Tolkien, Fantasy, and Race

Wizards of the Coast recently announced that they will be changing how the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game system handles race. These changes include, among others, reimagining the traditionally evil Drow and Orcs as complex and nuanced cultures, revising how a player’s choice of race affects their character’s stats, and removing racially insensitive text from reissues of old content. You can read the company’s statement about these changes here.

Some of these changes are more obviously necessary than others. It’s not hard for most of us to see how having a race of dark-skinned Elves who are almost universally evil in your game is a poor design choice that needs to be rectified, but it’s less obvious to a lot of people why the game should be changed so that your Elf isn’t necessarily clever and dexterous or your Dwarf stout and tough. To understand why rules like these are problematic, it helps to look at how ideas about portraying non-human beings in fantasy have been shaped. Fantasy is as complex and varied as any other genre of literature and no single person is responsible for the development of its tropes and principles, but when we think about race in fantasy, there is one crucial place to start: Tolkien.

Tolkien’s Middle Earth legendarium profoundly shaped fantasy literature in the twentieth century and the other media drawing from it, such as role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. Tolkien’s versions of Elves and Dwarves, as well as his invention of Hobbits (made lawyer-friendly as “Halflings”), formed the basis for D&D’s early options for players who wanted an alternative to humans. Much of the popular fantasy archetypes for what non-human races are like (ethereal, wise, bow-wielding Elves; stubborn, pugnacious, axe-hefting Dwarves) were either created or codified by Tolkien.

Tolkien’s relationship to race is complicated. On one hand, he was vocally opposed to the antisemitism common in his time and to the Nazis’ attempts to claim his beloved Germanic mythology as a prop to their racist regime. His Middle Earth tales can be read as a counter-argument to white supremacist ideology, as the “lesser” folk of Middle Earth, like the Hobbits and the Wild Men, prove more resistant to the lies of evil than the “higher” races of Men. At the same time, there is no denying that Tolkien’s fiction is suffused with familiar racial assumptions, filled with white characters and portraying dark-skinned people only as strange or threatening others.

But it is Tolkien’s work as a scholar that is most important for understanding his effect on the depiction of race in fantasy. Tolkien’s academic training as an Oxford student in the early twentieth century was grounded in the traditions of the nineteenth century, which defined nations as coherent, natural entities existing across time and marked by inherent characteristics. This academic worldview was linked to the Romantic and nationalist movements at work in Europe in that century, as well as the ongoing imperialist projects of Britain, France, and other nations of Europe. At its core was the belief that culture and biology are equivalent, that people have fundamental national traits inherited from their ancestors which define their culture, character, even moral worth.

Every academic discipline concerned with the human past was engaged in some way with this project. Historians traced the ancestry of their own and other peoples as far back as written sources would allow, at which point archaeologists stepped in to carry the line further back. Scholars of literature and art looked to both nationally famous artists and rural folk traditions to delineate the defining characteristics of a culture. Scholars in different nations concocted their own versions of national culture and interpreted both ancient and recent history in terms of discreet nations wrangling with one another: while English writers explained their early history as the victory of the serious, diligent Anglo-Saxon over the moody, whimsical Celt, French historians conceived of the French Revolution as a primordial Gallic peasantry overthrowing the Germanic overlords who had dominated them since the fifth century CE. Even forgeries and hoaxes followed the same principle, like the collection of Gaelic poetry attributed to the bard Ossian or the fake primordial Englishman buried with a battered cricket bat at Piltdown. While the work of such historians, folklorists, artists, pranksters and others was in itself fairly benign, it was part of a larger politics that justified the exploitation and oppression of some ethnic groups for the benefit of others based on specious claims about national characters and destinies.

Tolkien’s subject, philology, was no exception. Scholars believed that language could be a key to those parts of the past that neither history nor archaeology could reach, perhaps even the most important parts, for what can be more fundamental to our identity than the words we use to describe our world? Linguistic research, starting in the eighteenth century with the realization that the ancient Indian language Sanskrit came from the same source as Greek and Latin, had demonstrated that it was possible to discover regular principles that governed shifts in sound as languages evolved and split into new languages. Applying these principles to the earliest documented fragments of existing languages made it possible to reconstruct, with a high degree of certainty, elements of vocabulary and grammar belonging to languages that had never been written down.

