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The Origins of Foreigners

Rethinking the Other in Antiquity
By Erich S. Gruen
(Princeton University Press, 415 pp., $39.50)

MITT ROMNEY, along with other Republicans, has worked hard over the last few months to present Barack Obama as something other than a genuine native-born American. He has stopped short of the absurdities of the “birther movement,” but he has insisted that the president, in all the ways that really matter, is somehow less American, and more foreign, than he and the members of his party. In Pennsylvania on July 17, Romney called Obama’s policies “extraordinarily foreign”; and Romney’s surrogate, John Sununu, claimed that the president has “no idea how the American system functions,” owing to having spent his early years “in Hawaii smoking something.” During Romney’s visit to Britain on the eve of the Olympics, one of his advisers made remarks that many saw as racist—claiming that Romney would be better able to relate to the British than Obama could, because of his “shared Anglo-Saxon heritage.” All of this can be seen as an attempt on the part of the Romney campaign to “other” the president: to present him as culturally and ethnically different from the average American voter, and therefore as unsuitable for leadership of the country.

The rhetoric of Romney’s campaign raises an important question about the collective identity of the United States: to what extent is being American understood through its opposite, being “foreign”? Must the culture of our country be defined by national or ethnic difference? More broadly, one might wonder whether the Republican tactic of presenting the other side as foreign, and of associating being foreign with a set of negative attributes (in this case, drug abuse, weakness, and a lack of patriotism), might be the kind of thing that humans always tend to do with their opponents.

Don’t we always tend to favor those who seem like ourselves, and, conversely, exaggerate the negative attributes of those who seem to lie outside our own tribe or group? Is it a universal human trait to treat “foreign” as a dirty word? Is it even possible to imagine a society that would not do this? It is a common popular belief that social groups cohere only in opposition to other groups, which must be perceived as hostile and essentially different from themselves. William Golding’s powerful novel The Inheritors suggests that the development and success of Homo sapiens involved the rejection, and “othering,” of the Neanderthals. A famous episode of “The Outer Limits” presents scientists faking an alien invasion of Earth, as the only way to create world peace between humans. We love our friends only because we hate our enemies.

IF WE WANT TO test this hypothesis, an obvious place to look is Greco-Roman antiquity. The ancient Greeks and Romans interacted with other ethnic and cultural groups by means of trade, war, colonization, enslavement, travel, immigration, and intermarriage. They have left us a rich body of art and literature that provides insights into how they perceived the different kinds of “foreigners” with whom they shared the Mediterranean basin. We can use this material to investigate whether or not Greek and Roman societies depended for their sense of cultural identity on hostility toward other ethnic or cultural groups.

The first thing to notice is that the Greek word barbaros—borrowed by the Romans as barbarus—has connotations significantly different from those of our word “foreigner.” The word “foreign” descends ultimately from the Latin word for “door,” or foris, and originally connotes a person who is outside one’s doors—an outsider or stranger. Words for “foreign” in other modern European languages (such as straniero or Fremde) similarly connote locative distance—strangers are people who live outside (extra) the home or hearth or country of the speaker. Yet the word barbaros suggests a distance not of location but rather of language: a barbarian is a person who cannot speak Greek (for the Romans, Greek or Latin), and instead makes incomprehensible sounds: “Ba! Ba!” This is our first clue that the conception of foreigners in these cultures might be significantly different from our own (though not necessarily more positive). Cultural and linguistic difference matters a lot; geography and biology matter rather less.

There have been plenty of recent studies of perceptions of race, ethnicity, foreignness, and other kinds of “otherness” in antiquity. Frank Snowden’s Blacks in Antiquity and Lloyd Thompson’s Romans and Blacks argued that we should resist the temptation to import modern categories of race and racism back into antiquity. The ancients, these scholars argued, were not particularly prejudiced against blackness as such. They also suggested that ancient ideas about ethnicity are not identical with the modern idea of “race”—which connotes a (false) notion that people of a single ethnicity share certain essential, biological traits. The ancients mostly seem to have lacked the idea that ethnic differences had a biological basis; therefore their ethnic prejudices should not be equated with “racism.”

Yet recent scholars have insisted that a lack of “racism” does not imply that the Greeks and Romans were lacking in all prejudice against people from other cultures. This would be astonishing if it were true, and there is no reason to believe it. Important recent studies on ancient ethnic prejudice—including Edith Hall on the often (but not always) hostile representations of foreigners in Greek tragedy, and Phiroze Vasunia on the “hegemonic” representation of Egyptians in Greek literature—deal mostly with prejudice in the world of the imagination. But other studies, such as Susan Mattern’s Rome and the Enemy, have suggested that ethnic hostility had real political and military implications: the Romans justified domination and colonialism of other peoples by exaggerating their “otherness.” And Benjamin Isaac’s massive work, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity, which covered Jews as well as “blacks,” argued that there was indeed prejudice against the ethnic and cultural “other” in antiquity, although it is a mistake to equate the ancient style of prejudice with the modern term “racism.” Isaac suggested that we can find in antiquity at least the roots of modern forms of prejudice: “proto-racism,” if not yet the full-blown racism of the modern age.

