Thursday, May 2, 2013


Joseph E. Skinner, The Invention of Greek Ethnography: From Homer to Herodotus. Greeks overseas. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. xi, 343. ISBN 9780199793600. $85.00.

Reviewed by S.C. Caneva, Université de Liège (

Version at BMCR home site


This dense, well-written and documented book lives up to the formidable aim of providing fresh reappraisal of the origin of ethnographic literature in Greek as well as of the dynamics of interconnectivity between the Greeks and other peoples in the archaic Mediterranean world prior to the Persian Wars. The title, which at first sight sets the discussion within a traditional framework with regard to both literary sources and the general interpretation of the question, may look somewhat misleading. But it can also be considered as a lure for readers before the author makes a significant turn in taking his own approach to the problem of the origin of Greek ethnography. From the first chapter, indeed, it becomes evident that Skinner considers this invention not as an ancient one but as the result of nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholarship, while his arguments substantially combine literary with material documentation. This interest in material evidence has a twofold purpose. First, material evidence disentangles modern research from a reductive Athenocentric approach, which is substantially based on an unbalanced focus on Athenian literary works in comparison with sources from the rest of the Greek world. In a broader sense, this choice corresponds to James Clifford's encompassing definition of ethnography as the practice of "writing and thinking about culture" from an outsider's perspective (p. 6). Skinner claims that traces of the practice of thinking about the Others are to be found not merely in literature, but also in what he labels as the "day-to-day realities of cross-cultural interaction" (p. 127; cf. the revealing title "Reading objects, viewing people: everyday activities at the center of all things "Greek"). The archaeologically traceable movements of people and artifacts - in particular of figurative media such as coins, pottery, wrought metalwork and sculpture - enhanced by trade, colonization and the frequenting of sanctuaries, draw the picture of an interconnected Mediterranean. Within this framework, any interest in the culture and life of other peoples, even the most remote, would be reductively interpreted if applied to only one side of the cultures in contact, i.e., the Greeks.

Admittedly, Skinner stops one step short of a full-fledged cross-cultural method, as he pays too little attention to how non-Greek outlooks on Greek-speaking people may have contributed to mold the Greeks' awareness of their unifying cultural characteristics. However, as much as one may regret that the focus of the book is still unbalanced in favor of a Greek perspective, this orientation can be explained by the fact that Skinner principally deals with how modern scholars have constructed interpretative models of the birth of Greek historiography and of the Greek way to negotiate and construct identities. In this regard, the target of Skinner's questioning is not only the alignment of a variety of literary ethnographic practices (from the late 6th to the 5th centuries BC) within a single evolutionary trend leading to the birth of historiography, but also the underpinning assumption that ethnographic thought and Greek identity were born as a common product of the fifth-century clash against Persia. The author aims at deconstructing an ever-present but unsatisfactory scholarly dichotomy between Greeks and barbarians, which has been projected from post-war Athens to everywhere else in the Greek world. In doing so, he is conscious of the most up-to-date approaches replacing an essentialist concept of identity, presumably built through differentiation from a conceptualized "Other", with the contextual and functional interpretation of network theory. Most recent approaches understand both identities and differences as fluid and continuously re-negotiated cultural constructions, which mean different things for different social agents and belong in a wider process of self-definition, which only makes full sense within a well-defined historical context.

After a concise but thorough discussion of modern scholarship on the origins of Greek ethnography and identity (Chapter 1), Skinner turns to analyzing ancient Greek ways of imagining differences with other peoples living elsewhere in both time and space (Chapter 2). Chapter 3 reviews discursive strategies (lists, epithets, imaging) by which ethnographic knowledge is constructed and shared. Chapter 4 is devoted to three local case studies (Olbia on the Black Sea; South Calabria; Olympia and Delphi). These convincingly show that thinking about identity and difference was far from being a peculiar trait of colonial borders in the Greek world. Even there, moreover, Skinner stresses that contacts must be re-examined case by case within well-defined contexts rather than assuming a unidirectional influence from Greeks to non-Greeks. Such a univocal direction would remain too rigid even when it envisages the possibility of local resistance or productive reaction as a consequence of the contact with colonial influences.

Overall, Skinner achieves the goal of showing that well before the clash of civilizations entailed by the Persian Wars, non-Greeks played an important role in the process that led Greeks to define their identity. More precisely, non-Greeks were not only "good to think with"- i.e. they provided conceptual tools with which shared characteristics and differences could be defined - but they also acted as real agents sharing geographical places as well as social, economic and cultural dynamics with the Greeks. Non-Greeks were constantly present, if not always personally, then certainly through artifacts, images and narratives, in the everyday life of Greek communities. As such, they stimulated the practice of thinking about differences and identities well before stand-alone prose devoted to a single land or people became common in Greek literature. If one criticism can be made, it is that Skinner deals too briefly with the question of how nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholarship has inherited and inserted in modern paradigms pieces of ancient political ideology and literary criticism dealing with the origin of Greek ethnography and the dualism Greek vs. barbarian. A lengthier discussion of this topic would have perhaps helped us better appreciate how modern scholarship under examination is indebted to concepts and paradigms already present – at least partly or in an implicit way – in ancient literary sources, although ancient ideas are adapted to the new agendas.1

While Skinner's argument does not stand alone in contemporary scholarship, overall, it manages to be fresh and original. In addition, the perspective from which the author discusses literary texts is still quite rare among classicists. Finally, two positive aspects deserve to be pointed out. First, the author is particularly aware of his theoretical approach by prefatorily claiming that he is a "child of his time", that is to say, that he combines "critical approaches to consumption and reception, culture theory, social networks, postcolonial studies" (p. 19). Second, when resuming the main themes of the book in the concluding section (Chapter 5), the author never pretends to definitively resolve problems, but he instead puts forward his analyses as a contribution to a bigger theoretical edifice yet to come. Throughout the book, broad methodological questions and prudent re-positioning of precise problems get the better of assertive statements and comprehensive solutions. Besides being well informed and pleasantly readable, this book therefore has the great value of being an invitation to drive research on intercultural contacts forward through a self-aware injection of new theoretical approaches and interdisciplinary methodology.


1.   See for instance the introduction to Moyer, Egypt and the Limits of Hellenism, Cambridge 2011, p. 1-41, where a detailed criticism of recent scholarship from a post-colonial perspective is combined with a discussion of ancient texts having influenced modern interpretations.

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