Tolkien, and other philologists of his generation, believed that it was possible to go a step further and apply the same principles to myths, legends, even history. Working backwards from the earliest recorded elements of a culture—its oldest literature and art, archaeological remains, and whatever fragments of ancient knowledge survived in folk tradition—they hoped to reconstruct the primordial beliefs, practices, and character of that culture. Tolkien carried this same spirit into his literary work and with his Middle Earth stories tried to reimagine a history that might have lain behind the scattered remnants of Germanic mythology that come down to us through English, Norse, German, and Icelandic sources.

The result of this labor was a fictional world that incorporates numerous traces of ancient tradition—Smaug, from The Hobbit, has shades of Fafnir from the Volsunga Saga, while the arrival of Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, and Gandalf at Edoras in The Lord of the Rings recreates the Geatish heroes’ arrival at Heorot in Beowulf—but put together in a distinctly nineteenth-century way. The various races of Men in Tolkien’s work reflect contemporary belief in inherent national cultures to the extent that the Dunedain of the north retained their culture for many long generations cut off from Gondor in the south. Other peoples of Tolkien’s world are culturally defined by their ancestry, stretching over thousands of years.

Tolkien’s Elves and Dwarves are a similar combination of ancient Nordic lore and nineteenth-century nationalistic culture-construction. Tolkien took stories about Elves and Dwarves from different times, cultures, and genres, extracted the elements he believed were characteristic, and fused them together to create the kind of singular, coherent cultures that scholars of his day believed could be found among real peoples. The idea of Elves as archers comes from a Scottish tradition of referring to prehistoric arrow points as “Elf-shot.” The intermarriage of Elves and humans comes from Icelandic sagas. The bewildering power of an encounter with Elves derives from medieval German folklore. Tolkien believed that these various fragments were the remains of what had once been a clear, consistent belief in Elves as beings with defined characteristics, much as words in Sanskrit, Greek, and Old Norse were the remains of an older language, and that by putting them together he could reconstruct the nature of Elves in same way philologists reconstructed lost languages. The same applies to Tolkien’s Dwarves.

Tolkien’s assumptions about lost cultural knowledge only make sense in the context of the scholarship he worked in. Modern research has found that the image of Elves in northern European mythology is widely varied. Writers in different times and cultures had vastly different ideas about what Elves were, ranging from benevolent ancestor spirits to malicious swamp creatures that would steal your baby and eat it. There is no evidence that the original Elf Tolkien thought he could reconstruct was ever anything but a mirage. Indeed, it is not just that Elves did not have consistent characteristics in northern mythology, early northern writers don’t even seem to have viewed “Elf” as a stable category that could be defined. Many texts use the term fluidly for many different sorts of supernatural creature, overlapping with Dwarves, demons, angels, and others in ways that do not allow for any clear definition.

It is primarily to Tolkien that we owe the idea, not just that Elves, Dwarves, and other fantastical creatures have consistent characteristics, but that they exist as discreet groups that can be defined. This conception of fantasy folks is a product of a particular cultural and scholarly worldview, one that is increasingly out of date. Aloof archer Elves and beefy brawling Dwarves running around your game world may seem perfectly harmless, but the archetypes that define these as the standard types of Elves and Dwarves are rooted in a history of imperialism and racism.

It is time to leave behind this artifact of the nineteenth century and embrace a world in which Dwarves can be slender bookworms and Elves can be boisterous bruisers, or anything else you want them to be.

Post edited for grammar

Image: Elf and Dwarf cosplay, photograph by Tomasz Stasiuk via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Quotes: You Shall Not Follow a Majority in Wrongdoing

As most of you probably know, there are currently multiple protests against racism and police brutality after the killing of George Floyd in the U.S. that have spread worldwide.

I have so many things to say, but I’ll spare your eyeballs because there would be a FUCKING INCONCEIVABLE ABUNDANCE OF EXPLETIVES. But if there’s a pared-down version I want to say to my fellow white folks, especially if you’re a Christian, it’s this:

“You shall not follow a majority in wrongdoing; […] you shall not side with the majority so as to pervert justice.”

