Friday, June 14, 2019


Erik Jensen, Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World. Indianapolis; Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, Inc., 2018. Pp. xiv, 296. ISBN 9781624667121. $16.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Balbina Bäbler, University of Goettingen (

Version at BMCR home site

This book aims to introduce the many cultures the Greeks and Romans encountered and the ways that both Greeks and Romans interacted with, and perceived, these different cultures. It is explicitly addressed to readers "without many years of study behind them" (vii). The author was thoroughly successful in this endeavor: he manages to give an overview on the subject from early Greece until Late Antiquity in a very readable and engaging manner. The book is well illustrated (sometimes with instructions about what to observe especially, e. g. on pp. 51, 66, 105).

Jensen is aware of the historical baggage of the term "barbarian", but he convincingly defends its use, since it was the word the ancient authors used, and it had not necessarily a pejorative meaning in antiquity (ix). It was initially mainly a linguistic term to designate peoples whose language was unintelligible (1. "Meeting the Barbarians", pp. 1–22). The ideas behind the concept of "barbarian" were never static, and there are other challenges for modern scholarship as well: markers such as language, religion or proper names do not always reveal identity; in many societies there were different grades of citizenship, and race did not hold equivalent meaning in the ancient Mediterranean.

Chap. 2 ("How the Greeks became Greek", pp. 23–38) gives an overview of Greek prehistory and shows how myths of invasion and migration were used to "fabricate heritage" (pp. 32–38): they usually tell more about Greek politics of the fifth cent. BC than about population movements a thousand years before. The Greeks encountered societies with cultures older than their own in different ways (3. "The Greeks encounter the World", pp. 39–60): for instance, the Greeks were mercenaries in Assyrian and Egyptian armies, and founded colonies where they had to accommodate with local peoples; there was also a demand for Greek goods, e. g. in Etruria, where these had to be adapted to local demands. It has to be kept in mind that there were "variations of Greekness" (p. 60); the Greek world had no single center.

The relationships of Greece, especially Athens, with other cultures, especially Persia, did not fundamentally change after the Persian wars (4. "The Greco-Persian Wars", pp. 61–79), although the conventional Greek narratives after the war often reduced the Persians to stereotypes (with lasting effects until modern times); but Herodotus, Aeschylus or Xenophon offered a more subtly nuanced picture. For the Persians, Greece was probably only a minor spot on the troublesome western frontier; in spite of modern scholarly literature asserting that the battle of Marathon determined the fate of the western world, the arts and culture of Athens probably would have flourished (had the outcome been otherwise) as part of the Persian Empire, which was a tolerant and multicultural state.

The rise of Macedon gave a new urgency to the question of what it meant to be Greek (5. "Greeks, Macedonians and Persians", pp. 81–99). Greek schemes of ancestry (of which Alexander the Great was well aware) that included or excluded peoples were mostly written by Athenians and in the context of Athenian political and social life.

In the Hellenistic world it was usually a small Greco-Macedonian elite at the top that ruled from urban centers (6. "The Hellenistic Era", pp. 101–23). The definition of who and what was Greek was open to new interpretations and varied from one context to another; the collaboration of the native elite was necessary, and Ptolemies and Seleucids practiced a model of "limited incorporation" (110) by using local languages as well as Greek for proclamations, and by adapting local deities for a broader, also non-native public (for example, the cult of Sarapis). Greek, however, was the language of authority, as the translation of the Hebrew Bible (Septuagint) shows. But identities could be complex, even at family level, as onomastics often shows (with names composed of Greek and native elements, or parents with Egyptian, but children with Greek, names).

The second part of the book is devoted to Rome, and, like the first, presented as a magisterial historical overview from Rome's beginnings until about 500 CE. Rome was from the beginning accessible to outsiders and in contact with the surrounding Latins, Sabines, Etruscans and occasionally Greeks (7. "Rome and Italy", pp. 125–46). The barbarians in the eyes of the Romans were the Gauls (or Celts) of the Po valley, at first a society of mobile warrior bands, for whom Greek literature (in more recent times especially Polybius) had provided the theoretical framework of stereotypes. Even after their defeat they were still perceived as alien and dangerous. A new common enemy rose with Carthage (with whom Rome had in fact been on good terms for almost two hundred years); the Punic wars were a deliberate decision of Rome's political class, and they also served to create an identity and mobilize allies (pp. 138–45).

