Review: E. Gruen, Rethinking the Other in Antiquity (2)

19 June 2011

[This is the second part of a review; the first one is here.]


Nevertheless, Gruen tackles a non-problem. I do not think there are many scholars who believe that the Romans were always hostile about the Germans, that the Greeks never said something kind about the Egyptians, and that everybody disliked the Jews. Granted, Gruen refers to Antony Pagden, the author of Worlds at War (2008), as an example of someone who makes gross mistakes; but who takes Pagden’ simple ontological holism seriously? As the regular readers of this little blog will be aware, I am usually the first one to agree that the current generation of classicists and ancient historians is not up to their tasks (example), but they are not as short-sighted as Pagden. Really. I think that most readers of Gruen’s book will read the words “the distance between cultures could be crossed in multiple and intriguing ways that elide the antithesis” with a certain indifference. Duh.

As I said, Gruen asks the wrong question. His answer is also incomplete. Granted, the subject matter is so rich that it is impossible to deal with every single aspect. No one will blame Gruen for not mentioning the temple of Isis in Rome, a fully Egyptian enclave in Italy about which many hostile stories were told, but which was still the largest sanctuary in a city that did not lack large sanctuaries. (Come to think of it, on the Palatine, the core of the core of Rome, the tallest temples were dedicated to Cybele and Elagabal.)

Yet, if Gruen wants to prove that cultural interconnectedness was important, it is not smart to use evidence from comparatively little-known authors like Silius Italicus. Why not Virgil himself, with his borrowings from Jewish literature in his account of Aeneas’ descent into the Netherworld? A chapter on xenophobia and xenophilia in Rome’s greatest authors might have strengthened Gruen’s thesis.

Summa summarum: Rethinking the Other in Antiquity has some conceptual weaknesses, but it is fascinating and interesting, and the reader will enjoy the pleasant feeling that there is still a lot to be discovered about the ancient world. “Classical” does not mean that everything about it has already been said.

More than once, I was reminded of my teacher, the late Pieter Willem de Neeve, who once had to review another book by Gruen, which he considered to be only partly successful, but which he also liked very much, because Gruen had shown many new aspects of texts which De Neeve had believed he already knew. This was also my experience, which says a lot about Gruen’s broad look at things, and about the texts from the ancient world: you can read them a hundred times, and they continue to surprise you.

References to Lévi-Strauss are mercifully absent.


Review: E. Gruen, Rethinking the Other in Antiquity (1)

19 June 2011


Rethinking the Other in Antiquity is a fascinating book. This conclusion is in itself interesting, because author Erich Gruen asks the wrong question and offers an incomplete answer. However, he also offers much interesting information. In the end, the book is pretty successful.

First, the wrong question. Analysis of “the Other” has been a fashionable topic for quite a long time already. Typically, an ancient historian or classicist collected everything that the Greeks and Romans had written about one of their neighbors (e.g., the Persians, Scythians, Carthaginians, Germans) and investigated how the classical authors presented their subject matter. The Carthaginian from literature often turned out to be a kind of anti-Roman, with all vices that the Romans detested most in themselves. In an interesting chapter in his Carthage Must Be Destroyed (2010), British classicist Richard Miles showed how the Carthaginian vices changed with the developing self-image of the Romans.

To the best of my knowledge, no classicist or historian has ever claimed that the “Other” was only the anti-Greek or anti-Roman. When I read an article about, say, Greek images of Egypt, I never have the impression that the modern author implied that the Greeks did not also recognize the Egyptians as human beings with whom they had a lot in common. Yet, Gruen sets out to show that the same sources that are read as presentations of the Other, can be read as evidence that the ancient nations recognized similarities.

The result is, as I said, fascinating and certainly worth reading. Of course, the relations were not just black and white, “we” versus “the other”, antagonistic only. The stories that the ancient nations told about each other, indeed show that they often believed that they had a lot to share.

In the first part of the book, “Impressions of the Other”, Gruen deals with Greek ideas about the Persians and Egyptians, Roman views of Carthage, Caesar’s Gauls, Tacitus’ Germans and Jews, and ideas about people with a different color. In the brilliant second part, “Connections with the Other”, Gruen presents the patterns used to stress cultural interconnectedness. In their foundation legends, for example, the Greeks and Romans presented themselves as descendants from other nations; in genealogical lists, Greeks and Jews could describe themselves as brothers of other nations; and there was always a possibility to adopt each other’s roles, like a Greek presenting a Jew as in the traditionally Greek role of philosopher.

