Erich S. Gruen


On his book Rethinking the Other in Antiquity

Cover Interview of September 20, 2011

The wide angle

All societies engage in myth-making about their pasts. The tales speak to the image that they wish to project not only to an external world but to themselves. How far do they represent reality? That question engages much historical research and writing. But the extraction of fact from fiction does not exhaust the mission of the historian. The creation of fictive tales is itself a historical fact—and one that can bring real insight into the understanding of a culture’s values and aspirations.

We learn, for instance, that the ancient Egyptians, after encountering the worlds of the Greeks and the Jews, produced or embellished a notable set of stories. An Egyptian narrative, conveyed by a Greek author, claimed that Cadmus and Danaus, founders of the most venerable Greek cities, Thebes and Argos, and Moses, founder of the Hebrew nation, were all Egyptian in origin.

Never mind whether the stories have any historical basis. They demonstrate not only familiarity in Egypt with Greek legends and Jewish traditions but a usurpation of them to assert Egyptian origins as the basis for glories attributed to other cultures.

This is transparently a form of cultural appropriation, even cultural imperialism. But it is more than that. By claiming credit for the achievements of others, Egypt was also associating them with their own history and rewriting their own traditions to conform to theirs. This gives a very different picture from the normal image of Egypt standing in splendid isolation from the rest of the Mediterranean. And it encapsulates the major theme of the book: the ancient penchant to discover, or fabricate, common links that crossed ethnic or national lines.

My route to this subject took some apparent twists and turns, but, in retrospect, seems perfectly logical.

A large book on the political and diplomatic history of Rome’s relations with the Greek east included, almost as an afterthought, some glances at the cultural intertwinings that those entanglements produced. That led to two further books that explored the impact of Hellenic culture upon Roman sensibilities and the manipulation of Hellenism to further Rome’s self-image.

A similar objective brought me, in two additional books, to examine the ways in which Jews of the Hellenistic period engaged with Greek culture in expanding their own horizons and developing a niche in the wider Roman world, without abandoning their own traditions. Rethinking the Other pursues this subject on a broader stage, examining the mutual perceptions, representations, and self-understandings of Egyptians, Persians, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Jews, Greeks, Romans, Gauls, Germans, and black Africans.