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.


Race in Antiquity: Bad Answers, Part 2

“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 8: Bad Answers 2

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. In the last installation, we looked at some simple bad answers that were easy to move past. Today we look at couple of more complicated bad answers. These ideas take more work to explain and understand, but the reward of doing so is a fuller and deeper grasp of the problem.

Hair Color

Skin color is one of the primary markers of race in the modern West, but ancient authors and artists did not describe or depict skin color in ways that match up with modern racial categories. Knowing this, some historians have gone looking for other indicators of racial identity such as hair.

There are various descriptions of individuals and groups of people, both mythic and historical, in classical literature that mention hair color. The legendary hero Achilles, son of Peleus, for instance, is typically described as having fair hair.

[Athena] stood behind him and grasped the son of Peleus by his yellow hair,

visible to him alone

– Homer, Iliad 1.197-8

All translations my own

Although Greek word for colors do not always match up with our own, the word used to describe Achilles’ hair here, xanthos, generally refers to a yellowish color tending towards orange or red. It can be used to describe not just hair but gold, wine, even fried fish. However we might interpret this description of Achilles, it seems clear that the epics imagine him somewhere on the spectrum between blond and redhead.

The Roman emperor Commodus was described in a similar way, even with an explicit reference to gold:

He was a young man then, fine to look at, with a strong body and a face that was handsome without being boyishly pretty. His eyes were powerful and seemed to flash with lightning. His hair, reddish blond and naturally curled, seemed to gleam as if on fire when the sun struck it. Some were of the opinion that he scattered gold dust in his hair before going out, while others believed that he was bathed in a holy light.

Herodian, Roman History 1.7.5

Some people point to descriptions like these, as well as other references to people in the ancient Mediterranean having blond or red hair (or blue or green eyes), as evidence that the people of ancient Greece and Rome must therefore have been, in modern terms, white. That argument, though, will not stand.

We might first point out that some of these people never actually existed (like Achilles), and that for those who did (like Commodus), we have no independent way of verifying whether the accounts are accurate or not, but this is not the real problem. Achilles may not have been a living person, but it seems clear that the oral tradition about him intended the audience to understand him as being fair haired. Herodian’s description of Commodus may be exaggerated (with the lightning eyes and the holy light in the hair), but he was clearly writing to an audience that was prepared to accept the idea of a blond Roman.

We can also point out that hair color is not a perfect proxy for race. Yellow-red hair and pale skin do often go together, but it is perfectly possible to have either one without the other. Still, statistically speaking, any human population with a significant number of blonds in it is almost certain to also have a significant number of people in it we would call white. The problems with the hair argument are deeper.

Imagine, if you will, that some future student asks some future historian: “What race were the people of the United States in the twentieth century?”

And the future historian answers: “Well, Marilyn Monroe was blonde, and the Marvel character Natasha Romanoff was a redhead, so that means Americans were white.”

We can all recognize what’s wrong with that answer. Knowing the racial identities of a few real and/or made up people tells us almost nothing about the racial makeup of the larger societies they existed within. The number of people from antiquity whose hair color (or other physical features) we know about is vanishingly small, and the individuals in question are far from a representative sample.

The contention that a few blonds here and there in classical literature tells us anything meaningful about race in the Greek and Roman world assumes that there can only be one answer, that Greeks and Romans had a single, coherent racial identity which allowed for no change or variation. We don’t have to scour ancient sources for references to hair color to know that this was far from true.


You knew we’d get here eventually, didn’t you? Of all individual people in antiquity, no one’s racial identity has been more fiercely debated than that of Cleopatra VII, the last Ptolemaic queen of Egypt.

Some people argue that Cleopatra should be identified as black. Sometimes this argument is made on very thin premises. (Cleopatra was queen of Egypt, which is on the continent of Africa, but that is not the same as being ethnically Egyptian, nor is being Egyptian necessarily the same as being black. Shakespeare’s play Anthony and Cleopatra refers to her skin as dark, but Shakespeare lived a millennium and a half after Cleopatra and had no first-hand knowledge of her appearance.) But there are more serious arguments about Cleopatra’s race that require more serious engagement.

