Erich S. Gruen


On his book Rethinking the Other in Antiquity

Cover Interview of September 20, 2011


A prevailing view holds that animosities among peoples (whether external or internal) are fueled or exacerbated by negative typecasting that demonizes the “Other” and exalts oneself.

The classic statement of that position can be found in the powerful and influential work of Edward Said, Orientalism. Its impact remains potent, as evidenced by its mirror image, Occidentalism by Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit, and by the widely read best-seller, Clash of Civilizations, by Samuel Huntington.

The proposition has unquestioned force. One needs only to recall George W. Bush’s explanation for the attack on Twin Towers: the attackers “hate freedom.”

That approach has wielded substantial leverage on scholarly interpretations of hostilities in antiquity. A battery of books stresses the misrepresentations and stereotypes that spurred the ancients to “invent the barbarian,” and to justify marginalization, subordination, or exclusion. For some scholars, adverse attitudes toward foreigners in the ancient Mediterranean amounted to either ethnic prejudice or proto-racism.

I offer an alternative approach.

Rethinking the Other argues that ancient societies, while certainly acknowledging differences among peoples (indeed occasionally emphasizing them), could also visualize themselves as part of a broader cultural heritage and couch their own historical memories in terms of a borrowed or appropriated past.

The establishing of a collective identity is an evolving process, no straight line but a meandering movement. To stress stigmatization of the “Other” as a fundamental strategy of self-assertion is reductive and one-sided.

Rethinking the Other turns the lens on inclusion rather than exclusion. The book shows that many ancients took the affirmative route, set the alien in a softer light, found connections among peoples, appropriated the traditions of others, inserted themselves into the genealogies and legends of foreigners, and enhanced their own self-image by proclaiming their participation in a broader cultural scene. That attitude complicated the sense of collective identity—but also substantially enriched it.