The scholarly debate about ancient attitudes toward race and ethnicity becomes particularly heated when attempts are made to link ancient and modern varieties of intolerance. Some studies have suggested that modern racial prejudice can be blamed on the bad old Greeks and Romans, the first dead white males, who started the whole sorry business in the first place. In Orientalism, Edward Said, a scholar of nineteenth- and twentiethcentury literature, pinpointed Greek hostility to their military enemies, the Persians, as the starting point for modern Western prejudices against the people of the Middle East. But others have suggested a more complex kind of causation, whereby modern racism can emerge from (conscious or unconscious) misreading of the ancient evidence. A Most Dangerous Book,Christopher Krebs’s account of Tacitus’s Germania,showed how the Roman historian’s rather unflattering account of the rugged, undisciplined, drunken Germans became transformed into an inspirational, and mostly unread, handbook for the Hitler Youth, and was used to justify German nationalism.

Using a much broader canvas, Martin Bernal’s controversial Black Athena,whosefirst volume appeared in 1987, argued that the “Ancient Model” posited Africa (meaning mostly Egypt) and the Near East (especially Phoenicia) as the primary sources for Greek culture, but that these inter-cultural connections were systematically obscured and denied by the racist work of ancient historians in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Bernal, who is not a specialist in classical history, has been challenged by many classicists in his reading of the ancient evidence, especially on the grounds that he slips too fast from myth into history. But his systematic account of the prejudices that informed, guided, and perverted the work of some of the most influential classical scholars of the modern age still makes for enlightening and disheartening reading. Bernal showed why ancient perceptions of ethnicity and cultural connection might matter enormously for modern scholars, and conversely, how very difficult it is to read the ancient texts without importing our own preconceptions into them.

INTO THIS RICH AND crowded field now comes Erich Gruen, whose book is a provocative challenge to the scholarly status quo. Against those who find sustained and widespread ethnic and cultural prejudice against foreigners in Greek and Roman culture, Gruen argues that the people of classical antiquity were far less prone to negative ethnic stereotyping than we are ourselves. He disputes the idea that the ancients saw themselves as radically different from, and essentially greater than, the other peoples of their time. Instead he argues, through a series of close readings of key Greek and Latin texts (and a few works of art), that the Greeks and the Romans viewed themselves as deeply intertwined with other populations and not essentially superior to them.

Gruen is a distinguished classicist and ancient historian, who is no stranger either to controversy or to the topic of “otherness.” A major early work of his, The Last Generation of the Roman Republic, was a revisionist and paradoxical account of the vitality of the Roman Republic in its last years; and since then he has been one of the most important contemporary scholars of the interaction of Jews and Greeks in antiquity. In his new book, Gruen shows himself able to compose on a vast canvas with authority and clarity. The writing shows signs of haste, natural enough in such a large book. (There are repetitions and verbal tics: I got bored of the word “plethora” fairly fast.) But the range of research, and the depth of thought, are extraordinary. Gruen has taken on a massive and extremely important subject, and he has brought a genuinely new perspective to the scholarly conversation. Even those (like myself) who are not entirely convinced by his account will find themselves constantly challenged and enlightened along the way.

The book is structured in two parts. In the first, Gruen looks at a series of cases where Greek and Roman authors might seem to demonstrate prejudice against a barbarian cultural or ethnic group. These are the Persians as seen by Herodotus, Aeschylus, and Xenophon; the Egyptians in Herodotus and others; the Carthaginians, as viewed by the Romans; the Gauls, as seen by their conqueror Caesar; the Germans and the Jews, as presented by Tacitus; and “people of color,” as presented in both literary and visual sources. In each instance, Gruen proceeds by outlining a text that might seem to imply prejudice against a non-Greco-Roman people, and then argues that on closer inspection it shows little or no prejudice at all: apparently negative attitudes always turn out to be “ironic.” In the second half of his book, Gruen discusses a series of imaginative modes of “connection” between the Greeks or the Romans and various ethnic “others,” such as myths of foundation, kinship, and other kinds of “cultural interlockings.”

