Ethnicity in the Ancient World — Did It Matter?
Erich S. Gruen
Walter de Gruyter GmbH, 2020
Erich S. Gruen is a Vienna-born Jewish classics professor who taught at Berkeley for more than 40 years. He is 88 years old.
As a demonstration of the persistence of the Jewish project — comparable to George Soros cranking away at 92 — his late-in-life recent work is a collection of essays aiming to deny the importance of ethnicity in the ancient world. Without saying so, he seems to be attempting to answer the White advocacy interest in classics — and the race realist interest in how inherent racial characteristics drive human events.
Ethnicity in the Ancient World — Did it Matter? surveys Western history from early Greece through Rome. Considerable attention is paid to Jews as portrayed in the Old Testament, ancient Jewish writers like Philo of Alexandria, and Christianity.
In the introduction, Gruen rejects inherent racial characteristics.
“The idea of an immutable character determining the nature of a people or an ethnic group finds few takers today,” he tells us. Never mind, of course, that to be a “taker” of this view is to be exiled from modern academia, which might explain why there are “few.”
Gruen says his purpose is to demonstrate that “ancient societies generally shunned the sense of ethnicity as an undeviating marker of distinctiveness stemming from descent, and that they were therefore open to change, adaptation, intermingling, and incorporation. In our contemporary age when ethnic identity has become increasingly fraught and divisive, those characteristics can offer a salutary corrective.”
In other words, the ancients were woke.
But to style them as such, Gruen sets the bar where he needs it set to validate this thesis: an ancient must have openly and repeatedly declared a belief in inherited — i.e., group genetic — inferiority. And must have made this a central principle. For ethnicity to “matter,” apparently, the only sufficient proof would be the frequent deployment of a centuries-old and heretofore unknown racial slur.
Of course, the ancients weren’t like this.
But even with this sleight of hand, Gruen struggles to overcome what’s apparent even to someone new to study of the ancient world: ethnicity did matter.
In a chapter titled “Were Barbarians Barbaric?,” Gruen discusses Aristotle’s assertion that “barbarians” (non-Greeks, so called because their languages sounded like “bar-bar-bar” to Hellenic ears) are synonymous with slaves, and are the proper object of Greek rule. He also references Plato’s account of Socrates saying something similar: Greek states should not enslave each other, but to enslave barbarians is the ancient prerogative of warfare.
None of this mattered, in Gruen’s view, because they didn’t declare barbarians to be inherently inferior — simply the enemy, or the outsider.
Yet the grand triumvirate of Greek philosophy demonstrate in these passages not only recognition of the importance of nationality, but race — and how the latter is more important than the former. They make a distinction that your average American Republican can’t seem to wrap his head around: a Black American is less a brother than a White European.
In one speech quoted in the book, Herodotus has an Athenian spokesman declare that Greekness “rests on common blood, common language, shared shrines and sacrifices, and similar ways of life — which they would not betray”.
Could there be a more powerful affirmation of racial-national solidarity? Gruen says no. First, he says, Herodotus made the speech up. Perhaps, though Herodotus was a man of his time and must have had strong basis for the speech. Second, he says, the speech is more about inspiring Greek vengeance on Persia than an assertion of racial pride.
Incredibly, Gruen says, “it can hardly carry the weight of a serious and sweeping expression of Hellenic identity.”
Read the quote again and see if you agree.
Herodotus, sometimes known as the “father of history,” is often described as the world’s first ethnographer. Indeed, his writings are replete with his observations — sometimes first-hand, other times heard from others — about the races and ethnicities of the world.
And, as Guillaume Durocher notes:
Herodotus’ world certainly featured peaceful commerce, cultural exchange, and ethnic intermarriage among these peoples — the historian is quite broad-minded and free of chauvinism in this respect. But, as Herodotus makes clear, this was also a world of extreme ethnocentrism and brutal wars. as Herodotus makes clear, this was also a world of extreme ethnocentrism and brutal wars.
This view is expanded in Durocher’s The Ancient Ethnostate: Biopolitical Thought in Ancient Greece.
Gruen tells us, in a pattern that repeats itself throughout the book, “Herodotus mentions black men of smaller than normal stature in Libya, presumably pygmies, but only in passing and makes nothing of it.” In fact, Herodotus’ ethnic discussions aren’t “only in passing” — they’re a mainstay of his work.
Elsewhere, Gruen employs the technique of setting up a quote that damns his thesis, only to blithely follow up by saying this particular ancient only said that once. Therefore, we should discount it.
God, in Genesis, said “let there be light” only once, though that doesn’t mean it wasn’t important.
To thoroughly refute Gruen’s conclusion that “ethnicity didn’t matter” in the ancient world might take years of reading the texts. Or, you could just read the first few lines of a given work.
Take Tacitus’ The Agricola and the Germania. The Roman writer’s tract on the German tribes bordered by the Rhine and the Danube jumps right in with a detailed description of ethnicity:
“I think it probable that they are indigenous and that very little foreign blood has been introduced either by invasions or friendly dealings with neighboring peoples… For myself, I accept the view that the peoples of Germany have never contaminated themselves by intermarriage with foreigners but remain of pure blood, distinct and unlike any other nations. One result of this is that their physical characteristics, in so far as one can generalize about a large population, are always the same: fierce-looking blue eyes, reddish hair, and big frames — which, however, can exert their strength only by means of violent effort. They are less able to endure toil or fatiguing tasks and cannot bear thirst or heat, though their climate has inured them to cold spells and the poverty of their soil to hunger.”
