- Gail L. Hoffman
Orientalizing has two primary uses in studies about ancient Mediterranean society: as an art historical or archaeological phase designation (the Orientalizing period) and as a general label of cultural interactions (similar to Hellenizing or Romanizing). Both uses have received strong criticism and calls for abandonment of the term. The Orientalizing period (the later 8th and 7th centuries bce) marks a time when borrowed eastern imagery, artistic technologies, and cultural practices were being appropriated, adapted, and incorporated into local cultures in the Aegean, central, and western Mediterranean. Sustained analysis of this material culture has provided greater understanding of the dynamics of these interactions and, more importantly, has led to exploration of the uses these borrowings and adaptations served within local communities. Many recent art and archaeology survey books (possibly reacting to critique of the term) no longer include an Orientalizing period, subsuming it into the Greek Archaic period. Orientalizing (a term similar to Hellenizing and Romanizing) sometimes describes a broader and more sustained interaction. Problems in implied agency and assumptions embedded in this term as revealed in critiques of orientalism have led to challenges about its efficacy.
- Greek Material Culture: Bronze Age
- Near East
Updated in this version
Article rewritten to reflect current scholarship.
Cultural interactions between the ancient Near East and Greece (also Etruria and Iberia) are evident in local artistic responses as well as broader social changes. The term Orientalizing (in two primary uses) has described this interaction: first, the Orientalizing period that designates an art historical or archaeological phase and style (c. 750–600 bce) during which eastern objects, images, technologies, and ideas were appropriated and reworked; and second, Orientalizing (also Orientalization) that can describe a more chronologically sustained and expansive intercultural engagement. Critique of labelling Near Eastern societies, oriental, as well as poorly defined and shifting uses of the term have led to calls for its abandonment.
Greek Identity and Perception of the East
The Homeric epics suggest that people around the Aegean Sea (Greece) perceived themselves in distinction from others, for example, Trojans, Sidonians, and Phoenicians.1 Yet it is unlikely that communities to the east were considered part of a collective Orient or Near Eastern culture during the 8th and 7th centuries bce. There is also little evidence that Aegean communities at this time identified themselves as a distinct cultural group (i.e., Greek or Hellenic). Hellenic identity begins to appear gradually from Homer through the 6th century bce, becoming more pronounced following the Persian Wars.2 Greek and Near Eastern, then, are both problematic terms.3 Nevertheless, Homer and archaeological remains indicate that Aegean communities were aware of and interacting with people to their east, acquiring objects and materials, appropriating technological skills, writing, and, more broadly perhaps, borrowing ideas about religion, literature, and science.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries ce, scholars outlined a phase of Greek (also Etruscan and Iberian) artistic and cultural development (c. 750–600 bce) during which eastern imports, imagery, and technologies became prominent.4 Citing Homer (Il. 23.704–745; Od. 13.256ff., 15.415ff.), agents for the transmission of objects and imagery were initially identified as Phoenicians.5
The term, Orientalizing period, then, described a transitional phase between the Late Geometric and Archaic periods during which interactions between Greece and the Near East generated significant cultural changes. Study of metalwork and sculpture in Crete and elsewhere, as well as pottery decoration in Corinth, Athens, and eastern Greece, characterized an Orientalizing style (see Figures 1 and 2).6 In pottery, elements of this style included plant and animal imagery (e.g., lotus, palmette, lion, sphinx, griffin), with eastern prototypes often found on imported metalwork such as relief-decorated bowls.7 In sculpture, a borrowed eastern technology for mould-made terracotta introduced a local figural style labelled daedalic that also appeared in other media (such as stone and ivory).8
During the 20th century, studies of contacts and exchanges, focused especially on bronzes (e.g., relief decorated bowls and cauldron attachments; ivory, pottery, stone sculpture, and architecture, as well as iconographical borrowing; see Figure 3). Scholars also noted new artistic technologies appearing in Greece as well as the transformation of imagery in its new settings.9 Often they concluded that local cultures in the process of borrowing made substantial alterations, thus appropriating and creating forms that were uniquely their own. Questions about agency and exchange continued to be asked and encounters with eastern imagery were proposed in partial explanation for the creation of visual narrative and mythological storytelling in Greek art.10
Studies of bronze bowls (for example) demonstrate some of the questions posed and progress made in analysis of these cultural interactions. Imported relief decorated bowls (one likely vector for eastern imagery that was borrowed and adapted) are known from Cyprus, Crete, Greece, and Etruria (see Figure 4).11 Scholars initially sought to identify their places of origin in the Near East (Phoenicia, North Syria, the Levant) and often analysed their movement in terms of trade. The precise source(s) of their Near Eastern production has proven difficult to locate.12 In addition, recent studies of the Mediterranean Sea have emphasized that it fostered connections among communities (that were likely multicultural) and that the carriers of goods were probably also multi-ethnic.13 Seeking the origin of the bowls or the identity of traders (although important) has proven a diversion from understanding how these bronze bowls were used within Greek communities.
