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.

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Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World Now Available

My new book, Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World, is now available to order, in hardback, paper, or digital formats. Here’s a preview.

You can order directly from Hackett or on Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

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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.

* * *

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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Hoplites

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.

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.

Race in Antiquity: Skin Color

“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 3: Skin Color

Race, as we use the concept today, applies arbitrary divisions on the wide diversity of human physiology. The fact that these divisions are arbitrary does not make them irrelevant or innocuous. As with many other ways of dividing up humanity, race has often been used to justify inequalities. The ancient Mediterranean world was not free of inequality or arbitrary divisions between people, but that does not mean that those divisions worked the same way as the modern idea of race.

Skin color is a useful place to start. Although many different aspects of human physiology have been used to mark out racial divisions—face shape, hair texture, skeletal proportions—none is more thoroughly interwoven into racial ideology as skin color. The terms black and white are conventional ways of identifying race. Others, such as red, yellow, and brown, though not as widely used as they once were, still appear today, sometimes with more complex meanings than they once had. Even the currently preferred circumlocution people of color still supposes that skin color is a prime marker of identity. In both life and art, we tend to look at skin color as the signal marker of racial identity, and to identify both ourselves and others in those terms.

What did skin color mean to the people of ancient Greece and Rome? It was not irrelevant. Greek and Roman authors and artists were aware that different people had different skin tones and they sometimes connected these distinctions with identity in significant ways, but that is not the same as recognizing race. We cannot read ancient literature or look at ancient art and evaluate it the same way we would treat at a modern movie or news story.

Consider this cheeky couplet from the Roman poet Catullus, addressed to Julius Caesar:

I don’t try too hard to please you, Caesar.

I don’t even know whether you are a black person or a white person.

– Catullus, Songs 93

(All translations my own)

To a modern Western audience, this sounds at once like a reference to race. To call someone a “black person” or a “white person” today is transparently and unambiguously a racial identification. Yet Catullus meant nothing of the kind. He certainly was not ignorant of the ancestry and identity of one of the most powerful people in the Roman world in his day. In Classical Latin, “I don’t know whether it’s black or white” is a common saying meaning “I don’t care in the slightest.” Catullus wasn’t talking about Caesar’s skin color at all.

There are examples in classical literature when people’s skin color is explicitly described, but even those cases do not follow the same patterns as modern racial categories. For example, in the Odyssey, the hero Odysseus is disguised by the goddess Athena when he first arrives home to Ithaca. When he first meets his son Telemachus, however, the disguise is briefly lifted, and part of what marks the transformation is a change in skin color:

Athena pointed with her golden wand.

First she wrapped him well in a cloak

and spread a tunic around his breast, filled out to its prime.

He became black-skinned again, his jaws stretched out,

and a dark blue beard covered his chin.

– Homer, Odyssey 16.172-6

The word used to describe Odysseus’ color, melanchroiēs, can be literally translated as ‘black-skinned,’ but really means ‘deeply suntanned.’ The darkness of Odysseus’ skin is important because it marks his age and experience. It was not part of an ethnic identity he was born with but something he acquired through experience.

Ancient authors similarly associated pale skin with youth and naivete. The comic playwright Aristophanes used whiteness as a marker of foolish inexperience to describe a character who had what his Athenian audience would have regarded as a ludicrously bad idea:

After this, some handsome young fellow,
as white as Nikias, jumped up,
put up his hand to speak,
and said we should hand the city over to the women.

– Aristophanes, The Assemblywomen 427-30

Nikias was a prominent politician of the age who championed the cause of peace between Athens and Sparta. Just like Odysseus’ “black skin” was a marker of his long career as a warrior, Nikias’ “whiteness” distinguished him as a military dilettante. In neither case was the color of their skin meant to convey a racial identity.

It seems that even at a basic level, ancient Greeks and Romans described colors differently than we do today. Latin has two words for both white and black. Albus means pale, lusterless white, while candidus means bright, gleaming white. Ater is flat, matte black while niger is glossy black. In Greek literature, many objects are described with colors we would not associate with them today: wine is black; grass is white; honey is green; iron is blue. (Note also Odysseus’ “dark blue” beard.) When ancient authors describe people in terms of color, we must be particularly cautious in how we interpret them.

