Weak, Perfidious, Wicked, and Cunning: The Many Perceptions of the "Other"

Ancient Greeks, Ancient Romans, and Europeans of the High Middle Ages all viewed certain groups of outsiders as not belonging to their society. Historians call these enemy groups “the Others.” In Ancient Greece, citizens despised the Other groups for mostly political reasons and rarely described outsiders as being genuinely villainous. In their literature, Ancient Romans used demeaning adjectives to describe the Others that threatened to attack the empire and to disgrace the honor of Rome that Augustus symbolized, but they were not necessarily discriminating by race or religion. On the other hand, the Catholic Christians of the Middle Ages demonized their enemies for religious and racial reasons and assigned scores of negative stereotypes to the Others. Thus, what it means to be the Other group is not the same in any two societies. The Greek, Roman, and Medieval European conceptions of what constituted Otherness were all somewhat different, ranging from purely political factors to highly religious ones, and the characterizations of the Others and rationale for fighting them depended upon the reasons the Others were labeled as such.

In Thucydides’ 415 B.C. work entitled History of the Peloponnesian War, the Ancient Greek writer described a conflict between Athenians and islanders. The Melians, who were at first neutral toward the Athenians, “assumed an attitude of open hostility” against the conquerors once the Athenians started attacking their island.[1] The Melians did not obey Athenians’ demands to be absorbed into their empire. Instead, they reasoned that “it were surely great baseness and cowardice in us who are still free not to try everything that can be tried, before submitting to [Athens’] yoke.”[2] Thus, they preferred to fight for their sovereignty instead of bowing down to the growing empire. This separated them from Athenian society since they were victims of oppression that valued independence while the Athenians were oppressors that valued domination. The Melians paid dearly for their refusal to comply with Athenians’ orders. After putting down the Melian rebels, the Athenians slaughtered all the men and sold the women and children into slavery. After eradicating or displacing all the Melians, the Athenians chose to live on the island themselves.[3]

These drastic actions cause readers of the Melian Debate to ask why the Athenians felt the need to colonize Melos in the first place. The answer is that Athenians categorized Melians as Others and, therefore, enemies. The Melians told the Athenians it was in Athens’ best interest to not declare war since all the other neutral Greek territories would turn against them after seeing how unreasonable Athenians were. The Athenians replied that it would tarnish their image if the islanders, who were “weaker than others” opposing the Athenians, could “succeed in baffling the masters of the sea.”[4] The neutral “continentals,” the Athenians said, “generally give us but little alarm” because they had enough means to not become desperate enough to strike against the Athenians. The islanders, however, who were “smarting under the yoke . . . would be the most likely to take a rash step and lead themselves and us into obvious danger.”[5]

On one side of the conflict stood the citizens of Greece proper, with whom the Athenians identified. They saw themselves as having enough wealth and means to not make “rash” decisions. This left the Melians and other islanders on the Other side. As is evident by the phrase “under the yoke,” the continentals viewed the islanders as being the weak and oppressed peoples. Supposedly, they would have likely made a bad decision since they were poor and desperate. Although it is clear that the continentals acted condescending toward islanders and had no qualms about destroying entire populations of them, the Athenians’ placement of the islanders into the Other group was purely political. The islanders were not seen as being treacherous wrongdoers by nature. Instead, continentals perceived them as victims of circumstance who might, therefore, rebel against the powerful continentals.

Romans in First Century A.D. Rome classified their Others as such because they did not share in the vision of Roman glory. The Others the Roman author Horace identified in his work entitled Odes include the Parthians, the Getae, the Seres, and the people from the Danube and Don rivers. Horace believed these groups sought to decrease the power of the Romans’ deified emperor, Augustus. This is apparent when he asserts that the enemies threatening to reduce Rome to rubble would not “violate the orders of Caesar”[6] as long as Augustus was in power. In Horace’s mind, the Others would try to halt Rome’s accumulation of power but could not succeed.

This idea of Roman grandeur that united citizens of the empire against the Others is illustrated in Horace’s depiction of Augustus. Horace wrote that Augustus “wiped away our sins and revived the ancient virtues through which the Latin name and the might of Italy waxed great.”[7] The idea that Augustus “revived the ancient virtues” indicates a few things. First of all, it demonstrates a belief that at some point in time Rome had been the site of great honor and achievement. Yet with the verb “revive” one can see that Horace believed these virtues had faded away for some time. The glory of Rome vanished during a long period of civil wars. As a result of their struggles with each other, the Romans were too weak to adequately defend themselves against the Others that coveted their power. During this time of weakness, the “proud” and “perfidious”[8] Parthians stole the Roman standards after defeating Mark Antony. Horace used Augustus’ returning of the Roman banners and flags from the Parthians after a battle as a symbol for the return of Roman prestige that the Others had temporarily stolen from them.

Instead of being united by power and means like the Greek continentals or by adoration for their emperor like the Romans, the Christians based their alliance on their shared religion. Fulcher of Chartes’ Chronicle of the First Crusade served in the 12th Century as a call to action for Christians regardless of social class. Across Western Europe they joined in the movement to assist the Eastern Christians by driving the Muslims from the Holy Land. In modern times, however, it acts as a bit of insight into a Medieval person’s prejudiced manner of thinking about Turks, the foremost Other target of the Crusades.

