Rethinking the Other in Antiquity

Rethinking the Other in Antiquity

Rethinking the Other in Antiquity

Rethinking the Other in Antiquity

Synopsis

Prevalent among classicists today is the notion that Greeks, Romans, and Jews enhanced their own self-perception by contrasting themselves with the so-called Other--Egyptians, Phoenicians, Ethiopians, Gauls, and other foreigners--frequently through hostile stereotypes, distortions, and caricature. In this provocative book, Erich Gruen demonstrates how the ancients found connections rather than contrasts, how they expressed admiration for the achievements and principles of other societies, and how they discerned--and even invented--kinship relations and shared roots with diverse peoples.


Gruen shows how the ancients incorporated the traditions of foreign nations, and imagined blood ties and associations with distant cultures through myth, legend, and fictive histories. He looks at a host of creative tales, including those describing the founding of Thebes by the Phoenician Cadmus, Rome's embrace of Trojan and Arcadian origins, and Abraham as ancestor to the Spartans. Gruen gives in-depth readings of major texts by Aeschylus, Herodotus, Xenophon, Plutarch, Julius Caesar, Tacitus, and others, in addition to portions of the Hebrew Bible, revealing how they offer richly nuanced portraits of the alien that go well beyond stereotypes and caricature.


Providing extraordinary insight into the ancient world, this controversial book explores how ancient attitudes toward the Other often expressed mutuality and connection, and not simply contrast and alienation.

Excerpt

Alterity and “otherness” have too often plagued our world. The denigration, even demonization, of the “Other” in order to declare superiority or to construct a contrasting national identity is all too familiar. Trading in stereotypes, manufacturing traits, and branding those who are different as inferior, objectionable, or menacing have had an inordinate grip on imagining the divergent over the centuries. One need not rehearse the devastating consequences that ethnic, racial, or national typecasting of any kind has delivered in human history. And various forms of negative conceptualizations retain force today, creating barriers to communication and understanding, engendering or intensifying hostilities that poison international (and even internal) relations on the contemporary scene.

Analysis of such self-fashioning through disparagement of alien societies has been a staple of academic discourse for more than three decades. A collective self-image, so it is commonly asserted, demands a contrast with other peoples and cultures. Or rather a contrast with the perceptions and representations of other peoples. They can serve as images and creations, indeed as stereotypes and caricatures. Denigration of the “Other” seems essential to shape the inner portrait, the marginalization that defines the center, the reverse mirror that distorts the reflection of the opposite and enhances that of the holder. “Othering” has even taken on verbal form, a discouraging mode of linguistic pollution.

Edward Said’s Orientalism stands as the classic work, a passionate and powerful voice on the subject. Said focused essentially on the divide between East and West, the Eurocentric design of the “Orient.” His linkage of colonialism and imperialism to the portraits of subordinate peoples conceived by hegemonial powers spawned a whole scholarly industry that advanced, deepened, and occasionally criticized his vision. Said’s penetrating and highly influential text remains central to discussion of the subject. The sweeping study has transformed “Orientalism” into standard phraseology, a defining characteristic of the discourse. It recently prompted a mirror image, appropriately titled Occidentalism, which pointed the lens in exactly the opposite direction: a treatment of the depiction and distortion of westerners by nonwesterners. The alleged confrontation of the societies gained greater public notoriety by Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order,

E. Said (1978).

Buruma and Margalit (2004).

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