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.

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Black Panther Reaction Links

Sharing links to and quotes from some reaction pieces on the Black Panther movie adaptation.

Brandon O’Brien at Tor.com: “Building Bridges: Black Panther and the Difference Between Rage and Revolution”

“[Nakia]’s been doing it all alone, with no backup, even insisting on not being disturbed as she trots about the globe, righting capitalist neo-imperialist wrongs through her own wits. Nakia sees the value of providing a more lasting sense of peace for the disenfranchised, and knows that the late stage of that goal requires the commitment of Wakanda—not to wage war on other countries, but to seek out the downtrodden and lift them up and out of struggle. In her first scene in the film, she even has the empathy to see a child soldier as a boy first and an aggressor second, preferring to send him back home than to fight him.”

 

Brandon O’Brien at Tor.com: “‘Who are you?’: Black Panther and the Politics of Belonging”

Black Panther, however, is a revolution. Not merely in the sense that “it is revolutionary to see blackness this way,” though it is. But also in the sense that this movie is a revolutionary dialogue. […]

“Most of the introductions in the film happen in a very particular way. When Wakandans ask each other ‘Who are you?’, it happens not with any distrust or confusion, but with a display of pride. They are asking you to confess yourself, to admit that you are one of their own with the gusto of someone who deeply values what that means. You get to be someone. You get to be.”

 

Bridget Boakye at Face 2 Face Africa: “The Legendary Dahomey Amazons Are the Real-Life All-Women’s Army in Black Panther

“In the 1800s, there was an all-female army in modern-day Benin that pledged a similar loyalty to the throne [as Dora Milaje did]. They were known as the Dahomey Warriors and were praised for their bravery and strength by local leaders and European colonizers alike who encountered them.”

 

Chika Oduah at The Root: “Audiences Across Africa Hail Black Panther for Humanizing Black Characters”

“For many Africans, the film brought to the big screen a reality that they see every day—the Basotho blankets the warriors used as a protective shield, the queen’s Zulu hat, the ochre-dyed locks of the Himba, the flowing fabrics of the Wolof. It was the sheer Pan-Africanism of it all that astounded me. The cinematic display of the diversity of Africanness was beautiful.”

 

Damon Young at Very Smart Brothas / The Root: “Yet Another Reason Why Shuri From Black Panther Is the Greatest Disney Princess Ever”

“In the last half of the movie alone, [Shuri] saved a man’s life—even if the man was ‘another broken white boy.’ She guided said primitive white boy on how to use the advanced technology she created, which ultimately helped save the entire planet from mass war and anarchy. And then she went out and literally fought (and held her own for a while) against a supervillain. Cinderella ain’t got shit on her. [original emphasis]”

 

Emily Asher-Perrin at Tor.com: “Why Are You Reading Reviews About Black Panther When You Could Be Watching Black Panther?”

“You could call it Shakespearean, you could call it mythic, but that’s not where the film lives. It’s not about the broad strokes, it’s about the details. It’s about all the little choices in concert, creating something brand new, and creating it on a scale that cinema has never seen before.”

 

Karlton Jahmal at Hot New Hip Hop: Black Panther‘s Killmonger Is the Best Supervillain Since The Dark Knight‘s Joker”

“[T]he emotion that Michael B. Jordan left me with was more powerful than anything I’ve felt at the movies. That painful rage, that feeling of angst that builds up when the topic of slavery or Jim Crown is brought up. That acrimonious tension that resonates in my gut when I see videos of police brutality or ignorant politicians fueling a race war. That feeling was replaced. A resolve, a euphoric feeling of relief spread from inside me instead.”

 

Liz Bourke at Tor.com: “Sleeps With Monsters: The Women of Black Panther Are Amazing”

“It’s also a film that, while it centres on a man—and on questions of kingship, legitimacy, and responsibility—is the first superhero film I’ve ever seen to surround its main male character with women who are in many ways equally powerful, and who don’t depend on him for purpose or characterisation. No, seriously: this is the first superhero film I’ve ever seen—maybe the first SFF film I’ve ever seen—where pretty much the hero’s entire back-up team, his entire support network, were women. Women who teased him and challenged him and demanded he do better.”

