The Blackwell-Bristol Lectures 2009

Professor Greg Woolf (St Andrews): Barbarian Science: Ethnography and Imperialism in the Roman West

5th, 6th, 12th and 13th May

This year’s Blackwell-Bristol Lecturer was Greg Woolf, Professor of Ancient History at St Andrews, a noted expert in the archaeology and history of the Roman provinces and on the impact of the Roman empire on the peoples it conquered. He is the author of Becoming Roman: the origins of provincial civilization in Gaul (1998) and Et tu Brute? The murder of Caesar and political assassination (2006), as well as numerous articles, and co-editor of Literacy and Power in the Ancient World (1994) and Rome the Cosmopolis (2003).

Professor Woolf took as his central theme the way that the Romans interpreted the unfamiliar world which they encountered as they advanced into western Europe. Over the last few decades, scholars drawing on the work of writers like Michel Foucault and Edward Said have uncovered the reciprocal relationship between power and knowledge in ethnography, and these ideas have been extended productively to the ancient world; all too easily, however, the specific nature of the classical discourse is obscured by the wholesale imposition of modern concepts. Did the Greeks and Romans have ethnography in our sense, and was their conception of other peoples driven solely by the requirements of imperial power? How did they go about incorporating different ethnic or regional or descent groups into their world-view, tracing their relationship to other peoples of the Mediterranean world, and explaining their distinctive customs? 

The organisation of knowledge can itself be a form of imperialism, making other cultures fit the intellectual structures and the expectations of the conquerors. Who decides what counts as knowledge, and what is to be valued as science or dismissed as myth? The expansion and consolidation of empire brought an enormous increase of information about other peoples, but it did not make much difference to the ethnographic discourse; ‘barbarians’, so called because Greeks heard their language as ‘bar-bar-bar’, a meaningless sequence of sound, were still being portrayed as savages even as the archaeological record shows them becoming more Roman, and Ammianus’ description of Huns in the late fourth century AD has much in common with Herodotus’ description of Scythians in the late fifth century BC.