E Pluribus Plures: Identities in a Multiethnic Ancient Mediterranean

Over then next few weeks, I will be posting up the text and images from a series of lectured I gave between July 9-13, 2019 at the CANE Summer Institute held at Brown University. The theme of the institute was "E Pluribus Unum". I was invited as the Onassis Lecturer to give a three lecture series on the theme. The lectures focus on ancient Greece and move from a general overview of identity in the Greek world (e pluribus plures), then to a deep dive looking at Athenian rejection of broader ideal of 'Greekness' (ex uno unum), and ends with a look at modern political uses of classics that inhibit the field from realizing its own ideal of e pluribus unum. I will post them in order. This is the first: "E Pluribus Plures: Identities in a Multiethnic Ancient Mediterranean". 

NOTE: there are parts of each lecture where I either did not script the text and refer to slides or simply ad libbed. As a result, in those locations, I will either post the slides or will link to previous posts that explain the point I was making.

E Pluribus Unum: From many, one. This phrase is often invoked in contemporary discourse as the ideal of a unified identity for Americans made from a diverse and continually diversifying population. The idea was once symbolized by the ‘melting pot’ myth--from a 'country of immigrants', diverse peoples would assimilate into a homogeneous nation.

 From many, one. In recent decades, the melting pot metaphor (a false story that erases indigenous peoples) has given way to the ‘salad bowl’ or ‘cultural mosaic’, wherein diverse “ingredients” (peoples/cultures) come together, but each maintain their individual integrity, complementing each other. It is an idea that tries to take into consideration the diversity of our population and to make a space for multiculturalism. The melting pot requires assimilation and a giving up of ones previous identities in order to meld into something different--the melting pot requires homogeneity, while the salad allows an olive to stay an olive but still be part of the salad.

Both of the metaphors and the phrase e pluribus unum are attempts to explain the nation that is the United States (from 13 colonies to a single nation; from sea to shining sea, from immigrants to Americans). But at times, unity is mistaken for homogeneity. And so, left out of the unum frequently are the thousands upon thousands of Africans who were brought here as enslaved persons and their descendants and the original, indigenous inhabitants of the land that became the United States, both those continuing to reside here in restricted territories and those forced south of the current border or the descendants of the millions killed in repeated acts of genocide. Increasingly as well, those who aren’t Christian find that they aren’t welcome in either a melting pot or the salad bowl. White supremacism, the power upon which ours and other settler nations were built, continues to hold sway. Non-white, non-Christian ‘plures’ still don’t get to be part of the ‘unum’.

It is an unfortunate truth that classics as a discipline and the ancient Greeks in particular have served as an exemplum for those who would mistake homogeneity for unity. They hold up 5th century Athens in particular, with its strict immigration policies, misogyny, slavery, and imperialism, as a model for an ideal nation, but do so while ignoring the inequalities (or liking them and wanting to bring them back). They look to Sparta as the perfect military ethnostate. They often ignore the rest of the Greek world chronologically and geographically and pretend that Athens and Sparta are the sum total of its parts.

Over my three lectures, I examine the tension between the terms plures and unum, first, by looking at how unum, under the mistaken rhetoric of homogeneity can sometimes be used to cover over wide ranging plurality in antiquity to the detriment of our understanding of ancient history. Second, I will explore how unum can function as an exclusionary mechanism under the heading of ‘purity’ and exceptionalism using the case study of Athens. And finally, I will look in my final talk at how versions of a homogeneous Greco-Roman antiquity have been leveraged, exploited or misunderstood in contemporary contexts and how more accurate understanding of the dynamics of identities, their plurality, in antiquity can help us see current problems with new eyes.

Importantly for these discussions I want us to re-conceptualize the ancient world away from a singular, static ‘Greekness’ and instead as see it as dynamic--what it meant to be Greek was a moving target. ’Greek’ is an imaginary grouping, an imagined community, that people in antiquity could move in and out of, construct and deconstruct; it was an identity they could put on when it suited them, or could leave off. It was a political, social, or cultural identity that sat alongside many other political, social, and cultural identities. And its meaning changed all the time. Today, I want us to deconstruct the ‘Greeks’, ex uno plures, to help us to stop applying our own identity politics to them and instead understand their own.


