A question of give and take for ancient Greeks

Ancient Greeks West and East
April 21, 2000

Most of the 23 papers in this impressive collection arise from what the 1996 edition of the Oxford Classical Dictionary calls "colonization, Greek". In fact, the processes involved bear no more than a superficial resemblance to colonisation in the modern European sense, and they can be defined as Greek only to the extent that the British Empire would still have been perceived by others as British if its colonies had been founded independently by the city fathers of Birmingham, Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester and so on. Not surprisingly, the mother-cities ( metropoleis ) at home in Greece had different priorities at different times, ranging from shortage of mineral resources to land hunger, and often including the strategic planting of far-flung outposts in complex commercial and other competitive circumstances.

Investigation of the surviving material record has been spread unevenly over the vast area that received Greek interest of one kind or another between the 8th century BC and the Hellenistic period. Until recently, the relatively accessible Euboeans, Corinthians and Achaeans in south Italy and Sicily have received rather more local and foreign attention than the Milesians, Phocaeans and Megarians on the Black Sea. The dramatic political changes of our own time enable Ancient Greeks West and East to illustrate an exhilarating combination of new opportunities in the East and changing attitudes in the West. Appropriately, this is an international book, edited in English for a Dutch publisher by a scholar, currently London-based, who (like Euripides's Medea) hails from Georgia; many more nationalities are represented by the contributing authors and their affiliations.

Ancient Greeks naturally figure largely throughout, but for once they are not alone. The reader learns at least as much about the other peoples that the Greeks encountered. The word "interaction" occurs often, indicating that non-Greeks were anything but passive recipients of Greek culture. This refreshing attitude has already emerged in recent years along the Tyrrhenian seaboard of Italy. There, it is clear that the first post-Mycenaean Greek arrivals, active in mineral exploitation because they could not afford to be otherwise, soon provided the Etruscans with ideas and technical achievements (including the Euboean version of the Greek alphabet) that they were able to adapt to their own artistic and other purposes.

This relatively familiar story is well represented, with good papers from R. Kearsley and John Boardman on the Euboeans in north Syria, a useful update on their activities in Campania by B. d'Agostino, and a pair of skilful deployments by R. Frederiksen and G. Shepherd of mainland Italian and Sicilian cemetery archaeology as a guide to early colonial society. The latter's blunt title, "Fibulae and females", reminds us both of the limitations of cemetery evidence and of an obvious category of interaction. A. J. Dom!nguez rightly refuses to accept that Iberia was ever Hellenised. He and others might have noted that there is in fact no ancient Greek word for this wholly modern concept.

Sara Aguilar picks her way through the layers of academic and other prejudice that smother the majestic limestone bust known as the Lady of Elche, discovered in 1897, liberated from the Louvre in 1941 and revered for a century as the personification of the Spanish soul and of its eternal femininity. In an appendix, R. Olmos and T. Tortosa mount a rigorous defence of the Lady, not only against a recent American allegation that she is a 19th-century forgery, but also against the seeming indifference with which this has been received in the outside world.

Aguilar's concluding remark ("it is the nature of the native populations that dictates the way Greek stimuli were used") is applicable to a number of other papers. Perhaps the most obvious example is concerned with the early 4th-century BC Nereid Monument from Xanthus. Oxford-based T. Robinson bravely returns this familiar feature of the British Museum and of countless books on Greek archaeology and sculpture to its native Lycian context in Asia Minor. True, the local dynast who had it built sought Greek assistance in its construction and adornment, with the uniquely eclectic results that have exercised the minds of Hellenists for so long. Robinson shows us why we can safely discard explanations based on provincial misunderstandings of the contemporary Greek idiom and the like: the non-Greek aspects of the monument's appearance are the result of meeting non-Greek requirements, and the "Nereids" are probably local Lycian deities.

And so to a veritable cornucopia of eastern promise, in which the editor acquits himself admirably amid the daunting ethnic and cultural complexities of the Pontic-Caucasian region, while papers from Moscow treat the Scythian "Rule over Asia" (A. Ivantchik), early Greek houses on the Black Sea (V. D. Kuznetzov) and classical subjects on the late Hellenistic harness-plaques encountered from Siberia to the Pontic steppes (M. Treister). Individual categories of art-objects still have much to tell us in this area: S. Ebbinghaus shows how the handsome drinking horns known to the Greeks as rhyta were appropriated as status symbols from the Achaemenid Empire by the Thracian elite, who turned to Greek expertise for the adaptation of this essentially Persian model. With the adaptation came the Greek script and language: and so, eventually, the information in the Greek written sources fruitfully compared by Z. H. Archibald with the archaeological evidence for Thracian cults.