Increasingly, studies of eastern objects found in the west emphasize the contexts of object use and cycles of consumption, that is, the social biography of an object.14 Appropriation and uses of bronze bowls in the west are regionally distinctive and also differ at individual sites. In Greece, they are dedicated in sanctuaries (Delphi, Olympia, and the Idaean Cave) and are also used in graves (Lefkandi, Knossos, Eleutherna, and Athens), sometimes as stoppers for cremation urns.15 A few bowls have Phoenician inscriptions that when compared to their find contexts indicate the objects were centuries old when deposited.16 Scholars are exploring patterns of acquisition and whether their uses in sanctuaries and burials also introduced new social practices and forms of display.17 They are also reformulating traditions of iconographical analyses to examine whether mixed visual cultures existed and to consider how local viewers might understand and make use of the foreign imagery found on imported objects.18
In addition to imports, Greek sites, such as the Idaean Cave in Crete and Olympia, also preserve close imitations and freer adaptations of eastern objects. The Idaean Cave bronze tympanum (Figure 5) showing winged eastern genii beating cymbals (possibly to drown out the cries of the infant Zeus who was raised at the Cave) seems purpose-made for a cult at the site.19 At Olympia an imported eastern bronze relief was combined with locally made reliefs and wrapped around a wooden core (sphyrelaton) to create a statue of a goddess (Figure 6).20 Such locally made adaptations raise questions about whether itinerant craftsmen visited and trained local artisans or whether there in fact were immigrant populations, and also whether these groups of people might have played a role in the transmission of foreign social practices and ideas.21
Results of detailed inquiry about cultural interactions from objects, individual sites, and regions now reveal that contacts with the Near East extended back to at least the 10th century (at Lefkandi and Knossos) and may, in fact, have been uninterrupted from the Late Bronze Age. Interactions were regionally distinctive and even site-specific; they went beyond artistic and technological change to include cultural practices. All these discoveries challenge the boundaries of a traditional Orientalizing period and yet also underscore the importance of studying these interactions.
At the same time, not just physical objects showed signs of these complex intercultural interactions, but so did other elements of Greek culture such as the borrowing of the Phoenician alphabet to write Greek as well as aspects of early literature and religion.22 The term Orientalizing (also Orientalization), as some observe, is used more broadly to describe a process of active transformation of eastern cultural elements by people in non-eastern locations.23
The term Orientalizing has come under sustained criticism. Problems with “orientalizing” are threefold: the imposition of a view from the west; the treatment of all parts of “the east” as the same, and lack of clarity about agency. Following Said’s influential publication, Orientalism, researchers acknowledged that the label Orientalizing perpetuated western assumptions of superiority and other biases about an imagined Orient.24 The term lumped together numerous different cultural groups, largely ignoring the nuances of political and cultural circumstances, and it created a fictive and non-existent east.25 The suffixes “-izing” and “-ization” also implied actions in only one direction, often with limited agency. These terms could subsume both process and outcome. Leading to an introverted (almost circular) reasoning, the objects and practices are part of identifying the phenomenon about which they provide evidence.26 Finally, when limited to the 8th and 7th centuries bce, the terms fail to acknowledge earlier (i.e., Late Bronze Age) or later (i.e., Classical) interactions.27 While there are substantial problems with the term Orientalizing, it remains important to understand as fully as possible the cultural interactions and changing uses of eastern materials within Greek culture.
- Aruz, Joan, and Michael Seymour, eds. Assyria to Iberia: Art and Culture in the Iron Age. Metropolitan Museum of Art Symposia. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2016.
