Race in Antiquity: Skin Color in Art

“What race were the ancient Greeks and Romans?”

It sounds like a simple question that ought to have a straightforward answer, but both the question and its answer are far more complicated than they appear. In these posts, I dig into the topic to explore what we know, what we don’t know, and what we mean by race in the ancient Mediterranean world.

Part 4: Skin Color in Art

In the previous post, we looked at how Greeks and Romans wrote about skin color. Today we look at how they represented it in art.

In looking at how ancient artists handled skin color, we have to begin by recognizing that not all ancient artworks have come down to us intact or preserving their original colors. We must especially shake off the association of ancient art with gleaming white marble. Marble was favored for sculpture in the ancient Mediterranean because the stone is slightly translucent and it reacts to light in a way similar to human skin, but marble statues were not usually left white. They were painted, often in bright colors which have faded or disappeared entirely after thousands of years of exposure. To get a more accurate sense of how ancient artists represented skin color, we have to choose our sources carefully and look for types of artwork that hold color better over time or that have been protected from exposure.

Although people of the ancient Mediterranean were aware that human skin tones could vary widely, they did not attach the same meaning to this variation that we tend to today. Since skin color was not a primary way of marking ethnic identity, artists could use it to convey other meanings, or simply for decorative effect.

It was a widespread custom in the ancient Mediterranean to use skin color as an indicator of gender. Men were often portrayed with dark reddish-brown skin, women with pale yellow-white skin. This artistic convention reflects a conventional ideology in which the socially acceptable activities for men were agriculture and war, outdoor occupations which exposed them to the sun. Women were similarly expected to stay indoors, working in the home and preserving their pale skin. For a man to be pale suggested that he worked indoors at trades that, though necessary for society, were less prestigious. Similarly, for a woman to appear dark-skinned suggested that she had to work outside the home, implying that her household was not rich enough to be self-sustaining. When patrons directed artists to depict them with conventional skin colors, they were responding to the social pressure to look their best. We cannot assume that artworks like these represent the actual appearance of their subjects.

Funerary statues of Rahotep and Nofret via Wikimedia (Egyptian Museum, Cairo; c. 2500 BCE; painted limestone)
Portrait of a couple from Pompeii via Wikimedia (Pompeii, currently Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli; 1st c. CE; fresco)


Skin color could also be used to indicate other features of identity. Darker skin, for instance, was associated with age, lighter skin with youth. Children were often depicted with light-colored skin, regardless of gender. In this portrait of the family of the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus, Septimius’ skin is distinctly darker than his wife Julia Domna’s, but their son Caracalla’s skin is even a little paler than his mother’s. (Their other son Geta’s face was obliterated in antiquity after Caracalla became emperor and assassinated his brother).

Portrait of Septimius Severus and family, photograph by José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro via Wikimedia (currently Altes Museum, Berlin; c. 200 CE; painted panel)


The degree to which skin color was emphasized as a feature in art also varied between cultures and across time. These two examples of Etruscan tomb art from Tarquinia show how much variation there could be even within the same community. While both follow the dark men / light women pattern (gender is also marked by differences in clothing, hair style, and activity) one makes the distinction very stark and schematic while the other is much more subtle.

Banquet scene from the Tomb of the Leopards, photograph by AlMare via Wikimedia (Tarquinia; 480-450 BCE; fresco)
Banquet scene from the Tomb of the Shields via classconnection (Tarquinia; c. 340 BCE; fresco)


In many cases, the skin color of human figures in ancient art is dictated by the choice of medium more than by a desire to convey any message. The two sides of this vase, for instance, present similar scenes, the hero Heracles at a feast, in opposite color schemes.

“Bilingual” vase, composite of photographs via Wikimedia (Vulci, currently Staatliche Antikensammlung, Berlin; 520-510 BCE; pottery; believed to be by Andokides Painter)


This statue of the Tetrarchs, four emperors who governed the Roman Empire in a short-lived experiment in joint rule, is carved out of porphyry, a very hard stone with a dark purple hue. This stone was chosen for several reasons, partly because of the traditional association of purple with imperial power and partly because the dense, hard stone suggested the strength of the institution the joint rulers were trying to create. A realistic depiction of skin tone was not a priority.

Tetrarchs statue, photograph by Nino Barbieri via Wikimedia (currently St. Mark’s Square, Venice; early 4th c. CE; porphyry)


When depicting beings beyond the human realm, skin color could carry many other meanings. The Egyptian god of the dead, Osiris, was traditionally depicted with green skin, symbolic of regrowth and new life. In these wall paintings, the green-skinned Osiris appears in two different scenes in the company of other gods.

Wall paintings from the tomb of Horemheb, photograph be Jean-Pierre Dalbéra via Wikimedia (Valley of the Kings; c. 1292 BCE; fresco)


Similarly, the Etruscan god Charu, who was responsible for guiding the souls of the dead into the afterlife, was typically shown with blue skin, representing decaying flesh.

Charu from the François Tomb, detail of photograph via Wikimedia (Vulci; c. 330 BCE; fresco)

Sometimes ancient artists used skin color to indicate ethnicity in ways that are easy for us to recognize, such as this vase representing two women’s faces. The light-skinned woman’s features, such as her pointed nose, thin lips, and wavy hair, suggest that she is meant to be of European descent while the black-skinned woman has features characteristic of a sub-Saharan African origin, such as a flat nose, fuller lips, and tightly coiled hair.

Janiform aryballos, photograph by Jastrow via Wikimedia (from Greece, currently Louvre; 520-510 BCE; pottery)


In other cases, we cannot be entirely sure what the skin color in ancient art is meant to convey. This fresco from Minoan Knossos depicts bull leapers in distinctly different skin tones, but it is difficult to be sure what significance, if any, that difference has. It may be meant to show differences in gender, although the figures’ similar proportions, clothing, and hair do not confirm it. It might be intended to indicate people of different ethnic origins. Alternatively, it could be simply for aesthetic variation. We do not know enough about Minoan culture and its conventions for representing ethnicity, gender, and other identities in art to be certain.

Bull leaping fresco (restored), photograph by Nikater via Wikimedia (Knossos; 1550-1450 BCE; fresco)


As with literary descriptions of skin color, we have to approach ancient artistic representations with a cautious awareness of how far removed we are from the cultures that created them. The artists who made these images and the patrons who commissioned them did not share many of our basic assumptions about what skin color means and how it should be represented. Their cultural context was unlike ours and they created their works to communicate with other people of their place and time, not to send time capsules to us millennia later. It is not enough for us to stroll through museums or flip through the pages of art books looking for faces that look the way we think people of different ethnic origins ought to look.

Ancient art is not a representative snapshot of ancient demographics. Art represents what people consider important, not necessarily the reality of the world they live in. In a world in which privilege, power, and identity were not wrapped up with race in the same way they are today, the representation of race in art was much less of a priority. Just because ancient artists, like ancient writers, often chose not to depict skin color as a defining mark of ethnic identity does not mean that they did not live surrounded by people of all different hues with ancestries spanning the globe. As with how we read literature, we have to learn to read ancient art in new ways if we are to make sense of it as evidence for the diversity of ancient Mediterranean societies.

Other posts on Race in Antiquity:

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.


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