Margaret C. Miller, Athens and Persia in the Fifth Century BC: A Study in Cultural Receptivity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Pp. xiv + 331, incl. 159 figures, 2 maps, and a glossary. ISBN 0-521-49598-9. US$100.00.
Allegheny College, Meadville
Throughout much of their history, ancient Greeks maintained porous boundaries to the divide between 'Greekness', or Hellenism, and barbarism. They made appeals to nature or physis, geographical and climatic factors, and formal institutional structures as causal determinants for the observable differences between Greeks and non-Greeks. Yet Hellenism was a flexible and highly adaptable politico- cultural system, and Greeks frequently engaged in a politics of cultural inclusion or assimilation with non- Greeks. Pre-classical Greeks of the period of colonisation could create fictive genealogies and eponymous Greek ancestors for their potentially hostile non-Greek neighbors as a means of cultural appeasement.[] In a later period, the Seleucid rulers encouraged a Hellenic cultural veneer in their domains, as is evident in the celebrated site of Ai Khanum and the island of Falaika in the Persian Gulf, but they also respected native traditions and assumed Achaemenid kingly trappings in their royal courts. Here we are better advised to think of cultural fusion, rather than a Hellenic cultural dominance based on anachronistic modern colonialist-imperialist models.[]
Imperial Athens of the fifth century BC might appear to be an exception to the rule of this sort of cultural accommodation and interaction. The Athenians, after all, had beaten back the great Persian invasions, and some Greeks were of the opinion that in that dark hour the Athenians had stepped forward as the saviors of Greece; the Athenians themselves rarely missed the opportunity to remind the rest of the Greek world of their heroic deeds at Marathon and Salamis (cf. Hdt. 7.139; Thuc. 5.89). Here we might expect Athenian cultural chauvinism and an Athenian sense of cultural superiority to appear in no uncertain terms; and indeed, it is easy to read the Amazons, Centaurs, and Titans which adorned the metope statuary of the Parthenon as thinly disguised, mythological representations of the irrational and undisciplined Persian/barbarian succumbing to the force of Hellenic restraint and rationality. The historical experience of the Persian Wars, according to a widespread scholarly view, gave the Athenians an almost superhuman self-confidence and led them to construct a sharp, impenetrable cultural boundary between Greek and non-Greek 'Other'. This cultural polarity afforded fifth-century BC Athenians a reverse mirror by means of which they could foist undesirable traits upon the decidedly inferior barbarian.[]
Miller's study suggests that the Athenian reaction to Achaemenid Persian culture was much more complex and nuanced than this alleged sort of cultural polarisation, painted as it is in stark black-and-white terms. Brief consideration of two key literary texts, Aeschylus' Persae and Herodotus' Histories, supports Miller's position. Aeschylus' play, produced eight years after Xerxes' invasion, displays the Persians according to what we have come to regard as the barbarian stereotype -- Persians are effeminate, emotional, and cowardly. The Persian army is a barbarian army (line 255); the Persian fleet a barbarian fleet (lines 337f., also 423); and Persian terror is barbarian terror (lines 391f.). The war itself is a struggle between Hellas and Asia (lines 270f.), and Aeschylus juxtaposes Hellas and a generic 'barbarian land' (lines 186f., also 721-26, 744-51). Yet against these images we may place others that seem to be diametrically opposed. Although Greece and Asia are pitted against one another, in the end they are twin sisters (line 185), and the Great King Darius is a descendant of the Greek mythological hero Perseus.[] Moreover, the figure of Darius emerges as a rational and noble foil to the impetuous Xerxes; his is a voice of wisdom and moderation. The ghost of Greece's great adversary is an exemplar of the Greek virtue of sophrosyne.