The Christians’ lack of real knowledge about their enemies becomes obvious when one reads Fulcher’s claim that Turks are “a race of Persians.” The Turks were an entirely different ethnicity than the Persians from a completely different part of Asia, but the Christians of the time were content to make ignorant generalizations. Christians assumed that Turks were a “wicked race” and were “despised, degenerate, and enslaved by demons.”[9] It is difficult to believe that such a blatantly racist and ethnocentric point of view pervaded among the general public. Yet due to the Pope’s and other Medieval church officials’ massive power, wars against the Others based on religious and racial differences persisted from the 11th to 13th centuries. Contemporaries perceived the Crusades as being noble, valiant efforts to purge the Holy Land of its infidel captors even though the Christians did not have much long-lasting success.

The Turks were not the only Other group the Catholics targeted. The second primary victim of the Crusades were the Albigensians or Cathars, whose dualistic beliefs and general distrust in the Catholic church caused the Catholics to label them as dangerous heretics whose blasphemous words could corrupt Christian minds. Unlike how the Turks posed an external threat to Christians by capturing the Holy Lands and attacking the Orthodox Christians, the Catholics viewed the Cathars as internal problems that were potential agents of Christian disunity. Albigensians’ supposedly unsound theological principles could have led formerly obedient Catholics to question papal authority. As a result, the Church took action against the heretics not only because Catholics viewed Cathars as being theologically incorrect and deserving punishment for their sins, but also because Catholic authorities could lose power if Christians began accepting new ideas.

Written between 1213 and 1215, Peter of Les Vaux-de-Cernay’s The History of the Albigensian Crusade tells the story of Brother Peter of Castelnau’s demise. The author alleged that Raymond VI, the count of Toulouse, instructed men to murder Peter during his visit to Toulouse. Although it is highly doubtful that Raymond VI actually ordered the death of Brother Peter, the Count was likely accused of this because he was a known protector of Albigensians. The significance of the story is that it set off a chain reaction of events that led to Peter of Les Vaux-de-Cernay’s call to action to avenge Brother Peter’s death. Just as Western Europeans responded to the call to crusade against Turks, they also began fighting the Albigensians.[10]

Peter of Les Vaux-de-Cernay used many unflattering terms to describe the Albigensians, which include “crafty and cunning, slippery and unreliable.”[11] These adjectives describe the qualities the author believed the Albigensians use to trick innocent Christians into becoming Cathars. To Peter, the conflict between the Catholics and the Albigensians is explained in as simple of a phrase as “good confronting evil.” In the Catholics’ eyes, the Others were not even considered to be human, but actually “attendants of Satan” that were to be rooted out at all costs.[12]

The idea of the Other exists in many, if not all societies, three of which include the ones just described. In each situation, the society defined the Other differently. To the Greeks, the Others were relatively poor islanders without the means of the residents of the continent. To the Romans, the Others were all who posed a threat to Augustus’ attempts to regain Roman glory, which the recovered military standards from the Parthians came to be symbolize. To the Catholics of the High Middle Ages, the Others were Muslims dominating the Holy Land and Cathars preaching new ideas that attracted former Catholics.

Although it is true that each of the outsider groups mentioned were different in some way, these conflicts all have at least one thing in common. They all offer societies a chance to see life from a new perspective. The Melians could have served as a lesson to the Athenians to choose friendly neutrality over an all-or-nothing attitude of being either allies or foes. This could have made the Greek world look more favorably toward the Athenians instead of thinking of them as imperialists snatching small islands just because they could. The Albigensians could have served as a lesson to the Catholics that the same scripture can be interpreted in several ways. This could have set a standard for religious understanding and prevented a lot of violence in the world today. Instead, the conflicting groups refused to compromise or even listen to each other since both sides were so convinced that they were in the right. In all of these cases, narrow-minded attitudes benefitted no one and actually created problems for all parties involved. One can see proof of this idea in the eventual outcome of all the conflicts: enough groups turned against the imperialistic Athenians to finally defeat them; Rome eventually fell, largely due to invasions from some of the same Other groups Horace believed could never defeat Rome; and the Catholic Church lost power during the Reformation after Martin Luther protested the Church’s rampant corruption.

[1] “The Melian Debate, 415 B.C.” in Wiesner, Ruff, Wheeler, eds. Discovering the Western Past: A Look at the Evidence, Volume I. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004, pg. 62.

[2] Ibid., pg. 63.

[3] Ibid., pg. 64

[4] Ibid., pg. 62

[5] Ibid., pg. 62-63.

[6] “From Horace, Odes” in Wiesner, Ruff, Wheeler, eds. Discovering the Western Past: A Look at the Evidence, Volume I. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004, pg. 86.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “From Fulcher of Chartes, Chronicle of the First Crusade” in Wiesner, Ruff, Wheeler, eds. Discovering the Western Past: A Look at the Evidence, Volume I. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004, pg. 187.

[10] “Peter of Les Vaux-de-Cernay, The History of the Albigensian Crusade” in Wiesner, Ruff, Wheeler, eds. Discovering the Western Past: A Look at the Evidence, Volume I. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004, pg. 196.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., pg. 197