BMCR 2020.12.10

Ethnicity and identity in Herodotus

, , Ethnicity and identity in Herodotus. London; New York: Routledge, 2020. Pp. 342. ISBN 9781138631113 $155.00.

[Authors and Titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Ethnicity and identity in Herodotus derives from a panel organized by the editors for the 9th annual Celtic Conference in Classics, titled “Ethnicity and Multiculturalism in Herodotus: through others’ eyes.” The volume addresses the question of collective identity fashioning, whether through an external perspective (Greeks in contact with other societies) or an internal one (Greek self-awareness), as seen in the Histories. The fourteen chapters are divided into four sections addressing the methodology of ethnicity; ethnic identity amongst the Greeks; ethnic identity amongst the barbaroi; and the influences of Herodotean historiography with its interest in ethnicity. I will address the sections first and then the volume as a whole.

Figueira’s introduction to the volume reviews current scholarship on ethnicity, ethnology, and ethnography in the ancient world before turning to the phenomenon of ethnogenesis, or the systems and processes behind ethnic identity and ethnēdevelopment. He raises three main critiques of existing scholarship on ancient ethnic identity (a tendency to connect the Greek/barbarian divide to the Greco-Persian Wars; to view claims of ethnic identity as engineered; and to downdate claims of autochthony and view them as based in hegemonic policies). The introduction ends with a discussion of the connection of historiē to the examination of cultural and ethnic boundaries.

Section one addresses how Herodotus and contemporary Greeks distinguished different ethnic groups (whether Greek ethnē or Greeks and barbaroi). S. Brandwood’s chapter addresses the role of interpreters in the Histories with case studies of interpreters at work in Egypt and Ethiopia, Scythia, and Persia. He argues that while interpreters can translate the words of one language to another, full cultural translation, with meaning and context, requires the intervention of a historsuch as Herodotus. T. Figueira turns to the question of language and ethnic identity in his chapter, arguing contra J. Hall[1] that language was the key feature for determining ethnic identity for the ancient Greeks as seen in the Athenians’ formulation of Greek identity at Hdt. 8.144.2. To support this argument, Figueira draws on a chronologically broad range of literary and historiographical sources from Solon to Strabo, a fact that leads the reader to wonder which contemporaries of Herodotus his title means to reference. While Figueira’s arguments highlight the importance of language as a marker of ethnicity—particularly as an external marker, ascribed by others—his discussion fails to account for the prevalence of (putative) descent-based ethnicity criteria for internal definitions of ethnic identity. To highlight two of his examples, the Athenians at Hdt. 8.144.2 list the criterion of being homaimon (“of the same blood”) before homoglosson (“of the same language”) as a qualification for being Greek, and Solon claims to have brought certain individuals back to their “patris of Athens” even though they no longer speak “the Attic tongue” (fr. 36.8-12), suggesting that descent is more important than language for ethnic and political belonging. B. Hill’s chapter turns to Herodotus’ use of the descent-related terms ethnosand genos, where he argues that ethnos refers to a single temporal subset of genos. The respective synchronic and diachronic perspectives on descent groups not only reflects the syn- and diachronic perspective of the Histories, but they focus on the actions of an ethnic group while also offering a sense of historic continuity to that group’s actions. The final chapter in this section is E. Allen-Hornblower’s paper on Herodotus’ use of emotions to distinguish ethnic groups, whether on intra- (Greeks from Greeks) or inter-ethnic (Greeks from barbaroi) terms. She argues that the focus of these ethnic interactions should be on the viewer and their interpretation of the other group’s display of emotions, though the majority of discussion explicates what the display means for the one displaying the emotion and not the viewer.

Section two addresses Greek perspectives on ethnicity as seen in the Histories. G. Nagy’s entry examines the Greek term magos (Persian maguš) and argues that “earlier” instances of the term refer to a person of usually religious authority, who can be feared as a potential usurper. He argues that this definition of the term derives from Ionian Greek interactions with Persians. R. V. Munson’s chapter addresses the Greek concept of eleutheria and its connection to Greek ethnicity. As seen in the Histories, Greek concepts of eleutheria asserted both external (national) freedom and internal (personal) freedom; the contrast with Herodotus’ representation of eleutheria amongst the barbaroi shows that for the latter, eleutheria only refers to external freedom, making the double external-internal formulation of eleutheria something particular to the Greeks. A. Agnolon’s chapter then turns to Herodotus’ use of tragic discourses, particularly those around hamartia, transgression, and resistance myths, in his accounts of Anacharsis and Skyles. The historian’s use of Greek mythic and tragic tropes “translates” Scythian identity and culture for his Greek audience. N. Simões Rodriguez turns in his chapter to Demeter’s presence in the Histories, where each of the four major battles of the Greco-Persian Wars are associated with the goddess. Herodotus’ focus on Demeter, particularly as Demeter Eleusinia, reflects both the particular Athenian formulation of panhellenism from the Greco-Persian Wars and the connection of the Greeks as an ethnos to their land via the grain goddess.

