BMCR 2021.02.09

Beyond Greece and Rome: reading the ancient Near East in Early Modern Europe

, Beyond Greece and Rome: reading the ancient Near East in Early Modern Europe. Classical presences. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. xiii, 341. ISBN 9780198767114. $105.00.

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

This new collection of essays, edited by Jane Grogan, studies how early modern thinkers engaged the “ancient Near East” beyond the familiar “worlds of Greece and Rome.” In the introduction, Grogan argues that compared to the diverse, global, and surprisingly sophisticated engagement with a range of non-European sources, places and cultures, modern scholars of classical reception have “some catching up to do.” In part as a result of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople and the “perceived… loss to Christian Europe” of the land which had made up the ancient Near East, European scholars, travelers, diplomats, and creative writers all newly looked eastward; furthermore, Grogan suggests, recent scholarship has emphasized how “increased travel and encounters across the Bosphorus” (and Mediterranean) helped shaped the Renaissance. The essays range across disciplines and include readings of imaginative literature, book history tracking particular readers, histories of travel narratives, reception histories of salient ancient figures and genres, and more. Among other discoveries, Grogan suggests the essays complicate scholarly assumptions about “the early modern understanding of the barbarian,” since Renaissance writers distinguished carefully and in detail between nations and peoples—and also because early modern attitudes toward the east may differ from modern, Orientalist ideas (a question on which the collected essays differ).


In “Cicero and the Reception of Xenophon’s Persia in the Early Modern Period,” Noreen Humble shows how “Roman admirers,” particularly Cicero, mediated Renaissance readers’ encounter with Xenophon on ancient Persia. Through Cicero’s works, which were “staples on humanist school curricula,” these readers understood Xenophon’s Cyropaedia as a “manual on how to rule” which was “deliberately fictional.” This latter judgment, which helped Renaissance readers reconcile Xenophon’s positive portrait of Cyrus with Herodotus’ more negative one, remained influential even after Xenophon’s original texts were widely available: it surfaces memorably in Sidney’s Defense of Poetry. Similarly, tell-tale additions by Cicero to Xenophon’s Oeconomicus(particularly an elaborate description of a garden planted in a “quincunx pattern”), which Renaissance readers often treated as original to Xenophon, show how “the Ancient Near East is mediated through the Roman interpretation of the Greek original.”

Dennis Looney’s “Zoanne Pencaro, an Early Modern Italian reader of the Ancient Near East in Herodotus” discusses the production and use of Matteo Maria Boiardo’s Italian translation of Herodotus. He shows that readers linked Herodotus to the “emerging threat of Turkish Power,” with which Boiardo connected ancient Persia. Looney then turns to Pencaro’s annotations to a 1491 copy of Boiardo’s translation: these notes range widely, including parallels between Egyptian prophetesses and modern-day religious figures; personal reflections on how Pencaro urinates and his wife’s fidelity; moral judgments of the Histories’ characters; and use of Herodotus to understand the Turks. The notes “exemplify the reading habits of a new kind of early modern reader,” reliant on the vernacular, intelligent and playful, and eager to connect the text to his own life and social setting.

Galena Hashhozheva, in “The Early Modern Afterlife of Ancient Scythian Culture,” traces how Herodotus’ and Lucian’s treatments of the Scythians as custom-bound influenced Edmund Spenser’s characterization of the Irish, whom he believed to be their descendants. She places Spenser’s prose tract on Ireland in a tradition of early modern “colonial ethnographic writing” and shows how, for Spenser and others, Scythia was “a cradle of cultural conservatism… in the Western imagination.” Spenser advances a “culturally progressive” project of updating the “antiquity of the Irish nation and its customs,” which involved both re-education and extermination. Intriguingly, Spenser’s Irish use custom flexibly, innovating in response to English aggression; as he writes, “Custome is a Metall amongst them, that standeth which way soever it bee bent.” Finally, Hashhozheva shows how Spenser’s critique of Irish custom includes even Irish common law, with consequences for English common law.

