BMCR 2016.06.18

Attitudes towards the Past in Antiquity: Creating Identities

, , Attitudes towards the Past in Antiquity: Creating Identities. Proceedings of an international conference held at Stockholm University, 15-17 May 2009. Acta Universitatis Stockholmiensis. Stockholm Studies in Classical Archaeology, 14. Stockholm: Stockholm University, 2014. Pp. 325. (electronic).

Full text (open access)

[The author apologizes for the tardiness of this review.]

A conference volume sometimes offers a patchwork of papers loosely bound together by a given region, period, personality, or mere occasion, and then painstakingly organized into a whole by the editors. This particular issue of Stockholm Studies in Classical Archaeology cannot be further from that. Quite the opposite: despite its origin as a collection of conference papers, the volume leaves the impression of a pre-planned monograph, conceived and written by a team of like-minded scholars and intended for both students of antiquity and cultural anthropologists.

The bulk of the volume, published in 2014, consists of 28 papers that had been presented in the international conference held by the Department of Classical Archaeology and Ancient History at Stockholm University in 2009 to commemorate the centenary of the teaching of this subject in Sweden and to honour its first professor, Gösta Säflund. This five-year lag seems to be customary for this series, which has had as few as 14 issues since 1960.

The book, as the blurb on the back cover suggests, is ‘about attitudes towards the past, and about creating and preserving identities in Antiquity’, and covers, inter alia, ‘the use of tradition and memory in shaping an individual or a collective identity’. A book of this kind, addressing this particular subject, has been long awaited. The study of memory and identity is a growing field, with a rapidly increasing body of scholarship that shows it to be both promising and challenging. While this area of study sprang from the seminal influence of scholars who were dealing with ancient cultures and their sources (e.g., Jan Assmann’s classical treatment of cultural memory1 or the lesser-known study of legendary topography in the gospels by Maurice Halbwachs2), it was later embraced by scholars of contemporary societies or modern (post-Enlightenment) history and culture. It is therefore extremely important to build a bridge back over the gap between this thriving methodological approach and its original area of application, namely the study of the ancient world. The Stockholm volume addresses this need and both classicists and anthropologists will benefit immensely from reading it.

Readers who wish to see the book’s conclusions adapted to cross-cultural anthropology will find value in the volume summary, ‘Attitudes Towards the Past in Antiquity’, by Ingrid Edlund-Berry (321-325). It is a brief, reader-friendly survey of papers grouped by general topics (‘Individual names and collective identities’, ‘Memory in words and images’, ‘Tradition, continuity and change’). The book serves both its intended audiences: it is accessible for anthropologists not trained in classics (a rare thing), but classicists will also be able to follow the argument of the essays that are rather technical.

The first section of the volume, ‘The past of early Greece’, contains three papers. Carolyn Higbie (‘Greeks and the Forging of Homeric Pasts’, 9-19) explores the kind of memory that was forged by purposefully fabricated documents and artifacts in the Greek world of the first centuries CE. A successful forgery must respond convincingly to the expectations of the audience, and three items discussed (two texts: the letter of Sarpedon, king of Lycia, and the journal of Dictys of Crete, and an artifact: the “scepter of Agamemnon”) exemplify the expectations of later Greeks about their past. Johannes Engels (‘Lycurgos’ Speech Against Leocrates. Creating Civic Identity and Educating Athenian Citizens’, 21-31) studies a court speech of 330 BCE that is extraordinary rich in references to the Athenian mythical past and quotes unusually long passages from poets like Tyrtaios and Homer. The examination deals with both the matter of the case and the rhetorical presentation of the past that is used by the orator in order to manipulate the court to convict. Lone Wriedt Sørensen (‘Creating Identity or Identities in Cyprus during the Archaic Period’, 33-45) focuses on the interpretation of Cypriot Archaic votive sculpture. The author explores the identity of the deities supposedly represented by a number of long-discussed statues and suggests a new reading involving messages about the religious past and the continuity of cult, as they were to be understood by a visitor to the sanctuary.