Here is a quotation from Bernard Knox’s The Oldest Dead White European Males (1993):
“The critics seem, at first sight, to have a case. The characteristic political unit of classical Greek society--the polis, or city-state--was very much a man’s club; even in its most advanced form, Athenian democracy, it relegated its women to silence and anonymity. Racism in our sense was not a problem of the Greeks; their homogeneous population afforded no soil on which that weed could easily grow.” (12)
We are going to come back to this quotation a few times over the next few days, because there are a lot of assumptions baked into it. This was written in the context of the Black Athena debates and racism here is viewed as a black-white problem that specifically refers to skin color. And so, by ‘homogeneous’ Knox likely means ‘all looked alike’ or, as he says elsewhere in the essay ‘white, or rather a Mediterranean olive’. This for Knox was enough to make the Greeks ‘homogeneous’. But, we will see over the next few days that this is not really accurate—they were not really a ‘homogeneous population’, even if they shared in a ‘unified’ identity as Greeks.

This is how we often talk about the Greeks--this map takes a single color and washes it over the Mediterranean and calls it 'Greeks'.

 But, the map below is actually closer to what the Greeks themselves considered their reality. This is not a map of all Greeks--notice the mainland is entirely unmarked--these are just cities established by people hailing from other cities that spoke the Greek language. Each of those dots, and the hundreds more that aren’t shown represented the primary identity for most of the people we lump under the name ‘Greeks’. And, of course, this is just getting started.

Once Alexander comes along, being Greek becomes even less of a clear cut identity. We refer to the ‘Hellenistic’ world frequently as a ‘Greek world’, and then, of course, we speak of the “Greek East” under the Romans, but we need to be cautious.

The Greeks, as these dots suggest, identified themselves in hundreds of different ways. On tombstones throughout the Mediterranean, we see Greeks marking themselves when they die away from home not as ‘Hellenes’, but with what are known as their ‘ethnics’--their polis, village, or regional identity. ‘Hellene’, the Greek word most frequently used for ‘Greeks’ (a Roman word) was an overarching term that contained a multiplicity of different peoples whose languages were mostly mutually intelligible, who sometimes worshiped the same gods in the same ways, and who shared some, but not all customs. One custom they didn’t share, of course, was their political system--each had their own.

Thus, when we talk about Greeks in the ancient Mediterranean, we need to start by recognizing that most Greeks viewed their fellow Greeks on some level as ‘foreign’. And not like Californians think Ohioans are ‘foreign’. But more like Americans think that Canadians are. Foreignness in Greco-Roman antiquity, doesn’t just mean Greeks and barbarians (one popular approach), but also Athenians, Spartans, Corinthians, Milesians, Epeirotes, Macedonians, Rhodians, Thebans, Epidamnians, Thracians, Halicarnassians, Ephesians, etc. x 100. 

So, what makes a ‘Greek’ a‘Greek’? How do we identify if someone, some place, some group was ‘Greek’ in the historical record? And what do we imagine they looked like?

Most lists that anyone makes on this looks a lot like the one Herodotus had his Athenians give the Spartans at 8.144:
Athenians: “It was quite natural for the Spartans to fear we would come to an agreement with the barbarian. Nevertheless, we think it disgraceful that you became so frightened, since you are well aware of the Athenians’ disposition, namely, that there is no amount of gold anywhere on earth so great, nor any country that surpasses others so much in beauty and fertility, that we would accept it as a reward for medizing and enslaving Hellas. [2] It would not be fitting for the Athenians to prove traitors to the Greeks with whom we are united in sharing the same kinship and language, together with whom we have established shrines and conduct sacrifices to the gods, and with whom we also share the same mode of life.”
Each of these things we have identified as what makes a ‘Greek’ can be broken down. What I want to do for the rest of this talk is to break them down, to help us see how ancient identity politics functioned in its own terms, without the false mark fo ‘homogeneity’.

