Wednesday, July 27, 2011


Erich S. Gruen (ed.), Cultural Identity in the Ancient Mediterranean. Issues & Debates. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2010. Pp. vii, 535. ISBN 9780892369690. $50.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Anna Lucille Boozer, University of Reading (

Version at BMCR home site

Cultural identity is defined by the ways in which groups can be distinguished from other individuals and groups in their social relationships.1 Facets of identity can include ethnicity, gender, age, sexuality, class, power and myriad other social categories. Needless to say, these facets overlap and combine in unexpected ways that are contingent upon immediate social contexts. Because identity is a notoriously fluid concept, it can be best understood through case studies that highlight the relational capabilities of individual and group identities. Case studies and contextualizations can take many different forms. For example, in the past decade, numerous scholars have turned to the life cycle in order to address the various identity changes individuals experience from birth to adolescence, adulthood and old age.2 Holistic and contextualized studies of identity, such as these, allow for deeper explorations of individual life experiences and fluid self-perceptions.

Scholars of the ancient Mediterranean have generally explored single facets of identity, rather than the interaction between multiple markers of identity. In particular, scholars have focused upon ethnicity, due to the complicated interconnections that occurred in this region. Studies that have had particular impact include Jonathan Hall's Hellenicity3 and Andrew Wallace-Hadrill's Rome's Cultural Revolution.4 Both volumes explore ethnicity and culture as particularly important considerations for scholars of the ancient Mediterranean by examining the spread of Greek and Roman cultures across a broad geographic expanse. These prior works are worth noting when examining the present volume because they serve as resources to Gruen's contributors and enable us to place Gruen's volume within current ancient Mediterranean identity studies.

The Ancient Mediterranean can make a considerable contribution to interdisciplinary studies of identity. In particular, scholars can contribute case studies that closely link appropriate theoretical vantages to data in order to explore the longitudinal development of identities within interlinked geographical locales. Gruen's Cultural Identity in the Ancient Mediterranean clearly demonstrates the value in this approach. This volume steers clear of murky theoretical debates on identity and ethnicity, which both Hall and Wallace-Hadrill explored in their volumes. Instead, Gruen's volume focuses on case studies of identity using different methodological and disciplinary lenses. Gruen's pragmatic approach allows for greater accessibility than many recent volumes on identity, although it would have been helpful to hear more about how he defines his terms. For example, there is an unstated equivalence given between identity, culture, ethnicity, and locality in many of the contributions. Definitions and debates within the introduction could have clarified how the contributors understood the term "cultural identity." Otherwise, Gruen's introduction is fluently written and he clearly explains the value of his book divisions as well as the individual papers included within the volume.

Cultural Identity in the Ancient Mediterranean includes twenty-four essays divided into eight parts, in addition to Gruen's introduction (see book contents below).5 The majority of the contributors write in accessible prose, enabling the reader to move through the volume more easily than is often the case with edited works. Like Gruen, many of the contributors eschew theoretical debates, although their case studies are theoretically informed, as evinced by the references. This approach is both practical and refreshing. The contributions cover an impressive array of cultures, encompassing Greek, Persian, Jewish, Phoenician, Egyptian, Roman, Gallic, and culturally mixed societies. The disciplinary range is equally impressive and includes archaeologists, art historians, classicists, and ancient historians. Given this expansive breadth, it is not possible to discuss each article or section systematically within this review. I have singled out two sections to discuss at greater length because the theoretical implications of these sections reach particularly far.

Part Three, "Representations of the 'Barbarian'" draws upon documentary and visual sources to argue for more nuanced approaches to the "barbarian" in Roman art and literature. In particular, each of the contributors places their evidence within its historic and geographic context in order to understand the contemporary significance of barbarian representations. Ferris examines images of suffering barbarians within their immediate geographic and temporal contexts in order to explore Roman political ends. In so doing, he explores both the trope of Gauls in Roman art as well as the political significance of Germans portrayed in the Column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome. Ferris shows that some images of Gauls were anthropological and sympathetic, while others served as dehumanized signifiers of political violence. He argues that the disparity between these evocations of the barbarian was dependent upon the particular moment in Roman history and the geographic placement of the monument. Bartman's contribution also argues for more rigorous examinations of the barbarian in Roman art. Her aim is to identify particular features within Roman portraits that conveyed ethnicity. Bartman's expertise in Roman hairstyles reveals that individuals asserted their ethnic backgrounds through subtle, but unmistakable, deviations from standard Roman hairstyles. She convincingly argues that the portraits she examines are images of self-definition and that this variety of self-representation is indicative of inclusivity within the Empire. Together, the contributions in this section find that the theme of the barbarian in Roman art and literature provides a barometer of individual and group identity across the Roman Empire.

