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.

Gruen begins with the Persians, as depicted in both Herodotus’ Histories and Aeschylus’ historical tragedy Persae, and they are in many ways paradigmatic. The people Gruen is interested in are the well-organised and powerful neighbours of the Greeks and Romans, especially those who came into conflict with them. He looks through Greek eyes at Persians, Egyptians and Phoenicians, and through Roman eyes at Carthaginians, Gauls, Germans and Jews. A short chapter deals with ‘People of Colour’, mostly black Africans, but Gruen is more interested in the ‘nearer’ Ethiopians – slaves who lived within the bounds of the Greco-Roman world – than those like the Macrobians, whom Herodotus placed in a magical utopia at the edges of the earth. Of the many exotic or grotesque races who might have gone under the heading ‘other’ – including the nomadic Scythians of the Eurasian steppes, whom François Hartog explored in his landmark study The Mirror of Herodotus – one hears little or nothing. The Fish-eaters in their houses of fish-bone, the Indian Gymnosophists philosophising naked in the sun, the Man-eaters, Men-women, Fist-sized folk (Pygmaioi) and a host of others from the freakshow of ancient ethnography cede their place here to more familiar peoples from nearer the centre of the Greco-Roman world.

This selectivity sets up a special kind of ‘othering’. Peoples at the centre of the oikoumene – the ‘inhabited world’ known to the Greeks and, later, the Romans – competed for power and resources, often fighting one another for dominance. The texts Gruen investigates are, for the most part, the product of those contests: Aeschylus and Xenophon fought the Persians before writing about them, as Julius Caesar did the Gauls, and Tacitus’ contemporaries the Jews and Germans. In contrast to the modern mythic imagination, which tends to depict contests for world domination as Manichean battles against monstrous opponents (as in The Lord of the Rings), the heroic model in antiquity demanded a contest between two noble adversaries. Even when the ‘other’ is a monster, like the centaurs seen in Greek temple friezes grappling with Heracles and the Lapiths, it is idealised and humanised, its sufferings depicted with surprising pathos. Its ultimate defeat is necessary and salutary, but the artist, dramatist or historian who represented that defeat tended, to a degree that the modern world finds remarkable, to take the point of view of the defeated.

Two cases in point are Herodotus and Aeschylus, both of whom captured the moment when an Asian power, the Achaemenid Persian empire, came to grief at the hands of a European one, the Greek coalition led by Athens and Sparta. This was momentous: the Persians, despite the immense manpower and wealth at their disposal, somehow failed in their bid to end the autonomy of the Greek city-states. From then forward, the Greeks would be on the rise, especially Athens with its victorious navy, and the Persians would never again challenge them for supremacy. Yet Herodotus cast his Histories and Aeschylus his Persae as tales of Persian downfall rather than Hellenic triumph: they fit their narratives into a tragic framework that demanded mourning the enemy’s losses. Aeschylus imagines the report of these losses first reaching the Persian capital of Susa and making its grim progress through society; his final scene is a long lament for the return of the stricken Xerxes. In racial and cultural terms Xerxes may be an ‘other’, but Aeschylus enters into his suffering as fully as he does that of any Greek tragic hero. This extraordinary degree of empathy becomes all the more remarkable when we realise that Aeschylus himself had fought in the major battles against the Persians at Marathon and Salamis (he lost his brother Cynegeirus at Marathon when an axe-wielding Persian chopped off his hand), and that the audience before which the Persae was played consisted mainly of other Persian War veterans.

Gruen rightly calls attention to the common humanity of Persians and Greeks in Aeschylus’ play, but he overplays his hand. A crucial passage he discusses is the dream vision recounted by Atossa, the Persian queen mother, in which her son’s invasion of Europe is figured as an attempt to yoke together – literally yoke together – two sisters, one dwelling in Greek territory, the other in ‘barbarian’ lands (even a Persian, in this play’s strange ethnic masquerade, can refer to her people as ‘barbaroi’). The two sisters are described as equal in stature and beauty, but different in the way they dress; one wears the Doric clothes of the Spartan-dominated Peloponnese, the other Persian robes. The barbarian sister easily accepts the bit and yoke Xerxes puts on her, while the Hellenic sister throws them violently off, upsetting Xerxes’ chariot and spilling the king to the ground. Gruen stresses the sisterhood of the two peoples but to write that ‘there is no hint of an ethnic chasm between Greek and Persian’ is simplistic. The carefully drawn contrast between styles of dress is important – the Doric peplos is chosen by Aeschylus as a native European style, in preference to the Ionian costume worn on both the eastern and western coasts of the Aegean – as is the difference in reactions to Xerxes’ yoke, one passive and supine, the other rebellious. Though bound together by blood, the sisters stand apart as emblems of the two continents to which they belong – landmasses divided by rifts far wider than the Hellespont that Xerxes succeeded, briefly, in ‘yoking’.

The Greeks of Aeschylus’ time were intensely interested in the cultural, climatic and political contrasts between Europe and Asia, and their inquiries into continental difference influenced the thinking of later Greeks and Romans. One such inquiry, the Airs, Waters, Places attributed to Hippocrates, is relegated by Gruen to a footnote on the grounds that it poses no ‘essentialist’ contrast between Greeks and Persians, but the treatise deserves to be looked at more closely. Struggling to explain social development as a product of both climate and political institutions, the author of the Airs, Waters, Places sets up a marked antithesis between Europe, with its warlike and freedom-loving peoples, and Asia, the home of indolence and enslavement. It is true that he makes no explicitly essentialist claims, and allows at one point that Greeks living in Asia become just as passive and easily dominated as other Asians. But since Europe was (in the Greek mind) principally settled by Greeks, and Asia by barbarians, and the possibilities for large-scale change in this pattern were few – except in the mind of Alexander the Great – the boundary between climatic and ethnic distinctions is hard to draw. The author of the treatise seems to be trying to explain why Greeks living in Asia had submitted readily to Persian dominion, and even fought on Xerxes’ side against their fellow Greeks, while their European brethren had risked all to resist – the question that lurks behind Aeschylus’ choice of Dorian rather than Ionian dress for the yoke-smashing sister.

