Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hardcover: $48 / Paperback: $16

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

Image: Barbarians paperback cover by Hackett Publishing

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Race in Antiquity: Who Were the Romans?

“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 6: Who Were the Romans?

In the last post in this series, I explored the question of who we mean by the ancient Greeks. It’s a more complicated question than it seems and doesn’t offer any easy answers. When we turn to the Romans, find that, if anything, Roman identity was even more complicated than Greek.

The history of Rome was one of expansion and contact with a larger world. The city of Rome itself was located at the crossing point of two important routes of travel: the Tiber river, which ran from the Apennine mountains to the sea, and an ancient trade route that ran along the western coast of the Italian peninsula. Early Rome flourished from the trade that ran along these routes, and a degree of openness to outsiders was part of Roman identity from its earliest days. Indeed, the city of Rome itself was formed out of several originally independent hilltop villages that merged into one city-state as they grew. The people of Rome were Latins and they shared an ethnic, linguistic, and cultural identity with the people of other nearby Latin cities. There was never a time in Roman history when Roman identity did not embrace people of multiple different origins.

The early Roman state was ruled by kings. Roman kingship was not hereditary; rather, on the death of a king the people of Rome elected a new one. Many of the kings recorded in Roman legends are likely entirely mythical, but the myths have important implications for how early Rome related to the outside world. Few kings were from Rome. Instead, the list includes Sabines (from the hills east of Rome), Etruscans (from the prosperous cities to the north), and Latins from other communities. Indeed, it appears that the early Romans may have favored outsiders for their kings in order to avoid conflicts between the aristocratic families of the city over the office. (Livy, History of Rome 1.10-49; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 2.36-58, 3.36-46, 4.1-28; Eutropius, Compendium of History 1.1-8)

Roman of later ages continued to assert their connections to other peoples. Roman priests adopted Etruscan methods of interpreting messages from the gods. Even long after Rome had conquered the Etruscan cities, Romans continued to practice what they called the “Etruscan method.” The Claudian family, one of the most powerful noble clans in Rome and part of the first dynasty of Roman emperors, proudly declared their Sabine origins. (Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, “Life of Tiberius,” 1; Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds and Sayings 1.1)

Being open to the world was not just a Roman habit; it was key to the success of Rome as an expansionist state. Rather than subjugate or exterminate the peoples they conquered, the Romans incorporated them into their state, extending legal and political rights and creating incentives for the conquered and their descendants to think of themselves as Romans. The practical benefits for the empire were considerable. Provincials who felt like part of the empire were less likely to revolt. They provided a practically inexhaustible stream of new recruits for the Roman army. The best and brightest gravitated towards the city of Rome where they became the leading lights of Roman art, literature, scholarship, and law. Some of the great names of Roman history came form the provinces, including the comic poet Martial, who came from Spain, the biographer of the early emperors Suetonius, from North Africa, and the jurist Ulpian, from the old Phoenician city of Tyre. Even emperors could come from the provinces. By the end of the third century CE, Rome had been ruled by men from Thrace, Illyria, Arabia, North Africa, and Gaul. (Martial, Epigrams 10.65, 10.103, 10.104; Herodian, Roman History 7.1; Epitome de Caesaribus 31; Eutropius 13, 18; Zosimus, New History 1.13; L’anneé épigraphique 1953 73)

Many people who remained in the provinces also claimed Romanness as part of their identity. Being Roman did not necessarily exclude other identities, and it could mean different things to different people. Being Roman was part of the complex set of identities that people could assert, adapt, question, and repurpose as they saw fit, in much the same way that people today who identify as American, or British, or Hungarian can have very different ways of understanding and expressing those identities. A gravestone on the Danube frontier identifies the soldier it was set up for as both a Roman and a Frank. An orator who came from the Aeduan tribe of central Gaul declared: “What people in all the world is more in love with the Roman name than the Aedui?” Throughout the empire, people who spoke Latin but were not Roman citizens, or who had Roman citizenship but dressed in British style, or who wore Roman clothes but spoke Greek could all call themselves Romans with an equal claim to that identity. At the same time, not everyone who lived under Roman rule or participated in Roman culture wanted to be thought of as Roman. There were those who rejected Roman identity entirely, or embraced it only when circumstances demanded it, like Saint Paul, who asserted his Roman citizenship only when threatened with torture. (Acts of the Apostles 22; Panegyrici Latini 8.2; Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum III 3576)

Like Greekness, Romannes had never been conceived of as an ethnic or racial identity. There was never a moment in Roman history when those who called themselves Romans believed that they were a genetically distinct people, separated from the rest of the world by an uncrossable barrier. Although Rome’s empire was created and sustained by acts of violence against outsiders, some of them arguably rising to the level of genocide, Roman culture did not invent or impose racial categories on its victims in the same way the modern empires have done. The question of whether someone was Roman or not was never one that could be answered by the characteristics of a person’s body or an examination of their origins and ancestry. As with the ancient Greeks, any questions we pose about the race of the ancient Romans must contend with the ways in which those who identified themselves as Romans thought about themselves and the world around them.

