Ethnography and Points of Contact

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Ethnography and Points of Contact



Increasing Knowledge. The third century marks the point of increasing knowledge about the inhabitants of the lands surrounding the Mediterranean basin. During this period Rome began its intermittent wars with Carthage. The conflict brought further contact with the peoples of Spain and France, since these were the passageways between Rome and Carthage by land. In addition to this contact, the period leading into the first century b.c.e. brought knowledge of Britain and its inhabitants. Toward the end of the fourth century (circa 310–306 b.c.e.) the Greek explorer Pytheas had already claimed to have sailed around the British Isles, reaching as far north as either Norway or Iceland. (Pythias sighted an island, Thule, north of the British Isles). By the first century b.c.e. Caesar would be able to report knowledge of the interior of Britain in his Bellum gallicum.

Ethnographical Tradition. Rome’s disposition toward the foreign peoples they encountered was often marked by two recurrent phenomena: on the one hand, the desire to spread Romanitas, the love of Roman literature and culture, and, on the other hand, a fear (often warranted) of the dangers that un-Romanized cultures might bring. These two factors would stand in the way of a thoroughly scientific ethnography, and they extend to the modern era. As Pliny would report in the first century c.e., Romans held the belief that their city was in the center of the world. The climate and geography of Rome was said to be ideal, and the further away one traveled, the worse the natural environment became. Pliny’s descriptions of the Black Sea region or the African interior (beyond the Atlas Mountains) are excellent examples of the tendency. Whereas Rome is “chosen by the divine inspiration of the gods to enhance the renown of heaven itself,” the Ripaean Mountains come from a part of the world “condemned by Nature,” proven by its extremes of cold.

Stereotypes. Such a division of places as is evident throughout Roman literature has a bearing on ethnography. Although the Roman citizen had knowledge of the outside world, often his view of that world was distorted by stereotypes that served to reinforce either his sense of divine right or his fear. The ancient ethnographer, moreover, worked within a tradition given to fanciful tales. Many of the ethnographical reports of Roman writers are in keeping with a tradition already evident in Herodotus’s ethnography, namely the tendency to see others outside of one’s own culture as savage, degenerate, and a danger to civilization. Like Herodotus, whose view of other cultures has been likened to a distorted mirror of his own Greek customs, Roman writers exaggerated the differences of non-Roman peoples.

Caesar on the Gauls. The bias of the ethnographical tradition is evident in Caesar’s Bellum gallicum. Caesar’s reports about Gallic peoples are quite stereotypical; the people are savage, fierce in battle. In addition to this report, “wives are shared between groups of ten or twelve men, especially between brothers and between fathers and sons; but the offspring of these unions are counted as the children of the man with whom a particular woman cohabited first.” These characteristics tell the Roman that the foreigner’s difference is a threat to civilized culture. (The Roman citizen, like men of most cultures, would never dream of sharing his wife with another man.)


It is no coincidence that there is only one geographer in the Roman period writing in Latin: Pomponius Mela. The Roman statesman was generally not interested in science for its own sake; rather, scientific knowledge served political and technological functions. Geography and ethnography were tools of imperialism and the expansion of Roman rule. Historians such as Livy and Tacitus, and prominent statesmen such as Julius Caesar and Augustus, wrote works that contained geographical and ethnographical data, but their main concern was the political usefulness of this information. Caesar’s descriptions of the Gallic tribes as fierce, unfaithful, and undisciplined serve a particular end: they justify the conquest of Gaul. Caesar reports, for example, that the tribes living in the interior of Britain do not farm, but live instead on milk (not unlike the mythological Cyclopes, the savage giants in Homeric epic). When his report of the Gallic peoples wearing animal skins and eating only meat is added to information on farming, the result is a composite of a primitive people that have not advanced from the hunter-gatherer stage of human development. Caesar shapes his information to portray a backward people, dangerous and in need of civilization.

Like Caesar’s Bellum gallicum the Res gestae Dim Augusti (” The Deeds of the Divine Augustus”) is rife with information on the world outside of Rome. It is a work of political geography. Augustus’s interest is to celebrate the conquest of the inhabited world. By the time of its composition in 14 c.e., Augustus could claim to have subdued peoples that caused his predecessors ongoing concern, such as the Parthians.

The Res gestae contains seemingly trivial information, such as Augustus’s exhibitions: “I presented the people with hunts of African beasts in my name or in my sons’ and grandsons’ names twenty-six times, either in the circus or in the forum or in the amphitheater. In those hunts around 3,500 beasts were destroyed.” More importantly, the Res gestae contains a claim that Augustus often makes of having brought peace to the inhabited world: “I pacified the Gallic and Hispanic provinces, and Germany, which includes the Ocean from Gades (in Hisfania Baetica) to the port of the Elbe River. I pacified the Alps from the region near the Adriatic Sea to the Tuscan Sea. No war was brought against the people without cause. My ships sailed through the Ocean from the port of the Rhine to the east up to the borders of the Cimbri, where before that time no Roman had gone, either by land or by sea. And the Cimbri, the Charydes, the Semnones, and other German peoples of the same region sought my allegiance and that of the Roman people through envoys.” Although his is strictly a political geography, Augustus ultimately claims to advance geographical and ethnographical knowledge.

