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Reviewed by:
  • Babylon, Memphis, Persepolis: Eastern Contexts of Greek Culture
  • John Boardman (bio)
Walter Burkert , Babylon, Memphis, Persepolis: Eastern Contexts of Greek Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 192 pp.

Research into classical antiquity is no longer the specialist mug's gameyet another edition of a book of Homer or Herodotus, or the quest for the origins of the Peloponnesian War. Now that the Internet and Google have tied up the problems of collecting the evidence, the main effort has to be in making further connections, in being highly critical of all evidence, in making coherent sense of it all, and then telling the rest of us all about it; the step from the traditional PhD to serious scholarship has become much more than a formality.

Walter Burkert could not have made it more difficult for himself than by embarking on a career studying Greek religion, which requires deep familiarity with every branch of antiquarian study, even outside "Classics," none barred. His success has been remarkable, far outpacing the dedicated philologist, philosopher, or analyst of ancient art. His writing is seldom (well, not often) difficult. In this short book he seems to summarize the results of many of the more taxing subjects he has covered in a long career, those involving the identification and explanation of Greek beliefs and practices paralleled in other, older cultures, and deciding whether there is a case for borrowing or simply of coincidence when things seem to match near perfectly. Of course, they never quite match perfectly, and then the volume of evidence and plausibility have to be weighed. He tends to be optimistic in seeing connections. Looking at Greece and the East, the case has by now been made, although it can still be overargued in some essentials and depends almost more on detecting literary devices than on beliefs; but with Zarathustra and the magi, and to some degree Orpheus and Osiris, we may begin to feel that the pace is being forced a little faster than the flow of incontrovertible evidence might allow. Of course, in antiquity, despite travel problems, everyone was in everyone else's pocket, and it was not only that great minds thought alike but that people at large, faced with comparable problems of survival, found comparable remedies and dressed them in imaginative literature and a nexus of cult practices recognizable in any age and place, whatever the differences of emphasis. In these matters, the Greeks were seldom the passive receptors of the ideas of others, but rather translators. Even a little reading in the religion of Oriental and early American and African peoples teaches us not to expect that Greece, or Greece plus the Near East and Egypt, are in any way special in their treatment of the numinous. Globalization of scholarship hardly starts here, but it could not easily find a more rewarding, if often frustrating, subject. The cover picture of Burkert's book is of a first-century BC head of a god of mixed Greek and Eastern identity, at a site in east Turkey. The god looks perplexed, as well he might be in his role, poised between West and East.

John Boardman

Sir c Boardman, Lincoln Professor of Classical Art and Archaeology Emeritus at Oxford University, is editor of the Oxford History of Classical Art, coeditor of the Oxford History of the Classical World, and author of, most recently, The History of Greek Vases and The Diffusion of Classical Art in Antiquity. Currently based at the Ashmolean Museum, he is a fellow of the British Academy.