Greeks on Greekness: Giusto Traina

Greeks on Greekness Colloquium Abstract

Giusto Traina, University of Lecce

“Looking for Greekness in Ancient Iran and Armenia”

Imperial interpretation of Hellenism, as we find it in the writers of the Second Sophistic, has strongly marked modern scholarship. But such witnesess are less than impartial: witness the analysis of Apollonius of Tyana’s Eastern travels, in Philostratus’ romanced biography. The classical concept of Hellenism implies a rigid opposition between East and West. But such an opposition, at least in the terms we often find in Classical scholarship, is in fact modern. True, Greek anthropological thought is based on opposite pairs (Greek/ Barbarian, citizen/ agroikos, hot/cold and so on); and in some Latin writers, we may be misled by descriptions of “Levantines” which remind us more recent situations, and give a false impression of continuity in the western construction of the East, from the Classics on down. Despite these cases, the concept of the ‘Ancient East’ is a category of modern thought.

For a long time, classical studies have been influenced by the ‘traditional’ Hellenic attitude towards the East and Easterners, usually associated implicitly with modern Levantines. Classicists have suffered from a long tradition of misinterpretation of the East, which has allowed them to imagine a sort of ideal continuity from Antiquity to modern times. At least from the mid-XIX century onwards, specialists began to review the literary evidence on Hellenism in the East in the light of new archaeological finds. These studies took for granted the opposition between ‘Hellenism’ and ‘East,’ but did not investigate the phenomenon as a whole.

The first comprehensive scientific essay on the presence of Hellenism beyond the Euphrates appeared in 1904. Its author was the French archaeologist Victor Chapot (1873-1954), who presented it to the French Society of Antiquaries. However serious, Victor Chapot’s scholarship was nonetheless deeply marked by colonial ideology. In his opinion, even in Iranian eyes Greek civilization was undoubtedly superior. Thus, according to Chapot’s chauvinist image of the East (which conformed to traditional standards in Classical studies), the Euphrates appears as the frontier of Greekness. However, this image did not apply to the Semitic world, but only to the countries with an Iranian cultural (and religious) tradition. In fact, Hellenism in Babylon or Jerusalem has been taken more seriously than Parthian ‘Hellenism,’ often considered as a mere veneer.

In any case, from Herodotus onwards, the East of the classics is mostly imaginary, and the relation between Classical and Oriental studies has always been highly problematic. A great historian such as Eduard Meyer, who at least included the East in his History of the Ancient World, has been often cited as a model of far-sightedness, but he did not find many followers. On the contrary, the ‘institutional’ role of classicists and orientalists kept the fields separate. Roman historians still suffer from this separation, whereas Greek history is on the way to recovering a connection with the East.

Classical scholarship, even when concerned with the ancient East, did not easily accept alternatives to this paradigm. Some alternatives came from outsiders, or from scholars with aprioristic positions. In fact, whereas the opposition East/West is mostly a modern projection, the ancient world was more interested in social, territorial or dynastic oppositions. Where Greek was used as an ‘official’ language for diplomacy and chancery, its use was different according to the specific context. Thus, Hellenism seems more a matter of transformation than preservation. This is easier to detect from written evidence, even though historians should be more concerned with the delicate matter of iconography. Archaeologists now argue that Hellenism in the East is a phenomenon still largely unknown in its development, which seems to have differed subtantially from region to region.

The presence of Greek literacy is a classic subject for the cultural history of Central Asia, especially in the regions which had continuous contacts with Greek communities. But if we are aware of an interpretatio Graeca of Eastern motifs, there has been less investigation of the interpretatio Orientalis of Greek forms of communication. Moreover, Hellenism in the East suffers from over-research: this is understandable, as Greek culture developed a highly appropriate terminology to describe urban realities in places such as Susa, Artemita, Antioch in Mesene, Seleucia on the Persian Gulf, and Seleucia on the Tigris. We often find the mention of ‘Greek cities,’ as if these cities could be considered a homogeneous category. But the evidence for cross-comparison, and even for a diachronic study of single cities, is too scanty.

The learned tradition has often pointed to the use of Greek in the Iranian world either as implying hellenization, when not ‘philhellenism,’ or has considered it to be simply effect of Greek communities within the Parthian Empire. However, it is hard to find evidence of a multiethnic society in the ‘hellenized’ East. Ethnic groups had their own strategies to preserve identity: no doubt, in everyday life people of urban communities will have spoken several languages or pidgins, but this does not imply changes in the upper level of culture.

In fact, in the East, Greek was used either as a new vehicle for an older tradition or as a vehicle for syncretism. The scholarly tradition has often pointed to the use of Greek in the Iranian world either as implying hellenization, when not ‘philhellenism,’ or has considered it to be a consequence of Greek communities within the Parthian Empire. We have some interesting evidence on Hellenism in Armenia. Everyone knows Plutarch’s account in the Life of Crassus, which reports the macabre adaptation of Euripides’ Bacchae, at a banquet of the Armenian court, where the real head of the Roman general was used in a mocking performance. This passage has been variously interpreted. Scholars who have wanted to highlight the diffusion of Hellenism in Armenia have read it as a confirmation of the high degree of hellenization. For others, it is only an isolated instance of a marginal tryphé in a country which had escaped conquest and colonisation by the successors of Alexander. Plutarch, at all events, could still cite the historical books and tragedies written by the Armenian ‘Philhellene’ king Artavazd. Such evidence too has been variously understood, even though it has been assumed that Armenians were more ‘receptive than Parthians to the charms of Greek culture.

Plutarch’s literary account can be compared with a very intersesting Greek epigraphical dossier found on two carved rocks, at the beginning of XX century, at the foothill of the acropolis at the site of Armawir (VIII-III BCE). The best known text from the dossier is a series of trimeters (inscription A2): a cento of Greek trimeters partly coinciding with some Euripidean verses.

Even though we can recognize only three lines of Euripides, the whole poem seems to be a patchwork composition. Who, then, was the author? Taken together, the Greek texts from Armawir can be seen as a sign of Seleucid influence. Armenian became a written language only at the beginning of the V century CE. Before this date, Armenian courts must have used Greek or Aramaic for official documents. There is no evidence of Imperial Aramaic in the Caucasus for the Achaemenid period, and the evidence is too scanty to decide whether Greek or Aramaic prevailed in given periods; as Armenia was at a crossroad between Anatolia, Iran and Central Asia, it is reasonable to think that royal courts may have maintained both languages for correspondence and other chancery matters. Therefore, the author of the patchwork poem may have been a Greek or hellenized, court or temple, archivist, either equipped with a good memory or with some florilegium at hand; this can be confirmed by the script of the inscriptions of Armawir, which is closer to the script of papyri than to epigraphical scripts.