Skin Color Didn’t Matter to the Ancient Greeks and Romans
The term “racism” refers to a phenomenon of group hatred or bigotry based on ethnic and cultural prejudice. In the United States, the term is most often heard in conjunction with the descriptors “black” or “African-American”. And, of course, the starting points for such conversations usually converge on the American Civil War of the 1860s. As such, “racism” and “slavery” are two ideas put hand in hand, often (though not exclusively) culminating around the black minority. When considering further back in history, some wonder if there was a discrimination against black individuals in the Western ancient world—for instance, during the Golden Age of Pericles or at the height of the Roman Empire.
It can be argued that racism has always existed in a sense —both on individual and group levels. But racism specifically against darker-skinned individuals appears to be a relatively new concept. Though slavery was as prominent a part of daily life of the ancient world as it was during the American Civil War, the enslaved were the conquered, not necessarily individuals whose skin was a different shade from their conquerors. This article will examine ancient slavery and its lack of African and/or dark-skinned context.
Roman marble portrait bust of a young African man, 1st half of the 2nd century AD. (Dan Diffendale/ CC BY NC SA 2.0 ) Vase in the shape of the bust of an African. Bronze, Roman artwork, 2nd century AD. (Marie-Lan Nguyen/ CC BY 3.0 )
A Different Perspective on Geography
First things first: "Africa" did not exist in the ancient world as it does today. Once upon a time, "Libya" referred to as much of the continent as the Greeks could see, namely much of the northern portion of the land mass; meanwhile "Ethiopia" applied to the southern portion of the continent. In ancient Greek, "Ethiopia" ("Aethiopia") loosely translates into the phrase "burnt-face", because the Greeks believed those living on the continent were perpetually sun-burnt. It was not (as far as current research shows) intended as a form of insult. A small portion of upper Africa, west of where Carthage was once located, was a region the Romans called Mauretania; the Romans teamed up with this kingdom during their subjugation of Jugurtha of Numidia (112-106 BC) under General Gaius Marius.
- Cleisthenes, Father of Democracy, Invented a Form of Government that Has Endured for Over 2,500 Years
- The Entity of Neutrality and the Story of the Black Knights
- The White Slaves of Barbary
Hellenistic bronze statuette of an African (known as Ethiopian) youth. ( The Met )
In Frank Snowden’s text Blacks in Antiquity , he references the consistent inclusion of Ethiopians “who lived south of Egypt” in classical Greek poetry. Among the earliest Greeks with knowledge of Ethiopia was Homer, though Snowden does indicate that other writers, such as Herodotus, were occasionally known to confuse Ethiopia with India. However, poetic “observations…as to the physical characteristics and provenience of these peoples were…sparse or vague” until the fifth century BC. This, one could argue, may indicate how unimportant skin-color and race were in the ancient world—intellectual capacity, military skill, and xenia (hospitality) ranked far higher in importance. Further, Snowden dictates that when race was used to refer to certain peoples, it was likely in reference to location rather than skin. That is, “Hesiod is the first to group Scythians with Ethiopians, peoples who later came to be cited frequently as examples of racial and geographical extremes—northerners and southerners.” As mentioned above, ancient Ethiopians were named such because of a misguided belief regarding their skin color; Scythians were also notoriously dark-skinned in ancient records, however as they were from wetter and cloudier places, they were given a different name.
Scythian Horseman depicted on felt artifact, circa 300 BC. ( Public Domain )
Differing Skin Color as a Fact of Life
According to Before Color Prejudice (also by Snowden), prejudice specific to black culture was not a large piece of the ancient Roman world. Not only was ancient Rome very closely tied to the shores of modern day Africa, discrimination based on skin would have been considered unusual—particularly as the later emperors of the Severan Dynasty were Libyan (i.e., African) themselves. Further, Ovid, writing under the first Emperor, “suggests that a black lover of Aurora was the father of Memnon. Perseus, the son of Zeus by Danae, married the dark-skinned Andromeda, whose father, king of the Ethiopians, was a mulatto, at least in the eyes of a vase painter in the mid-fifth century.” Therefore, one can reasonably presume that skin-color was not a factor of racism, but rather a fact of life. Discrimination was predominately a class or wealth based decision instead.