Cleopatra was a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, descendants of the Macedonian general Ptolemy, who ruled Egypt for three centuries after the empire of Alexander the Great broke up on his death. The Ptolemies prized the purity of their bloodline and frequently intermarried among different branches of the family line, sometimes even between brother and sister. As a royal dynasty whose claim to power depended on descent, the Ptolemy family preserved lots of information about their ancestral line. We know more about Cleopatra’s family tree than almost anyone else in the ancient Mediterranean, but the fact is that this information only covers about three fourths of her ancestry. Despite the careful record-keeping of the Ptolemies in general, Cleopatra’s mother is poorly documented, and we know nothing at all about her maternal grandmother.

Some have argued that the lack of information about Cleopatra’s grandmother is itself significant, that it reflects the family’s attempt to bury evidence of a marriage (or non-marital relationship) that was outside the norm for Ptolemaic kings, who resided among a mostly Greco-Macedonian court in Alexandria. They argue that the mystery woman must therefore have been an Egyptian. Advocates of this position further argue that Greek, Roman, and other European authors whitewashed Cleopatra, removing any reference to her African heritage in order to claim such a symbol of beauty and power for white Europe.

This argument is a nuanced one that draws on real and substantial knowledge not only of the Ptolemies but of the sordid history of modern Western scholarship, which has often embraced racist and white supremacist interpretations of history, erasing or ignoring the lives of non-white peoples and individuals. It is an argument that some people of color today understandably find empowering and satisfying: it must feel good to “reclaim” one of the most widely-recognized names in history. Still, it is an argument that ultimately rests on the same faulty premises and flawed reasoning as the other bad answers we have looked at.

To begin with, we cannot assume that Cleopatra’s grandmother was Egyptian. “Unknown” simply means “unknown.” Most of the women at or in the orbit of the Ptolemaic court were ethnically Greek or Macedonian. Few Egyptians even lived in Alexandria, which was considered separate from Egypt, not a part of it. There were, however, substantial Jewish, Persian, and Syrian populations in the city, whose elite members had a better chance at finding their way into the royal court than most Egyptians did. It is not impossible that a member of the royal family could have had a relationship with an Egyptian woman, but the odds of any given unidentified woman in the Ptolemaic court being Egyptian are very long.

Even if Cleopatra’s grandmother was Egyptian, Egyptian is not the same as black. Certainly no ancient Egyptian would have described themselves that way, but even if we approach ancient Egypt in the terms of modern racial categories—what would we call them if we saw them passing by on the street today?—this simple equation will not stand. The ancient population of Egypt was complex. Genetic evidence reveals a core population most closely tied to other North African peoples of the Mediterranean coastal zone, but also with traces of long-term immigration from both southwestern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Artworks and literary sources suggest that Egyptian skin tones could range from very dark brown to very light tan. Certainly there were some ancient Egyptians who, if they appeared before us today, we would describe as black, but there were many more we would not.

It is not impossible that Cleopatra’s grandmother was Egyptian. If she was, it is also not impossible that she had sub-Saharan ancestry and dark skin. Literary evidence suggests that one early Ptolemaic king had taken an Egyptian woman as a mistress, known as Didyme, who may have been dark-skinned, so there would be historical precedent for such a relationship. (Athenaeus, Deipnosophists 13.37 = 576e-f; Asclepiades, in the Palatine Anthology 5.210) It may be more significant, however, to note that although the Ptolemaic family ruled Egypt for some three hundred years, Didyme is the only Egyptian woman we know of who was involved with a member of the family. All of this is very tenuous grounds for making claims about Cleopatra’s race.

Was Cleopatra whitewashed by Greek and Roman authors who wanted to claim her for “their” people? Quite the opposite. Cleopatra was embroiled in the last stage of the long-running Roman civil war as a supporter of Mark Anthony against Octavian, the future emperor Augustus. Octavian’s propaganda strategy depended on convincing the Roman people that the civil war was over. He therefore portrayed his struggle against Antonius not as the last gasp of that conflict but as the glorious Roman conquest of Egypt. Anything that made Cleopatra appear as an exotic foreign potentate was perfectly suited to his needs. Although the Roman sources do their best to exoticize Cleopatra, none of them makes any remarks on her skin color or ancestry.

Here is how the Roman poet Vergil pictured Cleopatra leading her ships in the naval battle of Actium:

In the midst, the queen shakes her native sistrum and calls her people to fight,

not seeing the twin snakes coming behind her.

Her monstrous, feral god, the barking Anubis,

shakes his spear against Neptune, Venus,

and Minerva

– Vergil, Aeneid 8.696-701

And here is the poet Horace on the same theme:

… the insane queen schemed

to bring death and ruin

to the Capitol and our state

with her foul throng of thugs,

drunk with vain hopes

of sweet victory.

