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Occidentalism, or Why the Phoenicians Matter: Scholarly Approaches to Cultural Contact from Greece to Iberia (ca. 800–600 BCE)

Carolina López-Ruiz

Ohio State University

From the eighth to the sixth centuries, the Mediterranean was transformed by what has come to be known as the “orientalizing” phenomenon. Approaches to the impact of Near Eastern civilizations in the Mediterranean Iron Age are particular to the countries involved, and in each case different emphases are placed on the agency of the local cultures and on that of the colonizing or external cultures. The Phoenicians, both outsiders and essential players in the Greco-Roman world, are the most obvious culprits for the process of acculturation we call “orientalizing,” and yet their agency is downplayed in the case of Greece (where colonization proper did not take place) and perhaps overemphasized in the Western Mediterranean (e.g., Spain and Portugal), as recent studies discuss (Celestino and López-Ruiz, forthcoming). The Phoenicians, in their mercantile and colonial expansion throughout the Mediterranean, were crucial agents in this story of encounters. They are in fact held to be responsible for contemporaneous orientalizing phases in Italy (Etruria, Sardinia), ancient Iberia (Tartessos in modern Spain and Portugal), and in North Africa. I will offer some insights from my current comparative research on this transformative period across the Mediterranean, from Greece to Iberia, focusing on the contexts and outcomes of cultural contact. My viewpoint considers the adoption and marketing of tangible as well as intangible (literary, ideological) cultural capital of “oriental” stock as part of the transformative process through which Iron Age societies along the Mediterranean entered for the first time a new transnational (“global”) cultural and economic network.

An evaluation of this phenomenon that ranges from the Aegean to the Atlantic will have deeper repercussions than a mere overview of artistic and technological changes. My study will to a degree shake our view of the “Classics” in an era that needs such reevaluation. Rethinking the orientalizing phenomenon from this Western end requires us to reconsider historiographical inertias incrusted in our field and beyond. Although some comparative gestures have been made (e.g., the collection of articles in Riva and Vella 2006, which separately discuss the phenomenon in different areas), in general the experts are divided in different fields (Classics, Western Mediterranean Archaeology) and do not explicitly analyze this global phenomenon across cultures: in fact, classical scholarship (or its readership) is still often knowingly or unknowingly carried away by teleological views of Greek history (Classical Greece as the cradle of Western civilization) and by the ingrained image of Greek culture as an impermeable and autonomous entity. This view ultimately springs from the artificial dichotomy between Classical (Indo-European) and Near Eastern (Semitic) languages and cultures, perpetuated ideologically and institutionally during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and encouraged by the historically conflictive relationship between the West and the Near East. When it comes to Greece, the weight of the classical heritage and the absence of Phoenician colonization proper have led scholars to downplay the direct contact with Near Eastern groups, despite the growing evidence of small communities of Phoenicians and other Levantines within Greek areas (e.g., in Crete, possibly Sparta, the Gulf of Corinth, and other sites). Hence, often the contact is reduced to superficial exchanges at “neutral” meeting points (Crete, Cyprus, Sicily). In stark contrast, in the Central and Western Mediterranean, the Phoenicians and other Easterners are viewed as cultural agents. This imbalance, in part due to a lack of engagement with Spanish and Portuguese scholarship, calls for a comparative study that is sensitive to these historical narratives. By looking East and West and considering colonial and non-colonial interaction, we can acquire a more nuanced and contextualized view of proto-historic Greece and its relation to contemporaneous peoples undergoing similar transformations. Moreover, this study will add to the growing interest in Mediterranean Studies in the US and abroad, which look at the Mediterranean as a platform for cultural exchange from a diachronic, longue durée perspective (cf. Horden and Purcell 2000, Abulafia 2011, Broodbank 2013).

Session/Panel Title

Theorizing Ideologies of the Classical: Turning Corners on the Textual, the Masculine, the Imperial, and the Western

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