- Aubet, Marie Eugenia. The Phoenicians and the West: Politics, Colonies and Trade. Translated by Mary Turton. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
- Boardman, John. The Greeks Overseas: Their Early Colonies and Trade. 4th ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 1999.
- Broodbank, Cyprian. The Making of the Middle Sea. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
- Burkert, Walter. The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age. Translated by Walter Burkert and Margaret E. Pinder. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.
- Demargne, Pierre. La Crète dédalique: études sur les origins d’une renaissance. Paris: E. de Boccard, 1947.
- Dunbabin, Thomas J. Greeks and Their Eastern Neighbors: Studies in the Relations between Greece and the Countries of the Near East in the Eighth and Seventh Centuries B.C. London: Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies, 1957.
- Gunter, Ann C. Greek Art and the Orient. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
- Hall, Edith. Inventing the Barbarian. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
- Hall, Jonathan. Hellenicity between Ethnicity and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.
- Horden, Peregrine, and Nicholas Purcell. The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History. Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000.
- Jeffery, Lilian H. The Local Scripts of Archaic Greece. 2nd ed. Revised with addenda by Alan W. Johnston. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.
- Miller, Margaret C. Athens and Persia in the Fifth Century B.C.: A Study in Cultural Receptivity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
- Morris, Ian. Archaeology as Cultural History: Words and Things in Early Iron Age Greece. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999.
- Morris, Sarah P. Daidalos and the Origins of Greek Art. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.
- Poulsen, Friedrich. Der Orient und die frühgriechische Kunst. Leipzig: B.G. Teubner, 1912.
- Riva, Corinna, and Nicholas C. Vella, eds. Debating Orientalization: Multidisciplinary Approaches to Change in the Ancient Mediterranean. Monographs in Mediterranean Archaeology 10. London: Equinox, 2006.
- Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1978.
- West, Martin L. The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.
- Winter, Irene J. “Homer’s Phoenicians: History, Ethnography, or Literary Trope? (A Perspective on Orientalism).” In The Ages of Homer: A Tribute to Emily Townsend Vermeule. Edited by Jane B. Carter and Sarah P. Morris, 247–271. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995.
1. Winter proposes that Phoenicians in Homer are a literary creation describing easterners.
2. Edith Hall and Jonathan Hall see these developments occurring especially after the Persian Wars. Others, such as Susan Sherratt, view Homer as the beginning of a prolonged process of ethnogenesis. Susan Sherratt, “Greeks and Phoenicians: Perceptions of Trade and Traders in the Early First Millennium BC,” in Social Archaeologies of Trade and Exchange: Exploring Relationships among People, Places and Things, ed. Anne Agbe-Davies and Alexander A. Bauer (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2010), 119–142.
3. Ann C. Gunter, Greek Art and the Orient (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 2, 51–57; Corinna Riva and Nicholas C. Vella, eds., Debating Orientalization: Multidisciplinary Approaches to Change in the Ancient Mediterranean, Monographs in Mediterranean Archaeology 10 (London: Equinox, 2006), 9–13.
4. Alexander Conze, Zur Geschichte der Anfänge griechischer Kunst (Vienna: Karl Gerold’s Sohn, 1870); Friedrich Poulsen, Der Orient und die frühgriechische Kunst (Leipzig: B.G. Teubner, 1912); Riva and Vella, Debating Orientalization, 4–7 for a summary; Gunter, Greek Art and the Orient, 61–70.
5. On Phoenicians in Homer, see Irene J. Winter, “Homer’s Phoenicians: History, Ethnography, or Literary Trope? (A Perspective on Orientalism),” in The Ages of Homer: A Tribute to Emily Townsend Vermeule, ed. Jane B. Carter and Sarah P. Morris (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995), 247–271; on Phoenicians in the Mediterranean, see Marie Eugenia Aubet, The Phoenicians and the West: Politics, Colonies and Trade, transl. Mary Turton, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001). Gunter, Greek Art and the Orient, 12 now suggests that eastern luxury objects found in the Aegean world are linked to the expansion of the Neo-Assyrian empire. See also, Oxford Handbook of Phoenician Punic Mediterranean, esp. ch. 24, “Levantine Art in the ‘Orientalizing’ Period.”
