Erich S. Gruen


On his book Rethinking the Other in Antiquity

Cover Interview of September 20, 2011

In a nutshell

How do nations, peoples, and ethnic groups fashion their own collective identities? For antiquity as well as for the modern era, one general answer has prevailed: societies shape their self-consciousness by framing a contrast with the “Other.”

The creation of distorted mirrors highlights the distinguishing features of one culture by playing them off against the stereotypes or negative images ascribed to ostensibly dissimilar societies. The differentiation has promoted conventional antinomies like Greek/barbarian, Jew/gentile, civilized/savage, advanced/backward, and righteous/degenerate. The common scholarly view holds that disparagement of alien cultures serves to develop the inner portrait, an essential ingredient in establishing self-esteem and claiming superiority.

Rethinking the Other challenges standard orthodoxy. It shows another side to this story and turns it on its head.

I attempt to show that when ancient peoples rediscovered their roots and recounted their history, they often did so by finding or claiming links with other societies, by pointing to cross-currents and overlaps that placed less emphasis on differences than on shared heritage within a broader Mediterranean setting.

The book moves beyond hostile stereotypes, distortions, and caricatures. It argues that linkages among peoples, whether real or fictive, played a larger role in mutual perceptions than antithesis, disparity, or rejection.

The interconnections appear in foundation myths that drew on diverse cultural traditions, stories of migratory movements, fictive genealogies, and invented kinship relations—a form of “togetherness’ rather than “otherness.” Readers of the book will find a web of complex associations among cultures and societies that undermine simplistic dichotomies and disclose a drive by the ancients to stress bonds rather than barriers.

The book is divided into two large sections: “Impressions of the Other” and “Connections with the Other.”

The first part, composed of eight chapters, examines Greek and Roman representations of Persians, Egyptians, Carthaginians, Gauls, Germans, and black Africans. It argues that the descriptions and characterizations, far from exhibiting simplistic stereotypes, display subtle characterizations that resist reductive placement into negative—or, for that matter, positive—categories.

The four chapters that make up the second part explore fictive genealogies, foundation legends, and stories of multiple migrations that underscore connections between cultures rather than disassociation and estrangement. They disclose the manner in which Mediterranean peoples encountered, even embraced, the traditions of others and introduced them into their own self-consciousness.