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Culture and Classics: Edward Burnett Tylor and Romanization

Eliza Gettel

This paper explores how Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917), the first professor of anthropology in the English-speaking world, integrated classics into Primitive Culture (1871) and how his ideas about culture influenced early theories of Romanization. Although Tylor’s influence on Jane Harrison and studies of myth and ritual has been noted (e.g., Carpentier 1998, Ackerman 2008), his own use of classical evidence and his influence on early theories of Romanization have yet to be explored. Through Tylor, I offer a snapshot of the dialogue between classics and anthropology around the turn of the 20th century—not only how anthropology drew on classics but also how classics in turn reacted to anthropology—and how that dialogue has shaped our current discipline.

The first part of the paper introduces Tylor’s biography, intellectual climate, and theory of culture. Tylor lacked formal higher education and gained his initial anthropological education primarily through fieldwork, but he consistently drew on classical evidence and scholarship like his more formally educated contemporaries in early anthropology. He formulated his theory of culture explicitly in regard to Gibbon’s, referenced a wide range of Greek and Roman authors, and drew on mythology’s role in Greek and Roman society. Tylor’s study of classics shaped how he entered one of the preeminent anthropological debates of his time: what is culture and do cultures progress towards civilization, degenerate towards savagery, or do both at different times? Tylor promoted an evolutionary theory of culture, which viewed cultures as progressing from a savage to civilized state. He famously defined culture as a holistic concept consisting of belief, art, laws, morals, etc. He noted that these aspects might persist through cultural change and become ‘survivals’ of an earlier stage of civilization. I focus on how Tylor situated aspects of Greek and Roman society within his progressive schema as a sort of ‘middle culture’ between savagery and contemporary society, as well as how he integrated references to classical authors as witnesses who could help reconstruct the transition (or lack thereof) from savagery to civilization either before their time (e.g. Lucretius) or on the fringes of their world (e.g. Ovid).

I then reflect on the legacy of Tylor’s work in ‘Romanization’ studies. F. J. Haverfield and R. G. Collingwood—both based at Oxford around the same time that Tylor was—serve as the primary case studies for this section. Haverfield’s (1905) notion of a superior, comprehensive Roman culture that unilaterally spread throughout the provinces and his idea that aspects of ‘native’ culture (particularly superstitions and language—two aspects that Tylor pinpoints) could survive seem in dialogue with Tylor’s ideas. More explicitly, the writings of Haverfield’s student R.G. Collingwood indicate that he was familiar with Tylor’s work and reacted against his functionalist approach to culture when reformulating Haverfield’s theory of Romanization (cf. Boucher 1989, 201). I reflect on how Collingwood nuanced Tylor’s ideas in promoting his own ‘fusion’ model of Romanization (1923), which has been especially influential in study of Roman Gaul and Britain. Finally, I comment on the legacy that Tylor’s progressive theory of culture, refracted through Collingwood among others, has in related scholarship today (e.g., Millett 1990, Mattingly 1997, Woolf 1998, Webster 2001, Hingley 2005). Only recently have scholars, most notably Mattingly and Woolf, started breaking down the underlying assumption that Romanization involves two holistic, polarized cultures and started exploring new models for cultural change that incorporate the lived local experience of ‘Romanization,’ the role of individual agency, and the active construction of identities. If we investigate the bases of the earlier theories we are reworking, as I propose to do here, we can better critique our own biases within the new frameworks and move our thoughts and questions in productive directions.

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The Classics and Early Anthropology

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