Herodotus, too, was interested in the antithesis between Europe and Asia, though it is immensely more complex in his Histories than in the (probably contemporaneous) Airs, Waters, Places. A child of Greek rationalism, Herodotus experimented with radical geographic notions such as the unity of all lands and the artificiality of continental boundaries. At many points in his narrative, however, he reverts to more traditional concepts; in the book’s opening paragraphs, for example, he cites the Persians’ claim that ‘Asia’ belongs to them while ‘Europe and the Greeks’ are separate. Many of his later passages reinforce the idea that the Greco-Persian conflict was a clash between continents. And since the Persians, in a famous debate staged by Herodotus, had chosen to live in a monarchy rather than a democracy or oligarchy, the entire landmass they appropriated is defined by that institution, just as European Greece is defined by the rejection of monarchy and the adoption of the other two systems.

It is in dealing with portrayals of monarchy that Gruen makes his most far-reaching and, to my mind, unsupportable claims. The speeches and actions of Herodotus’ Persian kings, he says, ‘could as easily be ascribed to Greek as to Persian figures. They hardly serve as exemplars of an alien society representing principles irreconcilable with the spirit of Hellas.’ If Gruen is correct, many readings of Herodotus, and of the Persian Wars generally (a conflict that began with the Battle of Marathon, now being commemorated on its 2500-year anniversary), need to be radically revised. It seems inconceivable that Herodotus did not want his readers to see Xerxes – who vowed to extend his empire as far as the rays of the sun, who impaled a slain Spartan king on a stake, who ordered the execution of the admirals who failed him at the battle of Salamis – as fundamentally ‘other’ than the leaders who marshalled the Greek armies. Herodotus’ portrait of Xerxes may be rich and complex, with moments of surprising humanity, but it ultimately reveals a man, and a political system, that belong on the opposite side of the Hellespont.

The Spartans, too, had kings, but they were diarchs rather than monarchs; Herodotus tells many stories to show how the joint rulers tripped one another up and foiled one another’s projects. He even suggests, in an ethnographic excursus that has puzzled many readers, that the Spartans, in their worshipful treatment of their kings, are more Persian than Greek. Indeed, the Spartans are the only Greek people to whom Herodotus devotes such an ethnography, an othering device deployed elsewhere only when he deals with non-Greeks. The difficulty of interpreting his construction of ‘other’ is very obvious here. The category itself is labile and Herodotus wrote at a time when Athenians and Spartans, descendants respectively of Ion and Heracles according to their own origin myths, had come to regard one another, not the Persians, as the principal enemy.

The genealogies by which ancient peoples linked themselves to mythic, and often common, ancestors form another important part of Gruen’s argument against the prevailing understanding of ‘otherness’. He notes that the Persians thought of themselves as descended from a Greek hero, Perseus, who had fathered a son, Perses, by the princess Andromeda. But the acknowledgment of kinship bonds did not stop either nation from fighting the other, and it didn’t keep Alexander the Great, a Macedonian, who also considered himself a descendant of Perseus, from invading and conquering the Achaemenid empire, allegedly in retaliation for Xerxes’ attack on the Greeks. Or, to take another paradox raised by Gruen: the Roman statesman Cato the Elder inveighed against the influx of Greek culture into Rome, yet also published a genealogical treatise, the Origines, that identified Greek émigrés to Italy as the ancestors of the Romans. In cases like these, awareness of blood ties may have been a spur to, rather than a check on, the ‘othering’ impulse, as rivalrous siblings struggled to assert their distinctness.

Alexander seems to have regarded intermarriage as the best remedy for the rifts that divided his world, rifts that he understood, as did Herodotus and the author of the Airs, Waters, Places, primarily in continental terms. According to the historian Diodorus Siculus, Alexander left behind a document outlining the projects he had it in mind to undertake before his sudden death at the height of his power, aged 32. The authenticity of these so-called Last Plans is disputed, but most modern historians accept them as genuine. They included a plan to resettle vast European populations in Asia and Asians in Europe, with the goal, according to Diodorus, of ‘bringing the two major continents, by way of intermarriages and family bonds, into a common harmony and a brotherly affection’. This colossal project, along with the rest of the Last Plans, was quashed by Alexander’s army within weeks of his death.

Even if one regards the Last Plans as spurious, other evidence, compellingly discussed by Gruen, attests to Alexander’s interest in intermarriage as a way of erasing cultural and continental boundaries. After completing his conquest of Achaemenid territory, Alexander, in a mass ceremony in Susa, arranged unions between scores of his top officers and Asian women, while taking two royal Persian brides himself (he had earlier married a Bactrian woman, Rhoxane). He also solemnised the unions of his enlisted men with their common-law Asian wives, and made provision for their mixed-race children to be raised as legitimate heirs. This was, for its time, ‘rethinking the other’ to a remarkable degree. But in the end, even Alexander understood the limits of inclusiveness. When he sent his veterans home to Europe, he forbade them to take their wives and children with them, on the grounds that their countrymen would regard them as a new Persian invasion. His experiments in cultural fusion stopped at the borders of his army camp.