The second part of the volume deals with the Etruscans. Charlotte Scheffer (‘The Etruscans—in the Eyes of Greeks and Romans. Creating a Bad Memory?’, 47-53) traces the origin of the bad press for the Etruscans. At the peak of their power, they were seen as masculine but suspicious, e.g., archetypally cruel pirates; afterwards, unmanly love for fancy items and the freedom of Etruscan women were understood as reasons for their downfall. Annette Rathje (‘Self-representation and Identity Creation by an Etruscan Family. The use of the past in the François Tomb at Vulci’, 55-65) provides a masterful reading of the self-representation of an Etruscan family through images that emphasize continuity to compensate for the loss of political power in one of the best-known Etruscan tombs. A less explicit programme is deciphered by Marjatta Nielsen (‘In the Mirror of the Past: The Three “Key-Note” Ash-Chests in the Purni Tomb of Città della Pieve’, 68-86). With the loss of Etruscan language and texts, the rich iconography they left behind may be used as a source to study their strategies of reactivating the past by projecting family history into a glorious bygone era.

The third part, on ways of displaying the past, consists of a single lengthy article by Arja Karivieri (‘Mythic, Public and Private Memory: Creation of a Pompeian Identity in the House of Caecilius Iucundus’, 87-111). As the title suggests, it explains the decorative programme of the house of argentarius L. Caecilius Iucundus as a ‘memory theatre’, where three types of memory were utilized in order to produce a local identity for the owner.

The fourth section deals with the mythological past. Peter Scherrer (‘Hunting the Boar—the Fiction of a Local Past’, 113-119) traces this motif in the foundation stories of a series of Anatolian cities from Ephesus in 5th century BCE to Aphrodisias in the Roman period, and its later projection to the West. Anthropologists might find this article especially important as a case study in the persistence of structure in myth. David M. Pollio (‘ Nec Te Troia Capit : Re-Creating the Trojan War in Vergil’s Aeneid ’, 121-125) addresses the much-studied issue of the rewriting of Homeric plot by Vergil, focusing on the shifting role of gods.

The fifth group of essays deals with the material evidence and is largely archeological in its interests. Nassos Papalexandrou (‘Messenian Tripods: A Boiotian Contribution to the Symbolic Construction of the Messenian Past’, 129-137) revisits the question of the tripod-cauldron symbolism in Messene both before and after its foundation by Boiotians. Anna Kouremenos (‘A Tale of Two Cretan Cities: The Building of Roman Kissamos and the Persistence of Polyrrenia in the Wake of Shifting Identities’, 139-149) uses the example of two neighbouring cities of Roman Crete, the newly-founded Kissamos and the declining Polyrrenia, to show a gradual change in lifestyles that in turn produced a new, elite Roman identity for the Greek cities. Hadwiga Schörner (‘Revival of the Intraurban Burial in Greek Poleis during the Roman Imperium as a Creation of Identity’, 151-162) retraces this phenomenon from the pre-Roman period (8th-3rd centuries BCE) to Roman and early Christian times (1st-5th centuries CE), explaining how the city’s population formulated and expressed what and who they thought they were. Intramural burials, she argues, along with the use of local dialects in funerary inscriptions, were employed to emphasize the antiquity of the polis. Ingrid Edlund-Berry (‘Archaeological Evidence for Roman Identity in Ancient Italy’, 163-172) seeks to correlate the literary tradition for the Romanization of Italy with the archeological evidence (e.g., the erection of Capitoline temples) in order to show the slow and erratic nature of the process.

The sixth division is dedicated to religious settings. It opens with an essay by Catherine Morgan (‘Archeology of Memory or Tradition in Practice’, 173-181). This is a methodologically important contribution that should, again, be of interest to an anthropological audience. Morgan argues for the study of Early Iron Age phenomena within the context of the history of identities; that period should have equal weight with the more-common Hellenistic and Roman case studies in the exploration of identity and memory. She discusses a number of important topics such as terminology, cognitive psychology and process, and identifies an important distinction between the ‘practice of ritual’ and what scholars in other fields call ‘objectified memory’ (formalized episodes of remembrance and forgetting), warning against the uncritical transplantation of the latter (and, obviously, any similar terminology) onto ancient Greek soil. It is followed by a case study in the examination of cult as a clue to group identity (‘The Cult of Sirens and Greek Colonial Identity in Southern Italy’, Rabun Taylor, 183-189) and a more ‘conventional’ archeological excavation report (‘The Temples of Apollo at Sikyon’, by Kalliopi Krystalli-Votsi and Erik Østby, 191-200). J. Rasmus Brandt (‘Blood, Boundaries and Purification. On the Creation of Identities Between Memory and Oblivion in Ancient Rome’, 201-216) offers two case studies in identity and memory, both linked to the Palatine and the celebration of the Lupercalia, as employed by Julius Caesar and Augustus to create their identities as the Protector of Rome and his rightful heir, respectively.

