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The Barbarians of Ancient Europe: Realities and Interactions

The Barbarians of Ancient Europe: Realities and Interactions

Edited by Larissa Bonfante. Pp. xxiii + 395, figs. 101, pls. 23, maps 15. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2011. $90. ISBN 978-0-521-19404-4 (cloth).

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Schama (Landscape and Memory [New York 1995] 76) has referred to Tacitus’ Germania as a back-handed compliment from civilization to barbarism, and in some ways this book continues that tradition, presenting the postclassical non-Greek world very much from a Greek perspective. It is ironic, then, that Bonfante, the book’s editor, admits that in many ways it was the Greeks who were the odd ones out in Europe after 600 B.C.E., not the Scythians, Thracians, Celts, Etruscans, Germans, Goths, and Romans, who are the subject of this volume (245). Wait—Romans? What are they doing on a list of barbarian peoples of Europe? Marincola’s thought-provoking chapter presents Rome as caught between two civilized groups, the Greeks and the Etruscans; while the Romans may have fought in a systematic and organized manner worthy of Greeks, they enjoyed it too much to be entirely civilized (350). Several authors point out that the barbarians in question were quite heterogeneous, apart from a general reputation for being warlike and a tendency to engage in excessive truphe (21). Keyser’s chapter, based entirely on texts, imagines the world from the Greek perspective, with the West as the ultimate edge of everything. Ivantchik presents Scythian royal funerary customs through the lens of “the mirror of Herodotus,” which he argues can be viewed as a reflection of historical reality if the text is tested against the archaeological record of Scythian tumulus excavations in the Black Sea area in the last 200 years rather than considered to be in opposition to it. Continuing the Scythian theme, Rolle’s chapter focuses on royal residences, specifically the site of Bel’sk, with a cultural-historical overview of the environment, climate, and resources available in the region, and presentation of new data from both tomb and settlement excavations.

Marazov compares Thracian iconography in the Balkans in the fifth century B.C.E. to Philomela, describing the material culture as mute witness to the ritual and symbolic aspects of Thracian thought processes (133). The emphasis on the gold objects from this region as signifiers rather than on the organization of artisans and craft production and the fact that several of the pieces discussed are in private collections may give some readers pause.

Cunliffe takes on (yet again) what he calls the “Celtic-deniers” in his chapter, which reviews the use of the term as a descriptor for various groups of peoples from the fifth century B.C.E. to today. Technological and cultural developments in pre-Roman Europe are described in two pages with more economy of style and narrative plausibility than many tomes dedicated to the same subject. In the next chapter, Wells argues that archaeological and historical evidence must be combined in order to strengthen the inferential reliability of interpretations about German groups east of the Rhine in the period just before and after the Roman conquest.

The Etruscans are presented as mediators between northern barbarians and the classical world in Bonfante’s contribution, which includes a lengthy discussion of textiles, women’s work, and weaving, as well as recent evidence of human sacrifice from Tarquinia. The feudal model so beloved of German-speaking Iron Age scholars is alive and well in Frey’s review of the iconography of situla art (282), but the chapter also presents new interpretations of the precursors of the situla style. The motif of the talking severed head, closely associated with prophecy in Greek as well as Thracian, Etruscan, Roman, Scythian, and Celtic mythology and iconography, is parsed by de Grummond, who argues that these cultures should be considered developmentally equivalent to preclassical Greeks (314). There is little difference between the early Greek fascination, exemplified by the cult of Orpheus, with dismemberment and severed heads, and that of barbarian manifestations of this trope, apart from the stronger emphasis on ritual in the latter contexts than in the former. Stevenson’s chapter discusses the importance of wine among the Goths, in spite of their membership in the “beer, butter and breeches” barbarian brotherhood (358). The mutual exclusivity of drinking practices was probably exaggerated by the Greek and Roman sources, as archaeological evidence for beer drinking exists in the Mediterranean, while “barbarians” in the Balkans and the Black Sea region grew grapes for wine, attested by grape seeds and wine stakes found at Volgum in Hungary (361). Cunliffe’s concluding chapter describes the volume as a palimpsest rather than a dichotomous comparison between two diametrically opposed cultural complexes and critiques simplistic core-periphery explanations of interaction in favor of a mutual interdependence model. The coda represented by Farkas’ discussion of the Delacroix painting Ovid Among the Scythians seems oddly out of place, and unfortunately the scale of the color image is not really sufficient to make out the details discussed. The positioning of the color images in plates 1 and 23 presents horizontal scenes in portrait rather than landscape format, an unfortunate choice in the case of the Delacroix painting, because the details are virtually invisible at the scale resulting from the vertical orientation of the image. Several significant “barbarian” groups are absent from this lineup, notably the populations of the Iberian peninsula, the Gauls of western Europe, the inhabitants of the British Isles, and various eastern cultures; the selection criteria for inclusion are never really established. The term “Nearly Other” (5), which Bonfante briefly discusses in her introduction, would perhaps have been more useful as a categorization than “barbarian” but presumably would not have pleased the publisher quite as much as the current title. Although there is much here to inform and provoke the reader in positive ways, the volume also clearly exemplifies the divide between prehistoric archaeologists and classicists/art historians. No prehistoric archaeologist would ask, as Bonfante does, whether texts should be “accorded priority” over the material record of the barbarian world (2) as a means of identifying the reality and relationships of the peoples that inhabited that world (25). Words are powerful things, especially when they are immortalized in writing, and never more so than when they are used to label groups of people in particular ways, as the contributions to this volume demonstrate. The material record, by contrast, is like Philomela: mute unless made to speak—but at least the direct link to the past is unassailable.

Bettina Arnold
Department of Anthropology
University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53201

Book Review of The Barbarians of Ancient Europe: Realities and Interactions, edited by Larissa Bonfante

Reviewed by Bettina Arnold

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 116, No. 2 (April 2012)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1162.Arnold

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