Blackwell Bristol Lectures on Greece, Rome and the Classical Tradition

Current Series Editor: Neville Morley

The Bristol Institute of Greece, Rome and the Classical Tradition promotes the study of Greco-Roman culture from antiquity to the present day, in the belief that classical culture remains a vital influence in the modern world. It embraces research and education in many fields, including history of all kinds, archaeology, literary studies, art history and philosophy, with particular emphasis on links between the ancient and modern worlds. The Blackwell Bristol Lectures showcase the very best of modern scholarship in Classics and the Classical Tradition.


Why Plato Wrote

Danielle Allen

Tales of the Barbarians: Ethnography and Empire in the Roman West

Greg Woolf

Title Page

Translations Used

Except where otherwise noted, translations are reprinted by permission of the publishers and Trustees of the Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, copyright by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Loeb Classical Library® is a registered trademark of the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All other translations are by the author.

The Roman History of Ammianus Marcellinus, during the Reign of the Emperors Constantius, Julian, Jovianus, Valentinian, and Valens, trans. C.D. Yonge. London: Bohn's Classical Library, 1862.

Appian's Roman History, trans. Horace White. Loeb Classical Library. London: William Heinemann, 1912.

Dio's Roman History, trans. Earnest Cary and Herbert Baldwin Foster. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1914.

Diodorus of Sicily, trans. C.H. Oldfather. 12 vols. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1933–9.

The Roman Antiquities of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, trans. Earnest Cary and Edward Spelmann. Loeb Classical Library. London: William Heinemann, 1937.

Hippocrates, vol. 1, trans. W.H.S. Jones. Loeb Classical Library. London: William Heinemann, 1923.

Justin, History of the World extracted from Trogus Pompeius, etc., trans. John Selby Watson. London: George Bell & Sons, 1890.

Livy in Fourteen Volumes, trans. B.O. Foster. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1924.

Manilius Astrononomica, trans. G.P. Goold. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Parthenius of Nicaea. The poetical fragments and the . Edited with introduction and commentaries by Jane L. Lightfoot. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999.

Plutarch's Lives, vol. 2, trans. Bernadotte Perrin. Loeb Classical Library. London: William Heinemann, 1914.

Polybius, The Histories, trans. W.R. Paton. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1922.

Posidonius III, The Translation of the Fragments, trans. I.G. Kidd. Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

The Geography of Strabo, trans. H.C. Hamilton and W. Falconer, 3 vols. London. George Bell & Sons. 1903.

Tacitus, Germania, Translated with Introduction and Commentary, trans. James B. Rives. Clarendon Ancient History Series. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999.

Vitruvius, On Architecture, trans. Frank Grancer. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1934.

For my mother


Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness begins with a story, told on the deck of a cruiser moored on the Thames estuary where a group of old friends pass the time as they wait for the tide to turn. As the sun sets over London, the narrator begins his tale of the degeneration of imperial rule and Western rationality in the depths of Africa. ‘“And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”’

The phrase is a quotation from Psalm 74, an appeal to God not to forsake his people in the midst of the heathen, a very suitable epigram for this novel. Verse 20 in the King James Bible reads ‘Have respect unto the covenant: for the dark places of the earth are full of the habitations of cruelty’.

Neither Conrad nor Marlow follows up that thought immediately. Conrad continues by characterizing this latter-day Odysseus as an inveterate follower of the seas, a man whose wandering mind is untypical of sailors, especially in his yarns, because to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale like a misty halo. Marlow, for his part, continues:

I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago – the other day … Light came out of this river, you say Knights? Yes; but it is like a running blaze on a plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds. We live in the flicker – may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday. Imagine the feelings of a commander of a fine – what d'ye call ‘em? – trireme in the Mediterranean, ordered suddenly to the north; run overland across the Gauls in a hurry; put in charge of one of these craft the legionaries – a wonderful lot of handy men they must have been, too – used to build, apparently by the hundred, in a month or two, if we may believe what we read. Imagine him here – the very end of the world, a sea the colour of lead, a sky the colour of smoke, a kind of ship about as rigid as a concertina – and going up this river with stores, or orders, or what you like. Sand-banks, marshes, forests, savages, – precious little to eat fit for a civilized man, nothing but Thames water to drink. No Falernian wine here, no going ashore. Here and there a military camp lost in a wilderness, like a needle in a bundle of hay – cold, fog, tempests, disease, exile, and death – death skulking in the air, in the water, in the bush. They must have been dying like flies here.

