Classical studies (Anthropology)

Anthropology and the classics

Anthropology (‘the study of humankind’), like so many terms of contemporary social-scientific art,is borrowed appropriately enough from ancient Greek. For although the Greeks themselves did not actually use the term, brilliantly original thinkers like Herodotus and Democritus (fifth century bce) can be seen as the ultimate progenitors of the field within the Western tradition (Cole 1967). An early landmark of the modern discipline is the classically trained J.G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough (original edition 1890), but to conventional late Victorian classicists Frazer remained known, or anyway respected, rather for his six-volume commentary (1898) on Pau-sanias, the ancient Greek Baedeker who had embarked on a curiously proto-Frazerian pilgrimage of religious antiquarianism around what was to him even then, in the second century of our era, ‘ancient’ Greece.

By 1898, then, the relationship between anthropology and classics was an established if still a little shaky fact. It had begun as a trial marriage in such foundational works as H.S. Maine’s Ancient Law (1861) and N.D. Fustel de Coulanges’s La cite antique (1864), when classics was still relatively speaking in its heyday and anthropology its infancy. By 1908, when a group of distinguished scholars was brought together by R.R. Marett to contribute to a collection entitled Anthropology and the Classics, one might have been forgiven for supposing that not only consummation but something like parity of esteem had been achieved. Actually, divorce proceedings were already in the offing.

Traditional classicists repined against what one august American Hellenist colourfully dubbed ‘the anthropological Hellenism of Sir James Frazer, the irrational, semi-sentimental, Polynesian, freeverse and sex-freedom Hellenism of all the gushful geysers of rapturous rubbish about the Greek spirit’ (a loose, not to say crude, reference to the so-called ‘Cambridge Ritualist’ school of Jane Ellen Harrison, F.M. Cornford and others: Calder 1991). Cutting-edge ethnographic anthropologists, for their part, were on the verge of Malinowskian participant observation, reporting back to base with mint-fresh data on living societies and often pretty scornful of the irretrievably dead (as they believed) cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, not to mention History more generally.

By 1960, when Clyde Kluckhohn delivered a lecture series at Brown University under the same title as the Marett collection, the decree absolute had been granted. In so far as intimate relations still existed, the flow was almost entirely unidirectional, from the erstwhile junior partner, anthropology, to the now seriously moribund elder partner, classics. E.R. Dodds’s The Greeks and the Irrational (1951) protested eloquently against, but by its very title neatly illustrated one of the chief reasons for this stand-off. Classicists, many of whom still preferred to bask in the afterglow of Victorian self-identification with the ‘Glory that was Greece’, were typically not overwhelmingly impressed by Dodds’s forays into the shame-culture and shamanism, let alone the paranormal, that he claimed had flourished even amid the supposed rationalism of classical Greece. When Moses Finley’s The World of Odysseus was published on this side of the Atlantic in 1956, this unashamed attempt to illuminate the world of Homer from the writings of the French Durkheimian anthropologist Marcel Mauss (1954 [1925]) on the northwest American potlatch and the Melanesian kula-ring was thought to need the prefatory imprimatur of a pukka classical humanist, Maurice Bowra (not included in the new, 1978 edition).

In retrospect, Finley’s little masterpiece can be seen as the chief seed of the present flowering of anthropologically related studies of ancient Greek culture and society. The other major tributary of the scholarly flood of anthropologizing Hellenism is French, most famously the so-called ‘Paris School’ of cultural criticism founded by Jean-Pierre Vernant (who originally trained as an ancient philosopher) and the historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet (1986; Vernant and Naquet 1988), who trace their intellectual genealogy back to Durkheim and Mauss by way of the Hellenist Louis Gernet (1968; 1983; cf. Di Donato 1990). (Anthropological insights have been applied far less frequently, systematically and successfully to Roman society and culture than to ancient Greek. The conspicuous exception is in the field of Roman religion, where the leading inspiration has been the putatively Indo-European trifunctionality of G. Dumezil: Di Donato 1990.)

Following Finley and the Paris School, many modern scholars of ancient Greece have participated with an unparalleled zest and gusto in the view widespread across all the humanities that anthropology is, if not the, at any rate one of today’s foundational intellectual disciplines. No one has done more to make this appear to be the case than Clifford Geertz, patentee of the ethnographic discourse known almost onomatopoeically as ‘thick description’ (1973) — notwithstanding Geertz’s own typically ironic claim (1988) that anthropology, compared with law, physics, music or cost accounting, is a relatively minor cultural institution. Students of the agonistic and masculinist public culture of the ancient Greeks tend to find that Geertz’s brilliant interpretation of the Balinese cockfight strikes a particularly resonant chord with them.

It is impossible to mention here more than a sample of recent anthropologically inspired work in Hellenic classical studies. (For a more complete citation see Cartledge 1994.) But within the last decade alone historians of ancient Greece — both terms are to be interpreted generously — have drawn on comparative anthropological data and/or models to illuminate such institutions, practices and cultural ‘imaginaries’ as age-setting and rites of passage, burial-rituals, the family, gender and sexuality, law, literacy, religion and mythology, ritualized guest-friendship, science, slavery, and tragic drama. Selection is invidious, but perhaps worthy of special mention is Thomas (1992), a measured response to the somewhat extravagant claims for the politically determinative function of Greek alphabetic literacy originally made by Jack Goody (1968).