Some of Gruen’s readings are convincing. He is surely right to emphasize, against Said, that Aeschylus’s Persians is not designed for the “disparagement of the Persians.” This is a surprising and important fact, given that the tragedian fought, and his brother died, fighting the Persian enemy at Marathon, and given that Aeschylus fought again against the Persians in the battle of Salamis, which is the central event of the play. The Persians demonstrates an ability on the part of the Athenians to imagine how their victory felt for the other side—for the losers—and to do so with deep imaginative sympathy. The play is not (at least primarily) a piece of propaganda against Middle Easterners. Xerxes and his army are brought low not because they are foreign, “oriental” hedonists with an inferior, hierarchical, “oriental” political system, but because a divine fate is set against them. Cultural difference, in Aeschylus’s world, is less important than the will of the gods.

This is a point worth emphasizing, since recent interpretations have often gone too far the other way. But Gruen seems to miss an essential premise of cultural history when he insists—here and elsewhere—that denigrating the “other” is not Aeschylus’s “goal.” Of course not; but most of the other scholars cited earlier would agree. The point of teasing out the ethnic and other kinds of prejudices inherent in a work of literature is not to reconstruct the author’s intentions but to show what deep assumptions and conflicts within his or her culture might be revealed in the text, whether the author realized it or not.

Gruen discusses the memorable scene in which Atossa, the Persian Queen, reports a dream she had just before the battle of Salamis. She dreamed that she saw two amazingly beautiful sisters, one in Persian dress and one in Greek (Doric) clothes. Xerxes, Atossa’s son, tries to yoke the two women to a single chariot. One of the women, presumably the Persian, takes her place readily and submits to the yoke, but the Greek resists, tears at the harness, and ends up overturning the whole vehicle, tossing Xerxes himself from his seat. Clearly the dream represents Xerxes’s attempt to conjoin East and West as two elements in his own vast empire. The Greeks will, as in the dream, resist the Persian emperor, and thereby destroy his power. Gruen comments, quite reasonably, that the “queen’s nightmare plainly convicts Xerxes,” who should not be trying to bridle Europe and Asia together. Such hubris will lead to a fall.

But Gruen is less convincing when he insists that “there is no hint of an ethnic chasm between Greek and Persian. On the contrary. They belong to the same lineage”—and hence there is no “essentialist divide” between Greek and barbarian. Benjamin Isaac and others have already made very clear that we should distinguish between modern, biologically based “racism” and the ethnic prejudices of antiquity; but Gruen does not argue effectively against the existence of such prejudices when he reiterates that they are not based on biology (which Isaac and others had already acknowledged). Even if the dream’s primary purpose is to show the queen’s fear of the folly of Xerxes, it does also suggest, I think, a certain degree of criticism of the conformism shown by Xerxes’s Persian subjects. These are not incompatible alternatives. For a human to submit willingly to a yoke—a position designed for a cow or a horse—is surely undignified and unnatural: the Eastern sister is behaving oddly, whereas the Western one is more truthful to her humanity in fighting for her freedom. Moreover, portraying Persia as “sister” to Greece does not, unfortunately, imply a vision of the Orient as equal to the Occident, or of friendly coexistence. If tragedy teaches us anything, it is that family members do not always get along particularly well.

Greek and Roman authors often present their own cultures as related by kinship to other nations or ethnic groups. The ancients were well aware that much of their culture was imported from elsewhere. But the awareness of “affinity” does not imply peace and love. It is all too easy to see how, in Aeschylus and elsewhere, legends of kinship can be used to justify domination and oppression. Despite Gruen’s optimism, they are not always signs of everybody loving each other in a big happy ancient family. Think of the Biblical story of Noah’s curse on his son Ham, adduced by many in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to justify the enslavement of African peoples, the supposed descendants of Ham. Non-blacks defined themselves as the descendants of Ham’s brothers, Shem and Japheth; and the myth of brotherhood was used to justify terrible abuses of human rights. Against this background, it is hardly enough to say, as Gruen does repeatedly, that “a plethora of texts speak to affinity rather than estrangement.” Claims of “affinity” are often identical to gestures of domination or oppression. It is precisely because Ham was Shem’s brother that his children considered themselves justified in slave-ownership. It is a family, but some siblings are more equal than others.

Gruen is able to offer his rosy picture of the happy coexistence of different ethnic groups in the ancient world largely because he confines himself to the world of the imagination, and also confines his imagination to the picturing of far-away foreigners. There is no systematic discussion of how ethnic stereotypes might relate to elite male visions of other subordinate, minority, or under-valued social groups (such as women or slaves or the poor). There is also no systematic discussion of how the imagination of different ethnic groups by the ruling power might relate to material, economic, and military realities. In other words, Gruen never investigates whether the Greeks and the Romans might have talked and written in particularly friendly ways about their metaphorical brothers or sisters whom they were destroying or enslaving or both, in order to salve their consciences or to increase the grandeur of their achievement. This is a book about the “imaginary” of ethnic kinship, which says little about how reality and imagination might interact.

