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Cultural Identity in the Ancient Mediterranean

July 2012 (116.3)

Book Review

Cultural Identity in the Ancient Mediterranean

By Erich S. Gruen (Getty Research Institute Issues & Debates). Pp. 572, b&w figs. 97, drawings 13. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles 2011. $50. ISBN 978-0-89236-969-0 (paper).

Reviewed by

During the academic year 2007–2008, Gruen led a series of seminars, colloquia, and conferences as Villa Professor at the Getty Research Institute; this volume is the resulting publication. Gruen challenged his authors “to explore how ancient peoples expressed their identities by establishing, constructing, or inventing links with other societies that crossed traditional ethnic and geographic lines” (150). He divided the 24 essays into eight sections (“Myth and Identity”; “Perceptions and Constructions of Persia”; “Representations of the ‘Barbarian’”; “Jewish Identity in Text and Image”; “Egyptian Culture and Roman Identity”; “Constructions of Identity in the Phoenician Diaspora”; “Composite Identities”; and “Contested Identities”). The material studied in the essays ranges in date from roughly the eighth century B.C.E. to the fourth century C.E., with a preponderance of articles examining the Roman period; authors consider contacts with the major empires of Persia and Rome, with Punic Carthage and fifth-century Greece, as well as the significance of the Greek translation of the Bible. While the overarching theme of the volume is the many cultures interacting within the ancient Mediterranean, each author considers the active borrowing, manipulation, and transformation of alien cultures and seeks an understanding of how these processes create complex, nuanced, and changing expressions of cultural identity. Nevertheless, Gruen subverts the notion that the creation of ancient identities necessarily occurred in contrast to an “other” and hence challenges the significance of traditional dichotomies in our understanding of cultural interactions. Thus, the cumulative effect is to create a complex web of information that frames, complicates, and enriches the reader’s understanding of the many intercultural contacts and exchanges within the ancient Mediterranean.

There are many praiseworthy aspects of this book. Readers participate vicariously in an interesting and productive academic dialogue. The international scholars included in the volume would rarely appear together in print or at conferences. Hence, the articles constructively expand the perspectives from which the topic of ancient identity is examined. Such an expansive view in the hands of a less able editor and scholar could lack cohesion and become chaotic. However, Gruen combines the range and breadth of material and the scholarly ideas to generate an illuminating picture of identity and cultural interaction in the ancient world. Because each essay confronts particular situations, presenting and analyzing case-specific evidence, it does not seek to define a general or unitary picture of cultural identity. Instead, the essays cumulatively demonstrate the tremendous variety of possibilities inherent in group interactions and in so doing lead to a richer and more nuanced understanding and appreciation of how complex the circumstances were in which ancient identities developed.

There is limited discussion of theoretical or methodological approaches, yet most of the essays are well informed by reading and thinking about such matters. It seems perverse (as well as unrealistic and impracticable) to suggest that a book already more than 500 pages long should have been expanded; however, readers will surely be curious what these writers themselves were reading. Just two essays provide a bibliography, so readers must mine the copious notes at the end of each essay in search of this information. A selected bibliography of the two or three most significant works in their topic area would have been a welcome inclusion.

A tremendous amount of classical scholarship has explored identity from numerous angles and subdisciplines in the last 40 years. The essays contained in this volume all use written, archaeological, and/or artistic evidence to confront topics loosely grouped under the rubric cultural and social history. The range of approaches varies from close analysis of an object type or textual corpus (Miller, Bartman, Gruen, Davies, Quinn, Bonnet) to thick description (Ferris, Swetnam-Burland, Root) to broad, sweeping analysis of whether empires imposed identities on the peoples within their borders. Some of the general questions that are raised by specific evidence include: Did the Persian court impose artistic and cultural forms on subject groups within its empire, or is the appearance of court-related images and practices in border zones an instance of elite emulation (Brosius)? How did the Persian court create its own identity by borrowing from the many disparate cultural groups contained within its empire (Tuplin)? How did Jewish groups settled within various cultural contexts negotiate and perhaps resist the pull of assimilation (Rajak, Fine, Stern)? In what ways can insiders and outsiders manipulate and use stereotypical forms, for example, written characterizations or artistic characteristics of the “barbarian” to define themselves (Ferris, Bartman, Krebs, Woolf)? How are composite identities created and expressed (through material culture, language, social practice) in multicultural communities over time (Wallace-Hadrill, D’Ercole, Butcher, Cohen, Isaac)? How and why were “foundation myths” generated and deployed within specific communities (Scheer, Linant de Bellefonds, Hölscher)?

The range of topics considered in this volume might lead one to expect terms such as orientalism, emic/etic, habitus, hybridity, middle ground, colonial, postcolonial, Romanization, and Hellenization, to name a few. For the most part, such words are absent from the essays (one finds “borealism” [Krebs] rather than “orientalism” and “Persianization” [Brosius, Tuplin] rather than “Romanization”). Individual studies reveal the significance of mechanisms such as the military, creation of colonies, maintenance of diaspora communities, or gift giving for generating intercultural contact and providing materials and ideas used in the creation, maintenance, and transformation of identities. Thus, this volume demonstrates that consideration of group interactions by construction of the categories “us” vs. “them,” by assuming that empires incorporate new people in consistent and similar ways or that literary texts can be used uncritically to gather evidence about cultural identity, no longer suffice as scholarly approaches. Indeed, the processes of identity creation and expression turn out to be extremely complex. Understanding the context and environments in which the preserved evidence was generated and deployed is critical to the interpretation of its meaning.

Most essays are tightly written, cogently argued, and well edited. They tend to be short (between 10 and 15 pages) and clear; this encourages and enables active engagement in thinking along and challenging the ideas presented. Individual essays and even whole sections (typically two–four articles) might be used fruitfully for university courses, especially graduate seminars or topic-based upper-level undergraduate classes. Scholars will find individual articles in their fields of interest, but they will not find a sustained study of particular topics or approaches. The book should be in any college and university library where there are departments studying the ancient world or cultural identity.

Gail L. Hoffman
Department of Classical Studies
Boston College
Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts 02467

Book Review of Cultural Identity in the Ancient Mediterranean, by Erich S. Gruen

Reviewed by Gail L. Hoffman

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 116, No. 3 (July 2012)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1163.Hoffman

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