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Race & The Ancients
The ancients were well aware of how populations physically differed, and that awareness was reflected in their art, myths, and philosophy...
Written by Gabriel Andrade.
Do races exist? This question can be answered by appealing to genetic, anatomical, and behavioral data. The jury is still out on this issue, and although some progressives would prefer to shut down this debate in the name of political correctness, it is only sensible to keep it going, as it is far from settled.
Interestingly, those who reject the objective existence of races often appeal to historical data to make their case. In their view, the concept of race is a recent invention. For example, anthropologist C. Loring Brace explains that:
[…] in the 1400s, traveling by foot or camelback, it never occurred to even the most seasoned world travelers to categorize people, because what they saw was gradual variation… For Europeans, that changed in the 1500s and 1600s, when you could get into a boat, sail for months, and wind up on a different continent. When you got off, wow, did everybody look different! Our traditional racial groupings are simply the end points of the old trans-oceanic trade networks.
The relevance of this argument to the broader discussion about the existence of race is difficult to apprehend. For centuries, most people adhered to heliocentrism. So what? Does that prove that the Earth does not go around the sun? The existence or inexistence of race cannot be decided on the basis of whether race is a recent concept. But since the issue of whether the concept of race anteceded the Age of Exploration is sometimes brought up, it is crucial to set the record straight.
Edgar Allan Poe neatly captured our fascination when he famously wrote, “The glory that was Greece, and the grandeur that was Rome.” And so appealing to Classical Antiquity —in addition to Egypt and the Israelites— as a repository of wisdom when it comes to racial colorblindness is easy and natural. Classicist Frank Snowden famously contended that the ancients knew nothing about race. As he explained in Before Color Prejudice, “the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and early Christians were free of… the curse of acute color-consciousness, attended by all the raw passion and social problems that cluster around it.”
Snowden’s seminal book is a meaningful scholarly attempt to document how blacks could achieve positions of power and respect in Classical Antiquity. He correctly explains that “both blacks and whites were slaves, but blacks and slaves were never synonymous; black emigres were not excluded from opportunities available to others of alien extraction, nor were they handicapped in fundamental social relations.”
But does that mean that ancient people did not think in terms of race? Hardly. Consider the Egyptians. There are many depictions in which Egyptians consciously use darker colors to represent their Nubian neighbors. Renowned classicist Mary Lefkowitz tries to dismiss this evidence as follows:
Egyptians made clear distinctions between themselves and other peoples, which they represented in their art. Wall paintings are not photographs, and to some extent the different colors may have been chosen to mark nationality, like uniforms in a football game. The Egyptians depicted themselves with a russet color, Asiatics in a paler yellow. Southern peoples were darker, either chocolate brown or black.
Lefkowitz deserves much credit for debunking absurd Afrocentrist claims—e.g., Cleopatra was black— but her assessment of Egyptian art is ridiculous. The Nubians’ darker color was not merely a sort of football uniform. If Egyptians artists chose black to depict Nubians, it was because, well, Nubians were dark indeed. In fact, Egyptian artists did not merely differentiate Nubians by depicting skin color; they also represented them with flat noses and thick lips. Are these, too, part of the football uniform?
For Egyptians, race may not have been the most important criterion to differentiate between nations. Language was probably more important. But they were not blind to race differences. For example, much is made of the Great Hymn to Aten, in which nations are distinguished with the claim, “their tongues are separate in speech”; yet that very same poem also exalts, “their skins are distinguished.” For the Egyptians, even if perhaps secondary to linguistic differences, racial features still mattered.
Were racial differences insurmountable obstacles to cultural assimilation? Probably not. Snowden plausibly explains that blacks “were physically and culturally assimilated; in science, philosophy, and religion.” But even while admitting that people with other racial features could be culturally assimilated, ancient folks still wondered to what extent racial features constitute the essence of a person. The author of the Biblical book of Jeremiah (13:23) rhetorically asks, “Can an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard its spots?” The implication is that black skin is essential to the Ethiopian —very much as the spots are to the leopard— and nobody can be oblivious to that. The fact that this Biblical author chose to focus on the Ethiopian’s skin as a distinguishing feature reveals that for Israelites — and the ancients as a whole— race was not irrelevant.
Indeed, Greeks also appeared to have this essentialist approach in considering Ethiopians. For example, one of Aesop’s fables tells the story of a slave owner who tries to wash off the blackness from his slave’s skin. The master keeps trying to wash away the blackness, all in vain. Lucian picked up the theme, writing, “You wash the Ethiopian in vain; why not give up the task? You will never manage to turn black night into day.” It would be a mistake to interpret— as some authors maliciously have done in more recent times— that the story's moral is that the Ethiopian’s dark color is akin to dirt, and therefore blacks are inferior. Aesop intended to claim that some things cannot be changed. But his choice of trope to illustrate his point makes it evident that people were fully aware of racial differences in his zeitgeist.
