On the edge of identity

a study of the concept of the 'barbarian other' along the Graeco-Roman frontiers

Clare Rowan

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The concept of identity and the concept of a frontier are inextricably intertwined. Indeed the very notion of a 'frontier', a dividing barrier between 'us' and 'them' arises from a polar sense of identity. This concept exists not only in ancient communities, but in the minds of modern scholars who attempt to comprehend frontiers as well. Rarely has scholarship stepped outside the core periphery model which argues that an empire constitutes a core, a transitional zone (=frontier) and the other (=barbarian). A study of ancient sources, both Greek and Roman shows that it is conflict with a foreign power, followed by the establishment of a frontier, that sparks the creation of a hostile or alien 'other'. Moreover, concepts of 'barbarian' differ between the core of the empire and its periphery, although it must be noted that there may not be a defining pattern to these differences; what we are seeing may be individually unique responses which defy any greater generalisations. The idea of the barbarian was dependant on the frontier, and when these frontiers collapsed, as in the Hellenistic Period under Alexander and in late Roman antiquity, people were forced to rethink and remodel their views on just who exactly was 'other'. Nothing illustrates better the link between identity, alterity and the notion of a frontier – a dividing line to separate 'us' from 'them'.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)38-55
Number of pages18
JournalAncient history : resources for teachers
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2005

Bibliographical note

Publisher version archived with the permission of the Editor, Ancient History : resources for Teachers, Macquarie Ancient History Association, Macquarie University, NSW, Australia. This copy is available for individual, non-commercial use. Permission to reprint/republish this version for other uses must be obtained from the publisher.

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