– Horace, Odes 1.37.6-12

The images invoked against Cleopatra were of drunkenness, luxury, and the (from a Roman point of view) strangeness of Egyptian religion, but not her appearance or ancestry. Roman political invective could make hay out of even the most trivial personal quirks; if the smear campaign against Cleopatra said nothing about her ethnicity, that must mean there was nothing about it that a Roman audience would have found unusual.

Assumed whiteness

As different as the arguments are, both the attempt to classify Greeks and Romans by their hair color and the assertion of a “black” Cleopatra fall victim to the same problem: they both accept the fundamental assumption of an all-white ancient Mediterranean. The hair argument assumes that the ancient Greeks and Romans were racially uniform, and that if we identify a few of them, the same answer must apply to the rest. The case for Cleopatra’s black grandmother similarly assumes that the ancient Mediterranean was so blindingly white that our only way of finding any possible exceptions is to clutch at scraps and plead that “it’s not entirely impossible” can be turned into “it must be so.”

Both of these approaches, intentionally or not, buy into racist claims about a pure white ancient Mediterranean. They only make sense within the parameters set by that assumption. Achilles’ blond hair only seems useful as a measure of ethnic identity if we already assume that the ancient Greeks were uniformly white. The gaps in Cleopatra’s family tree only appear tantalizing if we buy into the notion that people of color in the ancient Mediterranean were a rare and scandalous secret to be covered up. Without the assumption of whiteness, neither of these cases is particularly interesting or useful at all.

The mistakes of the past can be hard to overcome, even when we are actively trying to challenge them. Sometimes that hardest thing to do when looking for new answers to old questions is to see the weaknesses in the questions themselves.

Other posts on Race in Antiquity:

Image: Mosaic of Achilles having his first bath, photograph by Wolfgang Sauber via Wikimedia (“House of Theseus”, Paphos; 2nd c. CE; mosaic)

Post edited for spelling

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.

Ancient Women as Generals

It has come to my attention that some folks online have been making a fuss about the fact that the strategy game Rome: Total War II allows players to recruit women as generals to lead their armies in fighting around the ancient Mediterranean. They decry this addition to the game as modern politics intruding anachronistically on the purely masculine history of war. Well, that’s a load of hogwash.

As your friendly neighborhood ancient historian, I’m happy to present a brief, selective, far-from-comprehensive list of women who led military forces in antiquity. Enjoy.

(All translations my own)


A Sarmatian queen, 2nd century BCE, who led her people against foreign invaders.

Amage, wife of Medosaccus, a Sarmatian king… seeing that her husband was diverted by luxury, took matters in hand, giving many judgments, organizing the defense of the realm, and fighting off foreign attacks.

– Polyaenus, Strategms 8.56



A Kushite queen, 1st century BCE, who led forces against Roman armies encroaching on her territory from southern Egypt. (Strabo mistakes her title, Candace, for her name)

Queen Candace, in my day the ruler of the Ethiopians, a masculine woman who was blind in one eye… led an army many thousands strong against the [Roman] garrison

– Strabo, Geography 17.54

Continue reading


Let me tell you about the word tamias.

Tamias is a word in Ancient Greek. It was the title of the official in charge of the Athenian state treasury. It is related to the verb temnō, which means to cut something up into pieces, especially used of carving meat.

Now, meat was not always easy to come by in ancient Greece. Most people would not have eaten meat on a regular basis, at least not from land animals—bird and fish meat was probably a little easier to come by, but meat from animals like cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs was a rarity. In fact, meat from these animals was almost always consumed as part of a sacrifice. When the ancient Greeks offered an animal to the gods in sacrifice, only a small representative portion of the animal was usually burned for the gods. The rest of the meat was cooked and consumed by the community.

Since sacrifice was a religious act, there were important rules about the procedure. One was that the portions of meat shared out among the participants had to be of equal size. To do otherwise would be to suggest that the blessings of the gods invoked by the ritual should come down unequally. The carver who prepared the meat for cooking therefore had a job that required both expertise and a solemn devotion to the good of the whole community.

When the Athenians were organizing their state and assigning one official to responsible for managing the state finances, it makes sense that they would invoke the image of the old sacrificial carver for an official who would take on a post of such weighty responsibility, but this is not where the saga of tamias ends.