Herodotus' Histories of course recount the unlikely victory of the small Greek poleis over the mighty empire of Achaemenid Persia. Yet Herodotus routinely confounds and subverts the normative evaluative terms of the Hellenic-barbarian polarity. His cultural relativism is well known and much discussed,[] and it is particularly noteworthy that Greeks and barbarians are placed on an equal footing at the work's inception (1.1). The distinctions between Greek and non-Greek break down as the work progresses. For example, we read that the divisions of lands customary among Greeks separating Greek from non- Greek peoples are purely arbitrary (4.45); that Spartan kings are descended from Phoenicians (4.147); and that the descendants of Perseus came to be counted as Greeks (6.53; also 2.91). The key dichotomy is not the Greek-barbarian distinction, but rather the opposition of the ordered society based on law and the arbitrary rule of the despot (5.78; 7.104). But political and social institutions are fragile structures for Herodotus, and he gives no guarantee that the Greek superiority at the time of the Persian Wars, which was based upon them, will last (cf. 1.5). In fact the work closes on an ominous note that appears to warn imperial Athens that it is in danger of becoming the barbarian: we are presented with the gruesome picture of the crucifixion of a Persian satrap by the Athenian commander Xanthippus, father of Pericles, and a piece of wisdom from the Persian founding father Cyrus on the dangers of success and affluence (9.120, 122). In such ways as these both Aeschylus' Persae and Herodotus' Histories render the boundary between Greek and barbarian indeterminate.
Miller's study pursues these cues which Aeschylus and Herodotus provide. Part One (pp. 3-133) is entitled 'Spheres of Contact' and consists in five chapters. The opening chapter (pp. 3-28) rehearses evidence for Athenian- Persian cultural contacts down to the end of the fifth century BC, relying on studies of Gomme, Wade-Gery, Meiggs and others. Chapter 2 (pp. 29-62) catalogues the influx and diffusion of Persian cultural objects into the Greek world as war booty from the Persian Wars. The following chapter (pp. 63- 88) assesses the less dramatic factor of cultural interaction through trade between Greece and areas under Achaemenid suzerainty. Chapter 4 (pp. 89- 108) builds upon this material in examining the zones of contact between Greeks and the western Achaemenid empire. Here one may conjure up the famous names of Greeks with intimate knowledge of Persia, men such as Demaratus, Themistocles, Miltiades, Pausanias, and Ctesias; and Miller discusses (p. 99) Metiochus, son of Miltiades, who received an OI)=KOS, various other possessions, and a Persian wife from the Great King Darius (Hdt. 6.41). But there is also the more mundane, and perhaps more significant, evidence of the inscriptions in late sixth-century BC Ionic Greek cut into the rock of the quarry near Persepolis discovered in 1964 (pp. 101f.). Chapter 5 (pp. 109-33) considers diplomatic exchanges between Greek states and Persia, and Miller here argues that the political climate in fifth-century Athens allowed the receipt of alien guest-friend gifts that would be politically more dangerous in fourth-century Athens (see esp. p. 130). The first part of the book demonstrates that Athenian exposure to Achaemenid Persian culture was more or less constant in the fifth century and more pervasive than many have assumed.
Part Two (pp. 135-258), consisting in a further five chapters, is entitled 'Perserie' (Athenian uses of Persian culture), and examines the cultural politics and cultural semantics of Athenian adoption of Persian 'luxury culture'. The evidence is of diverse types. Chapter 6 (pp. 135-52) considers the questions of imitation, adaptation, derivation and appropriation of Achaemenid metalware in Athenian pottery styles. Chapter 7 (pp. 153-87) takes up the question of Athenian incorporation of Persian dress, demonstrating that Athenians wore 'Persian belts' in Athens and developed an increasing awareness of 'vestimental ethnicity'. In Chapter 8 (pp. 188-217) Miller argues that wealthy fifth-century Athenians embraced Persian cultural expressions, thereby creating an elite luxury culture which continued upper class practices of Athenian aristocratic hegemony before the Persian Wars. Miller's findings call to mind the tensions between Athenian elite culture and democratic, egalitarian ideology delineated in Ober's well known study.[] In chapter 9 (pp. 218-42) Miller emphasizes the internal tensions in Athens arising from such a 'blatantly imperial act as to adopt a Persian building type in Athens' (p. 241 n. 138); the Odeion perhaps should take center stage in considering the debates raging in Athens on the ethics of Pericles' building program so vividly relayed by Plutarch (Per. 12).
