When Greece became a Roman protectorate the Romans imitated the Greeks. They adopted their strategies of expansion, arts, gods, rituals and even dress […]. Likewise, in the nineteenth century both Britain and France displayed continuities with the classical powers, adopting their ideas and instigating their methods of conquest and rule.

Amar Acheraïou

« Quand la Grèce devint un protectorat romain, les Romains imitèrent les Grecs. Ils adoptèrent leurs stratégies d’expansion, arts, dieux, rituels et même vêtements […]. De même, au dix-neuvième siècle, la Grande-Bretagne et la France ont, l’une et l’autre, montré des continuités avec les puissances classiques, adoptant leurs idées et instigant leurs méthodes de conquête et de domination. »

Virgile lisant l’Énéide à Auguste et Octavia (Jean-Joseph Taillasson, 1787)

              Colonialism is an immemorial phenomenon. All through history it has taken various forms and has been highly parasitic.

Following Edward Said’s pioneering Orientalism (1978), a substantial body of scholarship was produced in the field of postcolonial studies. Like the influential Orientalism, most of the works in this area of research centre on nineteenth-century imperialism, with little or no reference to former ideological formations to assess modern colonial ideology. While they remain on the whole heavily indebted to Said’s insights, these studies tend to move from Orientalism’s sweeping, often monolithic representations of colonialism to stress the heterogeneity and ambivalence of imperial discourse and rule. Elleke Boehmer in Colonial and Postcolonial Literature (1995), Frederick Cooper and Ann Laura Stoler in Tensions of Empire (1997), and Antoinette Burton in At the Heart of the Empire (1998), to name a few, insist on the interactions and interpenetrations of colonial cultures. […]

Rethinking Postcolonialism analyses colonialist discourses in modern literary and non-literary texts and explores key philosophical concepts informing colonialism. It is divided into two main areas: first, a discussion of the ways in which classical writings influenced colonialist discourse in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; second, an examination of the relationship between modernist literature and empire. In each section I investigate the ways colonial discourses construct, or produce, the colonised by adopting an array of strategies that draw inspiration from immediate as well as remote sources. In studying imperial intellectual history in the context of classical discourses and literatures, I offer a challenge to the conventional categories of analysis in the field of postcolonial studies, which tend to study colonialism as a synchronic phenomenon and mere product of modernity.

Colonialism is an immemorial phenomenon. All through history it has taken various forms and has been highly parasitic. When Egypt came under Greek domination in 146 BC, the Greeks incorporated into their culture the Egyptian religions, myths and arts. When Greece became a Roman protectorate the Romans imitated the Greeks. They adopted their strategies of expansion, arts, gods, rituals and even dress, establishing continuities between the Hellenic and Latin worlds (Bernal 1987; Pagden 2001; Isaac 2004). Similarly, in America the Mayans inspired the succeeding Toltec and Aztec empires which adopted their arts, legends and religions. The Aztecs were in turn influenced by the Toltecs. They regarded them as ideal fighters and their arts were highly valued. The Inca Empire was also built on the achievements of former civilisations, embracing the Aztec and Toltec legends and religions which they fused into their own culture to build a centralised state (Davies 1987). In the sixteenth century the Spaniards, who vanquished the Incas and Aztecs, took after the ancient European empires which they viewed as models (Ramírez 1996; Mabry 2002). The Ottoman empire, too, imitated the Greeks and Romans. Sovereigns such as Mehmet Fatih (1451–81) and Suleiman Kanuni (1520–66) posed as continuers of the empires established in the Mediterranean by Alexander the Great and furthered by the Romans. Likewise, in the nineteenth century both Britain and France displayed continuities with the classical powers, adopting their ideas and instigating their methods of conquest and rule.