Su Fang Ng’s chapter places Pierre-Daniel Huet’s 1670 history of the roman in the context of arguments about the pre-history of Orientalism. Huet seems to posit that the genre has Indian, Persian, and Arabic origins, and earlier critics have trumpeted Huet’s “perceived cosmopolitanism” as an alternative to nationalist, Eurocentric histories of the novel. Ng disagrees. She argues Huet’s representations of Persians as luxurious and addicted to fiction is “‘orientalist’ in the Saidian sense.” Moreover, the transfer of romance from East to West is not exactly cosmopolitan: rather, it represents a translatio studii et imperii, through which “premodern empire appropriated the cultural capital amassed by their predecessors.” In the tract’s conclusion, Huet pivots and suggests a “polygenetic” theory of romance, “claiming an antiquity for Europe equal to that of the ancient Near East.” No cosmopolitan, then, Huet tells two stories which enact the movement from an older imperialism toward a modern Orientalism, in which a “connected world” gives way to a “binary one, of occident and orient.”

In “Reterritorializing Persepolis in the First English Travelers’ Accounts,” Ladan Niayesh examines three early descriptions of the Persian ruins: by the Muscovy Company agent Geoffrey Ducket, the churchman John Cartwright, and the diplomat Thomas Herbert. These date from the end of the sixteenth century to the first half of the seventeenth. She shows it is unlikely Ducket or Cartwright visited Persepolis at all, because details of their descriptions do not match either Persepolis’s geographic situation or the ruins’ realia. For all the early observers, the imperative to “revisit a certain idea of Persia,” that is, “the quintessence of an overcome empire reduced to a chief city,” trumps empirical observation. All three reports reflect a mélange of scriptural and classical literary traditions. Through them, “a textual Persepolis gradually gets rebuilt in English travelers’ accounts,” transposed “onto a European system of cultural references.”

Thomas Roebuck contributes a study of Thomas Smith’s travels to and writings about the Seven Churches of Asia. While Smith’s 1672 Septem Asie Ecclesiarum Notitia is often placed at the beginning of histories of modern English scholarship of the Near East, Roebuck instead situates Smith “in the contemporary context of Levantine travel and early modern scholarship from which it emerged.” Smith, a High Church Anglican who would become a non-juror in 1688 and published in John Fell’s Oxford Latinate press, initially fashioned himself the successor to the orientalist and Hebraist John Selden. Using the Latin and English versions of Smith’s work and archival letters, Roebuck investigates Smith’s motives: to secure a patron for further investigations, appeal to an international republic of letters, enlist Near Eastern archeology against English iconoclasm and defend “physical buildings… as beautiful and monumental witnesses to God’s glory,” and entertain a print public with “first-hand narrative, adventure and melancholy.”

Megan Armstrong’s “Holy Land Pilgrimage Narratives in the Era of the Reformation,” challenges a familiar secularization narrative, which posits that sixteenth century writers included more sensory detail in their pilgrimage narratives because of the rise of “curiositas” and the shift from a traditional, religious model of the genre toward a modern form of travel writing. Armstrong argues that the newly rich description reflected not secularization but “religious polemic.” Against Protestant “reification of the Bible” and skepticism that the “Holy Land was spiritually transformative,” Catholic pilgrims emphasized that “Christ truly resided in the Holy Land,” that “the Holy Land was a landscape of signs that could be read” for religious benefits, and that Catholic chapels, rituals, and ornamentation” were embedded in the land itself. She shows how Reformation-era Catholics valued the “present-ness of the ancient Near East” in their devotional lives.

Deirdre Serjeantson, in “Richard Verstegan and the Symbol of Babylon in the Early Modern Period,” explores how an Anglo-Dutch Catholic employed the ancient city in his writing. She places Verstegan in the context of travel writing about Babylon and biblically inspired literature, analyzing several facets of his thought. He argued that the English were not survivors of Troy but a “Teutonic race,” whose language encodes a memory of Babel. He also employs Babel’s role in early modern resistance theory (since Nimrod was traditionally both the builder of the Tower of Babel and the first tyrant) in “dismantling national myth” and urging moderation upon James I, to whom he dedicated his long prose work, Restitution of Decayed Intelligence. Moreover, he and other Catholic polemicists, against Protestant identifications of Babylon with (the Church of) Rome, saw the Tower of Babel as an “image of schism” and thus of Protestant heresy. Finally, as an exile abroad, Verstegan read “Albion” as an anagram of “Babylon”—imagining England as both longed-for home and the psalmist’s ‘strange land.’” Babel’s usefulness to Verstagen and his contemporaries thus hinged on the “flexibility of this imagined space.”

