Heterological Ethnicity : Conceptualizing Identities in Ancient Greece

Abstract: In accordance with the heterological tradition, this study emphasises the determining effect of theoretical assumptions on our conceptualizations of the past. This study scrutinises how classical archaeologists and ancient historians have conceptualized ethnic groups, in particular the Messenians.Ethnic groups have traditionally been regarded as static with clear-cut boundaries. Each group has also been attributed with certain essential characteristics. According to this view, the Messenian ethnic identity was preserved during the period of Spartan occupation. This view is facilitated by a passive perspective, which regards evidence as reflections of reality and emphasises continuity. This culture historical perspective, which gives precedence to literary evidence and reduces archaeology to a handmaiden of history, has prevailed in classics from the 19th century until today. It can be juxtaposed with perspectives, discernable in classics from the 1960s onwards, which maintain that various parts of culture are manipulated in accordance with contemporaneous socio-political needs. These active perspectives — ranging from systems theoretical, functionalistic to processual models — resemble the instrumentalist model in anthropology which regards ethnicity as a dynamic and flexible strategy. Nevertheless, the instrumentalist redefinition of ethnicity did not influence classics until the late 1990s. According to the instrumentalist perspective, the Messenian ethnic identity emerged as a strategy of distinction in opposition to the Spartans. Despite the variations, these perspectives can be regarded as part of a dogmatic tradition. Scholars within the dogmatic tradition tend to focus on the evidence and neglect the influence of the scholarly discourse on the conceptualizations of the past. This study, which is influenced by Michel de Certeau’s critique of the dogmatic tradition, elaborates on the discursive constraints of classical archaeology and ancient history.