Let’s start with the elephant in the room: race. Knox inserts it here where and in a way it doesn’t really belong, in part because he mistakes skin color for identity in antiquity and also because of the long tradition of claiming the ‘classical’ Greeks as both the cultural and genetic foundation of a ‘white, western civilization’. The ‘Greeks’, he is asserting in this essay belong to ‘white’ history, not to ‘black history’. This is modern identity politics.

Importantly--and here I will be ungenerous in my reading--it was that very homogeneity--the uniform 'whiteness'--of the Greeks that held racism at bay. Thus, for Knox ‘RACE’ as skin color existed, but without racism, not because they didn’t have anti-blackness; but because, supposedly there was no ‘blackness’ among the Greeks. The view is that a society that is [rightly, fortunately?] racially singular is magically peaceful and prejudice free since they have no one to be prejudiced against!

But skin color was not a meaningful measure of difference according to our ancient sources--skin color was used in art in antiquity from ancient Egypt to Bronze Age Crete to Severan Rome to denote gender and age more than anything, except in the case of Aithiopians, which too many scholars conflate with the modern category ‘black’. ‘Race’ as Knox uses it here, was not a functional type of identity in antiquity--it functioned differently.  To gauge Greekness by it is to miss the mark. Skin color, in fact, also has nothing to do with ‘ethnicity’ either, really, but gender and, at other times, simply aesthetics.

What I want to suggest, then, is that there was no expectation of any physical or even practical homogeneity among the Greeks for them to consider someone ‘Greek’ when needed--this is especially true in the Hellenistic period. It was a ‘flexible’ category that could encompass pluralities of practices, physical appearances, languages/dialects, and even foreign descents. The identities of the Greeks were situational and so it was always explicitly NOT homogeneous. Knox among many others, is simply wrong.

Now that we have that anachronism out of the room, let’s take Herodotus’ four categories starting with kinship.

Kinship: Kinship was closely related to genealogies of the type we see Pindar rattling off in his athletic victory odes--Kimon son of Miltiades son of blah blah blah, back to some mythical hero. Cities and peoples could also have kinship and they often had kinship myths to connect them, something Lee Patterson, Iradi Malkin, Naoise MacSweeney among many others have written about extensively. These myths were operational in all sorts of contexts and we see them become important public institutions at varying times in a wide range of poleis.

One of the most well-known stories forged ties between the city of Thebes and Phoenicia through their founder Cadmus, brother of Europa. We see numerous claims of kinship in Herodotus, Pausanius, Diodorus Siculus, Pindar, Hesiod, etc. between Greeks and non-Greeks. For example, Xerxes’ attempts in Bk 7.150 of Herodotus to persuade the Argives to remain neutral by recounting their shared kinship through Perses and Andromeda:
This is how the Argives tell the story, but there is another story told throughout Greece that Xerxes sent a herald into Argos before he set his army in motion against Greece. When the herald arrived, it is said that he told the Argives, “Argives, King Xerxes says this to you: We believe that Perses, our ancestor, was the child of Perseus son of Danae and Andromeda daughter of Cepheus. Thus we Persians are your descendants. We think it inappropriate to send an army against our progenitors, and that you give aid to others and become our enemy. Rather, it is fitting that you keep to yourselves. If everything goes as intended, I will esteem no one higher than you."
The Macedonian King Perdicaas is granted ‘Greekness’ by showing descent from Argos at 5.22:
That those descendants of Perdiccas are Greek, according to what they say, I happen to know for certain and will show later in my history. Additionally, the Hellenodicai, who govern the Olympic games, judged them so. [2] For, when Alexander elected to compete in the games and entered the lists to do so, the Greeks who ran against him prevented him from competing, saying that the games were not for barbarian contestants, but Greeks only. Alexander then demonstrated his Argive descent, was deemed a Greek by the judges, and, competing in the foot race, finished in first place. The Macedonian King and ancestor of Philip and Alexander.
There are also claims of kinship between Royal Scythians and Herakles at 4.8 (here is just the end of the story--I recommend reading the whole thing):
And from Scythes son of Heracles all the kings of Scythia have descended, and because of his bowl the Scythians still carry bowls hanging from their belts. His mother arranged this result for Scythes alone (4.8.13).
I could go on like this forever from Herodotus.