– Exodus 23:2, after The New Revised Standard Version of The Bible

I was brought up Christian and my grandfather was a policeman, and I cannot fucking fathom how many white people are apparently fucking fine with police essentially executing BIPOC or attacking peaceful demonstrators without any consequences.

If you believe you are a Christian, especially a white one, especially one working as a police officer, there’s only one side in all of this that you can possibly take.

For example, if you think it’s acceptable to

then you are a part of the problem. No ifs or buts.

If you are a police officer and said yes to any of the above, you are, in actual fucking fact, a member of a violent cult and an oathbreaker, and belong in jail.

(No, rioting isn’t okay, but I do understand a little where all the anguish and rage is coming from.)

Comments are closed. This is not a subject that is even supposed to be under discussion.

Here there be opinions!

Representation Chart: Star Wars, Original Trilogy

We all know that the representation of people of different genders and races is imbalanced in popular media, but sometimes putting it into visual form can help make the imbalance clear. Here’s a chart of the Star Wars original trilogy movies (Episode IV: A New Hope, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi).

Characters included

(Characters are listed in the first movie in which they qualify for inclusion under the rules given below.)

  • Episode IV: A New Hope: Luke Skywalker, Owen, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Tarkin, Princess Leia, Beru
  • Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back: General Rieekan, Admiral Piett, Emperor Palpatine, Lando Calrissian
  • Episode VI: Return of the Jedi:

If the absence of major characters like Darth Vader, Chewbacca, and Yoda seems strange, see below.

Rules

In the interests of clarity, here’s the rules I’m following for who to include and where to place them:

  • I only count characters portrayed by an actor who appears in person on screen in more or less recognizable form (i.e. performances that are entirely CG, prosthetic, puppet, or voice do not count).
  • The judgment of which characters are significant enough to include is unavoidably subjective, but I generally include characters who have on-screen dialogue, who appear in more than one scene, and who are named on-screen (including nicknames, code names, etc.)
  • For human characters that can be reasonably clearly identified, I use the race and gender of the character.
  • For non-human characters or characters whose identity cannot be clearly determined, I use the race and gender of the actor.
  • I use four simplified categories for race and two for gender. Because human variety is much more complicated and diverse than this, there will inevitably be examples that don’t fit. I put such cases where they seem least inappropriate. “White” and “Black” are as conventionally defined in modern Western society. “Asian” means East, Central, or South Asian. “Indigenous” encompasses Native Americans, Polynesians, Indigenous Australians, and other indigenous peoples from around the world.
  • There are many ethnic and gender categories that are relevant to questions of representation that are not covered here. There are also other kinds of diversity that are equally important for representation that are not covered here. A schematic view like this can never be perfect, but it is a place to start.

Corrections and suggestions welcome.

Chart by Erik Jensen

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Representation Chart: Star Wars, Prequels

We all know that the representation of people of different genders and races is imbalanced in popular media, but sometimes putting it into visual form can help make the imbalance clear. Here’s a chart of the Star Wars prequel movies (Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith).

Characters included

(Characters are listed in the first movie in which they qualify for inclusion under the rules given below.)

  • Episode I: The Phantom Menace: Obi-Wan Kenobi, Qui-Gon Jin, Anakin Skywalker, Palpatine, Chancelor Valorum, Padme Amidala, Shmi Skywalker, Captain Panaka, Mace Windu, Kitster
  • Episode II: Attack of the Clones: Captain Typho, Jango Fett, Boba Fett, Count Dooku, Cleigg Lars, Owen Lars, Bail Organa, Beru, Captain Typho, Dorme
  • Episode III: Revenge of the Sith: Commander Cody

Rules

In the interests of clarity, here’s the rules I’m following for who to include and where to place them:

  • I only count characters portrayed by an actor who appears in person on screen in more or less recognizable form (i.e. performances that are entirely CG, prosthetic, puppet, or voice do not count).
  • The judgment of which characters are significant enough to include is unavoidably subjective, but I generally include characters who have on-screen dialogue, who appear in more than one scene, and who are named on-screen (including nicknames, code names, etc.)
  • For human characters that can be reasonably clearly identified, I use the race and gender of the character.
  • For non-human characters or characters whose identity cannot be clearly determined, I use the race and gender of the actor.
  • I use four simplified categories for race and two for gender. Because human variety is much more complicated and diverse than this, there will inevitably be examples that don’t fit. I put such cases where they seem least inappropriate. “White” and “Black” are as conventionally defined in modern Western society. “Asian” means East, Central, or South Asian. “Indigenous” encompasses Native Americans, Polynesians, Indigenous Australians, and other indigenous peoples from around the world.
  • There are many ethnic and gender categories that are relevant to questions of representation that are not covered here. There are also other kinds of diversity that are equally important for representation that are not covered here. A schematic view like this can never be perfect, but it is a place to start.