A treasurer’s job is not just to share out funds equitably but also to store and guard valuable goods so they will be available in the future when needed. This is the idea invoked by the scientific name Tamias striatus (literally ‘stripey treasurer’) for this fellow. The chipmunk carries food in its big cheek pouches and stores it for the winter in its burrow.

From food to gold and back to food again: that’s the history of tamias.

Image: Eastern chipmunk, photograph by Cephas via Wikimedia

On, of, and about languages.

Queen Teuta, Piracy, and War

Let’s talk about pirates. (No, not talk like pirates—that comes later this week.) In popular culture, we typically think of pirates in the waters of the Caribbean in the 17th and 18th centuries, but the practice of cruising the seaways and taking plunder by force is an ancient and worldwide custom. For some people, raiding passing ships was an accepted and ordinary way of life. Among those people were the ancient Illyrians.

The Illyrians lived along the mountainous western coast of the Balkan peninsula, in the vicinity of modern-day Albania, Montenegro, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Much like the Greeks who lived to their south, they shared a common culture and language, but were not politically unified. Small-scale warfare and raiding between Illyrian tribes was a normal part of life, but Illyrians also frequently went beyond their borders, raiding nearby cities and sailing out into the sea in small, fast boats to attack passing ships.

The Illyrians were well placed to make a profit on plundering shipping. From their position along the Adriatic coast, they could easily strike at trade routes through the Adriatic, and more organized raiding parties could hit the major routes that between Greece and Italy, connecting the eastern and western Mediterranean.

For much of the ancient period, Illyrian piracy was a present but manageable danger in the Mediterranean, more an occasional nuisance than a real threat to trade, but in times of turmoil, when the more organized states of the region were less able to deter attacks, Illyrian tribes could become more ambitious. One tribe that took advantage of such chaotic circumstances was the Ardiaei, who aggressively pursued not only raiding at sea but conquests on land as well under their queen Teuta (ruled 231-227 BCE).

At this time, the major powers of the both the eastern and western Mediterranean were busy with their own problems. The Greek world was consumed with wars between the kingdom of Macedonia and several alliances of Greek cities. Tensions were rising between Rome and Carthage as the two major powers in the west slid towards a second war. Teuta’s husband and predecessor as ruler, Agron, had gotten his people involved in Macedonia’s wars and expanded his tribe’s control over large areas of Illyria. Teuta carried on with an aggressive policy that combined piratical raids on nearby shipping lanes with territorial expansion along the Adriatic coast.

As Teuta’s people began to threaten Roman merchants, the Romans decided to intervene and sent a pair of ambassadors to demand reparations and an end to the attacks. Teuta dismissed the ambassadors’ complaints saying:

…that she would try to take care that no injustice should be done to the Romans by the Illyrian nation, but that it was not the custom for Illyrian monarchs to prevent their people from making their living on the sea.

– Polybius, History 2.8.8

(My own translation)

Teuta’s response was somewhat disingenuous, given that she had directed and made use of seaborne raids for her own purposes, but it also shows how the Illyrians thought about their piratical activities.

Teuta was making a distinction between piracy and war. War, from her point of view, was a collective effort by a whole nation, directed by its leaders against a defined enemy. Illyria was not at war with Rome, and she promised the Roman emissaries that she and her forces had no intention of attacking Roman territory. Her wars were in Greece.

Piracy was something different. It was not a way of making war but a way of making a living, something done by private individuals. She, even as queen, had no right to interfere in her people’s piracy, any more than she could tell farmers not to farm or hunters not to hunt. The Illyrians regarded passing ships as a kind of natural resource. Plundering those ships was just a way of harvesting that resource, like pulling fish from the sea in nets. It was not an attack upon a particular people or nation. Anyone who sailed the seas was accepting the risk of being plundered and had little right to complain about it.

As far as Teuta was concerned, the Romans had no business complaining to her: she wasn’t at war with them, and her people had a natural right to plunder any ship that passed by.

Of course, the Romans didn’t see it like that. From the point of view of Roman merchants, it didn’t much matter whether the people raiding their ships and stealing their goods were agents of a monarch or private entrepreneurs. In response to Teuta’s seemingly dismissive answer, Rome launched an attack on Illyria. After brief fighting, Teuta’s forces were beaten and she, though allowed to remain in power, was stripped of most of her territory and forced to pay tribute to Rome.

Queen Teuta’s response to the Romans offers us an alternative view to the dominant Greco-Roman narrative of Mediterranean history. Even though her answer comes to us filtered through the perspective of a Greek historian who casts the Romans as the heroes of the story, we can still understand the logic of her point of view. To her, the difference between war and piracy mattered; as queen, she had the right to control one activity, but not the other.

