Monday, July 12, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Albrecht Dihle, Reinhard Feldmeier, Hellas und der Orient: Phasen wechselseitiger Rezeption. Julius-Wellhausen-Vorlesung 2. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2009. Pp. 60. ISBN 9783110219562. $23.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Nassos Papalexandrou, The University of Texas at Austin

This slim but pithy book is the annotated text of a prestigious lecture its author delivered at the University of Göttingen a few years ago. The readers of BMCR are familiar with the author and the gravitas of his fecund scholarship which encompasses a wide gamut of literary, philosophical, religious and historical facets. His contribution is nicely but all too briefly delineated by Reinhard Feldmeier in the short introduction. As the title of this booklet indicates, Dihle has thought deeply and widely about the mutual encounters or interactions of Greek culture with the Orient, understood here as a very broad area in terms of chronological and geographical range. Dihle is no less adept thinking and writing about Mycenaean Greece than immersing himself in the traffic of Buddhist ideas west of India or the mutual fertilization of Christianity and Judaism. Dense and thought provoking, his well-crafted text is rewarding and insightful in many respects although one senses throughout that Dihle only skims through the surface of this iceberg of a topic. In his text, Dihle does not put forth a new argument or a new methodology. Based on his long and unparalleled expertise, he provides an overview of key aspects of the intellectual and cultural cross-fertilization between the Greek world and the variegated cultures of the Near East and South Asia. Dihle's research and understanding are based on textual sources: this is why his major focus is on the realm of ideas and phenomena best illustrated in texts shaped in varying social and political circumstances. Material culture receives little attention in his analysis, although one senses that Dihle is fully cognizant of its importance and agency.

Dihle's starts his overview in the 8th century BCE, but he acknowledges that the epic tradition is replete with elements (e.g. vocabulary) borrowed already in the Late Bronze Age. He explains the limitations of epic for the historical reconstruction of interconnections with the Near East. He also persuasively argues against Raoul Schrott's attempt to recognize Homer as a Greek from Cilicia in the service of an Assyrian court (14-15).1 Following M. L. West and W. Burkert, Dihle discusses the presence in Hesiod and Homer of oriental cosmological ideas and influences from Near Eastern wisdom literature. For example, Dihle states that the divinely-based concept of justice must have originated from various sources in the ancient Orient after the beginning of the first millennium BCE. Dihle goes on to outline the where and how of intercultural interaction, stressing the role of Greek colonies (e.g. Naukratis in Egypt) and examining the presence of non-Greeks (e.g. Phoenician) in the Aegean or in other areas of Greek presence. In the east the Greeks would often encounter paradoxical situations, like the capacity of Egyptians to document their ancestry backwards to periods much earlier than those of the origins of Greek mythological genealogies. In the wake of Alexander's expedition, the new sociopolitical order facilitated the cultural assimilation of the upper strata of indigenous populations. These conquests resulted in the dissemination of the Greek civic ideal, whereas Greek intellectuals gradually came to acknowledge, respect, and appreciate the values and temporal primacy of non-Greek philosophical and religious ideas: "Es war aber di Philosophie im Sinne theoretisch lehrbarer Lebenskult, die man in den Überlieferungen exotischer, vornehmlich orientalischer Völker vermutete, deren wirkliches oder angenommenes Alter die Griechen stets mit Respekt erfüllt hatte" (38).

In Dihle's analysis the recurrent metaphor of "student and teacher" articulates his understanding of phenomena between the Greeks and their eastern neighbors. Until the Classical period the Greeks were "...eifrige, unvoreingenommene Schüler ihrer näheren und entfernten Nachbarn inm Osten und Süden" (27), whereas in the wake of Alexander's conquest they themselves became "…in technischer, militärtechnisher, administrativer und ökonomischer Hinsicht…Lehrmeistern ihrer östlichen Nachbarn" (29). Likewise, in the early Hellenistic period intellectuals had no desire "von der Barbaren zu lernen" (34) mainly because of the Greek intellectuals' indifference toward languages other than Greek, a fact that impeded their acquaintance with the treasures and contributions of non-Greek thought. A notable exception is, however, Judaism, whose texts were translated in Greek (e.g. the translation of the Pentateuch commissioned by Ptolemaios Philadelphos) or the works of Jewish authors that, as Dihle succinctly explains, decisively fertilized Hellenistic philosophy and early Christianity. One wonders what the effect of Buddhism in Greek and Roman thought would have been, if treatises like the Questions of Milinda (Milindapanha, a dialogue about Buddhism between the Indo-Greek king Menander [Milinda, 155-130 BCE] and the Buddhist sage Nagasena) had been translated and read further west.

Dihle also discusses at length the significance of religious developments, especially the syncretic phenomena that ensued in the global koine of the Hellenistic and Roman worlds. Already before Alexander's conquests non-Greek gods and cults had made their appearance in Greece. In the Hellenistic period, the Greek religious system was reconfigured by the arrival of Isis, Savazios, Mithras, Kybele, among others - divine personae naturalized in Greek-type mystery cults that fulfilled the psychological needs of often displaced individuals in a significantly expanded but unpredictable world.

The value of this booklet lies in its wide scope and the evident erudition of its author. There are 121 footnotes and in many of them Dihle cites his numerous articles and books. In this respect this booklet also has historiographical value and one regrets that the introduction did not contextualize more broadly Dihle's oeuvre and the development of his thought.


1.   R. Schrott, Homers Heimat (München 2008).

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