Racial differences were a motive of intellectual curiosity, on both mythical and rational levels. Greek myths famously sought explanations for natural phenomena; amongst those, racial differences excited their curiosity. Greeks wanted to know why Ethiopians were black, so they devised the myth of Phaethon. According to the story, Phaethon rode the sun with this chariot and in so doing, came too close to the land of the Ethiopians. Ever since, their faces have looked as if burned; that is what the word ‘Ethiopian’ (Αἰθίοψ) means: burned (αἴθω) face (ὤψ). Were the Greeks prejudiced against the Ethiopians because of their skin color? Probably not. But it would be disingenuous to claim that the Greeks did not categorize peoples on the basis of racial features.
Unsurprisingly, Greek art was not racially colorblind. For example, some jugs had white and black faces to contrast their racial features. Similarly, like Egyptians, Greeks did not fail to highlight the racial differences in depictions of other peoples. For example, in the Palestrina Mosaic — a late Hellenistic copy of a Ptolemaic work— people native to the Upper Nile are depicted as black, in contrast to the rest of people who live closer to the Mediterranean— who are depicted as white.
Greek thinkers’ interests in racial matters were deeper. Strabo sought a more intellectually satisfying explanation for Ethiopians’ darker skin, although he maintained the connection between exposure to the sun and skin color. To make his case, he contrasts Ethiopians with Indians, who “do not have woolly hair and that their skin is not so mercilessly burnt.”
Many Greek philosophers believed that climate determined the character of entire groups of people, and unsurprisingly, they believed that Greek climate was best suited for achievement. Thus, Aristotle famously wrote:
The peoples of cold countries generally, and particularly those of Europe, are full of spirit, but deficient in skill and intelligence; and this is why they continue to remain comparatively free, but attain no political development and show no capacity for governing others. The peoples of Asia are endowed with skill and intelligence, but are deficient in spirit; and this is the way they continue to be peoples of subjects and slaves. The Greek stock, intermediate in geographical position, unites the qualities of both sets of peoples. It possesses both spirit and intelligence: the one quality that makes it continue to be free.
This is not a racial explanation per se, as human diversity is explained by environmental factors, not intrinsic biological differences. Presumably, as per this theory, if a Greek person moved to Northern Europe, she would be deficient in skill and intelligence. Yet, some Greek authors went beyond this explanation and asserted that traits acquired because of environmental factors become somewhat immutable. For example, Aristotle also believed that “mutilated young are born of mutilated parents.” This theory implies that if Greeks stayed in their homeland for many generations, moving to higher latitudes would have no effect on their character, as the exposure to the Greek climate shaped the entire stock, and those acquired characteristics would be passed on for many generations.
The text On Airs, Waters and Places — attributed to Hippocrates but likely written by someone else— expands that theory by considering the people of Trapezus, who artificially elongated their children’s heads. The author believed that after a few generations, children would be born with elongated heads, even if parents did nothing: “Thus, at first, usage operated, so that this constitution was the result of force: but, over time, it was formed naturally; so that usage had nothing to do with it.”
Given that acquired traits would become immutable, the author of On Airs, Waters and Places seemed to believe that particular characteristics can identify entire groups and that ultimately, the variability across groups is larger than the variability within groups. As the author explains, “in respect of the seasons and the figure of the body, the Scythian race, like the Egyptian, have a uniformity of resemblance, different from all other nations… their shapes resemble one another, the males being all alike, and also with the women.”
Clearly, this author did not dismiss the concept of race. As per his understanding of human diversity, humanity can be neatly classified into somewhat homogenous groups that differ because of their biological characteristics.
We can now answer the original question of this article. Is race a recent concept? In some sense, it is. The ancients practiced slavery, but it was not racially based; they established little connection between physical characteristics and behavior. But the ancients were not colorblind. They were well aware of how populations physically differed, and that awareness is reflected in their art, myths, and philosophy.
Unfortunately, we have projected our obsessions onto the past. Race has been a dangerous concept, and many atrocities in recent times have been committed in its name. It is therefore understandable that most progressives are eager to dismiss the concept of race altogether. But good intentions should not trump the integrity of historical research. We cannot shape the ancients to our liking. The ancients had their own ways of thinking, and our task is to describe them as they were. They were not oblivious to the concept of race.
Gabriel Andrade is a university professor originally from Venezuela. He writes about politics, philosophy, history, religion and psychology.