6. Frederico Halbherr and Paulo Orsi, “Antichità dell’antro di Zeus Ideo in Creta,” Museo Italiano di Antichtà Classica 2 (1888): 689–904; Emil Kunze, Kretische Bronzereliefs (Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 1931); Pierre Demargne, La Crète dédalique: études sur les origins d’une renaissance (Paris: E. de Boccard, 1947); Humfry G. Payne, Necrocorinthia: A Study of Corinthian Art in the Archaic Period (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1931).
7. Glenn Markoe, “The Emergence of Orientalizing in Greek Art: Some Observations on the Interchange between Greeks and Phoenicians in the Eighth and Seventh Centuries B.C.,” BASOR 301 (1996): 47–67.
9. For examples of this early work, see Thomas J. Dunbabin, Greeks and Their Eastern Neighbors: Studies in the Relations between Greece and the Countries of the Near East in the Eighth and Seventh Centuries B.C. (London: Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies, 1957) and John Boardman, The Greeks Overseas: Their Early Colonies and Trade, 4th ed. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1999). New artistic techniques included thin hammered bronze reliefs with repoussé and chasing for decoration, gold filigree and granulation jewellery, mould-made terracotta, as well as techniques of stone carving and temple building.
10. George M. A. Hanfmann, “Narration in Greek Art,” American Journal of Archaeology 61 (1957): 71–78; John Carter, “The Beginning of Narrative Art in the Greek Geometric World,” British School at Athens Annual 67 (1972): 25–58; Gudrun Ahlberg-Cornell, Fighting on Land and Sea in Greek Geometric Art (Stockholm: Swedish Institute at Athens, 1971). See now Mark Stansbury-O’Donnell, Pictorial Narrative in Ancient Greek Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) and Susan Langdon, Art and Identity in Dark Age Greece, 1100–700 B.C.E. (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
11. The primary publication for the relief bowls is Glenn Markoe, Phoenician Bronze and Silver Bowls from Cyprus and the Mediterranean, University of California Classical Studies 26 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985). See also, Hartmut Matthäus, “Phoenician Metal-Work Up to Date: Phoenician Metal Bowls with Figural Decoration in the Eastern Mediterranean, Near and Middle East and North Africa,” in Interconnections in the Eastern Mediterranean: Lebanon in the Bronze and Iron Ages, ed. Anne-Marie Maïla-Afeiche (Beirut: Ministère de la Culture, Dir. Générale des Antiquités, 2009), 439–452. On the vessels in general, Hartmut Matthäus and Christoff Vonhoff, “Bronze Vessels,” in A Companion to the Archaeology of Early Greece and the Mediterranean Vol. 1, ed. Irene S. Lemos and Antonis Kotsonas (London: John Wiley and Sons, 2020), 480–490.
12. Gunter, Greek Art and the Orient, 80–83.
13. Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell, The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History (Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000); Cyprian Broodbank, The Making of the Middle Sea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) on the archaeology. Ian Morris, “Mediterraneanization,” Mediterranean Historical Review 18 (2003): 30–55.
14. Arjun Appadurai, ed., The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986). Other important theoretical approaches to the role of objects in social interactions: Alfred Gell, Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998); Mary W. Helms, Craft and the Kingly Ideal: Art, Trade, and Power (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993); and Nicholas Thomas, Entangled Objects: Exchange, Material Culture, and Colonialism in the Pacific (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991).
15. The bronze bowls with references: Matthäus and Vonhoff, “Bronze Vessels,” 485–487. For eastern bronzes in sanctuaries, Olympia: Brigitte Borrell and Dessa Rittig, Orientalische und griechische Bronzereliefs aus Olympia: Der Fundkomplex aus Brunnen 17, Olympische Forschungen 26 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1999); Idaean Cave: Kunze, Kretische Bronzereliefs; Hartmut Matthäus, “Die Idäische Zeus-Grotte auf Kreta: Griechenland und der vordere Orient im Frühe I. Jarhrtausend v. Chr.,” Archäologischer Anzeiger 16 (2000): 517–547; more generally, Imma Kilian-Dirlmeier, “Fremde Weihungen in griechischen Heiligtümern von 8. Bis zum Beginn des 7. Jahrhunderts v. Chr.,” Jahrbuch des Römisch-germanischen Zentralmuseums, Mainz 32 (1985): 215–254; Eva Braun-Holzinger and Ellen Rehm, Orientalischer Import in Griechenland im frühen 1. Jahrtausend v. Chr., Alter Orient und Altes Testament 328 (Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2005).