Corrections and suggestions welcome.

Chart by Erik Jensen

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Representation Chart: Marvel Cinematic Universe, Phase 3

We all know that the representation of people of different genders and races is imbalanced in popular media, but sometimes putting it into visual form can help make the imbalance clear. Here’s a chart of the Phase 3 movies of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (Captain America: Civil War; Doctor Strange; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame, Spider-Man: Far from Home)

Characters included

(Characters are listed in the first movie in which they qualify for inclusion under the rules given below.)

  • Captain America: Civil War: Tony Stark / Iron Man, Steve Rogers / Captain America, Bucky Barnes / Winter Soldier, Rumlow / Corssbones, Clint Barton / Hawkeye, Vision, Scott Lang / Ant-Man, Zemo, Thaddeus Ross, Everett Ross, Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow, Wanda Maximoff / Scarlet Witch, Sharon Carter / Agent 13, Colonel Rhodes / War Machine, Sam Wilson / Falcon, King T’Chaka, T’Challa / Black Panther
  • Doctor Strange: Dr. Stephen Strange, Kaecilius, Dr. West, Dr. Christine Palmer, the Ancient One, Mordo, Wong
  • Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: Peter Quill / Star-Lord, Yondu, Stakar Ogord, Ego, Taserface, Kraglin, Nebula, Ayesha, Gamora, Mantis
  • Spider-Man: Homecoming: Peter Parker / Spider-Man, Adrian Toomes / Vulture, Happy Hogan, Flash, Mason, Mr. Delmar, Mr. Harrington, May Parker, Betty, Shocker, Abe, Coach Wilson, Michelle, Liz, Ned, Principal Morita
  • Thor: Ragnarok: Thor, Loki, Grandmaster, Skurge, Bruce Banner, Odin, Hela, Heimdall, Topaz
  • Black Panther: Ulysses Klaue, Killmonger, W’Kabi, Shuri, M’Baku, N’Jobu, Ramonda, Zuri, Nakia, Okoye
  • Avengers: Infinty War: Eitri
  • Ant-Man and the Wasp: Luis, Hank Pym, Sonny Burch, Kurt, Hope Van Dyne / Wasp, Cassie, Janet Van Dyne, Dave, Bill Foster, Ava / Ghost, Agent Woo, Uzman
  • Captain Marvel: Talos (as Keller), Yon-Rogg, Ronan, Agent Coulson, Carol Danvers / Captain Marvel, Wendy Lawson, Nick Fury, Korath, Att-Lass, Maria Rambeau, Monica Rambeau, Minn-Erva
  • Avengers: Endgame: Pepper Potts, Morgan
  • Spider-Man: Far from Home: Quentin Beck / Mysterio, William Riva, Maria Hill, Janice, Mr. Dell, Brad

Rules

In the interests of clarity, here’s the rules I’m following for who to include and where to place them:

  • I only count characters portrayed by an actor who appears in person on screen in more or less recognizable form (i.e. performances that are entirely CG, prosthetic, puppet, or voice do not count).
  • The judgment of which characters are significant enough to include is unavoidably subjective, but I generally include characters who have on-screen dialogue, who appear in more than one scene, and who are named on-screen (including nicknames, code names, etc.)
  • For human characters that can be reasonably clearly identified, I use the race and gender of the character.
  • For non-human characters or characters whose identity cannot be clearly determined, I use the race and gender of the actor.
  • I use four simplified categories for race and two for gender. Because human variety is much more complicated and diverse than this, there will inevitably be examples that don’t fit. I put such cases where they seem least inappropriate, or, if no existing option is adequate, give them their own separate categories.
  • “White” and “Black” are as conventionally defined in modern Western society. “Asian” means East, Central, or South Asian. “Indigenous” encompasses Native Americans, Polynesians, Indigenous Australians, and other indigenous peoples from around the world.
  • There are many ethnic and gender categories that are relevant to questions of representation that are not covered here. There are also other kinds of diversity that are equally important for representation that are not covered here. A schematic view like this can never be perfect, but it is a place to start.