Other posts on Race in Antiquity:

Image: Portrait of two brothers from Roman Egypt, via Wikimedia (currently Egyptian Museum, Cairo; 2nd c. CE; distemper on wood)

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.

Quotes: The Dumb Countryside

It’s my stupid birthday again and—poor me!—I’m being dragged off

to the dumb countryside away from my Cerinthus.

Is there anything better than the city? Is the old farm

off by the lazy Arno and Arretium’s fields any place for a girl?

You’re making such a fuss over me, Mesalla, settle down!

Uncaring uncle, this is no time to hit the road!

My heart and mind will stay in Rome even if you take me away,

but you just won’t let me have my way.

– Sulpicia, Poems 2

(My own translation)

Sulpicia is one of the few women whose writings have come down to us from the Roman world. She lived around the late first century BCE. We know very little about her except that she lived with her uncle, Mesalla Corvinus, who was a close friend of the statesman and orator Cicero. In this poem, a teenaged Sulpicia complains about being dragged off to the family’s country estate to celebrate her birthday, leaving her lover Cerinthus behind in Rome.

Cerinthus may not, in fact, be a real person. It was common for Roman poets of the time to write poems to or about imaginary (or at least heavily fictionalized) lovers. The most famous may be Catullus, whose poems chart a tempestuous affair with a woman he calls Lesbia. Often, male poets wrote about their longing for absent lovers or complained about women who stayed away too long. Sulpicia takes that genre and turns it on its head, writing from the point of view of the absent lover and pointing out that it wasn’t her fault she had to be away. A young woman of her age in high Roman society, dependent on the charity of well-meaning but obtuse relatives, had very little control over her own movements.

Roman poetry also often voiced a nostalgic longing to escape the bustle and filth of Rome and return to an idealized country life. Sulpicia turns this convention upside-down as well, disparaging the countryside as dull and lifeless and longing to stay amidst the excitement of the city. And well she might—the charm of the countryside for rich men was in large part the idleness enabled by the labor of slaves, tenant farmers, and the women of the household. A young woman like her would have few opportunities for being on her own or doing what she liked there.

What reads at first glance like a spoiled teenager’s tantrum reveals itself as a clever critique of popular poetic conceits. It’s a shame that more of Sulpicia’s poetry hasn’t survived, but what we have provides a valuable alternative view to set alongside the work of her male contemporaries.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Waiting for Mandulis

Then bright Mandulis came from high Olympus

bearing his bright cheeks and walking by the right hand of Isis.

You boast how you provide for the people,

how day and night and all the seasons revere you

and call you kin, Breith and Mandulis,

stars, emblems of the gods rising in heaven.

– Paccius Maximus

(My own translation)

These lines come from a poem written by a Roman soldier named Paccius Maximus and painted on the wall of the temple to Mandulis at Kalabsha, in modern Sudan. We know very little about Paccius besides what he tells us in this and one other poem, but based on some clues he is believed to have been a local African officer in the late Roman army.

Mandulis, often associated with his twin brother Breith, was a Nubian sun god. It’s interesting to note how Paccius readily connected Mandulis with both the Olympian gods and the Egyptian goddess Isis, easily harmonizing Greco-Roman, Egyptian, and Nubian religious traditions. His poem gives us a glimpse at how culturally complex and interconnected the world of the Roman empire was.

But, as fascinating as Paccius’ poem is, it’s on my mind today for a different reason.

It snowed here last night. Again. That’s the fifth snowstorm we’ve had this March.

You see this stuff? You see it? I’m sick of it. I like winter just fine, but it’s time for this winter to be over.

Mandulis, wherever you are, we could really use you and your bright cheeks right now. Any time you want to come start providing for us people here, buddy. Any time. I’ll be waiting.

When the suckage just sucks too much.

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.

To the Lady Queen

An official from a Western superpower arrives in a rich and powerful African kingdom and offers his respect and support to a royal woman. It may sound like Everett Ross from Black Panther, but it’s actually two millennia older:

Good fortune to the Lady Queen, may she live happily for many years. Acutus came from the city and [saw the place (?)] on the 15th of April.

(My own translation)

This inscription, the southernmost Latin inscription yet discovered, comes from Musawwarat es-Suffra in modern-day Sudan, which in antiquity was part of the kingdom of Kush. Kush, often called Meroë by Greek and Roman authors after its capital city, was a powerful state on the central Nile river. After the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 BCE, the Roman Empire and Kush fought a brief border war, but the Kushan Queen Amanirenas soon made a peace treaty with Rome that was respected by both sides for centuries to come. (Greco-Roman authors mistakenly call Amanirenas “Candance,” which is not a name but a Kushan title for a royal woman.)

