Friday, September 16, 2011


Larissa Bonfante (ed.), The Barbarians of Ancient Europe: Realities and Interactions. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. xxiii, 395, 23 p. of plates. ISBN 9780521194044. $90.00.

Reviewed by Danijel Dzino, Macquarie University (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

This book, the product of a conference held at the University of Richmond in 2003, attempts to join together two different interests of archaeologists. One is 'realities', an illustration of the life, customs, and beliefs of ancient peoples. The other is connections and interactions, cultural and technical exchange between ancient communities (p. 1). The volume has contributions from well-known scholars focusing on a wide range of ancient groups including the Scythians, Thracians, Germans, Etruscans, and Celts.

In the introductory essay entitled 'Classical and barbarian', the editor Larissa Bonfante underlines themes and approaches of the volume, and presents the essays. There are a few general issues revisited here with a varying degree of depth. The most interesting and contested is certainly the identity of 'barbarians', the ways in which they perceived themselves. Bonfante also revisits the questions of 'barbarian' languages, group names, customs, the practice of human sacrifice, and the role of women in 'barbarian' societies.

In the first essay, 'Greek geography of the western barbarians', Paul T. Keyser analyses the geographic and ethnographic peculiarities of the West in Greek thought. The essay is divided topically and chronologically into three parts encompassing the earliest Greek geographers and western lands, geographers and peoples, and Hellenistic geography. This is a well-constructed and balanced summary of a wide and continuously growing field of research. The conclusions (p. 53) are overall agreeable and instigate further thoughts. The Greeks imagined westerners in an idealised form when they were obscure and remote to them. Through closer knowledge of the Western 'barbarians', the Greeks developed more complex mechanisms for the perception of foreigners, projecting their own desires or dreads through ethnic and cultural stereotypes.

Askold I. Ivantchik focuses on the comparison of Scythian royal funerals with the description given in Herodotus, Histories 4.71-72. He shows similarities between this description and elite burials from the northern Black Sea region (modern Ukraine, Lower Dnieper valley). The essay argues that Herodotus did have a good informant, a 'Hellenized Scythian' (pp. 96-7), perhaps better defined as a 'cultural translator'—someone who belonged to both the Greek and Scythian worlds. The author mostly rejects the recent postmodern literary criticism of Herodotus as an historical source, especially that arising after Hartog's influential book.1 His criticism relies on an obvious fact: ancient ethnographers did not invent what they were writing about 'barbarians' but, rather, used an available pool of information and knowledge. However, Ivantchik confuses the activities of gathering information and processing information. Woolf recently convincingly showed how ancient ethnographers gathered information and developed various literary strategies to use that information selectively, while writing in an 'ethnographic mode'.2

Renate Rolle makes another contribution about the Scythians. The essay starts with a general and brief introduction to the history and archaeology of the Scythians – in particular the archaeology of the kurgans (elite burial mounds). The most interesting part of this contribution is the brief presentation of recent research into hill- fortresses (gorodishcha) from the northern Black Sea region, especially discoveries by joint German- Ukrainian excavations in Bel'sk (pp. 125-8). The excavations uncovered large hill-fortresses (Bol'shoe Bel'skoe gorodishche), which show traces of proto-urban settlement characterised by strong economic activity, dated to the seventh and sixth centuries BC. This is important new evidence which contradicts the ancient stereotypes of the Scythians as nomadic people who had no urban life and lived only on the move. It is expected that excavation of other hill-fortresses in the region will uncover more evidence of proto-urban life in this region.

Ivan Marazov is the author of an essay on Greek myths in Thrace. Using theoretical approaches based primarily on processual archaeology, the author analyses visual imagery of the Greek myths found in Thrace. He also presents some new finds from the localities of Chernozem, Svetitsa and Malomirovo in Upper Thrace, modern Bulgaria (p. 165-81). There is much to agree with in this chapter, especially the author's argument that the Thracians used images and situations from the Greek myths and transformed them for their own contexts, suiting their own cultural constructs such as royal ideology. It is, however, difficult to accept Marazov's argument that the Thracians shared the way of life and ideology with Homeric kings and early Greeks (p. 134, cf. also Thomson de Grummond, p. 314). This is a very questionable and indeed risky assumption, implying that ancient Greek historical and social developments would be reflected in non-Greek societies, and that the Thracians would preserve early Iron Age Greek ways of life in 'hibernation' for centuries.

Barry Cunliffe's contribution is concerned with the ancient population of Western Europe, popularly known as the 'Celts'. The validity and meaning of the term 'Celts' has caused recent scholarly debate. Cunliffe, one of the most distinguished scholars in the field, makes a concise and insightful assessment of the problem. In his opinion, Celtic languages developed in Late Bronze Age Atlantic Europe as a lingua franca, facilitating trade and exchange amongst the indigenous populations.3 Common language, trade and exchange also helped the spread of new cultural templates in the Iron Age, first through the Hallstatt prestige goods economy, and later through specific visual imagery, social values and belief systems, defined by the new elites from the Rhine-Moselle region. These La Tène cultural templates further spread together with the language towards central Europe and the Mediterranean world through trade-connections and migrant groups. Ancient authors recognized and identified these groups through common language, discursively constructing the Celts as an ethnographic term, which was accepted as such and reinterpreted in medieval and early modern contexts. However, Cunliffe's final longue durée view of the Celts as "... the indigenous peoples of Atlantic Europe, ..., whose successors occupy much the same territories as their ancestors" (p. 208) should be taken with a dose of scepticism, especially by those scholars who see group identity as a situational and changeable social construct.