 

Samuel James at Black Girl in Maine: “The Reality of Blackness in the Fiction of Black Panther

“[…] Black Panther shows Black characters in an unusual way. In the movie, not only are we not drug dealers and pimps and rapists, we are intellectuals and leaders and heroes—but not only are we intellectuals and leaders and heroes, we multifaceted and complicated. We are human. Black Panther celebrates the humanity of Blackness.”

 

Shay Stewart Bouley at Black Girl in Maine: “A Film and the Affirmation of Blackness… My Musings on Black Panther

“In a world that centers all things white, whiteness and proximity to whiteness, a blockbuster film that centers Blackness and uplifts Black women is a much-needed paradigm shift. It is not just a new way to re-envision our world through the lens of Afro-futurism but it is also an opportunity to take stock of the Nakia’s, Okoye’s and Shuri’s who are already in our midst but who are often overlooked. I imagine a world where a Black woman won’t feel that she is traveling life without a roadmap as an anomaly but instead will know that she is another in a long line of changemakers because Blackness will not be relegated to the margins.”

 

Finally, a great video clip where co-writer and director Ryan Coogler breaks down a section of the casino fight scene:

Black Panther’s Director Ryan Coogler Breaks Down a Fight Scene | Notes on a Scene | Vanity Fair

(Our random thoughts on the movie are here.)

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

Some Random Thoughts on Black Panther

In no particular order. Spoiler warnings in effect.

Erik’s random thoughts:

  • This is the movie that Thor was trying to be: a Shakespearean family drama about an exiled hero coming to terms with the destiny of his people and his father’s failures in the midst of a gorgeous futuristic city-state. (On a side note: does anyone actually remember the original Thor movie or have we collectively agreed that the franchise starts with number 3?)
  • I love the architecture of Wakanda. It looks like the product of thousands of years of African tradition with the highest of modern technology, just as it should.
  • Even for a fantasy of African exceptionalism, the story does not shy away from the bitter real history of imperialism, exploitation, slavery, and its modern-day consequences, and the movie is richer and stronger for it.
  • Shuri is awesome. Her combination of flippancy in the face of tradition, passion for technological tinkering, and powerful love for her family and home make her a delight to watch. I think she’s my favorite character in the whole movie, and that’s not an easy pick in this one.
  • Could we have T’Challa and Shuri take over the Tony Stark role in the Marvel Universe, please? I appreciate what Iron Man did to kickstart the MCU and hold the early installments together, but I’ve had enough of him now. I honestly don’t think I can handle one more movie about Tony Stark’s emotional issues. T’Challa can be the guy in the super suit who cracks wise while leading the fight and Shuri can be the tinkerer who keeps upgrading everybody’s gear.
  • Even in a franchise that includes a movie about waking up one morning to discover that literal Nazis have taken over the US government, Black Panther feels like the movie we most need in 2018: a meditation on the temptations of division, resentment, and revenge and the hard choice of embracing a flawed and fractured world with hope. As crucially as Black Panther contributes to the representation of black people in genre media—and by Bast it does—it has a lot to say outside the dialogue of race as well.
  • For the record: as a white man, I have no problem whatsoever identifying with the characters of this movie. I’m not talking about Martin Freeman’s Everett Ross, either—Zuri is my guy.

 

Eppu’s random thoughts:

Note: These thoughts are based on one viewing. I’m fully aware that some of them are just scratching the surface and that I need to see the move (at least!) a second time and mull things over properly.