From the ancient to modern times colonialism has thus been a synergetic phenomenon. Colonial powers drew on their predecessors to achieve their imperial motives and consolidate their domination. The British and French empires imitated the Greek and Roman empires. They incorporated tropes, modes of representation and myths of supremacy. The classical writers who backed them were revered by modern writers and colonial ideologues. Their themes and thoughts were assiduously rehearsed and the image of ancient Greece and Rome was reinvested and idealised by eighteenth and nineteenth-century Western writers and scholars, particularly the British and French.

Rethinking Postcolonialism probes the interconnections between ancient and new imperialism. It examines modern colonial British and French literatures in the light of ancient Greek and Latin texts. It focuses on the Colonial Idea and attempts to chart the impact of classical thought on modern colonial cultures. In the main, I intend through the exploration of colonial historiography to trace the ways in which the classical models were re-inscribed and re-imagined, in an idealised form, in European metropolitan cultures in the period of imperial expansion. The aim in teasing out the conceptual and ideological links between ancient and modern colonialism is to place the discussion of empire in a wider historical and ideological arena. This necessary contextualisation serves to demonstrate how far modern colonial ideology forms an historical, ideological and narcissistic continuum whereby new theories of domination build upon ancient myths of grandeur and supremacy.

By focusing on colonialism’s diachronicity and multi-faceted nature of imperialist ideology, I primarily seek to resituate colonialist discourse’s historical and ideological denseness which is often neglected in postcolonial studies. My assumption is that the scholars’ study of colonialism from a strictly synchronic dimension provides only a partial insight into imperial ideology. To get a fuller picture of this ideology requires re-examining it in connection with the former narratives of domination, notably the classical ideological formations from which it drew inspiration. The recovery of this neglected trans-epochal dialogue should help us grasp the multi-dimensional, palimpsestic (that is stratified and cumulative) character of modern colonialist discourse. This genetic approach, which sets the ancient and the modern in a productive dynamics, intends to shed light on these conceptual and ideological ramifications. It aims to uncover the legacy of the classical assumptions of linguistic, cultural and racial supremacy on modern writers and colonial ideologues. Such a historicisation, which invites consideration of the archaeological structure of imperialist discourse, is a prerequisite to mapping out the complex ideological network that shaped modern colonial representations. It enables us to trace the interface between colonial metropolitan ideological formations and classical imperial production of stories of power and supremacy.

Amar Acheraïou – Rethinking Postcolonialism. Colonialist Discourse in Modern Literatures and the Legacy of Classical Writers

Amar Acheraïou



“Acheraïou’s rethought colonialism is more a personal interpretation of a human tendency to dominate members of their own species than a conventional postcolonial theory of literature, oral production, art, and culture, because Acheraïou prefers to see colonialism as “an immemorial phenomenon” (3), as distinguished from the time-specific phenomenon of various hegemonic European empires in the New World over the past five hundred years. Thus, in the arc of his discussion he addresses how classical writings have influenced colonial discourse over the last two centuries and how constructs of modernism and empire are interrelated. […]

His theory of postcolonialism is ideologically expansive and culturally inclusive, historically bold, and reminiscent of empire in that he reminds readers that colonialism has never ended and may be a universal system without an end boundary. Much of his discussion pertains to imperial ideologies, attitudes, and practices as informing specific works of literature and as evident textually. His commentary on the texts is insightful and engaging in its didactic energy. […]

Acheraïou problematizes “rethinking postcolonialism” by aligning it with how colonizers conceptualized colonialism. In his conclusion as throughout the book he stresses “the intricate connections between ‘new’ and ancient imperialism” (214), he notes that “ideological inconsistencies … can also be easily discerned in the works of those criticising empire, such as Conrad, Forster, Woolf, Green, Gide and Camus” (217), and he cautions that “failing to acknowledge that imperialism was for the majority of the natives an odyssey of dispossession, humiliation and alienation may be just as mystifying as reducing the colonial encounters to smooth, balanced transactions” (219).”

Paul Matthew St Pierre – Some Self-Reflections on Colonialism and Postcolonialism (English Studies in Canada)