Corrections and suggestions welcome.

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

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: The Ivory Bangle Lady

“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 9: The “Ivory Bangle Lady”

In the past entries in this series, we have talked a lot about theories of identity, how we can interpret (and sometimes misinterpret) both written and artistic sources, and the problems in knowing just who we mean by Greeks and Romans in the first place. Today we approach the question from a different angle, looking at one individual and the world she lived in.

Around 400 CE, a wealthy lady was buried near the Roman city of Eburacum (modern York) in northern Britain. She was buried with jewelry including an assortment of bangles, some of white ivory from Africa, others of black jet from Britain. Her name is not recorded, but she has come to be known, because of her jewelry, as the Ivory Bangle lady.

Examination of the Lady’s remains using the techniques of forensic anthropology shows that she was of African ancestry and had spent her childhood in a warmer climate, perhaps somewhere in southern Europe or North Africa. Her skull has features typical of sub-Saharan African populations and in fact the reference measurements that most closely match her skeletal morphology come from nineteenth-century black Americans. Although no indication of her skin color survives, it is almost certain that, if we passed her on the street today, we would describe her as a woman of color.

Roman York may seem like the last place we would expect to find evidence of racial diversity. It was the northernmost city in the Roman empire, just a little over a hundred kilometers from the Scottish frontier. There are few places in the Roman world that were farther from the cosmopolitan centers of the Mediterranean, yet archaeology has revealed late Roman York to have been a vibrantly multi-ethnic city. Individuals from Gaul, Italy, and Egypt are mentioned in Roman-period inscriptions from around York. Local potters made cooking vessels characteristic of North African cuisine. A Germanic king with his retinue of warriors is attested in the city backing the emperor Constantine’s rise to power. Not far away, in the forts along Hadrian’s Wall, soldiers were worshiping gods imported from Syria and Persia. A North African woman of Sub-Saharn African descent would have been right at home in such a place.

What did she think of herself? We have no way of knowing except to try to interpret the circumstances of her burial. The bangles with which she was buried may suggest a consciousness of being both African and British, although ivory and jet were both prized in late Roman jewelry. They certainly, however, point to a family of wealth and status. The remains of a wooden box were also found in the grave, including a decorative mount carved with the text “Hail, sister, may you live in God” (AVE S[OR]OR VIVAS IN DEO). The text suggests a Christian connection, although the richness of the lady’s grave is at odds with the contemporary Christian preference for simple burial. The Lady may or may not have been Christian herself, but she certainly had contact with the Christian movement.

The most noteworthy thing about the Lady’s burial may be how unremarkable it is. It is in many ways an entirely typical late Roman provincial grave for a woman of high status. Her choice of jewelry may have been meant to say something about her origin, but it was a choice that would not have stood out among her peers. She was in touch with one of the major religious movements of the day but buried in a traditional fashion; she was neither ahead of nor behind the times. If we had only the grave goods and not the remains, there would be nothing to suggest that the deceased belonged to an ethnic minority.

The most important thing for us to learn from the Ivory Bangle Lady is this paradox: the relative scarcity of people of African origin in the ancient Mediterranean literary record is the product of their presence, not their absence. There were enough North Africans in York to influence the local pottery market, but in most respects they were just like other provincial Romans. They followed the same social trends and religious developments as their neighbors. They had come as soldiers in Roman service, as merchants, or as travelers, just like the Gauls, Italians, and Germans who also ended up in York. They were of all genders and lived at all levels of provincial society, from the bottom to the very top. Among them were people with features typical of sub-Saharan Africa and who would likely appear to us as black, but in their historical context, they were just Romans like everybody else.