In some cases, ancient authors did use skin color as a way of describing ethnic identity, but it was not the only physical feature, or even the most common one, that they paid attention to. Hair color, eye color, facial features, and physical proportions were equally relevant as ethnic traits, as shown in a couple of examples from the Greek philosopher Xenophanes and the Roman historian Tacitus:

Ethiopians say the gods are dark and snub-nosed; the Thracians give them red hair and blue eyes.

– Xenophanes, fragment 16

The physical variety [of the Britons] is suggestive. The golden-red hair and burly limbs of the Caledonians shows them to be of Germanic origin. The colorful faces and curly hair of the Silures, plus their position opposite Spain, suggests their ancestors were Spaniards who came across the ocean.

– Tacitus, Agricola 11

These observations should both caution and stimulate us.

On one hand, we cannot simply read ancient sources—or their modern translations—the same way we would read modern texts. Ancient Greek and Roman authors did not think in the same racial terms we use today, and we risk misunderstanding them if we simply apply modern concepts to ancient texts. When we read that the Greek historian Herodotus described the people of Egypt as “black” (Histories 2.22), the question we have to ask is not “What does ‘black’ mean?” but “What did ‘black’ mean to Herodotus?” Like Homer describing Odysseus, he probably meant that they were deeply tanned. He could not have meant that they belonged to the racial category of people we today classify as black because Greeks of his day did not use the word black with that meaning. Quite simply, Herodotus tells us nothing of much use in assigning modern racial categories to the ancient Egyptians.

On the other hand, the fact that ancient authors did not generally use skin color as a way of distinguishing racial groups in the same way we do does not mean that the ancient Mediterranean was ethnically homogeneous. Greek and Roman authors described the world in the terms that mattered to them. They had no idea that we would be coming along a couple of millennia later asking different questions with different ways of describing ourselves. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence: the fact that ancient authors tended not to describe people’s ethnicities in terms of skin color does not mean that people of many different ethnic origins and skin tones did not live among them.

Race is a clumsy and historically fraught way of dividing up the rich complexity of human diversity. Just because ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t divide people up in the same way we do doesn’t mean that the world they lived in was any less complex than our own. If we want to find evidence for that diversity, we have to be prepared to look for it in ways that don’t depend on modern conventions.

Other posts on Race in Antiquity:

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

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: Identities

“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 this and some other 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 2: Identities

Race as we know it today is an invention of European imperialism in the last five hundred years. Because most of the world was touched by European imperialism, whether directly or indirectly, race has become a vital category of identity for people in many parts of the modern world. Race creates distinctions that benefit some and disadvantage others, and—whether we agree with its effects or not—we cannot ignore or escape them. Most of us can readily identify ourselves and the people around us in racial terms, and we often have cause to do so.

There are many other categories through which we define our identities, such as gender, sexuality, religion, nationality, language, occupation, and so on. Being a white straight male Buddhist French-speaking Canadian cheese-seller is different from being a black straight male Buddhist French-speaking Canadian cheese-seller, but so is being a black straight female Buddhist French-speaking Canadian cheese-seller, or an Asian asexual trans male atheist Spanish-speaking Peruvian piano tuner, etc.

The rules that govern racial identity are perceived to be less flexible than the rules that govern other categories of identity. In most (though, notably, not all) of the modern West, these rules are defined by an ideology that is problematic and not always compatible with lived experiences or scientific thinking, but whose components are grounded in three fundamental assumptions. According to these assumptions, race is:

Biological. We recognize race primarily in terms of physical features like skin color and facial geometry. Science defines certain genetic and physical features as characteristically “Caucasoid,” “Negroid,” “Mongoloid,” or other categories.

Hereditary. Our race is defined by the race of our parents. A person with two black parents is automatically and necessarily black. Even people of mixed racial heritage can parse out their racial identity into specific proportions.

Immutable. We cannot choose or change our racial identity; a person born white can never be any race other than white, and the same is true of other races.

