Wandering Greeks: The Ancient Greek Diaspora from the Age of Homer to the Death of Alexander the Great, by Robert Garland

Barbara Graziosi ponders the different types who, over several centuries, criss-crossed the Mediterranean

August 7, 2014

In the 730s BC, an official stationed somewhere in Lebanon wrote a letter to the Assyrian emperor, complaining about marauding Greeks: “They have come…but as soon as they saw my soldiers they fled on their boats. In the midst of the sea they disappeared.” Attacks of this kind must have been common. The Homeric poems describe similar incidents: Odysseus and his men attack the Cicones and then take to the sea, for example, and Paris abducts women “skilled at weaving” from Sidon.

The Greeks criss-crossed the Mediterranean for many centuries: raiding, trading, settling and waging war. Plato, writing in the 4th century BC, compared them to “frogs around a pond”. By the time Alexander the Great died, there were Greek settlements located all around the Mediterranean and far into the Asian continent.

Robert Garland attempts to offer an overview of the Greek diaspora. Rather than organising his material by place or historical period, chapters are devoted to different types of wanderer: “The settler”, “The deportee”, “The asylum-seeker”, “The economic migrant” and so on. Surprisingly, there is no chapter on “The slave”, or indeed “The pirate”, despite Garland’s emphasis on the parallels with modern trafficking. The categories he does use often overlap and, as a result, the same sources can appear in different chapters.

Various appendices address this and other potential problems of structure. The first discusses relevant ancient terminology but, since sources in the main text are quoted only in English, there is no easy way of establishing which term was used in a specific instance. The last appendix, “Chronology”, conveys some sense of historical development, but cannot be straightforwardly correlated with the main chapters.

Garland’s generalisations are frequent and they can, at times, seem insensitive. “In the modern world economic migrants tend to be both entrepreneurial and dynamic,” he states, adding rather optimistically: “They tend to plan their departure well in advance and are likely to have a well-established network in their new place of residence.” This statement ignores the many destitute people who move country in order to work – and realise only too late that their networks are far from reliable.

About ancient women, he wavers between presenting them as housewives who were seeking emancipation and sex objects, all within a single sentence: “Virtually the only way for a woman to escape the confining lifestyle to which the vast majority conformed was by becoming a prostitute, an anodyne term that hides the fact that many of the women who found themselves so identified would have been victims of sex trafficking.”

In fact, we know that women were sometimes valued, bought and sold, for reasons other than sex (cf. the skilled Sidonian weavers). Some of them were put in the service of other women: the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, for example, tells the rather moving story of a destitute old woman who – after much travelling – found employment in the local palace at Eleusis, looking after her mistress’ baby. (She then proceeded to put the boy into the fire – but that is a different matter.)

It remains unclear whether Garland wants to recover the experiences of ancient Greek people on the move (which, he often states, are “much the same” as those of modern migrants), or whether he wants to define ancient Greece through its diasporas. The latter project seems more promising, but would require greater cultural, historical and geographical differentiation (concerning both the interpretation of ancient sources and the use of modern parallels) than accorded here.

It would also help to consider how other ancient people saw the Greeks. The Akkadian letter quoted in my opening paragraph, and several other non-Greek sources, could contribute to defining what was Greek about Greek wanderers.

Wandering Greeks: The Ancient Greek Diaspora from the Age of Homer to the Death of Alexander the Great

By Robert Garland
Princeton University Press, 344pp, £24.95
ISBN 9780691161051 and 9781400850259 (e-book)
Published 30 June 2014

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