Ancient Identities: Historical Tips for Worldbuilding Complex Cultures

Classification is difficult. Identity is complicated. Questions about whether the Irish are British (or at what point Irish-Americans are distinct from mainland Irish or Americans), or what “Jewishness” “really means” are fraught and complicated and for my own sanity I generally avoid thinking about it as much as possible.

Which is not to say it never comes up. In fact, it’s of the biggest struggles of trying to do worldbuilding for a complex world. The stories span continents and centuries, so classifying cultures gets tricky, because I have to differentiate between how I the author see various people and how they would see themselves.

A useful reference

I picked up In Search of the Phoenicians in the middle of an Oxford lecture by the author. She was discussing the pretty narrow topic of how the story of Dido probably began as a Carthaginian myth, not a Roman one. Most of the Western understanding of Dido comes from Virgil’s Aeneid, but I’m very interested in learning more about her as a person.

I didn’t have a ton of background going in, so I was expecting something like The Phoenicians and the West by Maria Aubet, which focuses on Phoenician settlements on the Iberian peninsula (aka Spain). Aubet was my first exposure to the idea that the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Canaanites, Tyrians, and Levantine people were in some ways the same people. I interpret it to mean they’re part of the same contiguous culture in the way that modern-day Australia is “British” in some important ways, and so is Wales.

Aubet includes this reference to the complex identity of the Phoenicians as part of the definitions section in her introduction. She then goes on to provide one of the earliest English-language summaries of the archaeological evidence we have of Phoenician settlements in Iberia. Quinn, by contrast, focuses on what we know about Phoenician identity as such, through the lens of contemporary ideas about identity.

It was not really what I was looking for — my interests in Phoenicia mostly lie in trying to get a better understanding of their culture beyond “they were traders who sold red dye.” To be honest, most of my motivation comes from curiosity about how Dido may have been similar to the last Empress of Cyador in L. E. Modesitt’s Recluse series. Quinn’s book was nonetheless fascinating. It had somehow never occurred to me that various ancient cultures probably didn’t actually self-identify as being part of the culture we assign to them, and the book gave me a lot of useful paradigms for thinking about my own fantasy cultures.

Sourcing Identities

Where different identities come from is an important consideration, especially when thinking about questions of authenticity and imperialism. Historically, I’ve tended to default to the idea that most cultures have firm enough “edges” that we can tell where they begin and end. I’m used to regions being defined by geography, with language and clothing choices and other cultural markers being fairly consistent within those regions: the British Isles, the Appalachian Mountains, the Greek mountains, Silicon Valley, the Basque people of the Pyrenees mountains, the Inca in the Andes, etc.

Identity is more complicated than geography is destiny, though. I knew that the Ancient Greeks weren’t united by any stretch of the imagination. I’m aware that there’s a lot of question surrounding just how contiguous Chinese history really is.

It just hadn’t really occurred to me that many of these identities are externally exposed, because I’m usually pretty comfortable thinking of myself as an American from the Chesapeake Bay / mid-Atlantic region. I’m a white, middle-class suburbanite, whatever that means, and while I’ve always known that identities are complex, I’m more familiar with the paradigm that Athenians saw themselves as part of the Hellenic world. Tyrants of Syracuse by Jeff Champion, for example, makes it pretty clear that they saw non-Greeks as frankly barbaric, even as they fought with rival Greek city-states.

But even Greek identities are more complex than I had realized. According to Quinn:

in relation to “Hellenicity,” for example, scholars have delineated a shift in the fifth century BCE from an “aggregative” conception of Greek identity founded largely on shared history and traditions to a somewhat more oppositional approach based on distinction from non-Greeks, especially Persians, and then another in the fourth century BCE, when Greek intellectuals themselves debated whether Greekness should be based on a shared past or on shared culture and values in the contemporary world. By the Hellenistic period, at least in Egypt, the term “Hellene” (Greek) was in official documents simply an indication of a privileged tax status, and those so labeled could be Jews, Thracians—or, indeed, Egyptians.

Basically, the Hellenic identity shifted over time, insofar as it was ever clearly defined — a fact debated by the ancient Greeks themselves!

Identity is messy. I’m comfortable with that idea, because in some ways it’s because we use so many terms interchangeably. Ethnic, religious, social and political meanings can get caught up in the same terminology.

But what if it’s even worse than that?

Recent studies have shown that such familiar groups as the Celts of ancient Britain and Ireland and the Minoans of ancient Crete were essentially invented in the modern period by the archaeologists who first studied or “discovered” them, and even the collective identity of the Greeks can be called into question.

Honestly, I’m shaky on the implications of this. I can’t tell if Quinn is taking the position that these identities are purely modern invention, or mostly saying that we don’t know enough and shouldn’t assume. I lack context, but if it’s just that taxonomies are useful, but we need to bear in mind that the ancients used different taxonomies to define themselves, that makes sense. I don’t really go through life defining myself according to my income level or aligning myself with my fellow inhabitants of the suburban mid-Atlantic region, even though those are all accurate descriptors and lots of data crunchers shove me into different demographic groups for reasons.

Language

The more I read, the more I kept asking myself, “but what about language?” Isn’t language one of the ways we delineate between culture groups? Surely, language is relevant for identifying different culture groups.

