Race in Antiquity: Short Answers

Over the past year, I’ve been posting on the topic of race in ancient Greek and Roman society. The subject is a much more complicated one than it may at first appear and there is a lot to say about it. Today, to bring things to a conclusion, I’d like to offer some short, simple answers to some basic questions. Like most things in history, the full answers are always more complicated, but these are a start.

Did ancient Greeks and Romans have a concept of race?

Not as we understand it today. They primarily thought of human populations as defined by language, culture, family, and legal status. While they were aware of the kinds of natural variations in skin tone, face shapes, hair types, and other physical features we typically use to categorize race today, they did not generally regard these variations as markers of identity.

Did skin color matter in Greek and Roman society?

Yes, but not as an indicator of race. Across much of the ancient Mediterranean world there was a cultural ideal (at least among the elite levels of society who have left us written evidence) that men should work outdoors, preferably as farmers or soldiers, and women should work indoors, especially at textile production. As a result, dark skin was valued in men—a sign that they had spent plenty of time working in the sun—and light skin was valued in women. Light-skinned men and dark-skinned women were often looked down on for failing to meet this social standard. Judgments about skin color stemmed from prejudices relating to gender and class, not race.

Were there any black people in ancient Greece or Rome?

Yes. Blackness is a modern identity grounded not just in physical features but in historical experience and which we cannot simply apply onto people in the past; however, in simple biological terms, people whose features we would today associate with blackness have been identified in Greek and Roman contexts from as early as the thirteenth century BCE to as as late as the fourth century CE. As genetic evidence becomes more available in archaeological research, the number of known examples will surely grow, but literary and artistic evidence is already abundant.

Were there any East Asian people in ancient Greece or Rome?

Yes. Contacts of trade and diplomacy across Eurasia are well documented and people from East and Southeast Asia have been identified in Greek and Roman contexts as far north and west as Roman London.

Were there any Indigenous American, Australian, or Oceanian people in ancient Greece or Rome?

Not as far as I know, but the development of genetic research may yet surprise us on this score. As far as the present evidence will take us, we can say that Greece and Rome were connected to networks of trade, travel, and migration that spanned Eurasia and Africa, but that appears to be their limit.

Were the black and East Asian people who lived in Greece and Rome seen as different?

It’s hard to say. Ancient authors didn’t spend much time writing about the issue, which in itself may suggest that these sorts of differences didn’t matter, but arguments from silence are hard to rely on. Since Greek and Roman culture did not have a concept of race, though, it seems unlikely that these sorts of variations mattered very much. Just as we notice peoples’ hair and eye color today but don’t generally attach much meaning to it, Greeks and Romans may well have noticed if someone had a different skin tone or facial shape, but they didn’t necessarily think it mattered very much.

Were the black and East Asian people who lived in Greece and Rome also Greeks and Romans?

Most of them probably were. The definition of who could be counted as a Greek or a Roman was flexible and depended on circumstance. In some times and places, lines of identity were tightly policed and newcomers were not welcomed in; in other times and places, the definitions were expansive and new people were easily incorporated. A lot of people who came to the Mediterranean from other parts of the world settled down and had families. Even if the original immigrants were not accepted as Greeks and Romans, there is a good chance that their children and grandchildren thought of themselves and were thought of by their neighbors as being just as Greek or Roman as anyone else.

Were ancient Greece and Rome white civilizations?

No. The majority of people who identified as Greeks and Romans in any given time and place were probably, in modern terms, white, but that does not mean that Greek and Roman culture were themselves “white” or had any necessary connection with whiteness. The category of “white” did not exist in Greek or Roman culture, nor did Greeks and Romans believe that their culture was inherently linked to their ancestry. Indeed, they were generally quite happy to point out where they had taken cultural ideas and influences from other peoples. The idea of a “white civilization” would have sounded very strange to Greek and Roman ears.

For more information and further discussion, check out other entries in this series:

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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