Brill's Companion to Classics and Early Anthropology

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Emily Varto
Brill's Companions to Classical Reception, v. 16
  • Boston, MA: 
    , April
     420 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


If we can see further, as John of Salisbury wrote in his Metalogicon (1159), iterating the words of the French Neo-Platonist philosopher Bernard of Chartres, it is due to our position on the shoulders of giants—a phrase primarily known through Isaac Newton’s correspondence with the English natural philosopher Robert Hooke in 1675. Hardly anyone would disagree with this principle of knowledge accumulation that has led us to the scientific growth we are experiencing today. However, not all theories, ideas, concepts, and so forth have contributed to an “advancement”; rather, on many occasions, scholars sought (and some still do) to justify and promote certain ideologies, classifications, and conceptualizations, thus reaching highly problematic conclusions by seemingly (explicitly or implicitly) adopting Bernard’s principle. Both such positive and negative attitudes guide Emily Varto’s volume Brill’s Companion to Classics and Early Anthropology. The book’s focus, as the title indicates, is on the ways the disciplines of classics and anthropology informed but also influenced one another during their formative years (primarily of the latter scientific field).

Varto is very clear about the intended aims, questions asked, and approaches taken to demonstrate the volume’s raison d'être. The words with which she concludes her insightful introduction encapsulate it wonderfully: “The classics may no longer be a standard part of the ethnographic storehouse or social scientist’s toolkit, but the ancients are still part of the sociological and anthropological imagination” (25). The collected papers have precisely this purpose: to demonstrate how and why ancient ideas, concepts, worldviews, and approaches continue to influence, albeit often in an unexamined manner, modern theories and methodologies. The examples here are various: comparativism; evolutionism; colonialism; fieldwork; racism and the birth of racist ideologies; the way “culture” is understood—all thoroughly discussed by the authors in the volume’s three parts. One of the basic theoretical presuppositions is that anthropology did not solely adopt existing ideas, while classics remained neutral within its own disciplinary borders. Instead of mere reception, the authors take on the notion of “interaction” as the connecting link between developments in classics and the birth of modern anthropology. Such interaction, as Varto and the contributors maintain and aptly demonstrate, not only informed the way the two disciplines went forth in their past quests, but, more importantly, it still has a strong influence on current research.

In the first part of the book, “Primitivism and Progress: The Classics in Early Ethnology,” the papers demonstrate the ways early anthropologists utilized ideas and worldviews from antiquity in their nascent studies. Daniel Noah Moses (chap. 1) discusses how anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan adopted and applied Epicurean principles pertaining to a good life to commercialism. Emily Varto (chap. 2) also focuses on Morgan’s work, but her attention is turned towards the idea of progressivism and eventual societal destruction while studying indigenous American tribal life. In chapter 3, Eliza Gettel examines the father of modern anthropology, E. B. Tylor, his usage of the term “culture,” and its subsequent influence upon the Cambridge Ritualists. Cynthia Eller (chap. 4) discusses how mid-19th century anthropology was attracted to the theory of matriarchy in ancient Mediterranean religions, thus promoting an evolutionary idea that ancient societies began as matriarchal and then turned into patriarchal societies—a theory rejected later by both classicists and anthropologists. With chapter 5, Rebecca Futo Kennedy concludes this part of the book by discussing how Otis Mason, through his “progress of the races” displays at the Smithsonian, used modern theories of social evolution and ancient environmental determinism primarily informed by Hippocratic texts. 

The second part of the book, “Classics and the Science of Man: Customs, Religions, and Beliefs,” begins with Kevin Solez’s contribution (chap. 6) on how the anthropology of fasting was informed by ideas found in classics and similarly influenced the way we could expand our understanding of Graeco-Roman antiquity. In chapter 7, Sandra Blakely discusses the different models of interpretation by 19th-century German and French anthropologists on the mystery cult of the Great Gods of Samothrace. Ailsa Hunt (chap. 8) similarly focuses on how early anthropologists in late 19th century Britain and Germany approached and interpreted the idea of sacred trees in so-called “primitive” religions by applying animistic worldviews to Roman religious ideas and to Catholicism. The second part closes with Melissa Funke’s (chap. 9) discussion on the ways 19th century examination of Homeric terminology on colors has largely shaped the way theories about color perception are still articulated. 

The last part of the book, “Anthropological and Classical Others: Theories, Methods, and Approaches,” opens with Daniel Stewart (chap. 10), who examines how Sir James G. Frazer’s study on Pausanias radically changed the way the ancient geographer was approached and reconceptualized. In chapter 11, Thérèse A. de Vet investigates how Marcel Mauss’s work on the notion of the gift and reciprocity, as well as partly Émile Durkheim’s theoretical approaches on societal types, deeply influenced the way Homeric studies have since unfolded. Chapter 12, penned by Irene Salvo, focuses on a specific case study, that of Ernesto de Martino (1908-1965), and the ways he combined classics and ethnography in his studies on the tradition of the evil eye in southern Italy by drawing on Graeco-Roman analogous ideas. Franco De Angelis (chap. 13) inspects the ways classics were influenced by early anthropological research on the so-called aboriginal “Other” or indigenous “savages.” The volume concludes with the co-authored essay (chap. 14) by William Short and Maurizio Bettini on comparativism, old and new, offering a concise history of how this theoretical and methodological approach informed the two disciplines, while concluding with a new proposal.

Emily Varto and the contributors have managed to successfully present the thesis of the volume by focusing on a variety of topics and case studies. In many respects, Brill’s Companion to Classics and Early Anthropology effectively demonstrates how intertwined the various subdisciplines within the humanities are despite what individual scholars might think or claim about the ways they present the “unique” work being done in their fields. In this sense, this volume will be essential for scholars of various disciplines that fall under the “Humanities and Arts” rubric.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nickolas P. Roubekas is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the Institut für Religionswissenschaft, Universität Wien.

Date of Review: 
October 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Emily Varto is Associate Professor of Classics at Dalhousie University. She publishes on early Iron Age Greek kinship and housing, ancient genealogy and historiography, as well as on the classics in early anthropology.


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