BMCR 2011.08.24

Rethinking the Other in Antiquity. Martin Classical Lectures

, Rethinking the Other in Antiquity. Martin Classical Lectures. Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2011. xiv, 415. ISBN 9780691148526. $39.50.


Table of Contents

[Chapter titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Erich S. Gruen positions this book as an alternative to the emphasis on alterity (otherness) that has dominated scholarly analyses of collective self-fashioning in recent decades. Collective self-fashioning means the process whereby a people defines its national character. The prevalent view, Gruen claims, is that ancient Greeks, Romans, and Jews defined themselves in contrast with foreign peoples, such as Egyptians, Phoenicians, Ethiopians, or Gauls, and that this process of self-definition always involved enhancing one’s own national self-image at the expense of a despised and demonized “Other.” Gruen argues for much more complexity and nuance in the opinions of Greeks, Roman, and Jews regarding other peoples. As Gruen writes in his conclusion, his aim is to demonstrate that “the expression of collective character in antiquity…owes less to insisting on distinctiveness from the alien than to postulating links with, adaptation to, and even incorporation of the alien” (352). This book may be read to pleasure and advantage by a range of audiences from advanced undergraduates to seasoned scholars, as Gruen brings a clear, concise expository style to his more than fifty years of professional experience as a classicist and historian.

In the first part of the book, “Impressions of the ‘Other,’” Gruen considers attitudes expressed towards foreigners in a range of texts by authors including Aeschylus, Herodotus, Xenophon, Diodorus, Plutarch, Caesar, and Tacitus. In the second part, “Connections with the ‘Other,’” Gruen explores foundation legends, fictitious kinships, and other kinds of narratives that represent different cultures as interconnected and overlapping rather than dissociated and estranged. Throughout the book, Gruen’s assessments remain consistent: the ancient sources represent foreigners sympathetically more than they do antithetically and in terms of similarity more than difference. In a sense, though, Gruen’s concern is less alterity per se than the idea that the ancients uniformly regarded foreigners as inferior and contemptible. Ancient descriptions of Egyptians, Gauls, and Jews by Herodotus, Caesar, Tacitus and others, Gruen writes, “far from exhibiting simplistic stereotypes, display subtle characterizations that resist reductive placement into negative (or, for that matter, positive) categories” (4).

Gruen generally proceeds by taking up a text that his reader would likely expect to serve as a prime example of xenophobia, and demonstrating that it is in fact quite the opposite. Chapters 1 and 2 deal with Greek perceptions of the Persians. Gruen considers Aeschylus’s Persae, arguing that “the play avoids trumpeting any inherent superiority of Hellenes over barbarians” (11). Despite casting the Persians as national enemies despised by the gods whose defeat gratified the Athenian audience, Gruen concludes, “Aeschylus decidedly does not relegate them to the category of the ‘Other’” (21). Gruen demonstrates that Herodotus’s portrayal of the Persians is “multilayered and subtle…advancing a portrait of entanglement rather than enmity” (352). Gruen considers representations of Persians in fifth century Attic vase paintings, concluding, “artists do not appear to have employed the medium to demean the ‘Other’” (45). Xenophon’s Cyropaedia, he argues, represents the Iranian king “as model ruler…and heaped scorn on critics who conveyed the cliché’s of eastern decadence” (353). Anti-barbarian bias, Gruen claims, “played no part in the motivation or objectives of Alexander the Great” (65).

Similar dismissals recur throughout the text. In Chapter 3, dealing with Greek and Roman perceptions of Egyptians, Gruen argues that Herodotus is less concerned with representing distance between Greeks and Egyptians than in representing connections between them. Diodorus, Gruen claims, took a remarkably similar approach, forgoing praise or blame and focusing rather on overlapping legends and the “reciprocal appropriation of traditions” (353). Considering evidence from a wide range of Greek authors, Gruen finds no consistent attitude towards the Egyptians. While Gruen acknowledges that disparaging remarks about Egyptians abound in Roman sources, he concludes that, “on closer scrutiny, the significance of these snippets rapidly shrinks” (107). Gruen finds generally sympathetic portraits of the Egyptians in Strabo and Plutarch, his representatives of Greek attitudes during the Roman period.

