BMCR 2021.11.19

Ethnicity in the ancient world – did it matter?

, Ethnicity in the ancient world - did it matter?. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2020. Pp. xi, 265. ISBN 9783110684780 $74.99.


The Society for Classical Studies introduced the Erich S. Gruen Prize for graduate research on multiculturalism in the ancient Mediterranean in 2020 in honor of the namesake and his prolific work on ethnicity in antiquity. Published the same year, Ethnicity in the Ancient World: Did It Matter? brings together six previously published and five new essays. The stated objective is “to approach ancient ethnicity through the lenses of the ancients themselves rather than through the imposition of our categories, labels, definitions, or theoretical frameworks” (p. 5). To that end, Gruen marshals an impressive array of relevant Greek and Roman texts, ranging in date from the fifth century BCE to the second century CE and representing multiple authors and literary genres.

Gruen’s command of the material and breadth of knowledge is reflected in the book’s structure, which is divided into four parts on Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Christian ethnicity. The first part of the book includes three chapters: the first surveys references to barbarians in Greek texts and argues that they were represented as culturally rather than innately inferior to Greeks; the second chapter suggests Herodotus’ checklist of Greekness (8.144.2) is Athenocentric and not representative of Greek ethnicity; and the third focuses on Polybius’ use of the terms ethnos and genos, concluding that neither aligns with modern concepts of ethnicity or race. The second part of the book includes two chapters on Roman ethnicity: the first examines the complexity of foundation myths, while the second explores Roman perceptions of Italians in the works of Roman historians and other authors. The third part of the book explores Jewish ethnicity in five chapters, the first of which argues that attitudes toward mixed marriages in Biblical and post-Biblical sources were more flexible than has been presumed of a “chosen people.” The next four chapters ask whether ancient Judaism was conceived as an ethnicity or religion, first in the works of Hellenistic Jewish authors and then by individual authors, namely Philo, Josephus, and Paul, arguing they used ethnos and genos in ways that do not align with race and ethnicity. The last chapter examines references to a “third race” in early Christian texts and concludes that the terminology used does not align with modern conceptions of race.

The book’s title and framing are somewhat misleading since ethnicity clearly did “matter” to the ancient authors under study, as demonstrated by the sheer volume of evidence amassed in this book. Gruen suggests, rather, that modern preoccupations with distinguishing ethnicity from race were irrelevant to ancient authors and that modern categories of ethnicity and race are therefore inappropriate for analyzing ancient social difference. Gruen deftly demonstrates the flexible and contingent nature of ancient ethnicity in his close readings of texts. Less successful, however, is his central argument (unstated in the introduction) that Greek and Roman authors expressed neither ethnic prejudice nor racism, which is undermined by his own lack of terminological clarity in using race and ethnicity interchangeably, a surprising decision given his focus on contextualizing ancient uses of ethnos and genos.

Gruen argues that modern definitions of ethnicity and race overlap so much conceptually as to be equivalent, a position that could have been strengthened by more engagement with the current sociological and anthropological literature on the subject.[1] His discussion of primordialist, instrumentalist, and constructivist approaches to ethnicity dismisses them as labels and the distinction between the primordialism on the one hand and instrumentalism and constructivism on the other as “a mere construct” like the one between ethnicity and race, which he also rejects (p. 3). But these terms distinguish early essentialist (primordialist) from later instrumentalist and current constructivist ideas of ethnicity as either fixed or fluid, a matter of innate character or dynamic social/cultural practice.[2] Similarly, the idea of biological race (shared physical features and inherent characteristics) is distinguished from current constructivist ideas of social race (shared physical features and social/cultural practices).[3] Not arbitrary distinctions, then, the terminology describes important developments in the scholarship on ethnicity and race. Nor is the distinction between ethnicity and race arbitrary, as Gruen argues, because it reflects their different history. What distinguishes race from ethnicity is power and implied hierarchy because race was invented to justify racial slavery and has never been a neutral category to signifying “other”.[4] These changing conceptualizations and their differential power dynamics of ethnicity and race are accounted for in constructivist approaches, but Gruen characterizes them as so unstable as to provide no precise definition of ethnicity. It is unclear, however, if he is referring to ancient or modern ethnicity, and his own use of the term ethnicity is confusing:

In general it operates at two levels. First, it can carry the broad and indistinct meaning of a communal self-perception. And second, it can refer to a sense of collective identity in which the predominant element is ancestry or kinship, essentially equivalent to the normal understanding of ‘race’, by contrast with the host of traits, customs, and traditions that we conventionally associate with ‘culture’. (p. 4).