  • If I had to use one word to describe Black Panther, on a meta level it would be confelicity: I am so, so, SO glad for those black people who are exited, overjoyed, and exhilarated over seeing a full cast of people that look like them acting with grace and agency, not minimized but celebrated! On a story level, I’d use equality.
  • I knew from reading non-spoiler reviews beforehand that the movie passes the Bechdel test, so I didn’t even bother tracking it. It was very nice not to have to care.
  • If it was nice not to have to care about whether the Bechdel test passes or not, it was outright GLORIOUS to see that WOMEN ARE PEOPLE in their own right, with their own interior lives, not just breasts and posteriors for men to ogle. And such a spread of different women, too, each doing their thing according to their interests and skills. Because that’s who we are, and what we do, and have done for millenia, and it’s damn time that the self-absorbed, able-bodied, white cis hetero men in Hollywood respected that. (Yes, I know that the Black Panther team behind the camera included many, many people of color, including women, but that’s not the default, is it.)
  • And of course it’s not just that women are people in their own right, but that there are so many diverse black women. Have you any idea what a disservice (to put it mildly) your typical Anglo-American fiction does to women of color, especially black women? I didn’t until I started paying attention. It’s atrocious and shameful.
  • Black Panther was visually beautiful. Beautiful! It was so beautiful my brain experienced a moment of “this looks wrong” when stepping out of the movie theater into the dim and snowless February evening in Massachusetts.
  • Also, the sets and costumes were breathtaking just like I thought. Everything looked like it was produced by a living culture, with layers of history and development alike.
  • OMG, the tech. Those dragonfly helicopters! Attack rhinos! I kinda want those 3d phone calls! No—scratch that. The maglev trains and über-advanced health care. Like now.
  • The opening sequence (T’Chaka voiceover telling a story to young T’Challa) and the end credit visuals I thought nodded back to the superhero fight statue end credits for Avengers: Age of Ultron. Yet neither ever lost sight of the fact that they were for and about Black Panther.
  • A superhero movie with a male lead confident and mature enough to listen to others ROCKS! (Hat tip to Justina Ireland for pointing out T’Challa’s ability to listen as a core personality trait.)
  • I liked Martin Freeman’s character Everett Ross in this movie. He started with “I know what I’m doing, piss off little people” claptrap. In Wakanda, however, he quickly—and without too much whining—realized how out of his depth he was and spent a good while looking and listening and learning. In the final battle, he redeemed himself to some extent in my eyes when he hopped back into the fighter jet holo-interface to destoy the final cargo plane after he’d discovered that the base he was sitting in was under attack and that there was less than a minute before the gunfire broke through. And never, ever was he written or played as a Mighty Whitey.
  • It was also good to see a thoroughly accomplished man (T’Challa) grapple with impostor syndrome (not ready to be King). We don’t see or hear much of that; mostly it’s women who are saddled with it in the public discussion.
  • I liked T’Challa’s relationship with the rest of his family members, but I LOVED every moment between him and Princess Shuri. They so clearly love and respect each other as equals—with different skill sets, sure, but equals nevertheless—plus jostle around like real-life siblings.
  • Finally, all of the acting was so good. I won’t miss Andy Serkis’s character. At. All! Props to Serkis, his incredible performance made the dude truly terrifying and disgusting, but I’d rather watch the competent and kind Africans, thank you.

Shuri and T'Challa gif

Images: Black Panther poster via IMDb. Shuri and T’Challa gif via media.riffsy.com.

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

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.

Race in Antiquity: The Question

“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 upcoming posts, I’ll 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 1: The Question

“What race were the ancient Greeks and Romans?”

As simple as it may sound, almost every word in this question hides layers of assumptions. It assumes that race is a valid category for describing human beings, and is equally applicable to ancient societies as to modern ones. It assumes that we can reconstruct ancient demographic information in some comprehensive way. It assumes that “Ancient Greeks and Romans” are definable groups of people, and that we know who we mean by that designation.

These are not trivial issues, and I’ll take them up in future posts, but today I want to address an even more fundamental and persistent assumption: that the racial identity of the ancient Greeks and Romans matters.