The ancient Greeks and Romans, and other peoples of the ancient Mediterranean, also recognized that identities are complex, made up of different categories, and that some identities have advantages over others. An ancient Greek sage (the quote is attributed to both Thales and Socrates) said:

I thank fortune for three things: first, that I was born a human, not an animal; second, that I was born a man, not a woman; third, that I was born a Greek, not a barbarian.

– Hermippus of Smyrna, frag. 13

(All translations my own.)

In addition to these categories—humanity, gender, and culture—other categories were important for ancient identity, such as legal status (freeborn, freed, or slave), language, occupation, citizenship, and family affiliation, but race, as we recognize it today, was not among them. No category matching the modern racial assumptions of biology, heredity, and immutability existed in Greek or Roman culture.

There is no word in Greek or Latin that corresponds to “race.” The nearest equivalent is “gens” in Latin or “genos” in Greek, both of which imply a group of people with a coherent cultural identity and a common ancestry. It is better translated as “tribe” or “extended family.” The idea of dividing people up on the basis of skin color would have made no sense to a Greek or Roman, nor would the idea of a category of humanity that did not differentiate between people from Greece, Spain, Ireland, and Ukraine.

Greek and Roman authors were aware of variations in physical features. The Greek philosopher Xenophanes, for instance, noted that different peoples imagine the gods as resembling themselves:

Ethiopians say the gods are dark and snub-nosed; the Thracians give them red hair and blue eyes.
– Xenophanes of Colophon, frag. 16

The Roman historian Tacitus similarly made suggestions about the origins of the Britons based on their physical characteristics:

The physical variety [of the Britons] is suggestive. The golden-red hair and burly limbs of the Caledonians shows them to be of Germanic origin. The colorful faces and curly hair of the Silures, plus their position opposite Spain, suggests their ancestors were Spaniards who came across the ocean.
– Tacitus, Agricola 11

Nevertheless, physical features were not regarded as sufficient to divide people into categories. Languages, customs, and ways of life carried far more weight. When the Greek historian Herodotus argued that the Colchians of the Black Sea region were related to the Egyptians, he dismissed the similarities of their appearances as unreliable and based his argument instead on similarities in their cultures:

It is evident that the Colchians are Egyptians… I guessed this myself since they are both dark-skinned and thick-haired, but that amounts to nothing since others are as well. A better proof is that the Colchians, Egyptians, and Ethiopians are the only peoples who have always practiced circumcision… [The Colchians] and the Egyptians produce linen in the same way; plus their ways of life and their languages resemble one another.
– Herodotus, Histories 2.104-5

Heredity mattered for defining identities, but not in the same way as in modern racial thinking. When Greeks and Romans looked to their ancestry for claims of identity, they discussed it in terms of descent from a specific (historical or mythical) individual, not collective ancestry. King Alexander I of Macedon (the great-great-great-grandfather of Alexander the Great) argued that he ought to be allowed to participate in the Olympic Games, which were open only to Greeks, on the grounds that he was a descendant of the Greek hero Heracles. (Herodotus, Histories 5.22) This kind of ancestral argument could even bridge cultural divides. When the Persian king Xerxes was preparing to invade Greece in 479 BCE, he sent emissaries to the Greek city Argos to persuade them to remain neutral and not join the other Greeks resisting his campaign. He based his argument on the claim that the Persians were descended from the Greek hero Perseus, who came from Argos, and so Persians and Argives, as distant relatives, should not fight one another. (Herodotus, Histories 7.150)

For many ancient authors, culture was far more important than heredity in assessing people’s identities. The Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus declared:

For, in my opinion, Greeks are not distinguished from barbarians by name or language, but by intelligence and the inclination to proper behavior, and more than this by the fact that they do not behave inhumanly to one another. Those whose natures are of this kind, I think, ought to be called Greeks; those who are the opposite, barbarians.
– Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 14.6