The Heart of Darkness was published in 1902, just five years after Kipling's poem ‘Recessional', and this opening frame voices a similar consciousness of the imminent end of empire. Rome, as so often for this generation, offered compelling resemblances and contrasts. Marlow goes on at once to provide some of the latter: we are not quite like them, we are more efficient, they were no colonists and barely had an administration. They were mere conquerors, who ‘grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got' and he continues in similar vein. The reader is not taken in, of course. What Marlow found up river, at ‘the farthest point of navigation and the culmination of my experience', will shatter forever his and our faith in the comforting narratives of the civilizing process. We are no better than the Romans, and our fate will be no different from theirs.

Thinking about the British empire in terms of ancient Rome was perhaps inevitable. So much of the paraphernalia of British rule – titles and slogans, symbols and ornaments – had been created in the Victorian era, when the status of Classics in the education of the British elite was at an all time high. Yet there has been a price for historians in this Romanizing of Europe's imperial adventures. Whenever Britain becomes the new Rome, the ancient Britons, the Gauls and other western peoples become Victorian savages, illiterate tribesmen hidden in the dark forests of an unexplored continent. Rome's penetration of Europe was easy to imagine as a precursor of the Scramble for Africa. Many versions of the analogy have since been presented. There have been noble Britons, and British victims as well as British savages. Scholars have drawn attention to the limitations of the comparison, from at least the beginning of the twentieth century. Yet successive generations of revisionists have found it easier to exchange domination and exploitation for the civilizing process than to decolonize our histories of the Roman West. Post-colonial studies have in many ways only prolonged our double identification with Roman imperialism and its victims.

This book is intended as a contribution to this project of decolonization. Decolonizing does not mean redressing the balance. This is no attempt to give voices to those whom I shall continue to call barbarians, and certainly not to proclaim their ways of life better than (or even merely different from) what replaced them under Roman rule. I am not setting out to ‘take their side', as if by affirming solidarity with some of my conquered ancestors, I can expiate the imperialist deeds of my more recent relatives. Nor do I want to tell the story from their point of view. Peoples without History, are usually those who have been deprived of it by force. Pretending to restore it is a condescension that trivializes the original theft. It is in any case an impossible task for antiquity, where it is hard enough to tell a story with any nuance from the conquerors' perspective. Rather this is an investigation of a group of themes that have become central to the history of modern empires in general, but an investigation that has constantly to navigate between analogy and difference.

The subject of this book is the creation of new histories in the Roman West. This new knowledge, and the process by which it was created, I shall term ethnography. What that term might mean in antiquity will need to be clarified in chapter 1. But using it has the advantage that it allows me to connect the various texts in which my stories about barbarians are found to similar texts created in other places and periods. It also allows me to draw on a rich body of debate among modern anthropologists and historians about what happens when accounts of unfamiliar peoples are translated into writing. Their questions have helped me formulate my own. Who was involved in the generation of that new knowledge? How did the circumstances under which they met shape the form taken by the stories they told? How did the prior intellectual preoccupations of ancient writers shape their questions and their answers? How far did empire set the terms in which they came to understand each other? Reading ethnographies has its own pleasure – and I have enjoyed dipping my toes into unfamiliar waters – but I do not expect the stories of Roman Europe to be the same as, or indeed different from, those told in the modern world. If my problematic owes everything to current debates among both historians of empire and ethnographers, my answers will not systematically proclaim either the equivalence of ancient experience, or its utter foreignness.

What do I mean by the Roman West? A vast region that Roman armies fought in, occupied and eventually conquered, between the middle of the third century BCE and the end of the first century CE. The term is a conventional one. West, that is, of Italy, itself largely under Roman control before the first campaigns were waged on the larger islands and along the Mediterranean littorals of France, Spain and North Africa. All these territories were conquered by the end of the Punic Wars, that is in the middle of the second century BCE. It took over a century more to make the Atlantic the limit of Roman rule. The final portions of Roman North Africa and Spain, Gaul, Britain and Germany were not turned into provinces until the first century CE. West is also a cultural realm: West in contradistinction to the East of Greek cities and Hellenistic monarchies. Teleologically, this is the half of the empire which, along with Italy, would come to use Latin in its administration and monuments, literature and education. It coincides roughly with the less successful half of the empire after it was divided in the late fourth and early fifth century, the Roman empire that fell, only for part of it to form the foundations of Western Christendom. That West, of course, was not bisected by the Mediterranean: Africa was as much a part of it as the wilder shores of Europe.