Now, I am an ancient historian and a geek. I’ve spent my entire life, both at work and at leisure, being told by people that the things I care about don’t matter. (The title of my field, “ancient history,” is even used as a synonym for “irrelevant.”) That’s never stopped me from trying to figure things out and it shouldn’t stop us from thinking about race in antiquity, but it should make us step back and ask: Why do we want to know?

When we ask questions about the race of ancient peoples, we are not posing these questions in a vacuum. There is, in fact, a long history of people arguing about the answer, and if we don’t understand their reasoning and motivations we may fall into the same traps and make the same mistakes that they did.

We can start around 1500 CE when the Western concept of race was taking on its modern contours. Variations in physical and genetic features—from skin color to blood type—are part of the reality of human biology, but the belief that these features can be used to divide humanity into distinct and meaningful categories, along more or less the terms we recognize today, was a product of European imperialism and colonialism. The European powers that were busy conquering and colonizing the rest of the world had to define themselves as superior to the people they were displacing, exploiting, or massacring. The idea of a “white” race—a superior “white” race, no less—began with the need to justify European activities abroad.

Once Europeans had defined themselves as both white and superior, history had to fall in line. On one hand, the roots of white superiority had to be found in the depths of history; on the other hand, any great accomplishments in history had to become the property of white people. Any evidence that could be interpreted as suggesting that white people had made significant achievements before anyone else were celebrated, such as Piltdown Man, a hoax that got out of hand because it conformed so perfectly to what archaeologists expected: the crucial first steps towards modern humans happened in northwestern Europe. The achievements of non-European peoples were denied or claimed for Europeans wherever possible, like the “dynastic race theory” in Egypt or the assertion that major centers of African civilization like Great Zimbabwe must have been built by white (or white-ish) settlers. Civilizations that could be neither denied nor claimed for whiteness, like those of ancient India, China, and Mesoamerica, were denigrated or dismissed.

European Christian culture had long idolized the civilization of ancient Greece, a habit that went back as far as the Roman Republic. The Romans had had an uneasy relationship with their Greek neighbors and subjects, as they tended to elevate the great literary, artistic, and philosophical works of the classical Greek past while sneering at contemporary Greeks as unworthy of their ancestors. After the fall of the western Roman Empire, as Greek and Latin became learned rather than vernacular languages, Greek and Latin literature collectively acquired an aura of cultural authority. This aura of authority was further supported by the association of Greek and Latin learning with religious authority in the Christian church.

By the imperial age, when European nations were asserting their racial superiority over their colonial subjects and slaves, ancient Greek and Roman civilizations had come to be perceived as the peaks of intellectual, philosophical, and artistic culture. A defense of European superiority therefore required the assertion of a direct link to Greece and Rome. Since race was the accepted currency of identity, that link had to be defined in racial terms. It therefore became essential that the ancient Greeks and Romans should be white.

Various strategies existed for making the argument that the ancient Greeks and Romans were white, but one of the most influential was the Aryan invasion model. According to this model, the Aryans were a primordial superior white race whose origins lay somewhere in northern or northeastern Europe. At various times in history, individual branches of this race would explode outwards, traversing great distances and conquering all the “inferior” peoples in their path, eventually colonizing a swath of Eurasia stretching from England to northern India. These Aryan invaders could be credited with cultural achievements anywhere they went, but most importantly they were hailed as the ancestors of the classical Greeks. Western and northern Europeans who claimed descent from other branches of Aryan settlers could therefore claim an ancestral connection to the glories of Greece and its Roman successors.

It was not enough for the ancient Greeks and Romans to be white. Since Europeans looked back to Greco-Roman culture as a source of authority, those who wanted to validate imperial projects required that the opinions of the great ancient authors should support their sense of racial superiority. Scholars searched ancient texts for passages congenial to the imperialist drive and elevated these as the true beliefs of the Great Thinkers of antiquity. Any passages which expressed a different perspective were dismissed or reinterpreted. Through the centuries of this scholarly activity, the ancient Greeks and Romans became not only “white” but the very founders of white supremacy.

