Cultural Politics in Polybius's Histories

By Craige B. Champion | Go to book overview

Chapter 2
Greeks, Romans, and Barbarians
The Cultural Politics of Hellenism

Night is here but the barbarians have not come. Some people arrived from the frontiers, and they said that there are no longer any barbarians. And now what shall become of us without any barbarians? Those people were a kind of solution.

CONSTANTINE P. CAVAFY, “Waiting for the Barbarians”

In this chapter I survey the cultural politics of the Greek/barbarian bipolarity, with special focus on second-century Greek and Roman politico-cultural interactions. My aim here is to provide a complement to chapter 1 in establishing an interpretative framework for reading Polybius's collective representations. In the chapters that follow, I discuss the politico-cultural system of Hellenism from an instrumentalist or functionalist perspective, and here I have found Fredrik Barth's discussion of ethnicity to be most helpful. For Barth, culture is an agglomeration of social boundary markers including religion, lifestyle, occupational status, and language. The important point for Barth is that culture, or at least certain aspects of it, may not be activated in a special interest group's struggles for political, social, or economic advancement. In the Barthian sense of the term, on the other hand, ethnicity is a strategy that singles out certain features of a culture as ethnically significant and deploys them in the interests of the ethnic group. This group's continuance is dependent upon the importance its members ascribe to maintaining its boundaries in order to advance the interests of the constituency. As my definition of “culture” in the introduction makes clear, however, I do not insist, as does Barth, that we make a sharp distinction between culture and ethnicity in this sense. Although we do not usually think of culture as including ethnicity's galvanizing constructs of common ancestry and mythical homeland, my definition of culture has strong political dimensions and maps well onto Barth's conception of ethnicity, and I use the terms “culture” and “ethnicity” virtually interchangeably. Barth maintains that ethnicity is above all attitudinal and selective; that it is the ffuid result of an ongoing discourse, not of any primordial essence; and that its history is the outcome of

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