Image: Modern Albanian coin with an artist’s depiction of Teuta, photograph by Numista via Wikimedia

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.

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)

Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World Preview

What did the ancient Greeks and Romans think of the peoples they referred to as barbari? Did they share the modern Western conception—popularized in modern fantasy literature and role-playing games—of “barbarians” as brutish, unwashed enemies of civilization? Or our related notion of “the noble savage?” Was the category fixed or fluid? How did it contrast with the Greeks and Romans’ conception of their own cultural identity? Was it based on race?

These are the questions that my first book addresses. Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World will be published in the fall of 2018. The book explores both the realities of interaction among peoples of different cultures in the ancient Mediterranean and the ways in which Greek and Roman thinkers interpreted these interactions to create the idea of the “barbarian.”

Here’s a preview, discussing the experience of the Greeks in their colonial settlements around the Mediterranean Sea:

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The history of Greek settlement in Egypt demonstrates the complexity of colonial interactions. In the late 600s BCE, Egypt was under Assyrian dominion. An Egyptian noble, Psammetichus, had been appointed as governor, but when the Assyrians were distracted by internal conflicts, Psammetichus raised a rebellion, bolstered by mercenaries from Greece and Caria, a region of southwestern Anatolia. When the fighting was done and Psammetichus had become king of a newly independent Egypt, he settled the remaining mercenaries in the Nile delta. These settlements also attracted other foreigners, such as Phoenician crafters who made imitation Egyptian artworks on the site for export.

The mercenaries remained in Egyptian service, and it appears their descendants did as well, since some were deployed to southern Egypt under Psammetichus II decades later. One such band carved graffiti on the temple of Abu Simbel to commemorate their adventures: “When King Psammetichus came to Elephantine, this was carved by the companions of Psammatichus, son of Theocles, who sailed beyond Kerkis as far as the river went.” The mercenary Psammatichus was evidently named after the pharaoh by his Greek father. Some families went beyond names and embraced Egyptian culture, as shown by the burial of Wahibre-em-akhet, whose name and hieroglyph-inscribed sarcophagus are conventionally Egyptian; the only clue to his foreign ancestry are the Greek names of his parents, Alexicles and Zenodote. Other soldiers left graffiti at Abu Simbel in Carian and Phoenician, another testament to the cultural and linguistic diversity of those traveling and trading around the Mediterranean at this time.

Sometime after 570, the pharaoh Amasis reorganized the Nile delta settlement. Land was granted for the construction of a Greek colony, which, unusually, was collectively founded by nine Greek cities from the coast of Anatolia. Representatives from these cities jointly governed the new community now called Naukratis. Greek ships were banned from landing anywhere else in Egypt for trade. The colony thus became the primary site of exchange between Greeks and Egyptians. Trade connections brought people of many different backgrounds to Naukratis and connected its people to a wider world. One visitor was Charaxos, the brother of the poet Sappho, who traded wine from his home city Mytilene to Naukratis. He met a slave courtesan there, a Thracian woman named Rhodopis who had been brought to Egypt by her Samian owner. Charaxos fell in love with Rhodopis, bought her, and freed her, after which she chose to remain in Naukratis to ply her trade. To celebrate the fortune she had amassed in her work, Rhodopis later made a rich dedication at Delphi in Greece. A hieroglyphic inscription on a stele erected by the pharaoh Nectanebo in the fourth century, dedicating revenues from Naukratis to the temple of Neith, shows that the pharaohs kept an active interest in the administration of the colony. Naukratis retained its importance and trading privileges after the Persian Empire conquered Egypt in 525. It continued to welcome not only traders but tourists and other travelers, like Herodotus, who visited Egypt and whose writings record the existence of a local industry of tour guides and interpreters. The Greeks who settled in Egypt did not exist in isolation but had productive relationships with traders, artisans, and the ruling class alike.

The interactions in and around Naukratis are a window into the complexity of the colonial world. There were Greeks trading with Egyptians, but also Phoenicians making knockoffs of Egyptian art, Greeks assimilating into Egyptian culture, Thracians and Carians negotiating the needs of Egyptian and Greek patrons, and Egyptians making a living off showing the wonders of their country to curious foreigners. Interactions like these were happening all around the Mediterranean. There is no simple way to describe Greek relations with non-Greek peoples in the archaic and classical periods because those relations were never simple.

