Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Competing Traditions in the Historiography of Ancient Greek Colonization in Italy

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Competing Traditions in the Historiography of Ancient Greek Colonization in Italy

Article excerpt

In the preface to Storia civile del regno di Sicilia, the Benedictine monk and royal historiographer Giovanni Evangelista di Blasi explained his ambitions: to write a history of "nostra Isola" that would remind Sicilians of their deep historical roots and thereby restore the vitality and moral character of the state.1 The preface is dedicated to detailing these aims, but near the end Di Blasi addresses his audience directly:

I do not flatter myself that this, my history, can meet the universal applause of foreigners as much as of my compatriots and conationals. ... I can nevertheless assure you that in creating it, I have not disregarded concern for truth; I learned to strip out bias and passion, maintaining the historical persona of a man outside of the world, without a patria, and without attacking anything that closely touches him.2

Embedded in this passage is a thicker story. Di Blasi finished the first part of his book in 1782, attempting to precede into publication the Italian translation of Histoire générale de Sicilie by Jean Lévesque de Burigny, published in The Hague in 1745. Harsh reviews by another Palermitan, Rosario Gregorio (who would soon become Di Blasi's scholarly nemesis), thwarted his plans, though, and Di Blasi accordingly published (1786) three volumes of his letters to Grisostomo Casertano in which he conducted a meticulously critical examination of Burigny's Histoire, the first volume of which appeared in Palermo that same year.3 The first volumes of Storia civile would not be fully published until 1811, by which time a dispute between Sicilian and foreign intellectuals over the interpretation of the island's past was becoming both regular and explicit.

Di Blasi's comment cited above-which immediately precedes an explanation that Timaeus and Diodorus were the "best" ancient sources for Sicilian history because of their Sicilian origins-exemplifies this tension well and serves as a point of departure for considering a persistent divide in European historiography of the ancient world: one that separated Northern and Southern European treatments of the southern Italian past and that has been particularly at play in studies of ancient Greek colonization.4 Standard reconstructions of the historiography of Greek colonization in Italy usually focus on the development of an intellectual model now known as "Hellenization." The term "Hellenization" originated in the early nineteenth century as a way of describing an ancient process in which nonGreeks adopted Greek culture; as has been widely discussed, its articulation was shaped by and helped shape the colonial and imperial experiences of Western Europe.5 Recent critiques of the model have discredited many of its assumptions, most notably the idea that cultural change resulting from colonization involved the unidirectional transfer of a superior Greek culture to subordinate native populations. While such critiques have transformed the relevant scholarship and shed a much-needed light on the nonHellenic world of the Mediterranean, assessments of the historiography have been increasingly one-sided. Adjectives like "stereotypical," "hegemonic," "monolithic," "traditional," and "dominant" have all been used to describe models of colonization found in scholarship prior to the 1980s, the most telling product of which has been the reification of the term "Hellenization" proper; by this point, the word is rarely used to describe a process of ancient cultural change, whereas "Hellenization" is readily invoked to signify a particular form of scholarship embedded in Western European and colonialist/imperialist discursive traditions.

The focus on Hellenization as the paradigmatic intellectual tradition associated with ancient Greek colonization in Italy has also meant that other divergent treatments have not been subjected to the same degree of reflexive analysis. This is most evident for work produced in Italy since the seventeenth century. Italians represented the colonization process, ancient non-Greek populations, and cultural interchange between Greeks and "natives" differently from their (mostly Northern) European contemporaries. …

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