Often, Gruen’s conclusions seem a bit too obvious. I was not surprised to read that Aeschylus does not present us with a hostile portrayal of the Persians in his famous play with the same title. Still, Gruen has a lot of interesting observations to make. I had not expected that the famous expression “Punica fides” is in fact very rare. There were many surprises, especially in the second part of the book.

[to be continued]

Oppian, Cynegetica

6 May 2011

A pair of opisthuretic Dogs going at it

It’s been a long while since I’ve put up anything new on the Graeco-Roman section of my site, at least anything of any size or consequence. But American history notwithstanding, I’m still committed to providing crumbs of Antiquity to the numberless eager masses starving to feed on them.

Today’s morsel is Oppian’s Cynegetica, in both Greek original and English translation: nominally a manual on hunting, much of it is in fact a textbook on zoology, frequently cribbing from the incredible, towering genius of Aristotle, but also standing on its own as a good snapshot of what the Mediterranean world knew about animals in the early 3c AD, and so written — it’s poetry, or at least it’s in verse — as to make it a natural ancestor of all those wonderful medieval bestiaries. It’s an interesting book, and worth the trouble of putting up.

And transcribing the Cynegetica has indeed proved to be a tremendous chore, mostly because its editor and translator, the Scotsman A. W. Mair, did exemplary work, his voluminous annotations being extraordinarily thorough, as well as relevant and intelligent, which is more than can be said of some other modern editings found in the Loeb Classical Library: at any rate, Prof. Mair’s notes range from the ever seminal Aristotle of course to Sir Walter Scott; from Pliny and Ovid to Schemseddin Mohammed (16c) and Shakespeare; from Plutarch and the Bible to modern zoological works. Those copious notes are in Latin and Greek, German, French and Italian, and thank goodness there’s not very much Hebrew, since that particular language is a pain for me to transcribe. Mmm, I forgot — a smattering of English, too.

Further complicating the transcription is that Oppian — whether he or someone else by the same name, as the old saw goes — also wrote Halieutica, on fishing; and the two works are very tightly related, so that Prof. Mair’s notes constantly link from one to the other, and his 80‑page introduction covers both: this in turn means that, until I also get the Halieutica fully up (only a draft for the moment), some few of the links to it may not work; patience, folks, we’ll slay this monster yet.

Similarly, the many, many, citations of Athenaeus and Strabo and of Plutarch On the Intelligence of Animals — all three also in progress on LacusCurtius (i.e., incomplete and in their bathrobes as it were) — had me detouring thru those writers and making sure at least that they’d brushed their teeth, and fixing the worst rips in their pajamas: links to them are correspondingly incomplete and may occasionally be erratic as well, reader be warned.

Still, when I get done, taking it all together, LacusCurtius will have a solid nucleus on ancient zoology. The next step would be Aristotle; I wonder if I’ll take it.

Mercury in Amsterdam

30 April 2011


Between 1600 and 1800, somewhere around ten thousand European ships sailed around the Cape of Good Hope to Persia, the Indies, China, and Japan. Half of these came from Holland. Of the vessels that sailed from the North Sea to the Baltic Sea, two-thirds flew the red, white and blue flag. Another ‘triumph’ for the Dutch entrepreneurship was the 45 per cent market share they had in the slave trade.

At that moment in time, Holland owned seventeen hundred ships, more than the fleets of France and England put together. It should also be borne in mind that the Holland flute ship could be manned by fewer sailors than ships from other countries, making for a much higher profit per ship.

Holland was responsible for sixty per cent of the Gross National Product of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands and within Holland, Amsterdam produced the lion’s share. So, it comes as no suprise that if there is an ancient god who is almost omnipresent in Amsterdam, it is Mercury.

I put some photos here.

The sign of Socrates

5 February 2011
A stylized starburst


Yet another chunk of Plutarch: the De Genio Socratis; just in English, since the Greek text, along with a French translation, is already available at Philippe Remacle’s site.

We need not be misled by the title, “On the Genius (Sign, Daemon) of Socrates”; maybe a third of it discusses in what his guardian voice might have consisted, and it is embedded in a typically Greek matrix of (1) moral concerns, (2) mysticism, and (3) murder — this last, the Theban uprising of 379 BC, forming the unlikely setting and in fact the main topic: after a spirited discussion of Buddhist reincarnation, virtue and the paths of the planets thru the Milky Way, the philosophers run off to assassinate the heads of their government.