If there were women like the Ivory Bangle Lady in York, the farthest Roman city from Africa, then people of black African descent cannot have been uncommon in the cosmopolitan cities of the Mediterranean. If they are not evident to us in the sources, it is in part because they were so commonplace and so thoroughly integrated into ancient Mediterranean culture that contemporary authors didn’t feel the need to mention them. People tend not to write about the ordinary. We know this well enough from modern social media: our Facebook friends and Twitter celebrities mostly post about the unusual things that happen to them, good or bad, not the everyday events of a typical day. The same principle applies, even more so, to ancient authors, given how much more costly and difficult it was to put their observations onto papyrus in ink than it is to fire off a tweet today.

Archaeology, especially with current developments in genetic research, may provide us with individual cases like the Ivory Bangle Lady, but most of the racial diversity of ancient populations will always be invisible to us because most graves don’t survive in good enough condition and the resources available for research are limited. But individual cases like late Roman York are a reminder that there was nothing the least bit unusual about people of many different backgrounds and—in modern terms—different races living side by side in antiquity.

Further reading

H. Cool, “An Overview of the Small Finds from Catterick,” in Cataractonium: Roman Catterick and its Hinterland ed. P. Wilson. York: Council for British Archaeology, 2002, 23-43

S. Leach et al., “A Lady of York: Migration, Ethnicity and Identity in Roman Britain,” Antiquity 84, no. 323 (March, 2010): 131-45.

Patrick Ottaway, Roman York. Stroud: Tempus, 2004.

V. G. Swan, “Legio VI and its Men: African Legionaries in Briatin,” Roman Pottery Studies, 5 (1992): 1-33

R. Warwick, “The Skeletal Remains,” in The Romano-British Cemetery at Trentholme Drive, York, ed. Leslie P. Wenham. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1968, 113-76

Other posts on Race in Antiquity:

Image: Modern artist’s reconstruction of the burial of the Ivory Bangle Lady, from Leach, “A Lady of York.”

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.

Cleopatra

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.

Representation Chart: Marvel Cinematic Universe, Phase 2

We all know that the representation of people of different genders and races is imbalanced in popular media, but sometimes putting it into visual form can help make the imbalance clear. Here’s a chart of the Phase 2 movies of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (Iron Man 3; Thor: The Dark World; Captain America: The Winter Soldier; Guardians of the Galaxy; Avengers: Age of Ultron; Ant-Man).

Characters included

  • Iron Man 3: Tony Stark / Iron Man, Aldrich Kilian, Happy Hogan, Trevor Slattery, President Ellis, Savin, Harley Keener, Vice President Rodriguez, Maya Hansen, Pepper Potts, Brandt, Colonel Rhodes / War Machine, Yinsen
  • Thor: The Dark World: Thor, Loki, Odin, Malekith, Fandral, Volstagg, Erik Selvig, Ian, Jane Foster, Sif, Frigga, Darcy Lewis, Heimdall, Korath, Algrim, Hogun
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Steve Rogers / Captain America, Alexander Pierce, Bucky Barnes / Winter Soldier, Rumlow, Agent Sitwell, Arnim Zola, Rollins, American World Security Councilor, Senator Stern, Batroc, Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow, Maria Hill, Sharon Carter / Agent 13, Peggy Carter, British World Security Councilor, Nick Fury, Sam Wilson / Falcon, Indian World Security Councilor, Chinese World Security Councilor
  • Guardians of the Galaxy: Peter Quill / Star-Lord, Ronan, Yondu Udonta, Dey, The Collector, Kraglin, Saal, Nebula, Nova Prime, Bereet, Carina, Gamora, Drax
  • Avengers: Age of Ultron (new characters): Bruce Banner / Hulk, Clint Barton / Hawkeye, Pietro Maximoff / Quicksliver, Baron Strucker, Dr. List, Ulysses Klaue, Vision, Wanda Maximoff / Scarlet Witch, Laura Barton, Dr. Helen Cho
  • Ant-Man: Scott Lang / Ant-Man, Hank Pym, Darren Cross / Yellowjacket, Paxton, Luis, Kurt, Mitchell Carson, Hope van Dyne, Cassie Lang, Maggie Lang, Dave, Gale

Rules

In the interests of clarity, here’s the rules I’m following for who to include and where to place them:

