BMCR 2022.03.51

Der ethnographische Topos in der Alten Geschichte: Annäherungen an ein omnipräsentes Phänomen

, Der ethnographische Topos in der Alten Geschichte: Annäherungen an ein omnipräsentes Phänomen. Hamburger Studien zu Gesellschaften und Kulturen der Vormoderne, 10. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2020. Pp. 164. ISBN 9783515128704. €40,00.

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

When Tacitus writes that the Jews remain separati epulis and discreti cubilibus, that they sit apart at meals and that they do not sleep with others (Hist. 5.5), he buys into a topos on the Jews that had already been in use in Greco-Roman literature for about 400 years. The Jews, or so the most common ethnographic stereotype of Judaism goes (Hist. 2.2 and 2.81), live a life apart. However, in the second book of the same work, the reader is confronted with a very different situation: there, the Jewish Queen Berenice, daughter of Herod Agrippa I, is described as the lover of the future emperor Titus (Hist. 2.2. 81).[1] What are we to do with topoi (stereotypes, clichés) in Greco-Roman historiography? This is the question asked in this slim but insightful book, which grew out of a 2018 conference at the University of Hamburg organized by Michael Zerjadkte. The six authors (all men), at the time PhD students or postdoctoral scholars, discuss the presence of topoi ranging from cruel Persian monarchs to tall Germani, including Greco-Roman stereotypes of Carthage and the Jews. Other contributions focus more on specific ancient authors (Herodotus) and the places described by them (Pausanias’ Description of Greece).

In his introduction to the volume Michael Zerjadtke offers a brief Forschungsgeschichte of the understanding of topoi in Greek and Roman literature from the perspective of the discipline of ancient history. He aims to reclaim the topic for ancient history on the grounds that ancient topoi have primarily been discussed from a philological and literary perspective.[2] Zerjadtke presents a helpful survey on how topoi have been understood from ancient rhetoricians (Aristotle, Cicero) up to modern times and ends with a brief plea for the usefulness of the field of social psychology for an appropriate understanding of stereotypes. In particular, Zerjadtke refers to the work of Pedro Bordalo et al. and their “kernel-of-truth-hypothesis” (and also to its limitations).[3] The authors of the book aim to take the stereotypes as presented in Greco-Roman literature seriously, trying to provide a fact check of sorts with regard to a number of themes.

Alexander Free in his contribution shows how much ethnographic topoi were an intrinsic part of ancient historiography. Taking the mirabilia of India and in particular the gold-digging ants as an example, Free shows that even when an author might have preferred to ignore such accounts, as in the case of Arrian (Anab. 5.4.3), readers’ expectations and rhetorical conventions kept the topoi going.

What about the topos of the gruesome Persian monarch who goes so far as to flay humans? Herodotus mentions that Cambyses has his judge Sisamnes flayed  (Hdt. 5.25), and later Greek authors happily adopted and adapted the report as a Persian habit. Is this just an example of Greek othering, the historian Julian Degen asks, or might there be a kernel of truth in it? There might be, Degen argues, given cuneiform sources describing flaying as a punishment, although no contemporary local sources prove such a habit among Persian emperors.

Topoi are not limited to ethnography: they can also be exactly that, places, albeit imagined ones. Jan Köster traces this phenomenon in Pausanias, who in his Description of Greece, treats ruins as damage remaining from the Persian invasion even where, in reality, this may not have been the case. Ruins caused by the Persian invasion had become a topos and Pausanias at times an author of “post-truth” (“postfaktisch”).

A highlight of the book is the contribution by Falk Wackerow about Roman stereotypes regarding Carthage. While this is not exactly unstudied territory, Wackerow adds new insights on three aspects of the image of ancient Carthaginians. First, Carthage as a naval power: following Polybius (6.52.1) scholars tend to believe that Carthage had a successful marine force, but Wackerow reminds us that Carthage actually lost most naval battles, so the topos of the victorious Carthaginian navy is wrong. Second (and more briefly) the cruel abandonment  on islands of mercenary troops who had revolted, mentioned three times in Greek sources (Diodorus; Cassius Dio/Zonaras) might best be understood as anti-Carthaginian propaganda (why, Wackerow asks, would these rebellious soldiers agree to join another military expedition before their financial demands were met?). Third, Wackerow casts doubt on the very existence of the Spartan mercenary captain Xanthippus of the first Punic War.