Derval Conroy’s “Female Exempla of the Near East” explores the representation of several ancient female rulers—Artemisia, Zenobia, and Tomyris—in mid-seventeenth century French gallery books and plays. In the “decades which follow Anne of Austria’s accession to the regency in 1643,” Conroy shows how many texts offer “varying representations of the dynamics of gender and sovereignty,” offering Anne lessons in virtues like Stoic constancy, Aristotelian magnanimity, and fidelity to her husband’s memory. Magnon, Scudery, d’Aubignac, and others “exploited for examples” these figures of late antiquity, partly because the Ancient Near East’s “monarchical and political structures” somewhat paralleled France’s own. Their treatments of these ancient women sovereigns also challenge traditional gendering of ruling, martial virtues.

Jennifer Sarha’s “Assyria in Early Modern Historiography” traces the Renaissance afterlife of the biblical and classical references to the Assyrian empire, discussing their treatment by Boccacio and sixteenth century Protestant universal historians, concluding with Walter Ralegh’s History of the World. These writers inherited biblical references to Assyria and traditions from the Roman historian Justin and from Diodorus Siculus. The latter two focused on “two notorious royal figures,” Semiramis and Sardanapulus, both known for cross-dressing and thus exemplars of gendered deviance. Sarha stresses the “narrowness of [Assyria’s] textual tradition” and the absence of archeological evidence, all of which demanded of early modern writers “discursive agility in order to produce something new.” For Boccaccio, that meant techniques of “fictionalization”; for early Protestants, emphasizing “the hand of Providence” and the “establishment of [biblical] chronology”; for Ralegh, a discerning critique in which “received tradition is examined for plausibility.” Throughout, the “gendered logic” of the Greco-Roman sources shape Assyria’s reception.

Jane Grogan, in “Alexander the Great in Early Modern English Drama,” shows how dramatic allusions to Alexander “reveal doubts about the nature and desirability of his imperial achievement.” She argues Alexander’s conquest of Persia and location in the “Eastern Mediterranean” make him “not wholly a European model,” though she discusses a European Humanist tradition of treating Alexander as model warrior and sovereign. With a few exceptions, the many plays she considers exhibit considerable ambivalence about Alexander, an ambivalence she argues reflects moral worries about empire, skepticism of worldly achievement, and also dramatists’ playfully undoing “hortatory schoolboy encounters with Alexander,” perhaps because the grand ambitions such lessons instilled clashed with the “quiescent obedience” demanded when one left the classroom. Finally, she argues that English plays, most famously Hamlet, meditate on Alexander’s decaying corpse as part of their unwillingness to “fully endorse their subject and his achievements.”

Edith Hall’s chapter on “Cambyses in the English Theatre” examines two plays featuring the Persian king, a 1560 tragedy by Thomas Preston (it precedes even Gorboduc by a year) and Elkanah Settle’s 1667 Restoration drama Cambyses. She documents Preston’s long-running play’s influence: “Cambyses’ state” became a term for the “actual stage,” as evidenced in a Dekker satire, and Falstaff parodies Cambyses in Henry IV Part I. Hall shows how Preston reworks his Herodotean source (newly available on the Continent in print in Latin and vernacular translations but mediated for English speakers by Renaissance writers’ accounts); by mixing “the allegorical conventions of the morality play” with “demotic” comic elements, Preston helped imagine the conventions of the history play. Crucially, Preston omits Herodotus’ discussion of the “constitutional debate” that follows Cambyses’ death, including Otanes’ “proposal to introduce an egalitarian regime,” instead paralleling Cambyses’ tyranny with the Marian persecution and implicitly positioning Elizabeth as the good, stabilizing monarch. Settle, too, writing during the Restoration, suppresses the “plethocrat” Otanes’ anti-monarchical speech; nonetheless, Hall argues for a “contrast” between Preston’s Elizabethan optimism and the “underlying darkness” of Settle’s play; she also suggests that in 1667, Settle’s Persians were already associated with contemporary Turks, whereas for Preston, “not a single explicit ethnographic feature differentiates the tyrant from an English monarch.”