16. Feldman in Joan Aruz and Michael Seymour, eds., Assyria to Iberia: Art and Culture in the Iron Age, Metropolitan Museum of Art Symposia (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2016), 229–231 for examples and bibliography.
17. For example, were these objects treasured heirlooms (passed down within families) or perhaps more likely antiques in secondary circulation? And did the bowls move within networks of gift-giving or as war booty or exchange? Gunter, Greek Art and the Orient, 132–137; Vella suggests that in the Mediterranean these bowls serve as boundary objects, whose imagery can have different meanings in different social worlds, yet their structure is recognizable to all and so it can serve as a means of translation. Nicholas Vella, “‘Phoenician’ Metal Bowls: Boundary Objects in the Archaic Period,” Bollettino di Archeologia on line I: Volume special A/A2/5 (2010): 22–37. Feldman, however, describes the eastern circulation of bronze bowls as part of luxury goods moving within closed networks of gift exchange and perhaps using mixed imagery and iconography as markers of identity and collective memory. Marian H. Feldman, Communities of Style: Portable Luxury Arts, Identity and Collective Memory in the Iron Age Levant (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014); Gunter, Greek Art and the Orient, 124–154.
18. Michael Shanks, Art and the Early Greek State: An Interpretive Archaeology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Nassos Papalexandrou, “Are There Hybrid Visual Cultures? Reflections on the Orientalizing Phenomena in the Mediterranean of the Early First Millennium bce,” Ars Orientalis 38 (2010): 31–48; Thomas Brisart, Un art citoyen: recherches sur l’orientalisation des artisanats en Grèce proto-archaïque (Brussels: Académie royale de Belgique, Classe des lettres, 2011).
19. Kunze, Kretische Bronzereliefs; Eva Braun-Holzinger and Hartmut Matthäus, “Schutzgenien in Mesopotamien und den angrenzenden Gebiete: Ihre Übernahme in Zypern, Kreta und Griechenland,” in Images as Media: Sources for the Cultural History of the Near East and the Eastern Mediterranean (1st Millennium bce), ed. Christoph Uehlinger, Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis 175 (Fribourg: University Press, 2000), 298–310; Braun-Holzinger and Rehm, Orientalischer Import, 95–102.
20. Gunter, Greek Art and the Orient, 130 with references; Borrell and Rittig, Orientalische und griechische Bronzereliefs aus Olympia, 269–282.
21. Riva and Vella, Debating Orientalization, 9 for the bibliography suggesting itinerant craftsmen (including Poulsen, Burkert, Markoe, et al.). The Kommos tripillar shrine and funerary cippi from Knossos and Eleutherna are taken as evidence for resident Phoenicians in Crete. For the bibliography see, Judith Muñoz Sogas, “Was Knossos a Home for Phoenician Traders?,” in Greek Art in Motion: Studies in Honour of Sir John Boardman on the Occasion of His 90th Birthday, ed. Rui Morais, Delfim Leão, and Diana Rodríguez Pérez (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2019), 408–416.
22. Lilian H. Jeffery, The Local Scripts of Archaic Greece, 2nd ed., revised with addenda by Alan W. Johnston (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990); Martin L. West, The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997); Walter Burkert, The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age, transl. Walter Burkert and Margaret E. Pinder (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992); Jan N. Bremmer, Greek Religion and Culture, the Bible, and the Ancient Near East, Jerusalem Studies in Comparative Religion 8 (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2008).
23. Osborne in Riva and Vella, Debating Orientalization.
24. One reaction was Martin Bernal’s Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, 3 vols (New Brunswick: Rutgers University, 1987–2006). Bernal rightly argued for Afro-Asiatic elements as part of Greek civilization and justly criticized the Eurocentric and racist views of 19th-century scholars. However, the quality of Bernal’s scholarship has received strong criticism. For example, Mary R. Lefkowitz and Guy M. Rodgers, eds., Black Athena Revisited (Charlotte: The University of North Carolina Press, 1996).
25. Gunter, Greek Art and the Orient, 84ff.
26. Purcell in Riva and Vella, Debating Orientalization, 24.
27. For example, Sarah Morris, Daidalos and the Origins of Greek Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992) argues that Greece was always “orientalizing,” while Margaret Miller, Athens and Persia in the Fifth Century B.C.: A Study in Cultural Receptivity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997) explores through material culture the complex classical engagement with the east in Athens.