Section three addresses both Herodotus’ portrayal of non-Greek interactions with Greeks whether from the perspective of non-Greeks or from that of Greeks. R. Sousa’s chapter addresses the question of Herodotus’ Egyptian sources; when compared to the archaeological record and to the theological frameworks of the Egyptian temples, Herodotus had far lower levels of access to Egyptian priests than he claims, with the exception of the priests of Ptah at Memphis. Sousa connects this to general xenophobia in Egypt following the Assyrian sack of Egyptian temples and the need to safeguard the purity of the temples, which were the focus of Egyptian identity; the community at Memphis was again an exception due to the long-standing multi-cultural community in the city. M. dé Fatima Silva turns to the question of Persian knowledge of the Greeks as reflected in the Histories. Persian knowledge is shown in general to be faulty, whether because of the Persians’ low opinion of Ionian Greeks, which they then transfer to the mainland Greeks, or because Xerxes and others poorly interpret good information by applying their own ethnic criteria with no recognition of ethnic difference. R. Gagné turns to Herodotus’ incorporation of Aristeas and Hecataeus in the narratives about the far north and the shape of the oikoumenē. By incorporating these rival voices and subjecting them to Herodotean historiē, Herodotus asserts his own ethnological and geographical authority at their expense. In the final chapter for this section, M. do Ceu Fialho addresses Herodotus’ account of Helen’s sojourn in Egypt during the Trojan War. Herodotus gives the Egyptian king Proteus Hellenic qualities associated with hospitality and respecting suppliants: this Hellenizes the Egyptians and barbarizes the Greeks by extension.

Section four addresses the influences Herodotus’ ethnic approach to history. D. Leão focuses on the continued importance in Greek historiography and biography of Herodotus’ representation of the meeting between Croesus and Solon. He demonstrates that there are two main traditions: one, consistent with Herodotus’ original account, which asserts a universal ethics of the sophos and another, modeled by Plutarch, in which the moral implications of the meeting contribute to the ethnic opposition of Greek and barbarian. The final chapter in the volume is by C. Soares, who addresses the question of how Herodotus’ scientific discourses influence Portuguese writing on the New World. Her chapter addresses the use of Herodotus in Portuguese humanistic education before turning to how the Histories’ proem and the climatic theories of the Hippocratic Airs are reflected in Portuguese accounts of the New World.

Individually, the chapters provide interesting readings of Herodotus, Greek ideas of ethnicity, and the influence of both on later writing; collectively as a volume whose stated topic is “ethnicity and ethnic identity in Herodotus” (1), however, the volume is lacking in certain key aspects.

Figueira’s introduction presents a serious engagement with definitions and theories around ethnology and ethnogenesis (note, however, that a definition of “ethnicity” is provided only in the book abstract, as “the very self-understanding of belonging to a separate body of human beings”). His own chapter engages with the introduction, but the other chapters show little to no engagement with his definitions of ethnology and ethnogenesis. This results in a disconnect between the chapters that do address the processes of ethnogenesis and those that instead focus on interactions between ethnic groups. The two are not the same: interactions between different ethnic groups may key a situation as salient to the ethnic identity of one or more groups and thereby contribute to the ongoing maintenance and construction of ethnic identities, but they do not necessarily do so. This latter group of chapters tends to nod to ethnogenesis at the end of the chapter, with little engagement in the main body of the work to support the claims to ethnic identity construction. The disconnect between introduction and volume may be due to the original conference topic, which addressed multiculturalism as well as ethnicity; the chapters that superficially address ideas of ethnicity and ethnic identity construction do address questions of multiculturalism.

Figueira’s introduction also discusses the oppositions between identities connected to the Greek ethnē and panhellenism, in respect to which he directs the reader to “recognize at the outset that the ethnogenesis particularly interesting us [sic] is the creation of ethne ‘communities’ as the Greeks understood them (and not for our purposes the phenomenon of panhellenism, the sense of community of the Greeks as a whole)” (2). His discussion of Greek ethnē suggests that he uses the term to refer to the sub-Hellenic ethnic groups, referring to the “Peloponnesian ethnē” and “Messenian ethnē” for example. Connected to this discussion of ethnē vs. panhellenism is the connection of the polis to ethnic groups and ideas of ethnic affiliation, which Figueira’s discussion correctly identifies as closely related to one another. Yet in the following chapters, the polis and its connection to ethnic identity appears rarely, if at all, and most chapters address panhellenism (or the Greek poleis as a single ethnos) and not the individual sub-Hellenic communities.

