In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ethnography in Antiquity

  • Introduction
  • Bibliographies
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Approaches to Ancient Ethnography
  • Theories of Ancient Ethnicity
  • Historical Ethnography
  • Antiquity and European Ethnic Identity
  • Against Ethnography in Antiquity

Anthropology Ethnography in Antiquity
James Adam Redfield
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0214


Today “ethnography” refers to three things simultaneously: it is a term for a body of scientific knowledge; a method for acquiring it; and a mode of representing it. Historically, however, we can disentangle those meanings. The first is only modern; the second can bear traces of Antiquity; the third is organically ancient. Scholarly use of the label is modern (in German, 1767; in Russian, 1802; in French, 1823; in English, 1834), as are the institutions and discourses where it came to refer to a body of scientific knowledge. In this sense, there is no ethnography before the Enlightenment sciences (or proto- and pseudo- forms) which coined it. Ethnography as a method is no less defined by the various fields where it is used. Yet ethnography is also used in humanistic fields (history; geography; law; theology; the arts) with deeper roots in Antiquity. In those fields, ethnography assimilates ancient sources and, occasionally, ancient ways of thinking. The humanities also hybridize with modern sciences to form new fields (e.g., Mediterranean Studies). This is another vector along which ethnographic methods transact with Antiquity. Finally, even modern sciences are eclectic in their methods, as when anthropologists adapt ancient theological categories to organize their fieldwork. In sum, prominent definitions of the ethnographic method (e.g., “participant observation”) are modern. Yet in practice, ethnography has been, and still is, not infrequently guided by ancient problems and perspectives. Finally, as a mode of representation, we do find ethnography in ancient authors, defined here by two basic shared interests. First: how and why human groups differ, in their inner and outer qualities, often using the author’s own group as a basis for comparison. Second, in order to analyze such differences, these ancient writers develop what we call ethnology: theories of peoplehood, including categories and hierarchies for classifying peoples. Ancient ethnography and ethnology are thus sites for the formation of concepts that, in complex ways, overlap with modern concepts like race; ethnicity; gender; nation; civilization; religion; and culture. Ancient ethnography often takes the form of apparent digressions in other Genres such as history, where writers survey a people’s customs, physical characteristics, habitat, virtues and vices, grafting their sources and observations onto literary models. These representations of self and other in Antiquity left a rich legacy, extending into the medieval and early modern eras. Approaches have been developed for comparing them to later ethnography—not only in terms of direct influence, but also in light of analogous literary and conceptual patterns.


Scholars of Greek literature have traditionally classified ethnography alongside history and geography; Baron 2013 evaluates the labels under which it has been placed, and their rationales. Other groups within the Hellenistic world engaged with Greek history-writing, in histories and other genres, as Grabbe 2012 shows. No doubt that is partly because they were the objects of historical and ethnographic descriptions, not always flattering (Bloch 2016); attention is now shifting to how they borrowed, subverted, or modified such images. Nor were history or geography the only genres in which ethnographic representations circulated: new forms arose and grew as Christianity put its mark on the empire and on medieval Europe (Llewelyn-Price 2018).

  • Baron, Christopher A. 2013. Greek historiography. In Oxford bibliographies in classics. Edited by Dee L. Clayman. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Ancient ethnography circulated in multiple kinds of work (see Genres). Ancient historiography is not straightforward to define either. Nevertheless, the link between the two was strong from the beginning (Hecataeus of Miletus; Herodotus), and in many cases ancient ethnography can only be understood in relation to the evolution of history-writing. Includes a section on that relationship.

  • Bloch, René. 2016. Ancient anti-Semitism. In Oxford Bibliographies in Jewish Studies. Edited by Naomi Seidman. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Representations of Jews (Stern 1974–1984, cited under Anthologies), whether positive or negative, are a rich repository of ancient ethnography, out of all proportion to the Jews’ direct political or cultural influence. Surveys contexts in which authors used Jews as a people to “think with,” and specific accusations levied. Jews have a special role in ancient ethnography as a mirror for Greek, Roman, and other identities.

  • Grabbe, Lester. 2012. Hellenistic Jewish literature. In Oxford Bibliographies in Jewish Studies. Edited by Naomi Seidman. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Surveys reference works, bibliographies, and periodical indices that can be used to find research on Jewish ethnography in this period, either in authored or in anonymous/pseudepigraphic works. Article reviewed 18 July 2016.

  • Llewelyn-Price, Merrall. 2018. Medieval anti-Judaism. In Oxford Bibliographies in Jewish Studies. Edited by Naomi Seidman. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Just as ancient anti-Jewish sources reflect the ethnography of both Jews and surrounding peoples, so do medieval sources. But the people in front of the mirror change: usually, they are Christians. These polemics (and counter-polemics, as in the late ancient Jewish “life of Jesus” literary tradition) are a treasure-trove of ethnographic theology (see Berzon 2016, cited under Christians) with sometimes fatal implications. Cites several collections of this Adversus Judaeos literature. Thoughtful notes and commentaries.

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