Comparing in the ethnographic thinking of the ancient world: The Greeks (seventh century BC–first century AD)
The Greeks were always on the move in antiquity, for example as colonists, traders, pirates, doctors, researchers and soldiers. They encountered foreign peoples and new cultures, some of which were similar to them, like the Phoenicians, Etruscans, and Romans. However, some of them also differed markedly from the Greeks in many respects, e.g. the nomads and semi-nomads of North Africa, Arabia and Asia. All this led to the fact that the Greeks developed a specific ethnographic way of thinking from early on, which repeatedly shaped literature since the time of Homer. Comparing was an important practice in order to understand the unknown and to relate it with the known, thus enabling a new understanding of a changing world.
The aim of the project is to reconstruct and understand the practices of these comparisons, from collecting empirical data to processing them into different literary genera by applying the texts to politics and scholarly debate. A central claim of the subproject is that the intensity of ethnographic practices of comparing increased at times of major political or military upheavals, which disrupted the familiar world order and decisively extended the geographical-ethnographic horizon. Ethnographic comparisons now became an important means of establishing new forms of orientation and order. Consequently, comparing was both a reaction to change and an impulse for change, and it was an important indicator of global development.
While the subproject’s principal investigator has highlighted the basic structures of comparative patterns in ethnographic thinking from Homer to Herodotus in several publications and is now in the process of classifying them in the historical and intellectual context of the time, Marie Lemser and Julian Gieseke are focusing on the successors of Herodotus with particular regard to their practices of comparing. In the period from the end of the 4th century to the middle of the 2nd century BC, Greek authors carried out ethnography under the impressions of Alexander’s conquests and the establishment of his Hellenistic successors. Marie Lemser is working with the writings of authors such as Megasthenes, Agatharchides of Cnidus and Hecataeus of Abdera, examining their practices of comparing. At the moment she is mainly concentrating on the secondary literature concerning Agatharchides of Cnidus and his environment at the court of the Ptolemies in Alexandria. The period from the middle of the 2nd century BC to the early 1st century AD is illuminated by Julian Gieseke, who is studying Greek ethnography in the context of Roman imperialism. Central to his work are Polybius, who documented the rise of Rome as the dominating power in the Mediterranean, the stoic scholar Posidonius and the historian and geographer Strabo. Currently, Julian Gieseke is working with the Histories of Posidonius, examining the ethnographer’s practices of comparing before using the already sighted secondary literature to contextualize them within the field of Roman expansion.