A more thorough engagement with the ideas presented in the introduction might have prevented the disconnect between introduction and volume and resulted in a more coherent volume as well as a methodologically stronger work. An alternative solution would have been to address the question of multiculturalism and ethnicity/ethnic identity: when does the former trigger the process of ethnogenesis, and when do multicultural interactions elide ethnic differences because other identities are more salient to the groups involved?

Beyond the larger issue of coherency, the editing of the volume is hit or miss. Detailed abstracts of each chapter are promised at the end of the introduction, but no abstracts appear in the volume or on the publisher’s website. The breakdown of chapters into sections is not always clear, something that could have been rectified with short section introductions that explained the relationship of each chapter to the section topic and/or to one another. Several chapters show the need for reorganization and/or a strong editing to enhance meaning and comprehension. There are a number of typos and typographical errors in the volume, not enough to distort meaning, but enough to draw notice.

The preface and introduction both assert that one of the aims of the volume is to begin a conversation between Anglo- and Lusophone scholars, yet there is little to no engagement between Anglo- and Lusophone scholarship in the book; the chapters simply appear between the same covers. Most of the Anglophone chapters are printed in the first half of the book, most of the Lusophone in the second half. The reason for this is partially to fit the sections, but the goal of enabling a conversation between Anglo- and Lusophone scholars could have been achieved by using a different order and/or by directing authors to engage with one another, either in the revised version of their original conference paper or in a short discussion at the end of their chapter engaging with the Anglo- or Lusophone chapters in the book.

Finally, I would like to address Nagy’s chapter. This is one of the chapters that only superficially addresses the topic of the volume, and beyond that, has already been published twice.[2] The vast majority of revisions involve simply inserting a comment chain between Nagy and Figueira in between the relevant paragraphs, and these comments were also published before this volume was itself published;[3] the remaining revisions are essentially cosmetic. The 2017 publication and the publication of the comments are both freely available through the online, open access Classical Inquiries published by CHS. The revised title of “Mages and Ionians Revisited” is poor cover for taking two open access publications, merging them together with little revision, and publishing them in a volume that charges readers to access. A press of Routledge’s stature and a scholar of Nagy’s seniority should know better.

For scholars working on ethnicity, multiculturalism, and ethnic identity construction as seen in the Histories, this volume will have some useful articles. Those looking for a volume that engages in depth with questions of ethnic identity formation, whether on an intra-ethnic level among Greek communities or an inter-ethnic level of Greeks and barbaroi, however, may be disappointed.

Table of Contents

Introduction, Thomas Figueira
Part 1: The Methodology of Ethnic Identification in Herodotus
1. Herodotus’ Hermēneus and the Translation of Culture in the Histories, Steven Brandwood
2. Language as a Marker of Ethnicity in Herodotus and Contemporaries, Thomas Figueira
3. Protocols of Ethnic Specification in Herodotus, Brian Hill
4. Emotion and Ethnicity in Herodotus’ Histories, Emily Allen-Hornblower
Part 2: Ethnicity among the Greeks
5. Mages and Ionians Revisited, Gregory Nagy
6. Freedom and Culture in Herodotus, Rosaria Vignolo Munson
7. Cosmopolitanism and Contingency in Herodotus: Myth and Tragedy in the Fourth Book of the Histories, Alexandre Agnolon
8. A Goddess for the Greeks. Demeter as Identity Factor in Herodotus, Nuno Simões Rodrigues
Part 3: Ethnic Identity among the Barbaroi
9. Herodotus’ Memphite Sources, Rogério de Sousa
10. The Greeks as seen from the East. Xerxes’ European Enemy, Maria de Fátima Silva
11. Mirages of Ethnicity and the Distant North in Book Four of the Histories: Hyperboreans, Arimaspians and Issedones, Renaud Gagné
12. Ethnicity in Herodotus. The Story of Helen through the Egyptians’ Eyes, Maria do Céu Fialho
Part 4: Reflections of Herodotean Ethnic Historiography
13. Barbarians, Greekness, and Wisdom: The Afterlife of Croesus’ Debate with Solon, Delfim Leão
14. Scientific Discourse in Herodotus Book II and its Reflection in the Age of New World Discovery, Carmen Soares.


[1] Hall, J. 1997. Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity. Cambridge; 2002. Hellenicity: Between Ethnicity and Culture. Chicago.

[2] Nagy, G. 2017. “Mages and Ionians,” Classical Inquiries; 2018. “Mages and Ionians,” in Antichi Persiani: Storia e Rappresentazione, edited by C. Mora and C. Zizza, 97-121. Bari.

[3] Nagy, G. 2018. “A Preview of Mages and Ionians Revisited,” Classical Inquiries.