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  • Introduction: Gender, East, and West in Classical Antiquity*
  • Maryline Parca and Angeliki Tzanetou

I. Preliminaries

The papers assembled in this volume were presented at the panel sponsored by the Women’s Classical Caucus at the 2010 meeting of the American Philological Association in Anaheim, California, a place at once emblematic of the West and geographically and historically linked with what lies beyond (Pacific Rim, Far East, Asia), where the East lies. The location suggested to us that inviting reflections on the ways in which the Greeks and the Romans conceptualized their historical, political, and cultural distinctiveness by comparison with, and in contrast to, the East would be relevant and also timely. While the polarity between Europe and Asia is as old as Homer, the ideology of difference became prominent in Greek thought in the course of the Persian Wars,1 and gender as a category played a central role in articulating the dichotomy between East and West. Gender became enmeshed in the ideological struggle for self-definition, and key polarities such as Greek versus barbarian, male versus female, and free versus slave also came to be articulated at that time. The association of Orientalism and sexism was later adopted and adapted by the Romans.

Together, these five essays contribute to an understanding of the preconceptions underlying the Greeks’ and the Romans’ constructs and images of foreigners as barbarian “others.” Originally signifying the ancients’ conception of the bounding limits of Europe and Asia, the distinction between East and West furnished the basis for creating notional [End Page 155] boundaries and outlining cultural differences.2 Encounters and relations between the Greco-Roman world and the East offered opportunities for contact and observation,3 and awareness of differences greatly contributed to the creation of images, ideas, and stereotypes about other peoples, their political systems, cultural beliefs, and religious customs.4 As the scholarship on self-definition in antiquity amply illustrates, Greeks and Romans expressed their cultural superiority and justified their dominance over others by fashioning the image of the barbarian as “other.”

The introduction and the essays draw from the scholarship on self-definition in antiquity and contribute to it by concentrating specifically on the role of gender in articulating, promoting, and complicating the opposition between East and West. Among earlier scholarly publications, Edith Hall’s influential Inventing the Barbarian furthered the study of ethnography, alterity, and identity in antiquity and paved the way for new approaches in this area.5 As Hall herself notes, the book’s thesis on Greeks and barbarians crystallized around “the conviction that ethnic stereotypes, ancient and modern, though revealing almost nothing about the groups they are intended to define, say a great deal about the community which produces them,” so that, as she notes further, the title of the book may as well have been “Inventing the Hellene as Inventing [End Page 156] the Barbarian.”6 Numerous important publications have appeared in the last twenty-five years on ethnic and national identities,7 broadening structuralist and post-structuralist thinking on self-definition and articulating their relevance for the study of alterity by employing methods and advances in social history and in studies of imperialism and colonialism.8

Mention must also be made of Erich Gruen’s comprehensive study, Rethinking the Other in Antiquity. Gruen shifts the emphasis away from alterity and binary opposites to highlight the ways in which encounters between East and West do not necessarily result in reflections of opposition, arguing instead that they contribute to the construction of Greek and Roman identities through a process of incorporation and assimilation of myths, ideas, and practices that belong to others. As such, the author writes in his introduction that his book “aims to demonstrate that the conception of collective identity in terms of (rather than in contrast to) another [End Page 157] culture forms a significant ingredient in the ancient outlook.”9 Gruen thus de-emphasizes binary thinking and points out some of the limitations underlying the opposition between Greeks, Romans, and foreigners.10

Furthermore, the image of the barbarian as “other” underwent modifications during and as a result of the Greek-Persian wars, the conquests of Alexander the Great, the expansion of Rome, and Roman...


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