Multiculturalism in the Ancient World



The History of Herodotus belongs on every substantive reader’s bookshelf and should be required reading on all Cultural Studies syllabi. Canada and other western nations arrogate multiculturalism as a novel watershed of the enlightened state of modern capitalist democracy. However, Herodotus reveals the roots of multiculturalism had long been in development over 2500 years ago in the regions now comprising Mediterranean Europe, Eastern Europe, Turkey, Transcaucasia, the Middle East, the Near East, and Northern Africa. Multiculturalism is defined as the preservation and harmonious intermingling of different cultures within a single unified nation, a definition that wouldn’t apply to the generally internecine mottle of societies Herodotus depicts. Nonetheless, we learn in The History that the Greeks adopted most of their Olympian gods from the Egyptians, as when Egyptian Amun became Greek Zeus. Herodotus goes so far as to claim that while his contemporary Greece was borne of Dorian invasions, the chiefs of the Dorians were “really genuine Egyptians.” Similarly, when one culture conquered another, the victor would assume the most practical customs and innovations of the loser, as when the Greeks learned the art of four-horse chariot racing from the Libyans. Now, The History must be taken with a grain of salt, since it’s obvious that vast portions of it are mythopoetic, but regardless, the spirit of Herodotus’s inquiries attest to a notion of ethnic and cultural identity as infinitely mixed and malleable, and it seems that not even the Greeks held the privilege of calling themselves pure, unique or superior. In fact, not only does The History seem to be preoccupied with elucidating the similarities and confluences in the religious and cultural customs of the ethnically diverse tribes inhabiting these regions, but examples also abound of Arab, Persian, Greek and African tribes interbreeding, as when Herodotus alleges that King Darius of Persia made a habit of giving Greek kings who abandoned their kingdoms the honour of ruling Persian cities and miscegenating with Persian women (though their children Darius insisted were to be regarded only as “Persian”). Why does all this matter? It seems to me that if the majority of us were to inhere the simple fact that in every one of us is a Persian, an Arab, a Jew, an African and a Caucasian, perhaps… No, it wouldn’t slake the murderous thirst with which we covet one another’s stuff, but at least we might all be a quantum less xenophobic. Meantime, since western civilization is, in the main, the progeny of all of the ethnic-religious-cultural mongrelizing defined in his History, Herodotus puts to shame any delusion of ethnic or cultural supremacy and the fallacy that multiculturalism has modern provenance.  

— Marko Sijan