Modern scholarship recognizes that the “Aryan race” was a figment of the imagination (the term “Aryan” is now reserved for certain historical peoples of northern India). Both the ethnic identity of the ancient Greeks and Romans and their opinions about that identity are now seen to be far more complicated issues with no easy answers, but the insights of the past several decades of scholarship are only slowly coming into wider public consciousness. The relics of the racially-determined Aryan invasion model are still all around us, some of them stripped of the most obvious racism of the older scholarship but still grounded in the urge to assert the fundamental whiteness of the ancient Mediterranean.

When we ask questions about the race of the ancient Greeks and Romans, this is the context we must be conscious of. Much older scholarship is suffused with its ideas, and even more recent popular discussions of the subject tend to be unknowingly aligned with the Aryan model.

The mistakes of the Aryan model and other arguments that asserted the whiteness of the ancient Greeks and Romans arose from the desire to made the past reflect the concerns of the present. The past does not exist to make us feel better about ourselves or validate our contemporary politics. This is the assumption we must guard against most carefully in any historical research. If we assume that the Greeks and Romans are a measure of civilization and that any similarities we can find between ourselves and them prove our own worth, our arguments will go hopelessly askew.

Instead, if there is any use in examining Greek and Roman ethnic identity, it is as part of the larger work of history: to help us understand our own society better by giving us useful examples for comparison. We will not prove our own value by showing that the Greeks and Romans were like us, but we may better grasp the complex forces at work in forming our own identities by understanding how they were different from us.

(Further parts to come.)

Image: Janifrom kantharos, via People of Color in European Art History (Etruria, currently Villa Giulia; 6th c. BCE; ceramic)

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.

Why Hidden Youth Matters to Me

There are just five days to go in the Kickstarter for Hidden Youth, the anthology of speculative fiction about marginalized young people in history. As I posted before, my story, “How I Saved Athens from the Stone Monsters,” is one of the stories in this awesome collection. I wanted to post again to thank everyone who has contributed to making Hidden Youth happen and also to say something about why this collection is so important to me, and would be even if I didn’t have a story in it.

160701frescoI teach ancient Mediterranean history at a state university. Ancient Mediterranean history is the dead-white-guy-est of all dead-white-guy history. It’s filled with the sorts of dead white guys that people make white marble statues of and that living white guys like to point to as the pinnacles of western literary, artistic, and philosophical achievement. We’ve basically had two thousand years of white guys burnishing their white-guy cred by laying exclusive claim to the legacy of the great dead white guys of the ancient Mediterranean. So successfully have they done this that a lot of people have a hard time imagining an ancient Mediterranean world that isn’t all white guys.

Now, I’m a white guy. I’ve always had the comfort of seeing myself in history. Even as a professional historian, doing my best to be objective and fully conscious of how complicated, contingent, and constructed such identities are, I can never really know what it is like to look at history and not see people who look like me. That’s a barrier I can’t cross, but I have a lot of friends who live on the other side, especially my students.

Half my students are women and a lot of them are black, Hispanic, and southeast Asian kids from working-class towns. They’ve lived their lives in the shadow of other people’s histories. They have been shown the dead-white-guy-marble-statue version of history and told—sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtly—“This is ours. You don’t belong here.” I consider it my job to say: “Yes, you do. You were always part of this history.”

160701kantharosThe ancient Mediterranean world was multicultural, multi-ethnic, multilingual, and full of connections both within itself and to the larger world beyond. Like in my story, there were Egyptians in late classical Athens with their own Isis temple. A Sri Lankan king sent ambassadors to open diplomatic relations with Rome. And it wasn’t all a bunch of men, either. The queen of Halicarnassus was a military adviser to the Persian king. A wealthy woman of African ancestry was buried in style in late Roman York. The evidence is everywhere once you start to look for it.