Continuities or differences

No less important than the sheer range and depth of this anthropologizing research is the sharp — and, almost inevitably, binary — divide that separates its practitioners into opposing camps, partly for theoretical, partly no doubt also for ideological reasons. On the one hand, there are those who believe it is possible and helpful to generalize across all modern Greece (and sometimes more broadly still, to ‘the Mediterranean world’) and then use such generalized comparative data in the form of a model to supplement as well as interpret the available primary evidence for antiquity — either on the assumption that like conditions produce like effects or, even more robustly, in the belief that there has been substantial continuity of culture and mentality in Greece from antiquity to the present. In anthropology, J.C. Lawson’s ‘study in survivals’, Ancient Greek Folklore and Modern Greek Religion (1910) or R. and E. Blum’s The Dangerous Hour (1970) conspicuously represent this view of Greekness as an essence, a classicizing essence to be sure, impervious to such historic changes as those from paganism to Orthodox Christianity, or from subsistence peasant agriculture to more or less internationally market-driven capitalist farming.

For other observers and/or participants, it makes all the difference in the world precisely which historical epoch of Greece is being imagined as constituting the paradigm and standard of Greekness. To many modern Greeks, for example, their supposed classical ancestry is just one more facet of their perceived misfortune to be Greek; this challenged sense of national-ethnic identity has been sensitively analysed by foreign scholars such as Michael "Herzfeld (1987), a leading light of the small but vigorous community of anthropologists of modern Greece that acknowledges a debt of inspiration to J.K. Campbell’s Honour, Family and Patronage (1964). In conscious or unconscious harmony with this stress on difference, many ancient historians either believe on principle, or are simply struck by their supposedly objective observation, that comparison of ancient and modern Hellenism should be used chiefly to highlight fundamental cultural difference rather than conflate heterogeneous cultures or fill gaps in the extant primary sources.

A couple of illustrations, one from each interpretative tradition and both addressing the same area of gender and sexuality, should make this distinction of scholarly approach more concrete and precise. In his Law, Sexuality and Society: The Enforcement of Morals in Classical Athens (1991), David Cohen studies the way in which classical Athenian sexuality was policed both formally, by popular adjudication in the democratic law courts, and informally, through customary norms. His basic contentions are twofold: that male-generated and male-adjudicated law was just one, and by no means the largest, part of the honour-and-shame system of values designed to regulate Athenian sexual behaviour, and that in accordance with his ‘Mediterranean model’ we should postulate quite a radical gap between the officially expressed moral-political norms of Athens and their practical negotiation between the sexes in private.

Cohen (a graduate pupil of Finley) is very widely read both theoretically and empirically — his model draws freely on French and British sociology as well as a vast range of ethnography from all round the eastern Mediterranean, among Muslim and Arab communities in addition to Catholic and Orthodox religious traditions. And his hypothesis of a significant gap between Athenian public cultural ideals and negotiated private practice is important and plausible, especially because it emphasizes the real possibility of a considerable degree of female autonomy. It does not, however, entirely avoid the danger of over-assimilation: crucially, it makes insufficient allowance for the differences between classical Athens, a sovereign democratic political community, and a modern village in Greece (or Lebanon) whose acknowledged norms may well be at odds with those of the officially sovereign national legal culture.

On the other side, the side of local specificity and difference, is the collection of essays by the late J.J. Winkler, The Constraints of Desire (1990). This is devoted to understanding what he called gender-protocols in ancient Greece, interpreting the latter far more broadly than Cohen to include texts written in Greek in Egypt or elsewhere in the Greek-speaking half of the Roman Empire as well as in democratic Athens. For Winkler’s anthropology of ancient Greek culture, the close reading of texts in specific context is of the essence. Thus he, like Cohen, studies the way the Athenians ‘laid down the law’ on sexual propriety, and agrees that simply knowing the protocols does not tell us how people behaved. But in studying, additionally, the necessarily private textual genre of erotic magical spells, Winkler is able not only to move beyond Cohen’s frame of reference but also to provide contemporary evidence that questions the universal validity of the supposed norms themselves (in this case, the official male denial that women did, or rather should, get sexual pleasure). In my view Winkler has the better of this argument. Difference not sameness is the key.

I conclude therefore with the nub of what I no doubt optimistically take to be my own objective observation of fundamental and irreconcilable differences between the mentality and ideology of the classical Greeks and those of any modern Western society, including that of contemporary Greece (Cartledge 1993). Slavery, arguably, was both the principal material basis of society and the governing paradigm of human worth in classical Greek antiquity, affecting not only economics and politics but also, more subtly, the ideological representations of, and interpersonal relations between, the sexes. At the limit of degradation, ancient slavery meant the total deracination and depersonalization, the social death, involved in the chattel slavery experienced by the unfree in Athens and elsewhere. At best, it consigned hundreds of thousands of human beings to a vague limbo status ‘between slavery and freedom’ such as the Helots of Sparta enjoyed (or suffered). There have always been classicists who have objected to the anthropologizing cross-cultural study of the ancient Greeks, on the grounds that it seems to focus on and highlight their least edifying traits. Slavery, however, was an essential and formative part of a culture that was — in many other ways — admirable, and indeed a continuing source of our cultural inspiration today, most obviously in the visual and performing arts. Anthropologizing the ancient Greeks can enable us to come to terms with this rebarbative and seemingly contradictory combination of inhumane servitude and high cultural achievement.

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