The Invention of Greek Ethnography: From Homer to Herodotus

By Joseph E. Skinner | Go to book overview
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Ethnography before Ethnography

GREEK ETHNOGRAPHY IS CONVENTIONALLY defined as the self-conscious prose study of non-Greek peoples. A study of its origins and function might at first appear relatively straightforward. Greek ethnographic interests are widely assumed to have developed in tandem with the wider sense of (Greek) identity from which they took their cue. This collective sense of identity is generally thought to have remained hazy and loosely organized until the fifth-century war with Persia whereupon it rapidly crystallized into a diametric opposition between “Hellene” and “barbarian.”1 In providing the basis for a series of prose accounts in which the habits and customs of nonGreeks might be held up to scrutiny, this new sense of cultural identity brought clarity and focus to previously diffuse imaginings. The inspiration for this genre has been variously explained in terms of an innate curiosity toward foreign lands and peoples characteristic of enlightened and “scientific” Hellenes,2 a profound sense of culture shock engendered by an encounter with an entirely alien polity, and direct experience of Persian

1 For this model (discussed further below): E. Hall 1989 (on ethnography in particular) and J. Hall 1997, 2002. For earlier approaches to ancient ethnography, see Trüdinger 1918; Norden 1920; K. F. Müller 1972; Thomas 1982. While the emergence of Panhellenic sentiments and an associated Greek–barbarian antithesis has recently been down-dated to the late sixth–early fifth century B.C., a period of mounting tension between Ionian Greeks and Achaemenid Persia, the latter still marks the watershed between hazy and oppositional identities; see L. Mitchell 2007 (for Panhellenism/chronology) and H. J. Kim 2009.

2 E.g., Fornara 1983, 12–13 (an idealized and somewhat contestable view very much at variance with that of recent commentators who see Ionia as the locus of the Greek–barbarian antithesis): “Early ethnography is marked by a scientific objectivity and unprejudiced characterization of alien modes of life that are a pleasure to behold. It has been asserted that a condition for such detachment was the relative amity of Greek and barbarian in Ionia until the time of Croesus [b]ut the scientific perspective was maintained in spite of the Ionian Revolt and the Persian Wars. No explanation of this impressive Hellenic mental trait is required.” (The author is responding to Schwabl 1962, 23.)


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The Invention of Greek Ethnography: From Homer to Herodotus


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