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If you’ve enjoyed some of my posts about ancient trade connections, the diversity of ancient armies, individuals crossing cultural boundaries, modern peoples’ attempts to claim ancient peoples’ identities for themselves, and the variety of different kinds of “barbarian” you may find something to enjoy in Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World.

Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World comes out in September from Hackett Publishing.

Hardcover: $48 / Paperback: $16

You can pre-order directly from Hackett or on Amazon.

Image: Barbarians paperback cover by Hackett Publishing

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The hoplite was the definitive soldier of ancient Greece. Hoplites are interesting not just for how they fought but for the social conditions that created them and the consequences that the hoplite style of warfare had for ancient Greek society.

A hoplite was a heavily-armored infantry soldier equipped with a large, round shield and a thrusting spear a little over two meters in length. While the shield and spear were the two crucial pieces of equipment, most hoplites also wore heavy armor including a helmet, breastplate, and greaves (armor for the shins). Altogether this armor weighed as much as 30 kilograms. Weighed down by so much equipment, hoplites were slow-moving and not adept at maneuvering. A lone hoplite was easy prey for a more mobile skirmisher or cavalry soldier. Hoplites were only effective when fighting as a group.

Hoplites fought in a tightly-packed formation called a phalanx. Their equipment was designed to be most effective in this formation: the center of the large round shield rested at the elbow, meaning that only half of a hoplite’s shield was protecting their body. The other half of the shield protected the soldier standing to their left, while they were sheltered by the shield of the soldier to their right.

The phalanx formation was designed first and foremost to offer as much protection as possible to the soldiers fighting in it. As long as the phalanx kept its order, casualties were low. When phalanges fought, they clashed head-on in a massive shoving match that was usually quickly resolved when one side lost its nerve, broke formation, and fled. Fleeing hoplites typically dropped their heavy shields to get away faster, but once one phalanx started to flee, the soldiers of the opposing phalanx were ill-equipped to give chase. The goal of a hoplite battle was to drive the enemy from the field, not kill them.

In order to fight effectively, hoplites needed several things in addition to their equipment. First of all, they needed lots of training. Maintaining the phalanx formation while advancing into the fray and clashing with opposing forces was difficult. Even more important, it required cohesion among the individual hoplites. A formation that depended on every individual in it standing firm and protecting those around them could only work when those in it felt they could trust and rely on their fellow soldiers. That kind of unit cohesion could be created in several ways. Spartans created it through a brutal indoctrination into a culture of conformity. Companies of mercenary hoplites created it through shared experience in the field. But in most Greek cities, the solidarity of hoplite warfare was intertwined with democracy.

Hoplites appear quite suddenly in Greek history around 650 BCE, so suddenly that they seem to have been a deliberate innovation rather than a gradual development out of earlier traditions. There were other dramatic changes happening in Greek society at the time. For centuries, Greek society had been dominated by aristocratic families who monopolized both control of farmland and political power, but the growth of overseas trade undermined their authority. Some ordinary people began to get rich off of trade with the larger Mediterranean world and to demand more of a say in how things were run.

In many places, aristocrats who were on the outs took advantage of popular discontent to put themselves forward as sole leaders who could keep the other aristocrats in check and represent the interests of the common people. The Greeks called these rulers tyrants, a word that did not originally have the negative connotations it carries today. These tyrants organized the people into a political force that could overwhelm the old aristocracies, and it seems likely they were also responsible for organizing them into a military force for the same purpose. The old aristocrats had relied on followings of professional warriors to compete with one another and protect their power. The hoplite phalanx was made up not of professional soldiers but farmers, crafters, merchants, and other ordinary folks who paid for their own armor and took time away from their livelihoods to train together. Their cohesion and solidarity overwhelmed the aristocrats’ paid fighters.

The tyrants, backed by their hoplite forces, enjoyed a brief ascendancy, but most soon revealed themselves as little more than ambitious opportunists who had little real commitment to making life better for their supporters. The ordinary people turned against them. The experience of solidarity in common cause that had been instilled by the hoplite style of fighting became the core of a new way of organizing society, and after ousting their tyrants most Greek cities embraced forms of government that allowed for broad citizen participation. It is significant though that Greek democracy was always centered on the hoplite phalanx. People who did not have a role in the phalanx—women, the poor, slaves, resident foreigners—rarely had any role to play in Greek democracy.