In Chapters 4-6, Gruen turns to Rome’s impressions of her enemies. Gruen explores the pernicious Roman stereotype of Punica fides, but concludes that the slur “turns out to have had far less purchase on the Roman mentality than has customarily been thought” (353). For example, he finds that Polybius counters the Carthaginians’ reputation as “inveterate treaty-breakers” (124), showing them instead to have had the same respect for treaties as the Romans. He finds that “Caesar’s interest in the Gauls goes beyond depiction of the foe or shaping of the ‘Other’” (150). Similarly, he concludes that in the Germania, “Tacitus neither branded the German as ‘Other’ nor propped him up as inspired primitive to contrast with the degenerate Roman” (178).

In Chapters 7 and 8, Gruen considers the classical world’s response to Jews and blacks. Here, too, Gruen finds ambiguity where one might expect to find clear disparagement of the “Other.” Regarding the lengthy excursus on the Jews in book 5 of the Histories, Gruen argues that Tacitus “aims his critique as much against misinformed, preposterous, and self-contradictory attitudes about Jews as against Jews themselves” (354). Surveying a wide range of evidence, Gruen concludes that, with the exception of Roman satirists, classical authors refrained from “derision” (354) of black Africans, and visual representations of them “show a remarkable absence of distance or disdain” (355).

Chapter 9 deals with the interconnectedness among different cultures evidenced by foundation legends. Gruen shows that foreign founders played critical roles in the foundation stories of Greeks, Romans, and Jews. Notable foreign founders include Pelops, the ancestor of the Peloponnesians said in various legends to have hailed from Asia, Phrygia, Lydia, or Paphlagonia; Danaus, a fugitive from Egypt who came to rule Argos; and Cadmus, the Phoenician founder of Thebes. Legendary Greek figures including Perseus, Armenus, and Scythes were celebrated in the foundation myths of the Persians, Armenians, and Scythians respectively. Egyptians laid claim to legendary figures associated with Babylon, Palestine, Colchis, and Macedon. Romans traced their descent to the Trojans and Arcadia. Jewish traditions associated the patriarchs Abraham and Moses with Mesopotamia, Egypt, Assyria, Crete, and Asia Minor. The Athenian’s familiar claim to autochthony existed alongside an alternative tradition that claimed Athenian descent from Pelasgians.

Chapters 10 and 11 explore fictitious kinships linking Greeks and Jews to a variety of other peoples. Chapter 12 considers a range of cultural connections. Gruen shows that Jews and Greeks appropriated common philosophical traditions. He discusses imaginative representations of gentiles by Jewish intellectuals. Finally, he documents mutual perceptions of Phoenicians and Greeks, as well as Roman adaptations of a range of alien cultures.

My major complaint about this book is the poverty of its theoretical engagement with the discourse of alterity. Gruen positions his approach as an alternative to studies such as Benjamin Isaac’s 2004 The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity. Isaac, however, specifically avoids using the term “Other” (in scare quotes with a capital “O,” precisely as Gruen uses it throughout). “‘The Other,’” Isaac explains, “has in recent decades acquired quite a broad meaning: ‘Others’ include women, slaves, children, the elderly, or disfigured people. It refers to any group that is not part of the establishment, but is placed on the margins or periphery of society, or does not belong to it at all” (4). The concept of alterity (othering, otherness, the other) runs through the work of philosophers including Fichte, Hegel, Husserl, Sartre, De Beauvoir, Lacan, Lévinas, Derrida, Foucault, the Frankfurt School, and other postmodernists, none of whom appears in Gruen’s text, footnotes, or bibliography. Edward Said (whose groundbreaking study Orientalism Gruen does acknowledge) popularized the notion of othering as an instrument of imperialism, while De Beauvoir theorized othering as a tool of gender oppression. Lévinas, by contrast, viewed one’s perception of the other as the basis for ethical behavior.