We see it in Hellenistic and Roman period texts, for example Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities 12.225-227 recounts a letter sent by the Judeans to the Spartans declaring that they were kin through Abraham:
After Simon died and his son Onias succeeded him to the high priesthood, the Spartan King Areus sent an ambassador to him with a letter, a copy of which states, [226] “Areus, King of the Lacedaemonians sends his greetings to Onias. We have happened upon a document that says that Judeans and Lacedaemonians are of the same race and related through Abraham. It is just, then, since you are our brothers, that you let us know if there is anything you are in want of. [227] We will do the same with you and will consider your affairs equal to our own. Demoteles, who bears this letter, will transmit your response. This letter has four sides and bears the seal of a dragon clutching an eagle.”
These kinship ties would not have led the Judeans to say they were also Greeks. Nor would the Persians call themselves Hellenes. Nor the Thebans Phoenician. And no one in our sources would call a Scythian ‘Greek’. But they all share kinship nonetheless.

What about ‘ethnicity’? This is probably a better term to understand the dynamics of Greekness that ‘kinship’. Jonathan Hall is still, 20 years later, the best discussion available on ‘Greek’ ethnicity or self-identities. Hall argues that ethnicity is a discourse that allows groups to form identities based on belief in a shared descent or on political contingency or other interactive processes that lead to shared identification--often rooted in this real or imagined shared descent. But this descent (ethnicity) was never considered by the Greeks generally speaking to be, in Jeremy McInerney’s words “a fixed biological entity based on primordial ties of kinship” (Intro Companion to Ethnicity 3).

So, when the Athenians appeal to kinship in their assuaging of the Spartans, along with their claims of rituals, language, and customs, they aren’t necessarily appealing to a set of things that are inherently binding or fixed and they certainly aren’t claiming a strong ‘biological’ connection--they would not allow Spartans and Thebans or any other Greeks to intermarry with an Athenian for almost five centuries and for almost a century before that, wouldn’t allow children of such marriages to be citizens (with exception, which we will discuss in the next lecture). What makes them binding into an ‘ethnicity’ is that the Athenians and Spartans agree that certain specifics of those things makes then Hellenes and not others. It is an imaginary relationship.

What about Language? We know there are people who spoke and wrote in Greek who were Egyptian or Phrygian or Judean or Syrian or Roman, etc. It doesn’t mean they weren’t also ‘Greek’; it means that language can’t necessary be the only indicator of ‘Greekness’. It was used as a measure of something, and we see mockery of other languages: barbarian, of course, on our Herodotean etymology is derived supposedly from the sound foreign languages make and Persian speech is made fun of in Aristophanes’ Acharnians. But, other dialects of Greek other than Attic are also made fun of by the comic poets of Athens, particularly Doric. Language chauvinism does serve as one mark of Greekness, but it can’t do so alone because it also serves to differentiate Greeks from each other.

Religious shrines and sacrifices? Well, we all know that not only did numerous of our ancient authors assume that non-Greeks worship the same gods, just under different names, but we also know of Egyptians, and Lydians, and Persians, and many other non-Greeks offering sacrifices and offerings at Greek shrines to Greek gods. Greeks also adopted foreign cults and worshipped at them—Isis, Magna Mater, Bendis, a Jew named Jesus. Sacrifices at non-Greek sites, like the temple in Jerusalem were also conducted in similar fashion even though to a different god. Roman and Etruscan sacrifice were also similar to Greek practice.