Eventually, Quinn did address the question of language:

why did Greek authors recognize some sailors from other Mediterranean city-states as fellow-Greeks and others as something else? One thing that would have clearly distinguished “Phoenicians” from Greeks for Greeks was their language. The role of the Greek language as a criterion for Greekness itself is disputed: Jonathan Hall has argued that despite a great deal of evidence for mutual comprehension across dialects, there is little for the “awareness of a common Hellenic language” before the fifth century, and that even then the relative linguistic homogeneity of the epigraphical evidence from the Classical period might conceal a great “diversity of oral idioms.” Nonetheless, it would not be necessary for a Greek to be able to understand every other form of spoken Greek to note that Phoenician is very different from all of them: one can imagine a Londoner baffled by a Glaswegian, but still readily able to distinguish the language being spoken from Arabic.

But honestly this didn’t really satisfy me until I realized: I don’t define my own identity in terms of “being an English speaker,” or even in terms of being a native English speaker. It might be different for people born to other languages, but slightly less than 5% of the world speaks English. That is too many people for it to be a useful measure of identity on a day-to-day basis. The Anglosphere is a super useful construct for considering political alliances, certainly, but that’s really the only context I ever think about it in.

Sure, things that might seem ridiculous to me might be perfectly reasonable to someone else, regardless of their time period or location. I know there’s danger in thinking about the ancients through the lens of modern experiences — but this epiphany felt like the missing jigsaw piece for my comprehension of Quinn’s point, which seems to be that Phoenicia is a useful construct for historians but probably wasn’t for the people we call Phoenicians.

Or for that matter, the Canaanites.

Perspectives

The Phoenicians and the Canaanites are often conflated, since they occupied roughly the same spot in the Levant. The difference between them seems to largely come down to who is doing the defining. The term Canaanites seems to have been coined by the ancient Israelites to broadly mean “enemies of Israel” (of which there were a lot), and Israel consisted mostly of inland city-states.

The term Phoenicia, by contrast, comes to us from the Greeks, who were mostly interacting with city-states like Tyre and Sidon from the sea. The Greeks and later the Romans are basically the only ones who actually label Phoenicia as such, instead of referring to the city-states individually or referencing the broader Levantine area via some other term, like “Hittite.” Although various historical figures did give geographic locations for Phoenicia, from the way it seemed like the term got used, “Phoenician” almost seems more synonymous with “merchant” or “sailor from the coastal cities” than “person from one of this handful of city-states or their surrounding lands, who speaks a particular language.”

Purpose

Although Phoenician identity is pretty hard to define, it seems like the Punic world is a bit easier to trace. “Punic” is the (Latin) term used to refer to the people of Carthage and the areas under its influence, i.e. the Phoenician colonies in the western Mediterranean region. Since Carthage was a “rising Imperial power” it went out of its way to forge an identity for itself. This isn’t a unique phenomenon: Alexander the Great did something similar during the fight against Persia, even though his own identity as a Greek was somewhat shaky.

Takeaways

The big thing that I took from this was that culture is really fuzzy. Quinn says:

Understanding the ancient world as divided into a series of “peoples,” each with what Anthony Smith called “a distinctive shared culture,” depends on an implausible idea of how culture works.

It really reminded me of the idea that borders are a fairly arbitrary modern construct. The whole idea behind cultural diffusion is that “culture” is more of a spectrum than a quilt. It’s useful to mark boundaries between groups when it makes sense to do so, but it’s equally important to remember that real life is messy and sometimes boundaries are artificially imposed. Periods of conflict, whether violent or economic, make a good example of when people might differentiate between themselves and “the other.” But those identities are also messy and flexible, as evidenced in the modern day by shifting ideas of what it means to be “white” in America.

It’s something to bear in mind when worldbuilding. Even though it’s easier to divide up fantasy cultures with bright lines and bold statements, nation-states and imperial identity-building is not the only cultural paradigm available to storytellers.

Eleanor

Eleanor teaches Ancient Civilizations and spends the bits of time left over writing stories that bring history -- and magic -- to life. She enjoys rock climbing, bullet journaling, & gardening focused on plants you can actually eat.

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2 Responses

  1. Luciano D'Agostino says:

    Very interesting. Thanks. Probably, in the past, a certain cultural identity, coincidental with a “national” concept was possible if the “borders” were determined by a defined geography: an island, a mountain, a palude that could segregate the dwellers from the foreigners contact. This resulted, however, as a limitation in the historical relevance of these confined populations. Therefore, in my opinion, it is possible to conclude that the idea of nation is destined to finish from the origins.

    • Eleanor says:

      That way of thinking works sometimes but not always. For a great example, check out this thread over at r/AskHistorians with a bunch of people pushing back against the idea that Georgia and Aremnia were able to “stay independent” because of the nearby mountains.

      Haiti and the DR are a pretty good example of how it’s more complicated than just “an island is obviously going to be its own nation,” but there are certainly others. The western border of Russia is another example. I don’t think geography makes certain nations “inevitable,” although it certainly impacts their development, since some natural geographic formations like mountains and rivers have strategic military implications.

Let me know what you think!