Gruen, however, does not discuss any of these influential ideas about alterity, nor does he discuss the treatment of marginalized groups within a given society. Rather, he discusses the attitudes of ancient Mediterranean societies toward other societies. In effect, he reduces the complex and variable notion of alterity to the mere positing of unflattering ethnic, racial, or national stereotypes. This leads Gruen repeatedly to minimize instances of othering that operate in more subtle ways. For example, in Chapter 9, Gruen concludes, “Rather than ‘Othering’ the alien, many Greeks contentedly traced their lineage to him” (236). The fact that Greeks traced their lineage to non-Greeks, however, does not rule out these foundation myths as meaningful examples of alterity. Indeed, the motif of the city founded by a hero from a distant land could be interpreted as a strategy for neutralizing the potential danger posed by the “Other” to collective self-definition by incorporating it into the “Same.”

Gruen is similarly dismissive when he considers the infamous Eurymedon vase, a fifth-century oinochoe depicting a bearded man holding his erect penis in his right hand while he approaches a second figure dressed as an eastern archer, bent forward at the waist, facing the viewer, with his hands held up in a ridiculous pose, accompanied by the inscription, “I am Eurymedon, I am bent over.” After assessing the evidence, Gruen denies that the image “demonstrates forcible subordination or the defeat of east by west” (44). To interpret the aggressive sexual imagery metaphorically, Gruen concludes, “reads far too much into the imagery, which possesses a decidedly comic flavor, lacking any heavy implications for a clash of Hellenism and barbarism” (ibid). The fact that the image is comic, however, certainly does not diminish its potential significance as an example of othering. Moreover, Gruen’s argument that the image has nothing to do with ideas about gender, sexuality, or relations between Greeks and barbarians is simply unconvincing.

Despite these reservations, Gruen’s approach may serve as a useful corrective to previous studies (cited and briefly discussed in the book’s introduction) that emphasize the fashioning of collective national identities in antiquity through disparagement of other peoples.

TABLE OF CONTENTS: List of Illustrations xi
Acknowledgments xiii
Introduction 1
CHAPTER ONE: Persia in the Greek Perception: Aeschylus and Herodotus 09
Aeschylus’ Persae 09
Herodotus 21
Some Visual Representations 40
CHAPTER TWO: Persia in the Greek Perception: Xenophon and Alexander 53
Xenophon’s Cyropaedia 53
Alexander and the Persians 65
CHAPTER THREE: Egypt in the Classical Imagination 76
Herodotus 76
Diodorus 90
Assorted Assessments 99
Plutarch 111
CHAPTER FOUR: Punica Fides 115
The Hellenic Backdrop 116
In the Shadow of the Punic Wars 122
The Manipulation of the Image 132
The Enhancement of the Image 137
CHAPTER FIVE: Caesar on the Gauls 141
Prior Portraits 141
The Caesarian Rendering 147
CHAPTER SIX: Tacitus on the Germans 159
Germans and Romans 159
Interpretatio Romana ? 169
CHAPTER SEVEN: Tacitus and the Defamation of the Jews 179
The Question 180
Tacitean Irony 187
CHAPTER EIGHT: People of Color 197
Textual Images 197
Visual Images 211
CHAPTER NINE: Foundation Legends 223
Foundation Tales as Cultural Thievery 224
Pelops 227
Danaus 229
Cadmus 233
Athenians and Pelasgians 236
Rome, Troy, and Arcadia 243
Israel’s Fictive Founders 250
CHAPTER TEN: Fictitious Kinships: Greeks and Others 253
Perseus as Multiculturalist 253
Athens and Egypt 265
The Legend of Nectanebos 267
Numidians and the Near East 272
CHAPTER ELEVEN: Fictitious Kinships: Jews and Others 277
The Separatist Impression 277
The Bible’s Other Side 287
Ishmaelites and Arabs 299
Jews and Greeks as Kinsmen 302
CHAPTER TWELVE: Cultural Interlockings and Overlappings 308
Jews and Greeks as Philosophers 308
Jewish Presentations of Gentiles 325
Phoenicians and Greeks 341
Roman Adaptation and Appropriation 343
Conclusion 352
Bibliography 359
Index of Citations 385
Subject Index 403