There is much more besides, but I hope that the foregoing conveys at least some idea of the range and depth of these stimulating specialist studies. Most of their subjects are new and all are approached in original, informed ways. The result is much more valuable and interesting than anything I have read in its field - in English - for a long time.

Ancient Greeks West and East is not concerned with Greek colonisation as such. That is the subject of John Boardman's classic Greeks Overseas: Their Early Colonies and Trade (1964), just reissued in a handsome fourth edition. Tsetskhladze and his authors can thus take colonies and trade for granted as the main basis for cultural exchange.

What is new is their systematic acceptance that exchange is by definition a two-way process, and that accordingly Greeks outside Greece not only gave but took - in the latter case, raw materials and manufactured goods, but also what the late Arnaldo Momigliano memorably called "alien wisdom". We can appreciate that the Etruscans were by no means the only barbarians (which in Greek means no more than "non-Greek speakers") who used Greek techniques and often commissioned Greek craftsmen, to service their own thoroughly un-Greek cultural traditions.

What did Greeks think of non-Greeks? The literary evidence for the character and limits of Greek ethnic prejudice is reviewed at an early stage by C. Tuplin, and I learnt a lot from his thoughtful and perceptive chapter.

By the end of the book, however, I confess that I was more interested than I have hitherto been in the issue of Hellenic superiority assumed, or wished for, by others.

Much has been made in recent years of the twin concepts of superior Greeks and inferior barbarians developed in the 5th century BC as part of the Athenian reaction to the Persian menace. Even more has been made of the attraction that this comparison held for 19th-century British and German scholarship. The subsequent unthinking extension of the same two notions as earlier stages of Greek history that became available at home and abroad is less notorious but it was extraordinarily misleading in the long term. The great achievement of Tsetskhladze's collection resides in the simultaneous death-blows it delivers on many fronts to the well-worn but ill-fitting model of the "Hellenization of the barbarians" - and to the reluctance to bother with non-Greek matters in the presence of even a handful of Greek shards. And far from being diminished, the glory that was Greece shines if anything more brightly in the light of these objective assessments of what cultural exchange with Greeks actually meant: for they provide a resounding demonstration of the sheer unique quality of Hellenic culture. A precise definition of this was given by G. W. Bowersock in his 1989 Jerome Lectures on Hellenism in late antiquity: "a language and culture in which peoples of the most diverse kind could participate... a medium not necessarily antithetical to local or indigenous traditions... a new and more eloquent way of giving voice to them".

What next? In the first place, we should reflect that this book clearly would not have appeared without effective international collaboration. The momentum thus gained must not be lost, and if the medium must be occasionally eccentric English, as here, so be it. Italian is another possibility. Later this year, the 40th annual conference on Magna Graecia (Greek south Italy) at Taranto will compare current work on colonial territories around the Black Sea with that in the West.

Second, Tsetskhladze has not exhausted the possibilities of either the West or the East. And what about the South (Egypt) and the North (where Julius Caesar tells us that the Druids used the Greek alphabet)?

This book is a distinguished addition to the long list of supplementary volumes attached to the Dutch periodical Mnemosyne; but it could very well serve as the pilot issue of a new and independent journal that would be of great and continuing interest to an unusually wide range of readers.

Meanwhile, what any interested institution will surely want to avoid is a repetition of the extraordinary episode revealed here by G. M. Bongard-Levin. He documents the two years spent in Oxford by M. I. Rostovtzeff before he departed in 1920 -"driven by hunger" in his own words - for Wisconsin. There, he published Iranians and Greeks in South Russia (1922), an enduring classic on intercultural relations of the kind examined in this book.

Rostovtzeff went on to achieve a massive, and massively influential, social and economic oeuvre at Yale (1925-44). Sadly, it is only too clear that Oxford was not ready for any of this, least of all for the originality and depth of his learning. Perhaps that is why the inadequate concepts of "Hellenisation" and "barbarians" survived there for so long.

David Ridgway is reader in classics, University of Edinburgh.

Ancient Greeks West and East

Editor - Gocha R. Tsetskhladze
ISBN - 90 04 11190 5
Publisher - Brill
Price - £78.31
Pages - 623

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