But even between Greek poleis, there are dozens of different variations on the gods, some poleis had gods no others had (like Aphaia at Aegina), not all festivals translated out of their particular poleis and they often didn’t even allow other Greeks to participate. There were of course, panhellenic cults, like Eleusis, panhellenic religions shrines like Delos and Delphi. But again, we can’t say that religion defines Greeks anymore than it defines any other group on its own. Gods, like languages, are mutable, flexible, adaptable, adoptable. And Greek liked having a lot of options.

Customs or way of life? Herodotus himself provides a running chronicle of how many aspects of life the people called Greeks shared with so many others who were not Greeks (even when we often emphasize where he discusses the differences). The archaeological record adds more--burial practices, diet, construction, technology, artistic styles and motifs, alphabets, laws. Often, where we look for and see differences are the places where either our Greek language sources don’t differentiate or where the differentiation is ideologically driven, as we find in texts like Aristotle's Politics, the speeches of Isocrates.

Once you start looking for similarities, you see them everywhere (including clothing styles--unlike the toga, which was a somewhat distinctive outfit, general Greek clothing styles hardly differed--if at all--from those of most other groups in the Near East and North Africa, they even were at various times all the fashionable rage, the Athenian markets were awash with Persian knock off goods—sort of like being able to get ‘Gucchi’ on the corners of Exarchia in Athens now; Margaret Miller has written an excellent book on this).

What about things like architectural styles and pottery and art? These are things that, of course, archaeologists, anthropologists, and art historians have tried for the better part of three centuries to use to define civilizations and peoples. But, of course, it doesn’t quite work that way. While there are definitely specific styles of architecture that develop in particular geographic locations and then spread in those areas, they aren’t necessarily restricted to single ‘peoples’. We identify the column with pediment, etc. with Greek architecture, but similar styles developed in north and central Italy independently; the most famous frieze from Athens was modeled off of Persian architectural sculpture (Margaret Cool Root has analyzed this in detail):

The details, of course, developed distinctively, but these can move and jump and skip to all sorts of places and can be built by people who, of course, aren’t of a place--many of the craftsmen working on the Persian Apadana were Greek. Many of the craftsmen working on the Parthenon were not Greek.

And pottery either looks fairly universal in the ancient Mediterranean in terms of pot shapes or, in the case of painting techniques, confined to specific locations--Attic red-figure pottery was produced only in Athens. Corinthian-ware takes its name from being a style specific to Corinth. Like their ‘ethnic’ identities, what we call Greek pottery can always be diversified and recognized for its great range and variation:

 Of course, one can point to athletics as one of the key places where the Greeks acted ‘as Greeks’ and differently from all those around them. Except that, of the 4 majors (Delphi, Isthmia, Delos, and Olympia) only Olympia required Greek ‘descent’. For the others, you only had to be able to speak Greek to participate and we already know that people who weren’t ‘Greek’ could speak Greek.

The example of Aeschylus’ play Suppliants will help us make our points clear--both that we can’t take modern identity categories for granted in antiquity and that identities were situational and functions--and I want to emphasize that this is not a unique text, but we don’t have 6 hours to go through all the ones that make the point.

The Danaids, the 50 daughters of Danaus who are fleeing to Argos in Greece to escape marriage to their cousins the sons of Aegyptus, explain In the opening chorus, where they come from [[SLIDE]]:
May Zeus the Suppliant look with favor upon our company that has voyaged by ship; it put to sea from the fine-sanded mouths of the Nile. Leaving, we have fled the land of Zeus  bordering upon Syria, not because we were convicted and banished by a vote of the polis for bloodshed, but self-motivated by our aversion for marriage, loathing an impious marriage and to the sons of Aegyptus (1-9).
They then refer to their ‘foreign speech’ twice (καρβᾶνα δ᾿ αὐδὰν; 119, 130) and then point out their being of a sun-darkened, black genos (μελανθὲς ἡλιόκτυπον γένος τὸν γάιον; 154-5).