Many individual essays in Beyond Greece and Rome make important contributions of many different kinds: Looney’s meticulous work on Pencaro makes available a fascinating instance of an under-studied form of vernacular, late Humanist reading; Ng’s incisive analysis will complicate discussions of the history of the novel and of the pre-history of Orientalism; and Armstrong’s argument is a lapidary example of rethinking an old chestnut of secularist historiography. (If I had space, I would sing the praises of other essays here.) Certainly, it is salutary for Renaissance scholars, classicists, and those in-between to push against the intellectual boundaries of “Western Europe,” as in different ways “global Renaissance” studies, pre-modern critical race studies, and other disciplinary formations are doing.

I do have a methodological worry. While the introduction repeatedly suggests the inadequacies of “the standard scholarly narrative,” Grogan does not provide examples of that narrative. That omission matters, because even old-fashioned work on Renaissance classical reception (think, arbitrarily, of Momigliano or Panofsky—not to mention recent work by Grafton and others) doesn’t ignore the ancient Near East. And on the other hand, no one would doubt that (however regrettably) Greece and Rome did occupy a central, privileged role for Renaissance writers. Notably, many of the essays here evidence the primacy of classical Greek and Roman texts, as when, say, Humble shows how Renaissance readers encountered Persia mediated through Cicero’s canonical Latin reception of Xenophon’s Greek work. There may be an answer to the questions, “how is the old scholarship defective, and what specifically is new here?” but if so, it requires an explicit discussion of which old scholarship is meant and what is wrong with it. Moreover, as Grogan admits, “English literature is perhaps over-represented” in the collection, and indeed, in crucial ways, theses essays are Eurocentric: the classical languages in evidence are almost exclusively Greek and Latin, and the modern languages European vernaculars. Anchoring the claims for novelty in explicit contrasts to older work would have clarified how this collection offers something substantially new and different. But there can be no doubt it contains excellent, distinguished work and will become a touchstone for researchers interested in the subject.

Table of Contents

Introduction, Jane Grogan
Part I: Routes of Reception
1. The Well-Thumbed Attic Muse: Cicero and the Reception of Xenophon’s Persia in the Early Modern Period, Noreen Humble
2. Zoanne Pencaro, an Early Modern Italian Reader of the Ancient Near East in Herodotus, Dennis Looney
3. From ‘Custom is King’ to ‘Custom is a Metal’: The Early Modern Afterlife of Ancient Scythian Culture, Galena Hashhozheva
4. Reading Ancient Fables from the East: Pierre-Daniel Huet’s Two-Origin Aetiology of Romance, Su Fang Ng
Part II: Materials and Traces
5. Reterritorializing Persepolis in the First English Travellers’ Accounts, Ladan Niayesh
6. Antiquarianism in the Near East: Thomas Smith (1638-1710) and his Journey to the Seven Churches of Asia, Thomas Roebuck
7. Journeying to an Antique Christian Past: Holy Land Pilgrimage Narratives in the Era of the Reformation, Megan C. Armstrong
Part III: Refiguring Sources
8. Richard Verstegan and the Symbol of Babylon in the Early Modern Period, Deirdre Serjeantson
9. Casting Models: Female Exempla of the Ancient Near East in Seventeenth-Century French Drama and Gallery Books (1642-1662), Derval Conroy
10. Assyria in Early Modern Historiography, Jennifer Sarha
11. Alexander the Great in Early Modern English Drama, Jane Grogan
12. Crises of Self and Succession: Cambyses in the English Theatre 1560 1667, Edith Hall