Thoughts for writers

Human societies are complex systems. Their various parts interlock and affect one another. The ways in which people fight are shaped by the societies they live in, and shape them in turn. If your story has characters fighting in a particular way, you should construct your world to reflect the origins of that fighting style and its consequences. It is possible to have a hoplite phalanx without democracy (Sparta), and it is possible to have a democracy without a hoplite phalanx (medieval Iceland), but understanding how each one supported the rise of the other in ancient Greece will help you construct fuller and more believable alternatives.

Image: Chigi Vase, reconstructed frieze via Wikimedia (7th c. BCE; painted pottery)

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.

Race in Antiquity: Who Were the Greeks?

“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 5: Who Were the Greeks?

As we have discussed before, modern racial categories are not easy to apply to the ancient Mediterranean world. Ancient peoples like the Greeks and Roman had complicated ideas about their own identities, but those ideas do not readily line up with the ways in which we modern people define race. If we want to better understand the identity of the ancient Greeks—in ancient or modern terms—we first have to know who we’re talking about. That may sound like a silly question. Isn’t the answer obvious? The Greeks! But who was a Greek?

This is a more difficult question than it may seem. In the modern world, nations have citizenship laws to regulate who is, say, an American, a Canadian, a Belgian, etc. Even today, though, not everyone’s identity is easily defined. Immigrants, expatriates, refugees, and other people who travel between nations can have complicated relationships to the places they come from and the places they end up. Individual feelings and societal attitudes are not always in line with the letter of the law.

The situation was even more complicated in ancient Greece. The people of ancient Greece were never politically unified on their own initiative. Individual city-states like Athens, Sparta, Corinth, and Thebes had their own citizenship laws, but these regulations varied widely between cities and changed in response to political pressures. Spartans who fled from battle could lose their citizenship. In Athens, challenging a rival’s citizen status was a common tactic in the tussle of political and family feuding. New citizens were enfranchised to serve political and military needs. The nearest thing there was to a central arbiter of Greekness was the Hellanodikai, the judges who oversaw the Olympic Games, in which only Greeks were allowed to compete. The judgments they made, though, were individual and only applied to the athletes. Decisions could also be swayed by political considerations: the Hellanodikai judged King Alexander I of Macedonia (great-great-great-grandfather of Alexander the Great) to be a Greek, while holding that the people of Macedonia themselves were not. (Herodotus, Histories 5.22)

The standards used for arguing about Greekness could also change with time and circumstances. In the sixth century BCE, most discussions of Greek identity were framed in terms of descent, specifically descent from particular mythic ancestors. The crucial figure was Hellen (a son of either the god Zeus and a human woman, Pyrrha, or Pyrrha and a human man, Deucalion—and not to be confused with the beautiful Helen, who sparked the Trojan War). Those who claimed descent from Hellen were counted among the Greeks, while those who did not were excluded. One of the fullest renderings of this tradition is in the poem known as the Catalogue of Women, a sixth-century poem known today only in fragments, which presented an account of the Greek heroic age structured around the genealogies, marriages, and progeny of certain women. This poem identified various groups of Greeks with three sons of Hellen: Dorus, Xuthus, and Aeolus.

The Catalogue, though, was not the final word on Greekness. As a primarily oral tradition, Greek myth had no canonical texts, and the family lines of gods and heroes were always up for debate. Other sources rearranged the family trees to change the determination of who did or did not count as Greek. (Thucydides, History 2.80.5-6; Pausanias, Description of Greece 1.11.1) Nor did ancestry remain the only way of asserting Greek identity. In the fifth century, many writers also began to refer to shared language, culture, and ways of life as defining who was Greek. (Herodotus 8.144) By the fourth century, we find the Athenian orator Isocrates explicitly rejecting common ancestry as a way of determining who was a Greek or not:

[Athens] has caused the name of “Greek” to apply not to a tribe but to a way of thought, so that those who are called Greeks are those who share our education rather than those who share our origins.

– Isocrates, Panegyric 50

(All translations my own)

In the Successor Kingdoms of the Hellenistic age (the remnants of Alexander’s empire in the Aegean, Egypt, and southwestern Asia), Greekness took on new meanings. In Egypt under the Ptolemaic kings, “Greek” was an administrative rather than ethnic designation applied to anyone who was not a native Egyptian. Thus not only immigrants from Greece and Macedonia were classed as “Greeks,” but also, for instance, Jews, Syrians, and Persians. Being designated Greek carried certain legal and tax benefits, so even members of the native Egyptian aristocracy who supported the Ptolemaic regime were granted Greek status. In the Seleucid kingdom, centered on Mesopotamia and Syria, Greekness was a communal rather than individual status. Certain cities founded by immigrants from Greece and Macedonia were recognized as “Greek,” which brought some administrative benefits to everyone who lived there, regardless of their origins.

