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  • Talk about "Barbarians" in Antiquity
  • Michael Nylan
Rethinking the Other in Antiquity. By Erich S. Gruen. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011. Pp. xiv + 415.

A new book in the field of Greek and Roman Classics has important implications for serious students of early and middle-period China as well.1 As its title suggests, Rethinking the Other in Antiquity by Erich S. Gruen calls into question one of the reigning paradigms used by historians of the classical era,2 asking whether scholars have not been over-eager to retroject postcolonial notions of the Other (the disparaged, disdained, demonized, and even subhuman)3 onto the antique world. To be clear at the outset: Gruen's book does not offer a blanket condemnation of postmodern [End Page 580] theory, nor does it discount the applicability of postmodern theories to colonial and postcolonial societies. Armed with quite a battery of postmodern theories himself, Gruen instead considers the relevance of a single brand of postmodern theory to the ancient Mediterranean civilizations (primarily, Greek, Roman, and Jewish). He laments the propensity of current scholars of literature, art history, philosophy, and history to cherry-pick their evidence, so that the standard narratives about "barbarian" relations in the distant past comport better with modern nationalistic rhetoric: "[T]he tendency of modern scholars to collect isolated bits and pieces and parade them as a sampling of Greek and Roman evaluations" is "not only methodologically flawed, but downright misleading," he writes (p. 101).4 Less plainly but no less persuasively, Gruen opposes the curious modern notion that the process of human "self-fashioning" cannot proceed in the absence of a single well-defined Other.

Propelled by Edward Said's powerful book and subaltern studies, the books and essays positing the classical roots of racism are legion. Two influential works that immediately spring to mind are Benjamin Isaac's The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity (Princeton, 2004), in Gruen's field, and Nicola di Cosmo's Ancient China and Its Enemies: The Rise of Nomadic Power in East Asian History (Cambridge, 2002), in mine.5 The few exceptions equally stand out, for example Ian Moyer's fine Egypt and the Limits of Hellenism (Cambridge, 2011) and Paul Rouzer's exemplary chapter on frontier culture in Articulated Ladies (Harvard, 2001).6 The exceptions notwithstanding, for a very long time the bulk of Classics scholarship has been predicated upon unvarying Greek antipathy toward the Persians after the Persian Wars, for example, just as the majority of early China scholars in my field expect profound disdain for the Xiongnu on the part of the Han political elite. It is easy enough to collect disparaging remarks (often out of context), and much harder to do what Arnoldo Momigliano did in Alien Wisdom (Cambridge, 1975): show the diverse types of encounters between peoples, who "could . . . visualize themselves as part of a broader cultural heritage, could discover or invent links with other societies, and could couch their own historical memories in terms of borrowed or appropriated pasts."7 Long lists of ethnic aspersions, in other words, need not necessarily construct Others, for perceptions about strangers are likely to be considerably more complicated in the world of shifting alliances and repeated exchanges. Thus Gruen's book catalogs the many individuals and groups "who often defined themselves in terms of the legends of other groups" (pp. 3-4). Lacking modern pretensions either to universalism or to melting pots, collective identities in the several ancient worlds were routinely built from connections to other cultures, it seems.

Students of classical civilizations cannot but make it their business to ask themselves how the peoples they study distinguished themselves from others, and how those peoples transformed or re-imagined themselves for certain purposes in specific situations (p. 4). Since the standard narrative presupposes that the Greek and Persian were locked in enmity, Gruen begins his book with a list of accusations supposedly leveled by Greeks against the Persians, mainly that the Persians loved luxury, happily lived under tyranny, and actually preferred this servility to rational discourse and self-determination. To counter this narrative, Gruen analyzes two of the works often [End Page 581] presumed to celebrate these stereotypes, Aeschylus' Persae, written...


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