Us vs. Them: Good News from the Classical World

Posted on April 17th, 2011 by

This blog post has been in limbo, hiding among some old drafts, so it’s a bit late. Apologies!  In the wake of the AZ shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, The Chronicle of Higher Education published a review of Erich Gruen’s Rethinking the Other in Antiquity. The review juxtaposes Gruen’s reinterpretation of ancient attitudes toward the Other with the contemporary constructions of the Other in American politics and finds that the ancients come off surprisingly better than one might have thought.

The entire thing is well worth reading.  Below is an excerpt of the specifically classical bit.

image from Katherine Streeter for The Chronicle Review

“Us against them” seems a staple of human psychology as unsinkable as “That’s mine!” for a 3-year-old or “I wish they’d quiet down” for a senior citizen surrounded by teenagers.


The problem remains that this habit of hostility to the “Other” seems inescapable, even if it’s not hard-wired into us. We’ve been talking like Tarzan since the ancient Greeks. Me Athenian, you barbarian. Me Roman, you Carthaginian loser. Me Greek, you dumb Egyptian animal worshiper. Me better, you worse.

Rethinking the Other in Antiquity, by Erich S. Gruen, out this month from Princeton University Press, like all excellent scholarship massages the mind in useful new directions. Gruen, a Berkeley professor emeritus of history and classics, wields his command of ancient sources to shake a widely shared historical belief—that ancient Greeks and Romans exuded condescension and hostility toward what European intellectuals call the “Other.” For those Greeks and Romans, that largely meant peoples such as the Persians, Egyptians, and Jews. Even if Gruen doesn’t wholly convince on every ground that Greeks and Romans operated like Obamas in togas, regularly reaching out to potential enemies, his careful readings of Aeschylus, Herodotus, Tacitus, and others introduce us to a kinder, gentler ancient world. His analysis confirms how even back then, tossing people into a category and then hating them en masse was a choice, not an evolutionary necessity.

Gruen doesn’t deny the transhistorical phenomenon of “Us vs. Them” itself. “The denigration,” he writes at the outset, “even demonization of the ‘Other’ in order to declare superiority or to construct a contrasting national identity is all too familiar.”

Gruen’s mission, however, is to unpack the contrary story, far less told: “that Greeks, Romans, and Jews (who provide us with almost all the relevant extant texts) had far more mixed, nuanced, and complex opinions about other peoples.” In the main text and many useful footnotes of this info-packed but never boring study, Gruen accomplishes that. He shows how the ancients “could also visualize themselves as part of a broader cultural heritage, could discover or invent links with other societies, and could couch their own historical memories in terms of a borrowed or appropriated past.”

Anticipating possible criticisms, Gruen stresses that his book does not vaunt the ancient world as “some bland amalgam, a Mediterranean melting pot” abounding in “starry-eyed universalism.” Rather, his point is that the ancients, like us, enjoyed options in how they categorized others, drew upon others, and defined them in the process of shaping their own cultures. They sometimes chose—more often than one realized before reading Gruen’s book—to do so in a spirit of admiration and respect. Contrary to much received opinion, we have some classical role models in resisting “Us vs. Them.”


Comments are closed.