chthonic first king Erechtheus (80-81). In fact however autochthony before the form it took in Athenian funeral speeches may not have been linked to the story of Erechtheus at all. Perhaps autochthony in the core sense of always having occupied Attica did not even entail birth from earth,4 which would leave the Athenian “autochthonous” quite close to the Rabelaisian “indigenous” from which Detienne wants to distinguish it so rigorously (82).

To be sure, some of the funeral orations deployed autochthony in doctrinal and ideologically strategic ways, as Nicole Loraux has argued in more than one book. But not all of the speeches. Pericles scarcely alludes to the Athenians’ permanence in Attica (Thuc. 2.36.1), and elsewhere Thucydides mocks that fantasy (1.2.5). Detienne accuses the Athenians of calling themselves pureblooded (80), but his argument rests on taking the speech in Plato’s Menexenus as paradigmatic (148n.7). The Menexenus is a remarkable work and deserving of more study as a Platonic document, but it is too idiosyncratic to reveal either Athenian public ideology or the ideology of Athenian elites.

In another passage The Greeks and Us seeks to distinguish the Greeks from the ancient Israelites (47-49), perhaps again in order to differentiate Greeks from “us,” given that the Israelites are identified as worshiping a creator god (as Greeks then did not, as devout Westerners still often do). The creator-god cult explains why Israel produced no historians in the tradition of Hecataeus, Herodotus, and Thucydides (46). That tradition recounts beginnings and foundations, while God’s role in national history — for Sumer and Babylon as subsequently for Israel — implies that something is blasphemous about human acts of founding. “Perhaps an excess of cosmogony rules out thought about human action of an inaugurating nature” (48). Where nation-building is God’s work, it falls to the spawn of Cain to establish towns and “discover metallurgy and musical instruments” (48) — to create and inaugurate. Greeks by contrast started new cities by the hundreds (49).

As arresting as this contrast is, it oversimplifies the Greeks in casting them as creators free from religious inhibition. The Greeks actually told plenty of their own stories about bloodshed by a city’s founder: see Homer and Pindar on Tlepolemos who killed his father’s uncle and fled to Rhodes and settled it ( Iliad 2.661-669; Olympian 7.27-33); Thucydides on the matricidal Alkmeon who founded Akarnania (2.102.5-6).5 Stories about murderous founders turn up in Plutarch ( Moralia 772e-773b) and Pausanias (1.43.7). The Greek sense that founding new cities, far from an arrival into empty space, is typically a violent clash with indigenous peoples, is reflected in Nikias’s warning before the Sicilian Expedition that that military adventure might resemble the hard-fighting experience of those who settle a city ( polin . . . oikiountas : Thuc. 6.23.2). It cannot be the cult of creator gods that brings anxiety to the founding of a new city. Nor does the appearance of historiography self-evidently begin in this cultural difference.

Historians, anthropologists, philosophers, and other students of antiquity will find dozens more passages that invite debate and inquiry. If the accumulating data and differentiations at first threaten confusion, with few overarching conclusions ready to be drawn, that is not a problem with Detienne’s scholarship but rather a reminder of why books like his are still needed. Here is the most gratifying consequence of Detienne’s call for new methods. This book makes classical studies seem not an exhausted subject (as, paradoxically, its conservative champions can do) but part of a self-investigation still in the process of being inaugurated.


1. The list is long, even when limited to books that have been translated into English. But every short list of those would have to include The Gardens of Adonis: Spices in Greek Mythology, translated by Janet Lloyd (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977; second edition 1994); Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society (with Jean-Pierre Vernant), translated by Janet Lloyd (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991); The Masters of Truth in Archaic Greece, translated by Janet Lloyd (New York: Zone Books, 1996).

2. “Back to the Village: A Tropism of Hellenists?” History of Religions 41 (2001): 108.

3. “Back to the Village”: 100.

4. See Vincent J. Rosivach, “Autochthony and the Athenians,” Classical Quarterly 37 (1987): 294-306, for challenges to the conception of Athenians as committed simultaneously to all elements of the autochthony doctrine.

5. All citations in this paragraph come from Carol Dougherty, “It’s Murder to Found a Colony,” in C. Dougherty and L. Kurke (eds.), Cultural Poetics in Archaic Greece: Cult, Performance, Politics (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 178-198.