This description appears to invoke outdated ideas of primordial ethnicity and natural race by equating race with ancestry and kinship in opposition to culture. Indeed, throughout the text Gruen uses biological race, with its roots in scientific racism, conflating it with ethnicity and essentializing both. Distinct definitions of ethnicity and race might have clarified his use of the terms (and the object of his analysis) but race is left undertheorized.[5]

Employing outdated concepts of primordial ethnicity and biological race allows Gruen to argue that Greek and Roman authors expressed neither ethnic prejudice nor racism since he conceptualizes both as scientific racism, redefining ethnic prejudice and overlooking social race and cultural racism. Though unstated in the introduction, Gruen argues this point so consistently that the book reads like a response to Benjamin Isaac’s “proto-racism,” expressions of extreme ethnic prejudice by ancient authors whose work inspired the modern inventors of racism.[6] Gruen opens the first chapter (“Were Barbarians Barbaric?”) by dismissing Aristotle’s statement that barbarians and enslaved people are the same by nature as a “clumsy analogy” before relegating the philosopher’s theory of “natural slavery” to a footnote (pp. 11-12, fn. 5).  According to Gruen, “Hellenic attitudes in general show little conformity with the racism that readers have seen, rather too readily, in Aristotelian pronouncements” (p. 13). He goes on to use racism, ethnocentrism, and ethnic prejudice interchangeably in his analysis of other Greek authors. For example, the first chapter concludes:

The Hellenic sense of superiority in culture, learning, and accomplishment prevailed… But that disposition stood at considerable distance from any concept of congenital inferiority. Racism had not yet reared its ugly head (p. 41).

Gruen argues throughout the text that ancient ethnicity was conceptualized in terms of social or cultural practice and not fixed, biologically determined qualities. In other words, ancient ideas of ethnicity align with constructivist definitions. Integrating current work thus strengthens his argument that ancient ethnicity was dynamic and fluid. Current approaches also support his claim that ancient evaluations of barbarian inferiority are not racism though not because, as he argues, they had no concept of biological race but rather because of power dynamics involved, since Herodotus et al. did not oppress the non-Greeks. By contrast, as Susan Lape demonstrates but Gruen does not address, Athenian citizenship laws can be described as racial discrimination against metics because they represent institutionalized oppression of a subordinate group within Athens based on their non-autochthonous status and presumed genetic inferiority.[7] But Greek authors do express ethnocentrism by describing barbarians as less civilized based on their customs, as demonstrated by the very etymology of the term. Similarly, ethnic prejudice is expressed by barbarian stereotypes, both negative and positive, as the numerous and sometimes conflicting comments on barbarians compiled in this first chapter demonstrate.

Whether or not the ancient authors were themselves prejudiced, no pervasive system of racial or ethnic oppression existed in the ancient Mediterranean. What makes race relevant to discussions of ancient social difference is the direct impact of ancient ideas on modern racism (e.g., the impact of Aristotle’s notion of “natural slavery” on the anti-abolitionist movement). Impact and not intent is the focus of more recent work. Gruen’s approach in this book seems out of sync with current conversations, which is perhaps understandable for a volume of collected essays given the dynamic pace of work on race in antiquity in recent years.[8] The recent rise of reception studies exploring the impact of ancient ideas on modern racial ideology responds to ongoing appropriations of the classical tradition by white supremacist groups that seek to intellectualize and legitimize their hate by invoking the authority of “classical” antiquity.[9] But Shelley Haley demonstrated long ago that ancient ideas are filtered through the modern biases of translators and commentators. In her seminal article, “Be Not Afraid of the Dark: Critical Race Theory and Classical Studies,” Haley contrasts the neutral treatment of Scybale’s Black female body by the poet of the Moretum with the prejudiced language of modern translators, which echoes exaggerated 19th century descriptions of African women. Reception studies are essential in discussions of ancient social difference because they demonstrate the need for scholars to be reflexive and account for their own biases in reconstructing ancient ideas and identities. Such reflexivity does, however, challenge the premise that it is possible “to approach ancient ethnicity through the lenses of the ancients themselves” (p. 5).

