Comparatism from a Disciplinary Perspective: The Case of Classics and Assyriology
Written by Alba Curry
The Center for Hellenic Studies would like to extend their greatest thanks and appreciation to all of those who participated in the fourth meeting of the Comparatism Seminar. We would also like to thank Professor Johannes Haubold for his talk, “Comparatism from a Disciplinary Perspective: The Case of Classics and Assyriology.”
Haubold’s talk considered how the disciplinary context of comparison affects what we compare and how we do it. For example, what are the consequences of the Homeric poems and The Epic of Gilgamesh belonging to two different disciplines (Classics and Near Eastern Studies) but Homer and Virgil to the same discipline?
Historically speaking, the study of Mesopotamia has been perceived by some Classicists as a threat to the authority of their field. What does it do to the prestige of Classics to say, for example, that there are epics that significantly predate Homer? Does Classics’ mostly exclusive focus on Greece and Rome look parochial in light of disciplines studying other ancient Mediterannean and Near Eastern civilizations? Haubold noted that less well-known fields like Assyriology have at the same time reinforced themselves by claiming proximity to Classics, as in the example of scholars tracing influences from The Epic of Gilgamesh onto the Homeric poems.
Zooming out to discuss comparability more broadly, Haubold emphasized that even categories like “ancient Greece” or “Mesopotamia” elide significant differences. Comparison between the Assyrian Empire (9th–7th centuries BCE) and Mycenaean Bronze Age Greece will require a different set of procedures and assumptions than one between the Achaemenid (6th–4th centuries BCE) and post-Alexandrian Hellenistic worlds. Further, Classicists are not the only ones who have made efforts to preserve the intelectual “purity” of their field. Haubold pointed to recent work in Assyriology that essentializes Babylonian knowledge and treats cross-cultural knowledge as a kind of bastardization (see M. Van De Mieroop, Philosophy before the Greeks, Princeton 2015 and F. Rorchberg, Before Nature, Chicago 2016).
Haubold used Seleucus of Seleucia, a Chaldean active in the mid-2nd century BCE, as an example to debunk some of the aforementioned myths and also to demonstrate what Assyriology and Classics can gain by collaborating. Fragments attest to Seleucus’ interest in the moon’s effect on tides, proving that at least some Babylonian thinkers were concerned with questions of material causation, contrary to what the aforementioned Rorchberg’s Before Nature argues. The claim that Babylonian scientists had no interest in physical causation holds only if we deem the Chaldeans to be non-Babylonian. From one point of view, Seleucus, as a Chaldean, bastardized Babylonian science and polluted it with his materialist thinking, further condemning himself by the fact that he wrote in Greek for a Greek audience. But why should Babylonian knowledge be defined by an absence of materialist thought? A more fruitful framing, Haubold argues, is to consider this a truly global issue, informed by ideas and standards drawn from several cultural contexts. The astronomer Hipparchus admired Seleucus’ work on tides of the Indian Ocean, and Poseidonious, the leading Stoic of the day, verified the work. Questions that might look Greek to us were tackled by non-Greeks, using evidence and knowledge acquired in non-Greek places, even while the answers to these questions were sometimes presented back to a Greek audience. Seleucus’s work on the tides was only possible thanks to the exchange of information and ideas. In Seleucus we have an example of someone alert to debates of his age and sensitive to his locality: he argues for a connection between the Indian Ocean’s tides and the Euphrates River, while also answering larger questions about the cosmos and Earth’s revolutions.
Haubold offered a warning as well, explaining that comparative work can be used to further solidify disciplinary boundaries rather than problematize and bridge them. Productive, thoughtful comparison requires at the very least extensive training and thoughtful application of methods. Collaboration is key here, and Haubold gave the example of the Library of Archadean Poetry, which makes texts available to scholars of all disciplines.
We would like to extend a special thanks to Professor Lisa Raphals from the University of California, Riverside for her work as organizer of this semester’s Comparatism Seminar Series. Comparatism has become a key issue in Classical Studies, both within the ancient Mediterranean and more broadly. This one-semester seminar investigates current research and methodologies. Topics include perspectives from anthropology, epic, gender, the study of language and metaphor, philosophical debates, and practices of cult and sacrifice. Any interested researchers should write to firstname.lastname@example.org for more details about the series schedule.