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Tales of the Barbarians: Ethnography and Empire in the Roman West

Tales of the Barbarians: Ethnography and Empire in the Roman West

By Greg Woolf. Pp. viii + 168. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, England 2011. $89.95. ISBN 978-1-4051-6073-5 (cloth).

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In recent decades, there has been an increasing interest in the study of how Roman society understood and interacted with the local communities of the areas that came under Roman domination. Woolf’s book, which examines how ethnographic writings were created and employed in the Roman West, is a welcome addition to a growing body of literature on this subject.

As the author explicitly states, this book does not attempt to “take sides” in the conflict between the Romans and the peoples they conquered. Nor does it attempt to determine if the ethnographic accounts written by ancient authors about various groups of people were true. Rather, this work is an exploration of the concept of ethnography in the ancient world and a consideration of the interplay between empire building and ethnographic knowledge. In addressing this task, Woolf draws on parallels in the history of modern empires, but he does not apply these ideas uncritically to the Roman world. Nor does Woolf force the Roman data to fit models of colonization based on these studies; he deftly avoids many of the anachronistic pitfalls that often accompany postcolonial scholarship on the Roman world.

Structurally, the work is divided into four chapters. The first, “Telling Tales on the Middle Ground,” sets the stage for understanding the fundamentals of how ethnography was written in the ancient world. Woolf explores the differences between how the term “ethnography” is used by classicists and how it is understood by modern anthropologists. He argues that ethnography did not exist as an ancient genre in the way that, for example, history or panegyric did. Despite the well-argued distinctions he makes, Woolf continues to refer to ethnographers and ethnographic writings throughout the rest of the book, leading perhaps to some confusion as to his purpose in declaring that ethnography as such did not exist.

Woolf goes on to explore how early ethnographers constructed their knowledge of the world. To do this, he borrows the concept of the “middle ground” from studies of the colonization of North America. The “middle ground” is those regions where there is contact between two or more cultures but no clear domination or rule of one by the other, and it is here that the first generation of ethnographic knowledge takes place. Why ancient authors were interested in the peoples at these edges of the empire, as well as how their knowledge was obtained and used, varied depending on the particular author in question and was often modified to fit symbolic needs (e.g., the need to portray the Gauls as uncivilized while at war with them). With this understanding of the nature of ancient ethnography in place, Woolf is free to move on to examining in depth how ancient ethnographers constructed their works.

Chapter 2, “Explaining the Barbarians,” considers the role paradigm played in ethnography, as well as the interaction of apparently conflicting modes of ethnographic explanation in the ancient writings (e.g., using geography or genealogical relationships to explain the similarities/differences between groups of people). Woolf argues that contradictory paradigms existed in ancient ethnography because the practice of ethnography was different from other genres of writing in the ancient world. No attempt was made in antiquity to align ethnography with the basic scientific method. In this chapter, we find further support for Woolf’s argument that ethnography was not a distinct genre in the ancient world and that because ethnographic writings were always used with another rhetorical purpose in mind, a distinct theory of ethnography was never formulated. Furthermore, Woolf considers the role that local communities played in the growing construction of ethnographic knowledge. Just as Greek and Roman writers were trying to situate other peoples in relation to themselves, local communities who were increasingly becoming a part of that Graeco-Roman world began to position themselves in relation to that world in various forms of autoethnography.

In the third chapter, “Ethnography and Empire,” Woolf considers how the extension of Roman imperial power affected the writing of ancient ethnographies. He highlights the shift from Rome as a subject of ethnography (to the Greek ethnographers) to a key central place after the Mithridatic Wars as a result of the expansion of private libraries at Rome and the displacement of Greek scholars to the households of the Roman aristocracy. Although an image may come to mind of Roman generals marching to war with Greek ethnographers alongside them, Woolf argues that this is by far the exception rather than the rule. Instead, he makes the case that there was a sharp distinction between ethnographers and generals. Libraries, writing, and Greek scholarship in general were associated with leisure, whereas military affairs were conceptually different; these were considered duty and work. Therefore, conquest and the study of the people conquered were kept quite separate. Furthermore, the movement of goods and people that the Roman empire encouraged meant that ethnographers did not need to travel far to get their data. Often they could stand at the center—Rome—and wait for the data to come to them. Thus, although the growth of the Roman empire changed the practice of ethnography in several key ways, ancient authors often continued to write in the “ethnographic present”—erasing the context and effects of colonization from their subjects, as much 20th-century ethnography has done.

The final chapter, “Enduring Fictions,” examines the continuance and impact of ethnographic writing in the later empire and beyond. The primary focus of this chapter is on how ethnographic writings in late antiquity continued to portray their subjects as savage barbarians despite increased knowledge to the contrary. Woolf argues that the creation and perpetuation of ethnic stereotypes had become another form of myth that resisted modification because of the important place that these “barbarians” had in rhetorical usage, such as establishing a contrast with Roman “civilization.” The impact of these continuing ethnic stereotypes on those belonging to foreign groups is considered, especially as men from the provinces increasingly became important figures in Rome. Woolf also briefly touches on the popularity of these myths into the eighth–12th centuries, especially as the Franks and Britons drew on earlier ethnographies to create their own origin myths and connections with classical antiquity.

As a whole, this book presents an excellent study of the practice and purposes of ancient ethnography. Woolf assumes that the reader has familiarity with the ancient authors he discusses and does not often give biographical details about them unless directly relevant to his study. In this sense, this is a monograph written for academics and graduate students who already have a solid grounding in ancient history and literature. At times, the works and concepts that Woolf discusses do not seem related to his overall theme, and it is hard to see how they build into the arguments he presents, but in general the work is well organized and beautifully written. Although it is nothing new to say that ancient writers had ulterior motives in their works, including ethnography, Woolf’s observations on the specific nuances of ethnographic practice in the ancient world are a valuable addition to the growing body of work on the interactions between Rome and its provinces.

Colleen Cummings
Chemeketa Community College
Salem, Oregon 97309

Book Review of Tales of the Barbarians: Ethnography and Empire in the Roman West, by Greg Woolf

Reviewed by Colleen Cummings

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 116, No. 4 (October 2012)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1164.Cummings

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