Although not conversant with recent work on ethnicity and race, this book reflects Gruen’s tireless efforts to highlight the multiculturalism of the ancient Mediterranean. The approach stands out in the current environment of racial reckoning in the field[10] but it, too, helps counter the supremacist narrative of “classical” antiquity by highlighting the diversity of ancient identities and attitudes towards social difference. The elision of ethnicity and race results in semantic slippage that can be disorienting and even misleading. Gruen is nevertheless successful in demonstrating that ancient ethnicity was conceptualized as fluid and inclusive. This book’s broad chronological scope, range of authors and genres, and cautious readings of text (paired with current scholarly approaches) are valuable contributions to ongoing discussions of past personhood.

Chapter titles

1. Were barbarians barbaric?
2. Herodotus and Greekness
3. The racial judgments of Polybius
4. Rome’s multiple identities and tangled perspectives
5. Constructed ethnicities in republican Italy
6. The chosen people and mixed marriages
7. Did Hellenistic Jews consider themselves a race or a religion?
8. Philo and Jewish ethnicity
9. The ethnic vocabulary of Josephus
10. The racial reflections of Paul
11. Christians as a “third race”?
12. Conclusion.


[1] See the debate between Howard Winant and Andreas Wimmer in Ethnic and Racial Studies 38.13, 2015.

[2] Johannes Siapkas, “Ancient Ethnicity and Modern Identity,” in A Companion to Ethnicity in the Ancient Mediterranean, ed. McInerney (Wiley-Blackwell, 2014): 66-81.

[3] Audrey Smedley and Brian Smedley, Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview, 4th ed., Westview Press, 2012.

[4] Karen Fields and Barbara Fields, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life, Verso 2014.

[5] Gruen does observe that discussing race can generate backlash in the form of charges of “reverse racism” and “identity politics,” which have been leveled against the predominately BIPOC and female scholars working on the topic in recent years, though none are cited. See, e.g., Dan-el Padilla Peralta, “Some thoughts on AIA-SCS 2019,” Medium, 2019; Sarah Bond, “The misuse of an ancient Roman acronym by White nationalist groups,” Hyperallergic, 2018.

[6] Benjamin Isaac, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity, Princeton, 2004.

[7] Susan Lape, Race and Citizen Identity in the Classical Athenian Democracy, Cambridge, 2010.

[8] See, e.g., Patrice Rankine, “Classics For All? Liberal Education and the Matter of Black Lives,” in Classicisms in the Black Atlantic, eds. Moyer, Lecznar, Morse (Oxford, 2020): 267-90; Jackie Murray, “W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Quest of the Silver Fleece: The Education of Black Medea,” TAPA 149.2 (2019); Emily Greenwood, “Subaltern Classics in Anti- and Post-Colonial Literatures in English,” in The Oxford History of Classical Reception in English Literature, eds. Vance and Wallace (Oxford, 2019): 576-607; Margaret Malamud, African Americans and the Classics: Antiquity, Abolition and Activism, IB Tauris, 2019.

[9] See Curtis Dozier’s blog Pharos for appropriations, Rebecca Kennedy’s Classics at the Intersections for a bibliography of race and classics, and Donna Zuckerberg’s now defunct Eidolon for contributions on race and reception.

[10] University of Cambridge Faculty Board of Classics, “Open Letter: a response from the Faculty Board of Classics,” July 16, 2021.