‘Ugly as Sin’

Monsters and barbarians in Late Antiquity

Authored by: Maja Kominko

The Routledge Handbook of Identity and the Environment in the Classical and Medieval Worlds

Print publication date:  December  2015
Online publication date:  January  2016

Print ISBN: 9780415738057
eBook ISBN: 9781315686622
Adobe ISBN: 9781317415701


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The arrival of Christianity did not cause major upheavals to the classical conception of physical geography. 1 It did, nevertheless, necessitate revisions to ethnography. A professed universalism of the new religion eroded the cornerstone of classical ethnography, the contrast between the civilized society and the wild, uncivilized barbarian. 2 Moreover, Christian belief in the unity of a human race, originating from Adam and redeemed by Christ, meant that the existence of the most peripheral peoples, often presented in antiquity as monstrous, posed a problem. 3 Christian authors made efforts to bring the heritage of classical ethnography in line with the authority of the Bible. Nevertheless, in discussing alien races, both human and monstrous, they continued to employ classical rhetoric, and interpret any departure from the norm of physical appearance as morally suspicious. In what follows, I briefly trace themes from classical ethnography as they were transformed and reused by Christian authors. I focus in particular on the continuity of rhetorical tools employed to designate and denigrate the ‘other’ barbarian: monstrous, pagan, and even demonic.

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