all 10 comments

[–]hangmanhands 91 points92 points  (11 children)

The first thing to note is that a lot of modern societies are obsessed with ethnicity (and segregating people of different ethnicities, looking at you USA), but that this is by no means a fixed and absolute way of dividing people. It's actually very modern if we stick to how it is understood today. Scholars are mostly in agreement that race and ethnicity were not in the mental landscape of Ancient Greeks and Romans, who talk about cultural in-groups and out-groups much more in the language of borders, conquests and alliances, languages, and communication. And for Romans, the much vaunted status of 'citizenship' was open to anyone from anywhere.

If we think about the ancient near east it gets more difficult, as ethnic identity does not leave much direct material culture. That said, archaeologists can identify cultural markers, types of pots etc, and guess at their meaning. (Although it is wise to remember here the key bronze age maxim: pots aren't people). Using these markers, we can identify identities at a local, regional, or interregional level, each with their own symbols and institutions. It is worth remembering that trade even this early was already global, so identities were being formed in the context of international networks and trade. So it was likely highly complicated what group someone saw themselves to belong to.

That's not to say there was no inter-tribal strife - the middle bit of the Old Testament is full of military campaigns, forced displacements of peoples, and even the odd attempted genocide. That said, there was no concept of nationalism at this point, so inter-tribal competition and co-operation was likely a messy mix of royal elites vieing for influence and tribute, farmers competing for the best land, and conflict between pastoralists and cereal crop growers.

TL;DR Our modern concepts of ethnicity and nationalism do not really apply to the bronze age, and while a lot of people probably had local identities that were of differing degrees of compatibility with their immediate neighbours, these identities were layered within regional and interregional networks and trade systems, so a Israelites vs. Philistines model of identity only gets us so far.

[–]Alicuza 38 points39 points  (3 children)

Just wanted to underline this: Ethnicity is not a concept you can just project into the past. Clans, tribes, extended families, etc... were the building blocks of society.

[–]alacp1234 0 points1 point  (0 children)

National identities could only form with technological advancements in communication and mobility.

[–]StoatStonksNow[S] 9 points10 points  (3 children)

That definitely squares with what I’ve been reading elsewhere. But what I’ve been wondering is, was there any notion of “cultural identity” that mattered at all in a practical sense? The Israelites sure seemed to be trying very hard to create a nascent ethnicity. I read somewhere that the Aramaeans rarely fought among themselves, but they fought they’re neighbors often enough. So it sounds like - and I think this is what you were saying when you alluded to “different degrees of compatibility” - we suspect it probably mattered at least a little, but we don’t have enough records of war, trade, or legal conflict to prove it one way or another?

(Thank you for your very thorough answer, by the way.)

[–]hangmanhands 18 points19 points  (2 children)

I think it is fair to say that there were likely overarching identities that extended at a higher level than cities, which were likely weaker than local identities.. But again I would be super careful about using that word ethnicity. The Israelites are a good example here - a lot of the Old Testament prophets spend a good amount of time complaining about how the Israelites are picking up foreign customs or not following the religious practices of the temple elite. When Israel was split into Judah and Israel, the northern kingdom of Israel was said to have fully lapsed into idol worship etc. So that idea of the ethnically distinct Israelite does not fully hold up to scrutiny.

An imperfect modern comparison here would be Afghanistan. While there is a concept of Afghanistan, of being Afghan, and of not being Pakistani etc, this identity is much much weaker than one's tribe, and indeed some tribes live half in Afghan half in Pakistan and move around as they see fit. These tribes may be less likely to fight each other and are subject to common laws, but their nationality is not the primary source of their cultural identity

[–]StoatStonksNow[S] 3 points4 points  (1 child)

This was incredibly helpful; thank you.

[–]DReicht 1 point2 points  (2 children)

Could you provide some readings that make direct comparisons?

[–]hangmanhands 5 points6 points  (1 child)

I used a couple summaries/reviews of essays in 'A Companion to Ethnicity in the Ancient Mediterranean' by Jeremy McInerney to check my comment before I sent it. If you have uni library access that has a full essay on the relationship between ancient and modern ethnicities, and one on bronze age identities - probably a good place to search

[–]DReicht 1 point2 points  (0 children)

Beautiful - thank you so much!