I ask: does talk of “contamination” of the blood square with a view that “ethnicity didn’t matter”?
Gruen mentions The Agricola and the Germania, but doesn’t quote the passage above. Yet in an entire essay on these Germans, it’s the first thing Tacitus writes. That indicates to me that ethnicity was important to him.
It should go without saying that for ancient Jews, ethnicity was crucial, just as it is for them today. Gruen, perhaps to his credit, lays out some of the more pungent examples of this, but manages to be just as dismissive of their interest as he is of Greeks and Romans.
Gruen recounts the episode in the Book of Numbers where Phinehas, a grandson of Aaron, Moses’ brother, is so outraged by a Jewish man and Midianite woman having sex that he runs his spear through the two of them mid-act, like a miscegenation shish-kebob. To top it off, God blesses the act.
It would be hard to imagine a more “racist” act, but Gruen goes on to insist that the only reason for disapproving race-mixing is that non-Jewish women will tempt Jewish men into worshipping foreign idols. It was about religious purity, not racial purity.
Yet one can question which came first — was racial purity needed to keep religious purity, or was religious purity leading racial purity? Gruen also seems to ignore the fact that many mixed marriages by Jewish Old Testament males were more a sign of conquering another people and absorbing them inward than a free-spirited exogamy.
The Book of Tobit, likely written during the Second Temple period, is a Jewish work sometimes deemed part of the Apocrypha (i.e., for most denominations, not included in the Bible). Its central theme is the need for Jews to marry other Jews.
Gruen at least acknowledges this, but goes so far as to use examples of over-emphasis on racial kinship to prove his point. The repeated use of the terms “brother” and “sister” for Jews leads him to say, “The Book of Tobit reads less like advocacy for the idea of Jewish identity as a descent group than like a parody of that idea.”
Of course, it was no such thing, and Gruen’s unscholarly observation seems almost desperate.
Gruen’s discussion of how prominent Romans viewed Jews trots out some zingers: To Cicero, they were superstitious barbarians; for Seneca, “a most pernicious race.” Tacitus called them “a race of men hated by the gods, with base and wicked practices, sordid and ridiculous rites, xenophobic, despised, and the vilest of nations.”
But these disparagements, Gruen assures us, were mere rhetorical heat.
There are several impediments to Gruen’s theory that ethnicity didn’t matter in the ancient world.
The first is that the peoples of the ancient Mediterranean were likely closer to each other genetically than, say, American Whites and sub-Saharan Black Africans.
The scholarship on the actual race of ancient Greeks and Romans is mostly unknown to me, but the sculptures and busts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, combined with Homer’s references to Athena’s gray eyes, Achilles’ blond hair and Menelaus’ red hair, leave me satisfied that prominent ancients looked pretty close to modern Whites.
Would the Greeks at the Battle of Thermopylae have looked slightly whiter than their Persian enemies? I don’t know. It is difficult to imagine that Athenians and Spartans looked markedly different as they squared off during the Peloponnesian War. If ancients were discounting ethnicity, they had more reason to do so than a White Englishman being told that a black African from Zimbabwe is his equal.
In addition to closer genetics, the scientific insights about genetics — as well as intelligence and behavior — did not arise until some two thousand years later. So ancients would not have had the opportunity to ponder, or dwell upon, how these differences might affect social policy.
The second impediment to Gruen’s theory is that the politics were different. Mass immigration by one racial group to the welfare-state apparatus of another wasn’t something happening in the ancient world. Movements of people happened by conquest or exploration, and the driver was likely simple power: the Romans were either able to conquer Gaul, or not.
A conquering race had little reason to spend time thinking about whether it was “superior,” because it just proved it.
Relatedly, the concept of “equality” was a political one that only arose centuries on. It was only when the insistence that all human beings are “equal” was presented in the West that anyone needed to refute it. Natural differences in strength, beauty or intelligence were simply accepted.
The third impediment is that the evidence that ethnicity mattered still overwhelms the evidence that it didn’t. Much of Gruen’s book, in fact, is simply the laying out of just such examples — which he proceeds to downplay.
Gruen clearly has the modern West marked as his enemy. His comparison point is presumably the White nation-states that, through colonization and slavery on the one hand, and mass immigration and affirmative action on the other, have a racial dynamic unlike any other in the world.
In other words, we are (or were) head-caliper obsessed Nazis, while the ancients were mellow.
Gruen says that “the ancients were not absorbed in examining, analyzing, or agonizing over the concept.” I personally may not have, either, but I was born into a society in which I am told that I cannot have a job because I am White. Therefore, I will spend some time “agonizing” over the concept.
So, is the book of any value to White advocates? The discussions do discuss actual writings of ancients, so for what’s that’s worth, yes. His bibliography could serve as a model.
I suppose that Gruen has spent his life poring over these texts from the classical world. I am humbled to realize that I have not, but am making up for lost ground later in life by setting up my own classical library at home. I think all White advocates should do the same, and see to it that their children learn classical history, too.
Christopher Donovan has been a White advocate for at least 20 years, and believes Whites have no choice but to be positive about our prospects even in an obviously declining United States and Europe. He is a practicing lawyer.