Furthermore, identity was not always assumed to remain stable across generations. The last king of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus, was identified as a Roman, but his father, Tarquinius Priscus, was an Etruscan, whose own father, Demaratus of Corinth, was a Greek. (Livy, History of Rome 1.34; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 3.46) This same instability applied on a collective basis. Many people in the ancient Mediterranean claimed descent from other peoples. Most famously, the Romans claimed to be descended from the Trojans, but some also claimed the Romans were descended from Greeks. Gauls likewise claimed descent from Troy. Jews asserted that the Spartans of Greece were their long-lost kin, while Tacitus declared that the Jews were descended from Ethiopian exiles. (Vergil, Aeneid; Livy, History of Rome 1.1; Dionysius of Halicarnasus, Roman Antiquities 1.31, 41-44, 60, 72, 89; Lucan, Pharsalia 1.427-8; 1 Maccabees 12.5-23; Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 12.225-7; Tacitus, Histories 5.2)

Even individuals might change their identities over time. The Greek physician Galen described his Roman clientele as:

… those who are born barbarians but cultivate the ways of Greeks.
– Galen, On the Preservation of Health 1.10

Ancient Greeks and Romans thought about their identities in many different ways, but none of these ways corresponds to race as we define it today. These differences in how ancient peoples thought about identify shaped how they wrote about themselves and others. The things that mattered to them in defining identities were not always the same things that matter to us.

When we ask what race the ancient Greeks and Romans were, we are applying concepts that the people we are investigating would not themselves have understood. Acknowledging this fact is essential when we look to the primary sources to try to answer our questions. We cannot simply read ancient sources as if we were reading a modern newspaper or Twitter feed and assume that we can identify the people they describe as surely as if we met them on the street today. Looking for evidence of race in antiquity requires understanding what the ancient sources don’t say as much as what they do.

Other posts on Race in Antiquity:

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

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.

Magic Words

From Gandalf’s “Naur an edraith ammen” to Harry Potter’s “Expelliarmus,” words carry the power to work magic in many stories. The idea is not a new one. Here, for example, is some medical advice from the early Roman writer Cato the Elder’s treatise on agriculture:

A dislocation can be made whole with this incantation. Take a green reed four or five feet long, split it in half, and have two people hold it at your hips. Begin to chant: “Motas uaetas daries dardares astataries dissunapiter” and continue until the halves touch. Flourish an iron blade over them. Where they touch one another, take them in your hand and cut left and right. Bind the pieces to the dislocation or fracture and it will be healed. Keep chanting every day like this: “Haut haut haut istasis tarsis ardannabou dannaustra.”

– Cato the Elder, On Agriculture 160

(My own translation.)

Cato was a Roman traditionalist who preferred folk remedies like this one to the more scientific Greek medicine that was becoming popular in Rome in his day, but Greeks had magic words of their own. A set of six words, known as the “Ephesian letters,” were believed to be particularly powerful: askion, kataskion, lix, tetrax, damnameneus, and aision. These words may have been used for spoken incantations like Cato’s charms, but they were particularly used in writing. Reportedly, they originally came from an inscription on the statue of Artemis at Ephesus. It later became a common practice to write the words on scraps of papyrus which were then tied up in small pouches and carried or tied to various parts of the body for magical protection. Boxers were especially known to use these sorts of amulets for strength and defense in competition.

Magic words often seem to sit somewhere on the line between meaning and nonsense. These magic words—both Cato’s spells and the Ephesian letters—are not meaningful in themselves, but they suggest meanings to those who know Latin and Greek. Cato’s incantation implies the movement of something broken. The Ephesian letters suggest words relating to power—damnameneus, for instance, seems to derive from the verb damazo, meaning to tame an animal.

Other examples of magic words from Greece and Rome are derived from real words in other languages the Greeks and Romans had contact with, such as Egyptian, Hebrew, and Persian. Osoronnophris, for example, another magic word used in various Greek and Roman spells, comes from an Egyptian phrase meaning “Osiris (god of the dead) is beautiful.” In much the same way, although J. K. Rowling’s “expelliarmus” may not be a real word, it sounds a lot like Latin and it is not hard to guess that it is intended to disarm an opponent.

Another way of invoking the magic of nonsense is to use words in ways that disrupt normal understanding. Repetition, for example, like Cato’s “haut haut haut” makes real words into magical nonsense. In written spells, words were sometimes written backwards or with letters reversed.

There’s magic in words, spoken or written.

Image: “Expelliarmus” from Doctor Who, “The Shakespeare Code” via Giphy

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.