Many different people lived with identities that were more complex than simply “Greek” or “not Greek.” From the seventh century BCE on, many individuals with special skills left the small, economically underdeveloped cities of the Aegean to find employment elsewhere, including mercenaries, physicians, courtesans, artisans, and actors. These emigrants settled in places ranging from the Iberian peninsula to the Iranian plateau and integrated themselves into local societies. Their descendants tended to adopt local names, languages, and cultures, such as Wahibre-em-Akhet, the son of two Greek-named parents who was buried in Egypt in a traditional Egyptian sarcophagus. Larger groups of emigrants founded colonies around the Mediterranean and Black Seas. While some of these colonies asserted a strong sense of Greek identity, many had more complex cultures, such as the Geloni of the Black Sea steppes, a fusion of Greek settlers and local peoples who spoke a Greek-Scythian creole language. (Herodotus 4.108)

Many people from the greater Mediterranean world also settled in the Greek cities of the Aegean. By the fourth century BCE there were Egyptian and Thracian immigrant communities in Athens that were substantial enough to successfully petition for the right to build temples to their own goddesses, Isis and Bendis. (Inscriptiones Graecae II2 337) The Carthaginian philosopher Hasdrubal moved to Athens and, in 129 BCE, became head of Plato’s Academy. Like Wahibre-em-Akhet in Egypt, Hasdrubal accommodated himself to the local culture by adopting the Greek name Clitomachus. (Cicero, Academica 2.31; Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers 4.10) At the other end of the social scale, the Aegean cities of Delos and Rhodes were major centers for the slave trade. Captive people from origins stretching from Gaul to Persia and Scythia to Egypt are recorded passing through their harbors. Farther afield, Hellenistic-era Jews claimed to have proof that they shared a common ancestry with the Spartans and that sons of the Jewish patriarch Abraham had accompanied the Greek hero Heracles on his adventures. (1 Maccabees 12.5-23; Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 1.240-41, 12.225-27)

Greek culture and identity did not stand alone and aloof from others. The sense of cultural interconnection and flexibility was expressed in Egypt by a poem written in Greek but addressed to the Egyptian goddess Isis which explicitly identified Isis with the goddesses of several other peoples:

The Syrians call you Astarte, Artemis, and Nanaia,

the people of Lycia address you as Queen Leto,

men of Thrace call you the mother of the gods,

and the Greeks name you great-throned Hera, sweet Aphrodite,

good Hestia, Rhea, and Demeter,

but the Egyptians call you The Only One, for you are the one who is all

other goddesses named by humanity.

– Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum 8.584.18-24

The multiplicity of ways in which Greekness could be claimed may be best exemplified by comparing two examples. On one hand, there were descendants of Hellenistic settlers in India in the last centuries BCE and early centuries CE who had assimilated into Indian culture but who still identified themselves as “Yavana,” the word for Greek in the local language. This term appears in inscriptions on offerings made to Indian gods in local temples. In terms of culture, language, and ways of life, these Yavana had become thoroughly Indian; it was only through their ancestry that they still identified as Greek. On the other hand, the philosopher Favorinus, in the second century CE, argued that he counted as Greek despite his Gaulish ancestry because he had adopted a Greek culture, language, and way of life. (Favorinus, Corinthian Oration 25-26)

Greekness was never a racial identity; it was a cultural identity, and one that was open to many different interpretations, not all of them compatible with one another. Any questions we ask about the racial identity of the ancient Greeks are bound to have complex answers. Nor are we, as modern people, in a position to dispute the lived and felt identities of ancient peoples. To impose our own rules on whose Greekness was legitimate and whose was not would simply be begging the question. The idea that people can be categorized into coherent ethnic groups with well-defined boundaries that were stable over time and across great distances is a figment of the imperialist and Romantic nationalist imagination. If we are serious about investigating the identity of the ancient Greeks, we have to be prepared for the bewildering and irreducible complexities involved in defining exactly who we mean.

Other posts on Race in Antiquity:

Image: Corinthian capital with seated Buddha, via Wikimedia (originally Gandhara, currently Musée Guimet, Paris; 3rd-4th c. CE; stone)

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.