The West was not always so different or distinct. When Timaios of Sicilian Tauromenium gave it its first comprehensive history around the beginning of the third century BCE, it was one of a number of peripheries of the Greek core of Mediterranean civilization. Perhaps it might have been compared to the Euxine as another sea seeded with Greek cities in the Iron Age, or even with the newer Greek lands settled by Alexander's veterans and ruled by the descendants of his generals, in Egypt and Anatolia, the Near East and the Hindu Kush. Aristotle had included the constitutions of Rome and Carthage (along with those of some of the western Greek cities) in his political surveys. Eratosthenes wondered if Romans, Carthaginians and Indians should be considered within the civilized core of the world, a core surrounded by barbarian peoples. A much sharper cultural gradient than East/West divided the Mediterranean world, with its centuries and cities and its dense networks of trade, piracy and pilgrimage, from its various continental hinterlands. The Maghreb, the Spanish Meseta and the Massif Central had little in common, except that all were ecologically distinct from the littorals surrounding the western extension of the middle sea.

The West was, in fact, an artefact of Roman power. Part of the aim of this book is to trace how that came about. It was created first by the obliteration of Carthage, and then by devising for Spaniards, Africans and Gauls (and then for others) new means of rule, different from those that Romans were learning to apply in Greek lands. Local memory, whether documented in the Carthaginian libraries – libraries that the conquerors ostentatiously dispersed, translating only one great encyclopaedia of agriculture – or in oral traditions, was treated as worthless. This from a city that had been actively sponsoring the creation of a Latin literature and patronizing Greek scholars for over a century by the time Carthage fell! The early Roman empire stimulated a great recovery and celebration of local memories in the Greek world, but not in the emergent West. Contempt for local traditions in this part of their dominions can be compared to the notorious modern doctrine of terra nullius, the designation of territory as legitimately belonging to no one, and so liable to the most extreme forms of colonial remodelling. It is difficult to find explicit statements by Roman writers of such a doctrine, but its application was nevertheless systematic. The Latin West was made, in part, by the effacing of un-Latin and pre-Roman pasts, a process quite different from that applied in other parts of the empire. In their place, new pasts and traditions had to be invented.

Expressed in these terms, the actual violence of Roman conquest might seem to entail what has been called ‘epistemic violence'. That term refers to the (usually) colonial engineering of an unbridgeable rupture between the knowledge worlds of pre- and post-conquest societies. Indigenous knowledge – of themselves, their past, their identity and their place in the cosmos – is dramatically devalued, to be replaced by the ‘discoveries' of the conquerors, inventions that encode the rulers' gaze and build on their own metropolitan preoccupations. The paradigm for such an approach was that pioneered by Edward Said in his study of what he termed ‘orientalism', although more extreme versions of the idea have since gained currency as well as comprehensive critiques. Common ground is that empire exercised a crucial context for the new texts that were produced. Probably most now would assent to some form to Foucault's general proposition that new orders of knowledge are produced by and underpin new orders of power. These ideas have already been influential in Roman history.

More contentious is the extent to which empire is held to dominate the intellectual field: Did pre-conquest knowledge make any impact on conquerors? Were there any continuities across epistemic shifts? How far were imperial aspirations to totalizing authority ever realized in practice? Historians of the European empires of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are currently locked in sometimes fierce debate over how absolute those ruptures were, and over the extent to which the dominated subjects of European empires actively contributed to the creation of the new knowledge that replaced what was effaced by empire. When the issue is resolved into concrete questions, the answers may vary from one colonial situation to another. This book seeks to ask and answer some such concrete questions, such as: Did western provincials have any input into their new histories? How interested were Roman generals and emperors in gathering and systematizing knowledge? How far did pre-Roman traditions cross the ruptures caused by epistemic violence?

That empire spellbound the Roman imagination cannot be denied. Yet the precise connections remain obscure. Strabo, writing in Augustan Rome, granted that Roman expansion had brought new knowledge, yet his world is arguably Hellenocentric, his foundational text Homer, his predecessors and rivals Polybios and Poseidonios, Eratosthenes and Artemidoros. When Pliny dedicates the Natural History to Titus, does he celebrate the imperial frame of the encyclopaedia, or merely seek to appropriate the majesty of empire to his scholarly magnum opus? The Roman empire offered various resources to scholars, among them safe passage and all those plundered libraries gathered into the metropolis. But did scholarship pay its dues? Can we credit, as some have, the idea of Caesar guided into the Gallic interior by a battered scroll of Poseidonios? Would merchants exploring the harbours of the empire really find much of commercial advantage in dog-eared copies of Strabo?