The contributors to part seven, which addresses "Composite Identities," explore the complicated palimpsests that occur when social groups interact with one another across a long time span and through a variety of encounters. For example, Wallace-Hadrill's contribution explores the range of influences that shaped Pompeii's early history. He argues that we should allow these divergent cultural influences to remain complicated in our discussions, rather than subsuming them under umbrella terms such as "cultural fusion." This multi-strand approach allows for more explanatory understandings of multi-cultural locales than descriptive models (e.g. Romanization) would permit and clearly indicates the value of complicated cultural history explanations. Butcher's contribution closely examines sacred space in Roman Syria, finding that sanctuaries reflected the multiple identities and interests present in local communities rather than an integrated vision. Importantly, Butcher reminds us that contemporary visitors to these sanctuaries may not have experienced them as the seamless totalities that we imply today in our reconstructions. Rather, the episodic and multi-cultural modifications made to sacred spaces may have had a cacophonous effect on the ancient viewer. A particular value of the contributions in this section is that they enable the reader to explore the fluidity of identity through concrete examples from a range of disciplines. This thoughtful editing by Gruen typifies most of the sections within this volume and enhances the value of each of the individual contributions.

The volume is produced by the Getty Research Institute and displays a high standard of presentation, illustration, and proof-reading. The accessible prose, lucid contextualizations, and broad geographic and temporal boundaries will ensure that this text will be a valuable aid to scholars of both the ancient Mediterranean and other regions. Moreover, the contributions could be used for undergraduate and graduate teaching as well as research on related topics. In summation, this volume is a welcome addition to studies of identity, particularly (but not exclusively) within the ancient Mediterranean.

Table of Contents:
1. Introduction / Erich Gruen

Part One. Myth and Identity
2. Ways of Becoming Arcadian: Arcadian Foundation Myths in the Mediterranean / Tanja S. Scheer
3. Pictorial Foundation Myths in Roman Asia Minor / Pascale Linant de Bellefonds
4. Myths, Images, and the Typology of Identities in Early Greek Art / Tonio Hölscher

Part Two. Perceptions and Constructions of Persia
5. Herodotus and Persia / Erich S. Gruen
6. Embracing Ambiguity in the World of Athens and Persia / Margaret Cool Root
7. "Manners Makyth Man": Diacritical Drinking in Achaemenid Anatolia / Margaret C. Miller
8. Keeping Up with the Persians: Between Cultural Identity and Persianization in the Achaemenid Period / Maria Brosius
9. The Limits of Persianization: Some Reflections on Cultural Links in the Persian Empire / Christopher Tuplin

Part Three. Representations of the "Barbarian"
10. The Pity of War: Representations of Gauls and Germans in Roman Art / I.M. Ferris
11. Borealism: Caesar, Seneca, Tacitus, and the Roman Discourse about the Germanic North / Christopher B. Krebs
12. Ethnicity in Roman Portraiture / Elizabeth Bartman
13. Saving the Barbarian / Greg Woolf

Part Four. Jewish Identity in Text and Image
14. Surviving by the Book: The Language of the Greek Bible and Jewish identity / Tessa Rajak
15. Jewish Identity at the Limus: The Earliest Reception of the Dura Europos Synagogue Paintings / Steven Fine
16. Keeping the Dead in Their Place: Mortuary Practices and Jewish Cultural Identity in Roman North Africa / Karen B. Stern.

Part Five. Egyptian Culture and Roman Identity
17. "Egyptian" Priests in Roman Italy / Molly Swetnam-Burland
18. Aegyptiaca in Rome: Adventus and Romanitas / Penelope J. E. Davies

Part Six. Constructions of Identity in the Phoenician Diaspora
19. On Gods and Earth: The Tophet and the Construction of a New Identity in Punic Carthage / Corinne Bonnet
20. The Cultures of the Tophet: Identification and Identity in the Phoenician diaspora / Josephine Crawley Quinn

Part Seven. Composite Identities
21. Pompeian Identities: Between Oscan, Samnite, Greek, Roman, and Punic / Andrew Wallace-Hadrill
22. Sharing New Worlds: Mixed Identities around the Adriatic (Sixth to Fourth Centuries B.C.E.) / Maria Cecilia D'Ercole
23. Contesting Sacred Space in Lebanese Temples / Kevin Butcher

Part Eight. Contested Identities
24. The Self as Other: Performing Humor in Ancient Greek Art / Ada Cohen
25. Attitudes toward Provincial Intellectuals in the Roman Empire / Benjamin Isaac.


1.   Jenkins, R. Social Identity. London: Routledge, 1996, 4.
2.   The contributions to this special issue of World Archaeology are particularly valuable: Gilchrist, R., ed. 2000. World Archaeology: Lifecycles. Vol. 31.
3.   Hall, J. 2002. Hellenicity: Between Ethnicity and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Reviewed in BMCR: 2004.04.26.
4.   Wallace-Hadrill, A. 2008. Rome's Cultural Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Reviewed in BMCR: 2009.07.50.
5.   This volume is based on a series of seminars, colloquia and conferences given by Gruen while he served as Villa Professor at the Getty Villa in the 2007-2008 academic year.

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