Egyptian stereotypes of the Jews have been widely discussed in the scholarship, but Patrick Reinard, by bringing literary and papyrological sources into the discussion, contributes something new.[4] He argues that the parallels between literature (most notably Tacitus, who relies on Egyptian sources) and the anti-Jewish polemics in papyri need to be taken seriously: anti-Jewish topoi were not just a literary construct but also in use in everyday life. Here Reinard also points to Egyptian terracotta statuettes from Egypt showing a man with a donkey-head, which were long ago interpreted by some as caricatures of Jews. However, Reinard rightly suspects that such interpretations of the statuettes were based on modern anti-Semitic stereotypes and should not be taken as evidence for an anti-Jewish discourse in ancient Egypt.

The last contribution of the volume is by the editor, Michael Zerjadtke. In “Topoi im antiken Germanenbild” Zerjadtke returns to the “kernel of truth” theory and considers three topoi in ancient descriptions of the Germani: their physical height, their agricultural habits, and their tactics in battle. While evidence for unusual height seems to be lacking, ancient descriptions of German agriculture and behavior in battle may not be simply fictitious. Zerjadtke argues that ethnographic information has to be taken seriously and wherever possible checked for its factuality. Just how difficult this is becomes clear from the whole book, as well as from this very contribution on the Germani, itself a collective noun for a diverse group of tribes.

The volume ends with a helpful summary of all contributions and their conclusions, as well as English abstracts. The six authors are to be congratulated for their fresh way of approaching what they call in the subtitle “ein omnipräsentes Phänomen”. The phenomenon is not only “omnipresent”, it is also enormously difficult to tackle. The authors succeed in reopening a series of cases by asking whether what we encounter in ancient texts is really simply a topos or whether it is more than that. Even in this relatively slim study the examples and contexts brought forward are so heterogeneous that a conclusive result could hardly be achieved. But as the book’s subtitle indicates (“Annäherungen”, that is, “approximations”), this was not the goal of this thought-provoking study.

Authors and titles

Michael Zerjadtke, Thematische Einführung. Der Problemkomplex “Topos” und seine Facetten.
Alexander Free, Bemerkungen zur Topik als unvermeidbarem Element antiker Geschichtsschreibung.
Julian Degen, Herodot, Sisamnes und der Topos der grausamen persischen Monarchie.
Jan Köster, Postfaktisches bei Pausanias. Ruinen als Zeugnisse für (re)konstruierte Geschichte.
Falk Wackerow, “Weil die Römer geneigt waren, alles zu glauben, was ihnen über die Karthager zugetragen wurde” (Vell. 1,12,2). Eine kritische Untersuchung dreier Aspekte des antiken Karthagerbildes.
Patrick Reinard, “Eine Seuche, die die Welt bedroht?“. Bemerkungen zu Judentopoi in ausgewählten literarischen und papyrologischen Quellen.
Michael Zerjadtke, Topoi im antiken Germanenbild. Reale Beobachtung und fiktive Begründung?
Michael Zerjadtke, Synthese und Ausblick.
Abstracts in English.


[1] Tacitus does not explicitly mention Berenice’s Jewishness, but it can hardly be doubted that he and his readers were aware of her Jewish origins. On Berenice, cf. now Tal Ilan, Queen Berenice: A Jewish Female Icon of the First Century CE. Leiden: Brill, 2022.

[2] This is certainly true with regard to early scholarship starting with Eduard Norden’s discussion of Wandermotive (topoi that migrate from one people to another) in his Die germanische Urgeschichte in Tacitus’ Germania, which was followed by a number of other studies on ancient ethnography. However, topoi have been more of a topic, also among ancient historians, than Zerjadtke and the book as a whole indicate. Scholars such as Erich S. Gruen, Emma Dench, James Rives, and Benjamin Isaac (none of them cited in the book) have written extensively on aspects relevant to the questions discussed in the volume.

[3] Pedro Bordalo, Katherine Coffman, Nicola Gennaioli, Andrei Shleifer, “Stereotypes,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 131 (2016): 1753-1794.

[4] The work by Joseph Mélèze-Modrzejewski should not have been ignored: Joseph Mélèze-Modrzejewski, Les Juifs d’Égypte de Ramsès II à Hadrien. Paris: Armand Colin, 1991, 127-130. Cf. also Gottfried Schimanowski, Juden und Nichtjuden in Alexandrien. Koexistenz und Konflikte bis zum Pogrom unter Trajan (117 n.Chr.). Münster: Lit, 2006, 231-55, and, most recently, the fourth volume of the Corpus Papyrorum Judaicarum, ed. Noah Hacham and Tal Ilan (Berlin/Jerusalem: De Gruyter/Magnes, 2020).