This inscription, which is in rather poor condition and cannot be read fully, probably dates to sometime in the third century CE. The Acutus who dedicated it was most likely a Roman envoy (“the city” being Rome) who had come to Kush on diplomatic business. His effusive good wishes to another (unnamed) ruling queen were in keeping with how Roman ambassadors demonstrated respect for foreign rulers. This inscription shows that Rome regarded its relationship with Meroë as worth maintaining with proper diplomatic dignity. Kush profited handsomely from facilitating trade between the Roman Mediterranean and both sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian Ocean, and had every reason to encourage ongoing good relations.

The history of interactions between Europeans and Africans is filled with bloodshed and inhumanity. It is understandable how appealing Black Panther‘s fantasy of an isolated African state untouched by European invasion or interference is to many fans. But it is also worth remembering that isolation is not the only option, and history also contains examples of European-African contacts that were peaceful and respectful.

Image: CIL III 83 via Adam Łajtar and Jacques van der Vliet, “Rome-Meroe-Berlin. The Southernmost Latin Inscription Rediscovered (“CIL” III 83),” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, 157 (2006), 193-198.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Dirty Jokes in Ancient Gaul

It’s been said that one of the measures of skill in a language is the ability to tell a dirty joke. It looks like some women in central Gaul were up to snuff in their Latin.

The evidence comes from a set of loom weights with Gaulish and Gaulish/Latin inscriptions. Loom weights are small weights, often made from stone, pottery, or metal, used to keep tension on the fibers in certain types of loom. They are a very common find in archaeological sites because they were simple everyday objects that lots of people used, people needed a lot of them, and they were easy to replace if they got damaged or broken. (So many loom weights turn up in archaeological digs that there’s a joke among archaeologists that if you find something you can’t identify it’s probably a loom weight.) Most loom weights are quite simple objects, like the Saxon examples in the illustration here, but a collection of loom weights with inscribed texts have been found in France, dating from some time during the Roman period.

The texts on these weights are short sayings, often with a good rolling rhythm like these:

Nata imi daga uimpi

Gaulish for: ‘I am a good and pretty girl.’

Nata uimpi curmi da

Gaulish for: ‘Pretty girl, bring me beer.’

But then there are some like this one:

Nata uimpi uim pota

Now, nata uimpi is Gaulish for ‘pretty girl,’ like in the previous examples, but uim pota is Latin. Pota means ‘drink,’ which is clear enough, but uim is a little trickier. Uim is abbreviated from a longer word, and there are two possibilities. If it is shortened from uinum (more typically written as vinum), then the inscription says: ‘Pretty girl, drink wine.’ On the other hand, uim could be short for uirum (or virum), in which case the meaning gets a bit naughtier: ‘Pretty girl, drink the man.’ (Which probably means exactly what your dirty mind thinks it means.)

Early researchers concluded that this naughty loom weight must have been made by a man and given to a woman who didn’t understand the double meaning, because women are delicate flowers who would never say such a thing. More recent scholarship has pointed out that those earlier researchers clearly haven’t spent enough time around women.

These and other (even naughtier) loom weights suggest that there was a community of Gaulish-speaking women who were also sufficiently familiar with Latin to make dirty jokes. Textile work was traditionally a women’s activity and would have taken up a significant part of their time. It could also be a social activity. We should imagine these Gaulish women gathered together weaving, sewing, and chatting, not unlike a modern craft circle. In that context, these loom weights with their rhythmic sayings and naughty suggestions would have been a playful accent to enliven the working day.

Image: Saxon loom weights, photography by Simon Speed via Wikimedia (currently Bedford Museum; stone)

On, of, and about languages.

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.

Quotes: A Woman Who is Always Going on About the Grammatical Arts

And don’t get me started on the woman who, as soon as she sits down to dinner,

lauds Vergil, makes excuses for the fallen Dido,

pits the poets against each other, and weighs up

Maro and Homer in a balance scale.

Teachers give way, professors are vanquished, the whole crowd

falls silent, the lawyers and hawkers can’t get a word in—

not even another woman!

Don’t sit down to dinner with a woman

of that loquacious sort who slings a tricky syllogism

with her whirling talk, who knows all the histories,

but rather one who isn’t well read.

I can’t stand a woman who is always going on about the grammatical arts,

whose talk is always in tune with the laws of logic

and who has some verses of an antique poet I’ve never heard of on her lips.

– Juvenal, Satires 6.434-40, 448-54

(My own translation)

This bit of the Roman satirist Juvenal’s harangue against women—directed at those who have the audacity to read books, have opinions on them, and not give way to men who think they know better—sounds to me a lot like certain modern men’s bellyaching on social media about women who insist on having opinions on comic books, sci-fi movies, video games, or other pieces of popular culture.

There are two broad schools of thought on Juvenal. One takes his curmudgeonly satires at face value and sees him as a butt-hurt bro throwing a tantrum. I incline towards the other school of thought which sees Juvenal’s satiric persona as a put-on performance, like Stephen Colbert’s old schtick. The real target of Juvenal’s ire was not well-read women but his fellow Roman men who were sore about women having ideas about books they hadn’t even read themselves.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

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.