Ancient Past, Imperial Present: The British Empire in T.J. Dunbabin's "The Western Greeks."

By De Angelis, Franco | Antiquity, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Ancient Past, Imperial Present: The British Empire in T.J. Dunbabin's "The Western Greeks."


De Angelis, Franco, Antiquity


Translation involves interpretation. This issue is often highlighted in the study of ancient history, which relies on texts written in languages no longer spoken. An error in translation can lead to inaccurate historical reconstructions, which live on, and are sometimes elaborated, long after the initial error has been committed. A case in point is how earlier generations of scholars tended to equate the Greek cities founded outside Greece in the 8th to 6th centuries BC with modern European colonies. There is, however, a significant difference between these two phenomena: the ancient Greek cities formed quite separate political entities independent of their homeland (Finley 1976: 174; Graham 1983: xvii, 5). How did this problem of semantics come into being? The source of the error may be traced to Lorenzo Valla's translation of Thucydides published between 1448 and 1452 (Calderone 1992: 14; Gras 1995: 122). Valla translated Thucydides' Greek terms into their closest Latin equivalents. These Latin terms belonged to the language of Roman imperialism, whereas the Greek terms did not belong to a language of imperialism, and hence their original sense was lost. Valla essentially converted Greek apoikiai into Latin coleniae. Roman colonies have much in common with modern European colonies. While it would be wrong to say that no Greek apoikia may have ever resembled in any way a Roman colonia, Valla's choice of terms was indeed the initial act which set into motion the habit of discussing ancient Greek apoikiai in modern colonial terms. Thus, via Valla's mistranslation into Latin, ancient Greek apoikiai came to be mistakenly associated with modern colonies. This problematic equation has been frequently addressed by scholars (note, among others, Lepore 1981: 213-16; Graham 1983: xxxv-xxxvi). The error was firmly entrenched in the literature by successive generations of scholars, particularly during the formation of academic disciplines in the 19th century, when many European nations were intimately involved in imperialism and regarded their culture as inspired by the ancient Greeks (van Dommelen 1997: 306). A notable example of how this association was reinforced can be found in Curtius (1883), who, in a lecture presented to Kaiser Wilhelm I, turned to ancient Greece for inspiration on the eve of German involvement in the 'Scramble for Africa'.

The study of the ancient Greek city outside Greece has been undermined at its very roots by misleading terminology and analogy. The present paper addresses this general problem by focusing on a specific portrayal of the Greeks in Italy, namely T.J. Dunbabin's (1948a) The western Greeks. The reasons for discussing the problem in detail are twofold.

First, Dunbabin contributed greatly to the subject's framework. He coined the term 'western Greeks', meaning the Greeks in Italy (Graham (1982: 163) and Ridgway (1992: xviii, 146) have paid tribute to this innovation). Dunbabin's pioneering approach (Meister 1989: 41) recognized that archaic Italy had a lack of written evidence, whether contemporary or later, which rendered the period essentially prehistoric, or at best protohistoric. His approach consisted of combining the scanty written evidence with the fuller and ever-growing archaeological evidence to produce a framework for writing social and economic history: and according to Ridgway (1992: 146), 'he achieved the union of historical and archaeological evidence'. Second, Dunbabin's approach was multi-dimensional. His interests extended far beyond those of any one individual before or after his time: in addition to a more traditional historical narrative, he tackled such matters as settlement and territory, demography, culture contact and culture change, agriculture, commerce, and art and architecture.

Dunbabin's work, therefore, with its wide interests and pioneering approach, has implications for all scholars interested in the field, with the result that his book will be forever relevant to the subject.

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