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.
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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.
The Departure of Memnon for Troy. Greek, circa 550-525 BC. (Public Domain)
Incorporating New Members into Roman Society
It is also paramount to include the laws of Roman citizenship into the discussion of ancient racism (or the lack thereof) in regards to black individuals in Rome. How the Romans handed out citizenship says a lot about their ethnicity values. Members of conquered tribes and civilizations could easily be made Roman citizens through a variety of methods: serving in the army for a certain period of time was one of the most common; marrying into a Roman family was not unheard of; and Imperial decrees, though few and far between, were occasional occurrences (most significantly under Emperor Caracalla). Notably, handing out citizenship in these ways (and others) had nothing to do with the way a person looked, acted, spoke, etc. In these cases, the Romans gave out citizenship based solely on the needs of their own culture. Incorporation benefited the Roman Empire, while simultaneously encouraging loyalty from the conquered.
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Portrait of the emperor Caracalla from a statue reworked as a bust. (Marie-Lan Nguyen/CC BY 2.5)
Caracalla's Constitutio Antoniniana, which gave free men (not necessarily light-skinned men) citizenship, is often considered a move to increase the revenue of the imperial treasury. Requiring a certain amount of time in military service created loyalty and community between citizens and non-citizens, with the latter gaining legal acceptance at the end in gratitude. Whatever the Roman government's personal gains, handing out citizenship was a win-win situation, and one of the reasons scholars believe the Empire lasted so long. But to reiterate, these decisions do not appear to have been impacted by skin-color and ethnicity. Though that is not to say some Romans were displeased by the sudden inclusion of "foreigners" into the official folds of the Empire; it seems that skin-tone was not a primary factor in the Roman conscience. Differences were recognized, individuals likely had their own prejudices, but universally, there was not a blatant discrimination against darker-skinned groups.
Mosaic of a Roman soldier embracing a woman. (Realhistory)
This article does not pretend to cover all sides of the ongoing debate on the topic of racism in the ancient world. The aim of this article is merely to provide examples and evidence of the ways in which the classical world does not appear to emphasize a mentality of lighter-skinned Greeks and Romans discriminating against darker-skinned Libyans, Ethiopians, Scythians, etc. based on the color of their skin. This issue is more often seen in debates regarding "barbarianism", which itself is a debate of civilized versus uncivilized, and it is not incorporated into this article.
The extent of undocumented black racism may still remain up for debate, however in universal Greek and Roman contexts, skin-color was likely a secondary, or even tertiary, basis for discrimination in classical culture, and it certainly was not a prominent factor in decisions of battle-allies and citizenship.
Top Image: ‘The Slave Market’ (1886) by Gustave Boulanger. (Public Domain)
Allahar, Anton L. (1993) "When Black First Became Worth Less." International Journal of Comparative Sociology. 34.1. pp. 39-55. Accessed December 20, 2017.
du Plessis, Paul J. (2013) New Frontiers: Law and Society in the Roman World. Edinburgh University Press.
Hansberry, WL. 1981. Africa and Africans as seen by classical writers. Howard University Press.
Hine, D. C. (2001). "Frontiers in Black Diaspora Studies and Comparative Black History: Enhanced Knowledge of Our Complex Past." The Negro Educational Review, 52, 101-108.
Sallust. The Jugurthine War /The Conspiracy of Catiline. (trans. William Batstone, 2010.) Oxford University Press.
Snowden, Frank. (1991) Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks. Harvard University Press.
Snowden, Frank. (1970) Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience. Harvard University Press.