The seventh part is loosely dedicated to ‘different Roman pasts’, where ‘Roman’ should be understood chronologically. The first essay here shows different ways of describing oneself (Tatiana Ivleva, ‘Remembering Britannia: Expressions of Identities by “Britons” on the Continent during the Roman Empire’, 217-231), using 47 inscriptions representing the same number of individuals as data for the case study. The second, by Marietta Horster and Thoralf Schröder, deals with ‘Priests, Crowns and Priestly Headdresses in Imperial Athens’ (233-239) as a part of a larger project entitled ‘Crowning in the Past’. Next, an ‘extended abstract’ by Lynn E. Roller (‘Attitudes Towards the Past in Roman Phrygia: Survivals and Revivals’, 241-243) describes the evidence for and explains the resurgence of local Phrygian identity. An essay by Sarah E. Cox (‘Innovative Antiquarianism: The Flavian Reshaping of the Past’, 243-254) summarizes the use of coinage as a medium for connecting the past with the present and for spreading symbolic propaganda. Ida Östenberg (‘War and Remembrance: Memories of Defeat in Ancient Rome’, 255-265) comprehensively examines the under-studied topic of how Romans represented and exemplified their military defeats through rituals, memorialization and narrative.

The next section (‘The literary production of the past in Rome’) opens with an essay that should perhaps have been attached to the previous one. Ewa Skwara (‘Hannibal Ante Oculos ! A Comic Image of an Enemy’, 267-271) explains how Plautus forged a group identity for his audience by opposing it to the cunning, culturally strange and clearly hostile Hanno in his Poenulus. Mateusz Żmudziński (‘The Image of Emperor Gallienus in Ancient Historiography—Between Manipulation and Narrative’, 273-276) studies the evidence for the Roman departure from Dacia in 275 CE in order to trace the creation of a consciously manipulative tradition that was meant to exonerate the emperor Aurelian and to blacken Gallienus.

The ninth section is, again, given a vague and mysterious title: ‘Aspects of Greco-Roman memories’. It consists of two papers. An extensively researched essay by Andrzej Wypustek (‘Beauty and Heroization: the Memory of the Dead in Greek Funerary Epigrams of the Hellenistic and Roman Ages’, 277-284) shows the importance of youth and beauty as motifs in funerary texts. Julius Rocca (‘Present at the Creation: Plato’s “Hippocrates” and the Making of a Medical Ideal’, 285-299) traces the development of the biography of Hippocrates up to his selection as the personification of the ideal physician in the 2nd century CE.

The tenth and final section, consisting of two essays, deals with ‘The Late Antique World’. Bruno Bureau (‘Idealised Past and Contested Tradition: Claudian’s Panegyric for the Sixth Consulate of Honorius and Prudentius’ Contra Symmachum ’, 301-310) explores the interaction of two texts written almost simultaneously in 402/403 CE. Symmachus’ pagan vision of the Roman past and his view of Trajan as a model of exemplary conduct was directly attacked by the Christian poet Prudentius. A few months later, the pagan Claudian composed his own Panegyric, which, as author shows, explains the conflict between Symmachus and Prudentius in political rather than religious terms. The reconstitution of Roman history in the 4th-6th centuries through the new topography of martyr veneration is the subject of the last essay in this volume (Dennis Trout, ‘From the Elogia of Damasus to the Acta of the Gesta Martyrum : Re-Staging Roman History’, 311-320).

To sum up, I find this book important, challenging, and stimulating. It is a fine example of a Scandinavian scholarly approach that has historically embraced new methodologies while standing firmly on the foundation of disciplined source-critical study. However, a review that lacks criticism is not to be trusted, and I therefore offer a minor objection to the way the sections of the book are organized. The principle of grouping is sometimes vague, as are the titles assigned to different sections. Perhaps this structure was based on the section and/or panel affiliation of the participants during the conference; if so, it seems rather superfluous to be preserved in the printed volume, and a different arrangement might have been more useful.


1. Jan Assmann, Das kulturelle Gedächtnis: Schrift, Erinnerung und politische Identität in frühen Hochkulturen, Munich, 1992; and Cultural Memory and Early Civilization: Writing, Remembrance, and Political Imagination, Cambridge University Press, 2011.

2. Maurice Halbwachs, La Topographie légendaire des évangiles en terre sainte: étude de mémoire collective, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1941.