Peter S. Wells briefly analyses the historical development of what he calls the 'supracommunity' of the 'Germans'. In particular the essay focuses on the tension existing between the way these communities were described by outsiders in ancient written sources, and the knowledge of their material culture gained through modern archaeology. Recent archaeological discoveries significantly challenge the testimony of written sources, forcing scholars to rethink the existing interpretations and perceptions of these groups. Wells discusses some of these discoveries, such as wooden track-ways placed across marshy areas from Ockenhausen (Germany), large weapon deposits from northern Germany, Denmark and southern Sweden, and the warship from Hjortspring in southern Denmark. Increasing knowledge of material culture shows that ancient communities living across the Rhine were much more socially complex than previously thought.

Larissa Bonfante's and Otto-Herman Frey's essays strongly interact with each other. Bonfante writes of Greek influences on the Etruscans, the Etruscan processing of these influences, and the Etruscan role in the further transmission of these influences to the 'barbarians' of western and central Europe. She argues that the Etruscan influence was on the indigenous groups in the Alpine region, central Europe, tracing these influences as far as Thrace. Frey picks up the discussion where Bonfante ends, by presenting the world of situla art. Situla art objects are found in the regions of the northern Adriatic and eastern Alpine communities (modern Slovenia, Austria and north-east Italy) in the late Halstatt period, from the late sixth to the fourth century BC. They are named after bronze handled buckets decorated with specific figural representations, which were used in different funerary and sacral contexts. Frey surveys the typology of scenes shown on situlae from a comparative perspective with neighbouring and contemporary Veneto/Este culture. The survey shows a chain of cultural influences, mutations, and mediations moving from Greece through the Etruscans and northern Adriatic/eastern Alps communities and finally impacting the La Tène world.

Nancy Thomson de Grummond explores in her essay the motif of the severed head in ancient art, using a comparative inter-cultural perspective. The essay surveys this motif in a wide range of ancient cultures such as Greek, Etruscan, Scythian, and La Tène communities. Detailed examination shows that the motif of the severed head had different receptions and meanings in different cultural contexts. The most important difference between the Greeks and 'barbarians' is that there is so little evidence for ritual use of the severed head motif in Greek art, literature and tradition. The Etruscans used the motif of the severed head primarily as a 'prophetic' head, while awe and fascination with the severed head mediated fear in a context of religious and social ritual amongst the Thracians, Scythians and the La Tène communities.

John Marincola provides a brief overview of early Greek perceptions of the Romans, concluding that the Romans did not fit Greek stereotypes of the barbarians, so they needed to place them in separate category.

The essay of Walter Stevenson is the only one dealing with late antiquity and it is slightly outside the chronological focus established by the rest of the essays. Stevenson explores wine-drinking and wine-growing traditions among late antique Goths. He states that the Goths drank wine and grew grapes, which is not surprising in light of their sustained interaction with the Romans through interactive and porous Danubian limes. Some of his conclusions are debatable, however, in particular, the final conclusion that wine-growing and the translation of Christian texts into Gothic language was an attempt of the Goths to break-away from the Roman Empire, culturally and economically (p. 365).

Overall, the volume is well-planned and consistent. It will be a welcome addition to university and personal libraries. There is much dialogue between individual chapters, and in general they are well-written and clear with a large number of illustrations. The volume provides good coverage on the ancient peoples who interacted with the Mediterranean world, though it has two noticeable structural omissions – the Iberians in Spain and the 'Illyrian' and 'Pannonian' communities in the western Balkan Peninsula. It is a pity that it took so long to publish this volume after the original conference for, although the essays were updated, they do not contain much literature published after 2006. I noted just a few minor typographic errors such as 'sixth century BC' and 'late fifth century BC', which both should be changed to AD (p. 360). I am also slightly suspicious of statements such as 'Hellenised Empire' to describe the Roman Empire (p. 365), or the notion of 'Illyrian language' (p. 11, 282), given how little we know about the language(s) of the ancient indigenous population in this region.4


1.   F. Hartog, Le miroir d'Hérodote: essai sur la représentation de l'autre (Paris 1980).
2.   Greg Woolf, Tales of the Barbarians: Ethnography and Empire in the Roman West (Wiley-Blackwell 2011).
3.   Similar is the spread of the proto-Slavic language as lingua franca in late antiquity/early middle ages: Florin Curta, 'The Slavic lingua franca (Linguistic notes of an archaeologist turned historian)', East Central Europe 31(1), 125-48.
4.   Marjeta Šašel Kos, Appian and Illyricum Situla 43 (Ljubljana 2005), 228-31.

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