Race in Antiquity: Bad Answers, Part 1

“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 7: Bad Answers

Hard questions don’t have easy answers. Sometimes, the best way to get a good answer is to start with some bad answers and try to understand why they are bad. Today we look at a few bad answers that people have given about race in antiquity to see what we can learn from them.

When I call these answers “bad,” I don’t mean that there is nothing good in them or that the people who gave them were bad or foolish people. They are “bad” in the sense that they miss important facts or misunderstand the realities of the ancient world, but this is where most answers to most interesting questions start. The process of research, in almost any field, is a process of making our answers less bad through gathering more facts and thinking more carefully about them. We can’t do that effectively if we don’t have a place to start or if we don’t take a close look at our bad answers to understand how to make them better.

If you have spent any time reading about the question of race in the ancient Mediterranean, you have probably come across some version of these answers. I’m not linking to any particular sites because I don’t want anyone to feel called out or personally criticized. What’s important is that we learn from these bad answers in order to come up with better ones. Today we’ll look at some simple bad answers, ones whose problems stem from basic misunderstandings or flawed assumptions that are easy to move beyond. In another post, we’ll tackle some more complicated answers whose problems require serious wrangling with evidence and argument.

White Europe

Our first bad answer relies on the common elision of Europe and whiteness. The argument is that the Greeks and Romans were Europeans, and Europeans are white, therefore the Greeks and Romans were white.

Even leaving aside the problem that whiteness is a modern social construct that most people in history would not have understood, it is untenable to suppose that all the ancient inhabitants of what we now call Europe were a homogeneous group.

The idea of Europe as a separate land is a cultural concept, and quite a recent one, not a fact of geography. Geographically speaking, Europe is not a continent but the far western end of the Eurasian landmass. Nor is Europe isolated. The rest of Eurasia stretches away to the east, Africa is reachable by relatively easy coastal routes, and North America can be reached by a longer, but not unmanageable, series of island-hops across the north Atlantic. For that matter, the southern and northern parts of Europe are divided by a long system of mountain chains stretching from the Pyrenees in the west to the Balkans in the east. In many respects, Greece and Italy were historically more closely connected to North Africa than to the rest of Europe. There is no good reason to believe that the people of what we call “Europe” were all alike in the distant past. In fact, we have clear evidence that they were not.

But this answer also reveals another important element in how we think about the past. The written record of human history extends at most only a few thousand years into the past. In some areas of the world, written evidence covers only the last thousand or few hundred years. When we think about what cultures were like before written evidence, we have a tendency to simply take the earliest documentary evidence and extend it into the past, assuming that not much changed until people started writing about the changes. This is where archaeology becomes particularly important, showing us that human cultures outside the reach of literary evidence were anything but static. Cultures changed, people moved, trade goods and ideas traveled. Merchants carried their wares, armies and raiders went looking for land and plunder, nomadic peoples sought better pastures, refugees were driven from their homes by political and economic problems to seek new opportunities elsewhere, families and individuals migrated in search of better lives. There was no primordial white Europe existing in stasis until modern times. There is no basis for supposing that the population of Europe has ever been anything other than complex and multi-ethnic.

Black Socrates

From bad answers about the people of a whole continent, we turn to a bad answer about one individual. Some have argues that since the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates had a snub nose, he must have been black.

It is true that contemporary sources describe Socrates as snub-nosed (simos or simotes), the same word applied to the noses of black Africans. (Xenophanes, fragments 16; Plato, Theaetetus 143e; Xenophon, Symposium 5.6) But these words are not distinctive to people of African descent. Many people of many different backgrounds have short noses. The same word is also used to describe Scythians, peoples from the steppes north of the Black Sea in what is today Ukraine and southern Russia. (Herodotus, Histories 4.23) For that matter, the word was applies to the teeth of wild boars and the snouts of hippopotami. (Herodotus 2.71; Xenophon, On Hunting 10.13) Combined with the fact that physical features often counted for very little in ancient conceptions of ethnic identity, this is very thin evidence on which to judge Socrates’ race.

But more importantly, arguments about Socrates’ nose ignore crucial historical context. To say that Socrates was a controversial figure in Athens is an understatement. As much as he was adored by his students (whose flattering reminiscences dominate the surviving literary record), he was widely hated by the people of Athens. Not because he challenged complacent Athenians to think, as his supporters would have it, but because he associated with a circle of aristocrats who had briefly seized power in Athens, demolished democratic institutions, murdered thousands of people, and set off a bloody civil war.

Socrates’ actual relationship with this bloodthirsty cabal—called the “Thirty Tyrants” by other Athenians—is hard to know, given how skewed the surviving sources are in their perspective. He may not have endorsed their most violent impulses, but he does seem to have been fundamentally on their side and against the democracy. By the time Socrates was brought to trial, a democratic government had been restored and the Thirty Tyrants were mostly dead or in exile. When the ire of the Athenian citizens was turned on Socrates, it was not the anger of the unthinking who didn’t like being asked challenging questions but the fury of a wounded polity against a man who appeared complicit in a bloody reign of terror.

Now, Athens at this time was also going through a period of nativism when citizenship laws were tightened up to exclude many people whose ancestors were not native Athenians. Citizenship challenges were routinely used in the courts as a way of attacking political opponents and personal enemies. The suggestion that Socrates or even one of his ancestors might have come from outside of Greece—or even outside of Athens—would have exposed him to this sort of attack. No one would have bothered charging the man with impiety and corrupting the youth if they could have credibly charged him with falsely claiming citizenship. With so many people in Athens eager to get rid of Socrates, the fact that no one challenged his citizenship is strong evidence that no one in contemporary Athens thought that Socrates’ ancestry was anything other than Athenian, no matter what his nose looked like.

What these bad answers—about the whiteness of Europe and the blackness of Socrates—have in common is that they apply modern concepts of race in a simplistic way to the past without examining the historical context on its own terms. If we want meaningful answers about identity in the past, we have to start by understanding the past itself.

Other posts on Race in Antiquity:

Image: Portrait bust of Socrates, photograph my Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia (currently Metropolitan Museum; 1st c. CE marble copy of bronze original from c. 350 BCE; original attributed to Lysippus)

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