Samples of (1), (2), and (3), in order:

For if it is a noble act to benefit friends, it is no disgrace to be benefited by them; for the favour, requiring a recipient no less than a giver, needs both to be made perfect in nobility. He who refuses to accept the favour, like the man who refuses to catch a well-directed ball, disgraces it, allowing it to fall to the ground without achieving its end. For what target is so delightful to hit and so painful to miss, as a man deserving kindness at whom we aim a favour? Yet in the case of the target the man who misses has only himself to blame, as the mark is fixed; whereas with favours, the man who declines and moves aside is guilty of an offence against the favour, allowing it to fall short of its goal.

Some of it was of the pure hue of the high seas, while elsewhere the colour was not unmixed, but turbid and like that of a pool. As they crested the surge the islands came back, without, however, returning to their point of departure or completing a circle; but with each new circuit they advanced slightly beyond the old, describing a single spiral in their revolution. The sea containing these was inclined at an angle of somewhat less than eight parts of the whole toward the midmost and largest portion of the surrounding envelope, as he made out; and it had two openings receiving rivers of fire emptying into it across from one another, so that it was forced far back, boiling, and its blue colour was turned to white. All this he viewed with enjoyment of the spectacle. But looking down he saw a great abyss, round, as though a sphere had been cut away; most terrible and deep it was, and filled with a mass of darkness that did not remain at rest, but was agitated and often welled up. From it could be heard innumerable roars and groans of animals, the wailing of innumerable babes, the mingled lamentations of men and women ….

[W]hen Melon, the first to make a move, set out through their midst, his hand on his sword hilt, Cabirichus, the magistrate appointed by lot, caught his arm as he passed and shouted: “Isn’t this Melon, Phyllidas?” Melon, however, disengaged himself, drawing his sword as he did so, and rushing at Archias, who was having trouble getting to his feet, did not slacken his blows until he had killed him. Philippus was wounded by Charon near the neck, and as he defended himself with the goblets set before him, Lysitheüs threw him from his couch to the ground and dispatched him. We endeavoured to quiet Cabirichus, adjuring him not to lend aid to the tyrants but help us set his country free, as his person was sacred and consecrated to the gods in that country’s behalf. But as he was not easily to be won over to the wiser course by an appeal to reason, the wine also having its effect, but was getting to his feet, excited and confused, and couching the spear our magistrates are accustomed to keep always with them, I seized it in the middle and raising it above my head shouted to him to let go and save himself, as he would otherwise be cut down; but Theopompus came up at his right and struck him with his sword, saying: “Lie there with these you toadied to: may you never wear the chaplet when Thebes is free and never sacrifice again to the gods before whom you have invoked so many curses on your country in your many prayers for her enemies.” When Cabirichus had fallen, Theocritus (who was standing near) caught up the sacred spear from the blood, while we dispatched the few servants who had ventured to fight back and locked up the rest ….

There’s still a lot of Plutarch left: right now, only 45% of the Moralia are onsite.

New at LacusCurtius (8)

3 November 2010

LacusCurtius‘ Bill Thayer has resumed putting online the Greek texts of Dio Chrysostom, the complete English being already up. Here are Discourse 25 (English), Discourse 43 (English), Discourse 45 (English) and Discourse 48 (English), which Bill summarizes as:

The new proconsul is coming to see us; for Heaven’s sake, people, let’s not embarrass ourselves in front of him by airing our dirty laundry right off — we can always do that later.

In the Daremberg & Saglio, the craticula, the gridiron, and in the Antiquaries’ Shoebox the ‘bridge’ at Aricia, and a series of three pieces on ancient Privernum (1, 2, 3).

SMS from Turkey

3 October 2010

Tarkasnawa of Mira

In 2003, Marco and I rented a car and made a trip through Turkey. As always, we didn’t have time to visit the most important sites (I still haven’t been in Perge or Pergamon), because we lost way too much time on silly trivialities like finding the rock relief of king Tarkasnawa of the Hittite vassal kingdom Mira. It is not terribly important, but it’s mentioned by Herodotus, who believed it to be an Egyptian relief (more…). I think we spent about two hours, searching in vain, before we decided to give up. At that very moment, we spotted the small stairs along the road that indicated the place where we ought to climb to the rock. I will never forget the shout of Marco, who was the first to go up, that he saw the object of our quest.

I most have told this story several times, not ignoring our futile attempt to ask a Turkish woodcutter, who spoke only Turkish, whether he knew the relief. Apparently, my stories must have made some friends curious, because the other day, I received an SMS from two friends who were, at that moment, standing next to Tarkasnawa, and knew they would cause me great joy by letting me know where they were standing.

More here; satellite photo here.