A summation chapter (pp. 243-58), draws on modern anthropological and psychological theories of cultural transfer and cultural receptivity in order to provide an interpretative framework for 'Perserie'. Anthropological models of an hierarchical, diffusionist transfer from 'higher' to 'lower' cultures and related center-periphery schematizations are inadequate as explanatory tools for Athenian reception of Persian culture. In the case of Athenian-Achaemenid relations in the fifth century, both parties were imperial centers with peripheries of their own, and the Ionian coastline served as an 'interaction zone'. Furthermore, from the Athenian perspective we cannot simply talk of one cultural reaction to things Persian: 'No complex society will respond monolithically to the same stimulus. The richer the texture, the more varied the response, because alien objects have potentially different meanings and different uses for different social strata' (p. 247). Miller goes on to suggest psychological tactics of domestication (familiarisation, neutralisation) and symbolic domination (marginalisation, perversion) of alien objects from Achaemenid Persia in order to understand 'Perserie' in Athens (pp. 248-50).[] The Athenian elite, Miller argues, needed increasingly greater precision in articulating social status in a society rapidly growing more complex and differentiated. Yet over time the spread of 'Perserie' to the non-elite Athenians may have resulted in a semiotic devaluation of Persian cultural objects which put the wealthy on a new course of more austere cultural expression: 'A . . . holistic account would view late fifth-century elitist Lakonism as at least partially a reaction against the vulgarisation of the symbols of luxury. When Perserie devolved too far and the demos had adopted Oriental signifiers, some of the elite, in search for novelty, turned to sober dress and "dirt" as the new mode of expressive distinction' (p. 256).
In the end, it would seem that in 'Perserie' at Athens we are dealing with a case of cultural imperialism; the Athenians of the fifth century BC deployed Achaemenid cultural objects in various ways that rendered them less threatening, that tamed the alien through a process of incorporation and transformation. So, for example, the kandys, an Iranian man's garment, was restricted to women and children at Athens. For most this will come as no surprise. But Miller's study also forcefully reveals a remarkable degree of cultural receptivity in fifth-century Athens; Athenian reactions to Achaemenid culture were anything but xenophobic. This is an important study in the politics of culture, and, in my opinion, its interdisciplinarity is its most impressive aspect, as throughout Miller marshals the evidence of archaeology, iconography, and literature to support her arguments.
[] The classic study remains E.J. Bickermann, 'Origines Gentium', CPh 47 (1952) 65-81; cf. F. de Polignac (tr. J. Lloyd), Cults, Territory, and the Origins of the Greek City-State (Chicago and London 1995) xiv: 'The formulation of relations between the various communities in strictly political terms such as "confrontation" or "submission," "citizens" and "foreigners," "inside" and "outside" the territory is often too vague or rigid because they are based on concepts that are anachronistic for situations that were still fluid and relatively unformalized.'
[] See the collected essays in A. Kuhrt and S. Sherwin- White (edd.), Hellenism in the East: The Interaction of Greek and non-Greek Civilizations from Syria to Central Asia after Alexander (Berkeley and Los Angeles 1987); eaedem, From Samarkhand to Sardis: A New Approach to the Seleucid Empire (Berkeley and Los Angeles 1993).
[] For subscriptions to this view, see e.g. J.J. Pollitt, Art and Experience in Classical Greece (Cambridge 1972) 15-110; E. Hall, Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-Definition through Tragedy (Oxford 1989); P. Cartledge, The Greeks (Oxford and New York 1993).
[] Pers. 79f. with Schol. M ad v. 79 D; see also Hdt. 7.61, 150; Hellanicus FGrH 4 F 59- 60; Nic. Damasc. FGrH 90 F 6. H. Bacon, Barbarians in Greek Tragedy (New Haven 1961) argued for a nuanced and differentiated treatment of non-Greeks in Aeschylean tragedy.
[] Loc. class. 3.38; also 2.158 (Greeks as barbarians from an Egyptian perspective); cf. F. Hartog (tr. J. Lloyd), The Mirror of Herodotus (Berkeley and Los Angeles 1988) 369: ' . . . what is surprising is that, more often than not, the first-person plural, we, is replaced by the third-person plural: not we, but the Greeks . . . the "others" and the Greeks, the barbarians and the Greeks, them and they.'
[] J. Ober, Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens (Princeton 1989).
[] Cf. the remarks of P. Veyne, 'The Hellenization of Rome and the Question of Acculturations', Diogenes 106 (1979) 1-27 on the functions of Greek cultural objects at Rome.