The four chapters of this book pursue a sceptical investigation into the connections between empire and knowledge at the turn of the millennia. The first is an attempt to give some specificity to the kinds of knowledge we have of the Roman West in ethnographic writing and considers en route questions of genre and tradition, definition and historiography. It also offers an argument about the locations where new knowledge was created. The second chapter is concerned with the intellectual resources available for ordering this information, specifically the scientific paradigms offered by Greek ethnography, and genealogical discourse, also typically if not uniquely Greek. In particular it asks how scientific and mythopoetic modes of analysis were put into relation with each other, and with other ways of ordering the world, and why they did not produce a more systematic theory of human diversity and its origins. The third chapter deals with the imperial context of these investigations, with questions of imperial sponsorship and use of knowledge, questions that have produced a huge literature in relation to modern imperialisms. The fourth asks how this knowledge was employed in the world of the principate, how open to revision it was, and why there seem so few advances in ethnographic knowledge over the course of the empire. Naturally these investigations tangle around each other as they proceed.

One of the many revelations produced by the modern critique of ethnography has been an explosion of the myth of first contact. Someone has always been there before, and very often these forerunners turn out to be essential guides to those who explore territory new to themselves. Writing this book I have been very fortunate in those who have surveyed this territory ahead of me. It will be obvious from my notes how much I depend on those philologists who, over more than a century, have surveyed ancient ethnographic and geographic writing and have teased out its relationship with historiography. Three more recent studies have, however, been both guides into the forest and inspirations. Most fundamental of all has been Arnaldo Momigliano's Alien Wisdom, his Trevelyan lectures of 1973, which explored with wit and insight how Greek writers observed and recorded their neighbours as the world was opened up to their enquiries by Hellenistic and Roman imperialisms. Claude Nicolet's L'inventaire du monde also started life as a lecture series, in this case the Jerome Lectures of 1986. His rich interweaving of intellectual and administrative history around the theme of space provided a model for historicizing a shift in geographical knowledge at the origins of the principate. Finally, James Romm's elegant volume The Edges of the Earth in Ancient Thought (1992) encouraged me to believe it was possible to write a cultural history of geography without doing violence to the literature through which is it now mostly represented.

This book grew within a collaborative project on Science and Empire in the Roman World sponsored by the Leverhulme Trust. I am immensely grateful to the Trust, to my principal collaborators Jason König and Katerina Oikonomopolou, and also to the many scholars who participated in workshops and conferences held in St Andrews in the course of the project. I seem to have been telling tales about barbarians for a long time now. Audiences in Cambridge, Cologne, Galway, Lisbon, London, Malibu, Minneapolis, Nijmegen, Oxford, Paris, Philadelphia, Seville, St Andrews, Stanford and Sydney have heard and commented on earlier tellings. If they have not improved them more, it is my fault not theirs. Conversations at crucial moments with Kai Brodersen, Michael Crawford, Ton Derks, Mark Harris, Nico Roymans, the late and much missed Dick Whittaker, Jonathon Williams and Fernando Wulff have made larger contributions than any probably realized at the time to the evolution of my ideas.

The invitation to give the Blackwell Bristol Lectures in 2009 provided the perfect opportunity to bring these ideas together. My hosts and discussants at Bristol provided the best audience for which I could have hoped, as supportive and generous as it was critically engaged. For this, and for wonderful hospitality and good company during those two weeks, I am very grateful to Richard Buxton, Gillian Clarke, Bob Fowler, Duncan Kennedy, Charles Martindale, Nicoletta Momigliano, Neville Morley, Ellen O'Gorman, Rosalind Thomas and the Department of Classics and Ancient History as a whole. I am grateful too to Al Bertand, Haze Humbert, Galen Smith, Annie Jackson and all at Wiley-Blackwell for all their help in translating my lectures into this book. The final revisions took place during a fellowship held at the Max Weber College of the Unversity of Erfurt as part of a DFG-sponsored Forschergruppe led by Hans Joas and Jörg Rüpke, and during a period of leave given by the University of St Andrews and sponsored again by the Leverhulme Trust. The staff and collections of the university libraries of St Andrews and Erfurt and of the Warburg Institute have been vital. But neither lectures nor book could have been written without the unparalleled resources of the Joint Library of the Hellenic and Roman Societies at the Institute of Classical Studies in London and the help of its dedicated librarians. My thanks to all.