Sources: Augustus, Caesaris Augusti res gestae et fragmenta, edited by Robert S. Rogers, Kenneth Scott, and Margaret M. Ward (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990).

Caesar, The Conquest of Gaul, translated by S, A. Handford and revised by Jane F, Gardner (London: Penguin, 1982).

Uses of Ethnography. Caesar’s ethnographical reports are written in the context of war, and his commentaries on the danger of an unconquered Gaul to Rome’s safety would give the Roman Senate justification for continued financing of his efforts. He therefore stresses the importance of Romanization: only by subduing the foreigner can civilization be spread. Some of the ethnographical reports, however, are merely comical. In one instance, Pliny tells of a people in the Atlas mountains in Africa who refuse to name each other, curse the sun, and do not dream when they sleep. While a believer in the supremacy of Roman culture, Pliny tells his tales mainly for the purpose of entertainment.

Limitations. Despite the tradition of storytelling that marks ancient ethnography, there seems to have been a greater degree of self-consciousness among later writers. Strabo, for example, faulted the irresponsibility of geographers who claimed to travel to distant places but only fabricated their tales. As he puts it, these writers “tell us about the ‘men that sleep in their ears,’ and the ‘men without mouths,’ and ‘men without noses’; and about ‘men with one eye,’ ‘men with long legs,’ ‘men with fingers turned backwards’” (2.1.9, translated by Horace Leonard Jones).

Fanciful Storytelling. Although Pliny engages in precisely the kind of fanciful storytelling about which Strabo complains, he seems at times aware that he too is involved in entertainment and not a disciplined study of the customs of foreign peoples. In his discussion of the exploration of Africa, for example, he says the following: “There are five Roman colonies in that province. According to widespread reports it might seem to be an accessible region; but put to the test, this view is found to be almost completely fallacious; persons of rank, although unwilling to track down the truth, are not ashamed to tell falsehoods because they cannot bear to admit their ignorance.” The complaints of Strabo and Pliny reveal the limitations of ethnography in the tradition of ancient geography.

Power and Safety. From the comments of Strabo and Pliny it is fair to conclude that the tendency of earlier ethnographical accounts to report fanciful and mythical information about foreign peoples could not be entirely sustained in the world of the Roman Empire. Roman statesmen such as Pliny certainly had a penchant for entertaining accounts of foreign places, but even Pliny realized the limitations of this approach. Political geography was a science that could be used in the interests of power and safety for the Roman people, while ignorance was potentially dangerous. Foreign peoples also brought Rome an abundance of wealth, and in this case ignorance meant the inability to take full advantage of the resources available throughout the inhabited world. Perhaps this is why the trader that wrote the Voyage of the Red Sea shows little interest in fanciful or mythical accounts of foreign peoples. He does comment on the largeness of men along the southeastern coast of Africa and their dark complexion, or the flat faces of people in northeastern India. Unlike some of the accounts of Pliny, however, these comments are simply descriptive. They do not attempt to convince the reader of a set of traits, and they are entirely believable.

Avenues of Contact. Far from adhering to the entertaining but deceptive accounts of foreign peoples, the Roman politician or general had to have somewhat detailed knowledge of the various peoples throughout the inhabited world. Such knowledge meant safety, particularly because there were groups that Rome never fully controlled. Trade routes, for example, such as the one along the southeastern coast of Africa into India, were sometimes independent of the Roman government (that is, unless those goods found their way into the Roman Empire, usually through Roman Egypt). The Empire maintained a complex and fluctuating patron/client relationship with many groups in the inhabited world. The Parthians, for example, recognized Roman rule in Armenia but not in all of their territory. Among the Dacians, Rome was recognized as the dominant power until Decebaus’s war against the Emperor Domitian. The Nabataeans were also servants of Rome, although their own kings ruled in Arabia. There were a plethora of social groups throughout the inhabited world, such as the Persis in Iran, the Alemanni and the Marcomanni in Germany, and the Alans north of the Caspian Sea. Peoples outside of the control of the Roman government were either known through contact with traders or generals, or armchair scholars like Pliny speculated about them.


Caesar, The Conquest of Gaul, translated by S. A. Handford and revised by Jane F. Gardner (London: Penguin, 1982).

Francois Hartog, The Mirror of Herodotus: The Representation of the Other in the Writing of History, translated by Janet Lloyd (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988).

Pliny, Natural History: A Selection, translated by John F. Healy (London: Penguin, 1991).

Strabo, Geography, translated by H. C. Hamilton (London: George Bell & Sons, 1903).

Tacitus, The Agricola and The Germania, translated by H. Mattingly and revised by S. A. Handford (London: Penguin, 1970).