  • I only count characters portrayed by an actor who appears in person on screen in more or less recognizable form (i.e. performances that are entirely CG, prosthetic, puppet, or voice do not count).
  • The judgment of which characters are significant enough to include is unavoidably subjective, but I generally include characters who have on-screen dialogue, who appear in more than one scene, and who are named on-screen (including nicknames, code names, etc.)
  • For human characters that can be reasonably clearly identified, I use the race and gender of the character.
  • For non-human characters or characters whose identity cannot be clearly determined, I use the race and gender of the actor.
  • I use four simplified categories for race and two for gender. Because human variety is much more complicated and diverse than this, there will inevitably be examples that don’t fit. I put such cases where they seem least inappropriate, or, if no existing option is adequate, give them their own separate categories.
  • “White” and “Black” are as conventionally defined in modern Western society. “Asian” means East, Central, or South Asian. “Indigenous” encompasses Native Americans, Polynesians, Indigenous Australians, and other indigenous peoples from around the world.
  • There are many ethnic and gender categories that are relevant to questions of representation that are not covered here. There are also other kinds of diversity, including sexuality, language, disability, etc. that are equally important for representation that are not covered here. A schematic view like this can never be perfect, but it is a place to start.

Corrections and suggestions welcome.

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Representation Chart: Marvel Cinematic Universe, Phase 1

We all know that the representation of people of different genders and races is imbalanced in popular media, but sometimes putting it into visual form can help make the imbalance clear. Here’s a chart of the Phase 1 movies of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (Iron Man; The Incredible Hulk; Iron Man 2; Thor; Captain America: The First Avenger; Avengers).

Characters included

  • Iron Man: Tony Stark / Iron Man, Obedaiah Stane, Agent Coulson, Happy Hogan, Abu Bakaar, Pepper Potts, Christine Everhart, Colonel Rhodes, Nick Fury, Yinsen, Raza
  • The Incredible Hulk: Bruce Banner / Hulk, General Ross, Emil Blonsky, Leonard, Stanley, Samuel Sterns, Betty Ross, Major Sparr,
  • Iron Man 2 (new characters): Ivan Vanko, Senator Stern, Justin Hammer, Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow
  • Thor (new characters): Thor, Loki, Odin, Erik Selvig, Volstag, Fandral, Agent Sitwell, Clint Barton / Haweye, Jane Foster, Darcy Lewis, Sif, Frigga, Heimdall, Hogun
  • Captain America: The First Avenger: Steve Rogers / Captain America, Bucky Barnes, Colonel Philips, Johann Schmidt / Red Skull, Howard Stark, Dr. Erskine, Dr. Zola, Dum Dum Dugan, James Falsworth, Jacques Dernier, Gilmore Hodge, Senator Brandt, Peggy Carter, Gabe Jones, Jim Morita
  • Avengers (new characters): American World Security Councilor, Russian World Security Councilor, Agent Hill, British World Security Councilor, Chinese World Security Councilor

Rules

In the interests of clarity, here’s the rules I’m following for who to include and where to place them:

  • I only count characters portrayed by an actor who appears in person on screen in more or less recognizable form (i.e. performances that are entirely CG, prosthetic, puppet, or voice do not count).
  • The judgment of which characters are significant enough to include is unavoidably subjective, but I generally include characters who have on-screen dialogue, who appear in more than one scene, and who are named on-screen (including nicknames, code names, etc.)
  • For human characters that can be reasonably clearly identified, I use the race and gender of the character.
  • For non-human characters or characters whose identity cannot be clearly determined, I use the race and gender of the actor.
  • I use four simplified categories for race and two for gender. Because human variety is much more complicated and diverse than this, there will inevitably be examples that don’t fit. I put such cases where they seem least inappropriate, or, if no existing option is adequate, give them their own separate categories.
  • “White” and “Black” are as conventionally defined in modern Western society. “Asian” means East, Central, or South Asian. “Indigenous” encompasses Native Americans, Polynesians, Indigenous Australians, and other indigenous peoples from around the world.
  • There are many ethnic and gender categories that are relevant to questions of representation that are not covered here. There are also other kinds of diversity, including sexuality, language, disability, etc. that are equally important for representation that are not covered here. A schematic view like this can never be perfect, but it is a place to start.

Corrections and suggestions welcome.

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.