It was Caesar who knew how to exploit the persistent anti-Gallic prejudice (8. "An Empire of Barbarians", pp. 147–65): he fought a war for his own ends affecting enemies and (Gallic) allies alike, but he makes no distinction between the two in his De Bello Gallico. In fact "the Gauls" (as well as "the Germans") as a coherent ethnic group were Caesar's invention. His portrayal of Gauls and Germans had a lasting effect, not only on Roman narratives, but until modern times (pp. 152–57). During the civil war following Caesar's murder, Octavian propagated a "return to romanitas" (pp. 157–61), by, e. g., reviving common traditions not just for the elite. In contrast to Marc Antony he grasped the importance of promoting what it meant to be Roman, which in the end helped him win the war of propaganda.

An altogether different challenge regarding foreign peoples were the Greeks (9. "Greek, Roman, and Greco-Roman", pp. 167–87), with whom relations were always marked by a lingering sense of uneasiness, although in time a greater equilibrium and an awareness of mutual benefits were achieved. While the Greeks asked whether the Romans were Greeks or barbarians, the Romans, on the one hand, admired Greek education – almost all physicians in Rome were Greeks –, but on the other the suspicion that the Greeks looked down on them never quite died out. Yet in time the awareness of a "shared collection" of values and practices led to what is now called "Greco-Roman" culture (pp. 182–7), characteristics of which are, for example, the adaptation of Greek philosophical traditions, or the avid collecting of Greek art by the Roman elite.

The following chapter focuses on an Empire that stretched from Britain to Arabia (10. "Being Roman", pp. 189–210), and had foreign contacts, mainly through trade, as far as China and the kingdom of Kush. Rome's aristocracy had become cosmopolitan, and distinctions of who or what was Roman and barbarian became increasingly blurred, as can be seen e. g. in the works of Tacitus, who uses narratives about barbarians to reflect unflatteringly on his fellow Romans. After Augustus, the frontiers remained mostly stable (11. "The Imperial Frontier", pp. 211–29), but they were always a sensitive area and occasionally prone to instability as their security also depended on the collaboration of the local population beyond them. They were also an area of trade, exchange, recruitment of soldiers (often from beyond the frontier); in the worst case they were inhabited by restless troops who might either cross the border for plunder or make a bid for the throne. Emperors were therefore well advised not to leave the frontier in anyone else's hand.

By 500 CE, the Roman world had become a patchwork of states ruled by kings and warlords (12. "Invasions, Migrations, Transformations", pp. 231–52). Although in scholarly literature the increasing invasions of the "barbarians" and the fall of the empire seem to go together as a matter of course, Jensen points out that the exact relationship and overlap of the two processes are hard to define. The most interesting question he deals with in this chapter seems to me: why did those who successfully acquired political power no longer identify themselves as Romans (pp. 250–2)? They were no strangers to Roman culture, many of them having been Roman soldiers or allies. As Jensen convincingly argues, one of the fatal developments was the split (beginning already in the 3rd cent. CE) between the civil aristocracy formed by an integrated elite, and the military aristocracy, which was recruited increasingly from immigrants who were often the targets of open hostility, even when (or perhaps because) their policies were successful; a case in point is Stilicho, who was eventually murdered.

Jensen gives a fascinating picture of the multicultural world of the ancient Mediterranean 1 and shows in every chapter that the Greeks and Romans and the "barbarians" they encountered often had much in common. Especially to be appreciated is that every chapter contains a summary of the modern scholarship about the subject. The last chapter (13. "Remembering the Barbarians", pp. 253–261) gives a general, very impressive overview of how far the perception of foreign cultures was shaped by ancient stereotypes and until very recently often described with phrases taken from ancient authors. In turn, modern (ideological or political) contexts often influenced the view of ancient societies. This book is not just about ancient cultures or ethnicities; by showing how stereotypes were forged and used already in antiquity, it is very relevant for present times, too.


1.   The only thing to be regretted is that the bibliography (pp. 263–76) consists entirely of literature in English. While I understand that the book is addressed not to specialists but to a more general public, it seems to me that e. g. a work so fundamental as A. Dihle, Die Griechen und die Fremden (München 1994) should have been mentioned.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.