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Anthropology and the Creation of the Classical Other

Franco De Angelis

Anthropology influenced how classicists understood ancient culture contact long before it returned to do so in the last two decades (Dietler 2010). Recognizing earlier links between anthropology and classics allows us to understand how and why classical scholars in the century spanning 1850 to 1950 developed the core concepts and questions that they did in their studies of ancient culture contact. To make this argument, this paper will focus on two issues.

First, the relationship between classics and anthropology has usually been viewed from the point of view of classicists contributing to the formation of early anthropology. However, the two fields interacted much more than this, with anthropology impacting scholarly accounts of Old World cultural development. This impact is either considered minimal or non-existent, being restricted at best to Old World prehistory and serving as a nostalgic reminder of how much separated the superior Europeans and their descendants in the New World from the less technologically advanced societies that they were encountering around the world and that had existed in the past (Trigger 2006, 166-210; Detienne 2007; 2008; Bettini 2010, 250-53; Skinner 2012, 39-40). The one-sided perspective encouraged by contemporary colonialism led to the convenient overlooking of two impacts of New World frontiers on their Old World metropolitan centers (Melzer 2012, 14). First, in America anthropologists expanded their studies by including the immigrants from southern and eastern Europe who settled alongside the northern European founders: “The techniques developed in our studies of simpler cultures are now being modified and applied to our alien groups [like the Sicilians in Chicago]” (Cole 1930, 390; cf. also Migliore, Dorazio-Migliore, and Ingrascì 2009, 113-14). Second, the colonizers of the New World colonized their home countries in the Old World by regarding their lower classes as the equivalent of Amerindians or Africans who needed to be raised to the national standard established by their central governments (Shavit 1994, 322; Schneider 1998; Melzer 2012, 19-20; Skinner 2012, 185). In other words, anthropology impacted how Americans and Europeans viewed themselves in the present and brought home the idea of the Other existing not only abroad but also on European soil. For these reasons European elites, who were identifying themselves as the heirs of Greeks and Romans, came to call “natives” the descendents of ancient peoples with whom they came into contact and to consider them as their inferior polar opposites in much the same way as envisioned in the New World.

The second issue to be addressed picks up on this point and looks at the development of classical scholarship in relation to anthropology. At the same time as anthropology, natives, and acculturation became formal fields of study worldwide in the period between the two world wars, so did classical scholarship seem, coincidentally, to turn toward having negative attitudes vis-à-vis ancient natives characteristic of contemporary portrayals of the Other. A review of the major works of English-language scholarship from George Grote to Thomas Dunbabin mirrors these developments--growing comparisons between New and Old World frontiers--which culminated in the creation of the Classical Other. Ancient native Sicilians are fantastically said, for example, to have declined in the face of Greek colonists because of the adverse effects of wine consumption (Scramuzza 1939, 312). In the century spanning roughly 1850 to 1950, modern settler colonialism, using the field of anthropology as its intellectual arm, was projected back into antiquity (see recently Skinner 2012, 36-37). These intellectual developments established the interpretive framework within which classical scholarship largely operated, until it came to be debated at the close of the 20th century.

This paper, therefore, seeks to throw light on another important and influential dimension of the relationship between classics and anthropology that has been little appreciated (cf. Bettini 2010; Detienne 2007; 2008), allowing us to understand better the process by which New and Old World Classical natives came to be identified as Other.

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The Classics and Early Anthropology

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