The king they are supplicating for protection, Pelagos, doesn’t even seem to notice either speech or skin color:
This group that we address is unhellenic, luxuriating in barbarian finery and delicate cloth. What country do they come from? The women of Argos, indeed of all Greek lands, do not wear such clothes. It is astonishing that you dare to travel to this land, fearlessly, without heralds, without sponsors, without guides. And yet here are the branches of suppliants, laid out according to custom next to you in front of the assembled gods. This alone would assert your Greekness, but would cause confusion if your voice was not here to explain it.
What he notices are cultural practices--their clothes are weird, but they understand supplication. They are therefore, recognized as ‘Greek’. Skin color is so unimportant, what when he does compare them to anything other than Greeks, he lists a bunch of peoples we would consider to be of varied skin color:
Strangers, what you say is hard to believe, that you are of Argive descent. It is hard to believe because you look rather more like Libyan women and not at all like women from our lands. The Nile might breed such fruit as you. [Your Cypriot appearance resembles the image made by men marking impresses onto women].  I hear that there are nomadic women of India, dwelling beside the Ethiopians, who ride horse-like camels through the land. If you held bows, I would have compared your appearance rather to the unwed, carnivorous Amazons. But I would better understand this situation if I were instructed how your descent and seed are Argive.
Notice also that the Danaids are pointing to shared descent as part of their appeal--but not ‘Greek’ descent. Greek they already have demonstrated by the act of supplication (and don’t ask how they ‘foreign speech’ seems to disappear as an issue in a time without translators, but it is a play and everyone needs to be able to speak to each other). But now they have to prove ‘Argiveness’ and this one is by descent, but their descent is not ‘pure’ Argive or even ‘Greek’. They are descended from Io and Zeus, and then Epaphus and an Egyptian woman, and then Danaos their father with, also most likely, an Egyptian woman. They are Egyptian when they need to be in Egypt, but as they seek to flee to Argos, they have to also be Greek and then Argive. And it would not have mattered anyway because all that matters is that both the Danaids and the Argives believe they share this identity even if they don’t in practical terms. This is what we mean by ‘imaginary’.


So, in no sense of the word here is there an assumption of homogeneity--not in languages, not in customs, and not in descent. But there is some connection able to be made at some on each of these points--in this case in the ritual of supplication-- and that is good enough to be ‘Greek’ but not good enough to be Argive or Spartan or Theban or Rhodian or Samian or Athenian, etc. Thus we might say that when Herodotus has his Athenians present this list to the Spartans as to why they would NEVER betray them to the Persians, listing ALL of them is something of an overkill. And this may be the point.

At the time of Herodotus’ writing, the Spartans and the Athenians were in the beginning of a new war that we refer to as the Peloponnesian War and which ended up lasting, with fits and starts, for 27 years. Because the Greeks were NOT an unum but plures, they had this habit of fighting wars against each other. Herodotus may be trying to appeal to these specific elements: language, rituals, customs, and kinship--to try to remind them of the bigger picture, to invoke a sort of e pluribus unum of his own. It didn’t work, of course. It rarely worked. Not in the 5th century, or the 4th, or the 3rd, or the 2nd. It really only ‘worked’ when the Romans came along and took all their armies away. ‘Greekness’ was frequently invoked, but didn’t have force enough or, I would argue, wasn’t politically grounded enough, to create such a unity.

And the question we want to ask is WHY didn’t it work? Is it impossible for many to ever truly become one? Both the melting pot and the salad bowl we started with were attempts to offer models of how it might work, but both had the same problem the Greeks had--prejudice. Far from being free from the weed of racism, as Knox suggests, it was present; we are often just looking for it in the wrong places if we try to map our own prejudices and categories dividing humans up onto a world that divided itself differently.

The ancient Greeks were diverse in as many ways as the modern US is and probably more. They were a truly plural plurality that we make the mistake of lumping under the single term ‘Greeks’ for our own political and cultural purposes. In this way, we attempt to erase the tension between unum and plures by pretending that this multiethnic stew in the Aegean was something that it never was. But that tension is real and not every polis in antiquity dealt with it in a way all of us might like. For the most part, e pluribus unum was never its reality, but rather the Greeks were e pluribus plures and they preferred it that way.