Among the Barbarians

James Romm

  • Rethinking the Other in Antiquity by Erich Gruen
    Princeton, 415 pp, £27.95, January 2011, ISBN 978 0 691 14852 6

‘Custom is king of all things,’ Herodotus proclaimed, arguing that if customs were like goods in a marketplace, set out alongside other such goods, each people would choose its own above all others. An experiment conducted by the Persian king Darius proved the point for Herodotus. Greeks, who buried their dead, had been confronted with Callatian Indians, who ate theirs: both groups were equally disgusted. Herodotus’ meditation on cultural relativism has often been seen as a high-water mark of Hellenic enlightenment, a rejection of the ethnocentric views that put Greeks on a loftier plane than non-Greeks. But the passage cuts two ways. People have no hope of transcending their preferences; they will always choose their own culture, since nothing prompts them to sample someone else’s. That the Greeks and Indians recoil in horror from one another proves that neither race can claim its burial rites to be morally superior. But it also suggests they will forever regard one another as fundamentally ‘other’. Custom rules its kingdom with an iron hand.

The double perspective offered by Herodotus makes clear the complexities of the topic Erich Gruen has taken on in Rethinking the Other in Antiquity. Ancient attitudes towards cultural difference can be recovered, principally from surviving texts, but these texts pose various problems. They form a far from complete record of all that was written by the Greeks, Romans and Near Eastern peoples; they are hard to interpret in themselves, and at variance with one another, even within a single period and region; and, with few exceptions, they represent the perspective of a male social elite, a viewpoint very different from that of the unlettered majority. Despite these formidable difficulties, Gruen – a historian of the Hellenistic and Roman worlds whose special focus has been on the place of the Jewish outsider – has joined the intrepid few who have waded into the vast reservoir of textual remains in the hope of emerging with a coherent sense of how the Greeks and Romans regarded the ‘other’.

Gruen insists throughout on the idea that the Greeks and Romans were more aware of their connections with, and similarities to, the ‘other’ than scholars have given them credit for. Indeed, his book raises the question of whether ‘other’ – a term he holds at arm’s length by enclosing it in quotes and capitalising it – is a useful term at all. While rethinking how the ancient world regarded the ‘other’, he is also rethinking the ‘other’ as a category of inquiry. Merely by talking about ‘others’, he suggests, we are imposing a duality, or even an antithesis, that is false to the inclusive spirit of the ancient world.

The ‘others’ Gruen is concerned with are, roughly speaking, barbarians (elsewhere, ‘others’ can also be taken to mean women, children, the elderly, slaves and the disabled or disfigured). But the word ‘barbarian’ creates even worse problems than ‘other’, connoting a mixture of primitivism, aggression and stupidity, whereas the Greek barbaros signified only a linguistic deficiency, describing those who produced sounds like bar-bar-bar rather than comprehensible Greek speech. Herodotus often uses the word seemingly without prejudice, meaning simply ‘the opposing side’ in a conflict between Greeks and non-Greeks; but at a crucial point in his history, when the Persian king Xerxes rashly takes revenge on the Hellespont for destroying a bridge he had thrown across it, Herodotus characterises the insults he hurls at it as barbarika – the kind of thing only a barbaros would say. Clearly, the word is intended pejoratively in that passage, but elsewhere, one can’t be sure. Translators struggle with barbaros, along with other tonal cues that might reveal Herodotus’ attitude to non-Greeks, the Persians in particular.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in