The power of dead-white-guy-marble-statue history is strong and it needs to be challenged. I confront it in the classroom and my scholarly work, but we also need books like Hidden Youth out there to send the message: history is for everyone, not just people who look like me.

If you’ve already supported Hidden Youth, thank you so much. If you haven’t, please consider it. You can give as little as a dollar, and if you can’t do that, please spread the word.

On a less serious note, let me offer an added incentive to give: if Hidden Youth meets its funding goal, in honor of the collection’s theme I promise to translate and post my picks for The Top Five Greek and Latin Poems that Read Like Teenage Facebook Updates.

UPDATE: Hidden Youth got funded! Hooray! So, as promised, here you go: The Top Five Greek and Latin Poems that Read Like Teenage Facebook Updates.

Images: Bull leaping fresco (restored), photograph by Nikater, via Wikimedia (Knossos; 1550-1450 BCE; fresco). Janifrom kantharos, via People of Color in European Art History (Etruria, currently Villa Giulia; 6th c. BCE; ceramic)

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Racism and Ancient Aliens

The notion that ancient monuments, myths, and artworks reflect the visitation of Earth by alien beings is not one that is taken very seriously in the world of scholarly history, nor much outside of it, either. Still, it is one of those fictions, like astrology or the vaccines that cause autism, that continue to float through popular culture and appeal to some people because they offer simple answers to difficult questions. Who built the pyramids? Who drew the Nazca lines? Aliens!

It’s easy to dismiss ancient aliens as just another silly idea that most people don’t take seriously, but even silly ideas can be insidious. How we think about people in the past shapes and is shaped by how we think about people in the present. Especially when we’re looking to the past to inspire works of speculative fiction, we have to be conscious of the assumptions that underlie our ways of interpreting and explaining history. As harmless and even goofy as the ancient alien hypothesis may seem, it operates on a logic that is fundamentally racist and entangled with imperialist ideology.

160530racismI’ve written before about the dynastic race theory of Egyptian history. In brief, Europeans of the eighteenth through early twentieth centuries didn’t believe that Africans were capable of creating an advanced civilization on their own, so they invented a superior race of foreign invaders who they believed had conquered and ruled Egypt, bringing their advanced culture with them. This theory justified European imperialism by creating a historical precedent: the brown people of the world needed superior white rulers to teach them how to be civilized, both in the past and the present.

The racism and imperialism inherent in dynastic race theory is obvious to us today, but the ancient alien hypothesis rests on the same assumption: that those people couldn’t possibly have been capable of creating such sophisticated artworks, monuments, and cultures on their own. Although ancient alien crackpots can conjure little green men to explain anything from the past, you’ll notice that the popular examples are all things created by non-Europeans: the pyramids of Egypt, the temples of the Maya and Aztecs, the Nazca lines, the Rapa Nui (Easter Island) stone heads, and so forth. You don’t often hear arguments that aliens built the Parthenon in Greece or the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris.

(The one European monument that regularly gets the ancient alien treatment is Stonehenge, which is a complicated case. The invasion theory of European history, which also clings on in popular culture despite being thoroughly discredited in scholarship, posits that the people who built Stonehenge were overrun and replaced by invaders from continental Europe, which makes them not really like modern Europeans and Euro-Americans. Some versions of the invasion theory even explicitly call the pre-invasion population non-white.)

But, some might say, that’s just because we know who built the Parthenon and we don’t know who built the pyramids, so the alien hypothesis is just filling in a mystery. Except that we do know. Egyptians built the pyramids. Mayans built the Maya temples and Aztecs built the Aztec temples. The Nazca people created the Nazca lines and Polynesians erected the stone heads on Rapa Nui. We have a pretty good understanding of how and why they all did those things, too, even if we’re still piecing together some of the details. None of this has ever seriously been in doubt. There is no mystery, just a reluctance on the part of white westerners to acknowledge the cultural attainments of non-white non-westerners. No aliens need apply.