IT SEEMS SOMEWHAT unfair to complain about omissions in a book as long, rich, and thorough as this one. But even within the world of the imagination, it is puzzling to assume, without discussion, that othering means casting a negative light upon a foreigner qua foreigner. “Barbarian” or “foreigner” would have been a better choice of title for the concept that Gruen is trying to understand. In modern intellectual history, certainly, the term “other” has not always been used with specifically ethnic, or specifically negative, connotations (and of course the two categories are not the same). Simone de Beauvoir’s classic account of how women are imagined as the “other” sex might well have given some useful nuance to Gruen’s understanding of othering: de Beauvoir’s point is not that men hate women, or think of them as an unrelated species, but rather that men think of themselves as the norm, and of women as different. Othering involves imagining a center and its peripheries; it is not the same as hostility, although the two may go together. It is worth asking, then, whether “othering” is necessarily a bad thing. Gruen seems to assume so, but without discussion. One of the most important modern uses of the concept of the “other” occurs in the work of the French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who was a prisoner of war, whose parents were killed in the Holocaust, and whose work can be seen as an extensive struggle to find an adequate ethical response to Nazism and other forms of totalitarianism. He contended that our primary moral responsibility is to recognize the other, in his or her “alterity.” He writes of the experience of the otherness of other people in religious terms, as a sense of gentle transcendence or of infinity. The “other” is even superior to ourselves. And the awareness of otherness is not something to mourn, criticize, or even tolerate: it is the foundation of our morality, or all our being-in-the-world. As Levinas knew, against a background of totalitarianism, it is not self-evidently good for a society to value others if, and only if, they are actually sames. Ideally, we should be able to hear “extraordinarily foreign” as a compliment: our society would be richer with less pressure toward conformity.

Sometimes Gruen suggests that the Greeks or the Romans were genuinely multicultural, treating other peoples as different but not inferior—as in Herodotus’s views of the Egyptians and the Persians (a plausible, though familiar enough, point). At other times he suggests that Greco-Roman writers find in the “other” a mirror for themselves, and indict the faults of the barbarians only as a sidelong way of indicting their own people. This is the case, he suggests, in the depiction of the Carthaginians in Roman literature, and also in the depiction of the Gauls by Caesar. The Carthaginians were notoriously tricky (Punica Fides, “Carthaginian faith,” is shorthand for broken promises); but Gruen argues that our Roman sources present the Romans themselves as equally tricky, or more so. It is Aeneas, after all, who breaks an implicit promise to the Carthaginian queen Dido—not the other way around.

Moreover, Gruen insists that the Roman sources suggest an admiration for Carthaginian intellectual achievements, and a willingness to “appropriate” them at will. There is some excellent discussion here of the famous linguistic ability of the Carthaginians. Gruen reminds us that these “barbarians” were recognized for their ability to speak multiple languages (Greek and Latin as well as Punic), and that the Romans, too, were often willing to learn the “barbarian” tongue. This is a useful corrective to the idea that the Romans were always prejudiced against the Carthaginians. But Gruen’s account does not tell us quite enough about Roman motivations for presenting the people of a civilization whose major city they razed to the ground as intelligent, admirable, articulate people, as the mirror of themselves. Gruen suggests that the Romans felt “self-assurance” when they thought about Carthage; he never mentions fear or guilt.

Often it turns out in Gruen’s readings that apparent racial slurs are actually meant with irony, and that the main target is not the “other” but the Greeks or the Romans themselves. Some of these interpretations are plausible up to a point; some are less so. I was not convinced that Tacitus’ account of the Jews as a “race of men hateful to the gods” was designed simply to “skewer” other people’s stereotypical views; this seems like special pleading from a critic who wants to be able always to admire dear old Tacitus. Why not admit that sometimes even clever and witty and stylish people can write with horribly prejudiced attitudes? It is all too easy to imagine Gruen doing an ingenious close reading of Mitt Romney’s speeches, and emerging with the view that, after all, his remarks about Obama and his policy decisions being “foreign” are actually marks of kinship and affinity, not of hostility. Gruen, like Bernal’s nineteenth-century historians, shapes antiquity to reflect his own ideals. He wants a world in which everybody accepts and respects one another. Such an aspiration is easy to understand, but the world it dreams of did not exist in antiquity, and does not exist in modern times, and may never exist at all.

Emily Wilson is associate professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the author, most recently, of The Death of Socrates: Hero, Villain, Chatterbox, Saint (Harvard University Press).

This article appeared in the September 13, 2012 issue of the magazine