The ancient alien hypothesis does much the same work for a modern audience that dynastic race theory did for an earlier one: it reassures us descendants of European imperialists and colonizers that the peoples our ancestors conquered, subjugated, and destroyed weren’t really up to snuff anyway. They didn’t build great monuments, figure out sophisticated mathematics and physics, or organize labor on a massive scale, space aliens did it for them. They didn’t compose great works of literature and mythology, they just handed down hazily-remembered stories about men from the sky. Invoking ancient aliens saves us the trouble of respecting other peoples’ cultures or acknowledging the tragedy of their destruction by assuring us that they don’t really count.

Thoughts for writers

We have a responsibility to the people of the past and to our audience in the present. False interpretations of history have underlain some of the worst atrocities that human beings have committed against one another. We have a duty not to perpetuate harmful assumptions, even when they come dressed up like silly alien stories. This duty lies upon us even when we aren’t doing serious scholarly study and are just mining history for interesting storytelling material. The stories we tell matter.

This doesn’t mean that ancient aliens are off-limits for storytelling. I have no doubt that there are good fantasy and sci-fi stories to be told about aliens visiting Earth in the past, stories that don’t deny the agency, ingenuity, and persistence of ancient peoples. Let’s see some of those.

Image by Erik Jensen, based on “Ancient Aliens Guy” via Know Your Meme

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.

“The Celts” and the Victorian Hangover

160328WandsworthNo, this is not a post about how ladies and gentlemen of the nineteenth century recovered after too many pints of Guinness. Rather, it is about how nineteenth-century ideas about culture and identity have held on so tenaciously in popular history that even now, over a century later, we still have to struggle against them when trying to talk about peoples of the past. One of the subjects that often brings up these outdated ideas is “the Celts.”

Searching for the Celts

Here’s how the Victorian version of history goes. Between 500 and 400 BCE, a new group of people known as the Keltoi to the Greeks or the Gauls to the Romans, whom we call the Celts, emerged in the area of southern Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. From this homeland, they expanded explosively outwards in all directions led by aggressive warrior princes who fought from two-wheeled chariots with long iron swords. They raided Italy and Greece but were prevented from conquering those regions by the armies of the Greeks and Romans. In the west and north, however, the native peoples were far less sophisticated and could not resist the invaders. The Celts conquered France and Belgium, northern Spain, and the British Isles until at the western shores of Ireland their expansion was finally halted by the Atlantic Ocean.

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Race and Culture in Hannibal’s Army

160322elephantTor.com published an article online today about diversity in Hannibal’s army written from the point of view of historical wargaming. It is a interesting article and well worth a read, but unfortunately it misses the opportunity to really address questions of racial and cultural diversity in ancient warfare. Here is a quick attempt to address some of the things that were lacking.

Race and culture

Race is a term with a lot of baggage, as we are all painfully aware, but it means different things in different contexts. In modern parlance, it describes a socially-constructed division of human beings into more or less arbitrary categories, largely on the basis of skin color and other physical features. In a fantasy context, it refers to distinct species of intelligent creatures like Elves, Orcs, Dwarves, and so on.

The unaddressed problem in the Tor.com article is the conflation of race and culture. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, overtly racist theories of history posited that people of different genetic backgrounds naturally had different qualities. Many of these stereotypes still linger in our popular culture: the stoic Indian, the mischievous Irishman, the passionate Italian, etc. This belief in racial character was encoded in early classic works of fantasy like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which gave us the stubborn Dwarf, the ethereal Elf, the vicious Orc, etc.

Even as we struggle to root out this conflation of race and culture from our modern life, it lingers on in works of fantasy and science fiction: the logical Vulcan, the boisterous Klingon, the decadent Centauri, the proud Dothraki. As we look back at history, we have to think of the people of the past not in terms of racial qualities but in terms of cultural contexts. People of different origins often do behave differently, but those differences are explained by the cultures they lived in, not the races they represent.

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