Bloomsbury (2021) p/b 250pp £14 (ISBN 9781350125001)
This is a reformatted version of a book originally published in 2012 early in the ‘Ancients and Moderns’ series from Bloomsbury, in which there are now thirteen titles ranging from Art to War via Death, Gender, Medicine, Sex etc. The objective of the series is to explain to a new readership how classical antiquity ‘continues to be relevant to culture, politics and society’.
M. is an Associate Professor of Classics at Miami University Ohio and an affiliate in Black World Studies. Given the current intensity of the debate in the USA (and indeed worldwide) about Black Lives Matter this is perhaps an appropriate moment to revisit her exploration of this topic. Her aim is ‘to account for the rule of race in the classical world’ and to juxtapose that with the impact that this ideology has had on modern scholarship.
In her Introduction M. seeks to establish a definition and a taxonomy for race and racism. All societies generate ‘otherness’ between themselves and other groups. She acknowledges that the ancient world did not generate the binary ‘otherness’ currently afflicting the world (and particularly the USA)—namely a ‘black’/‘white’ distinction based on race and skin colour. She examines alternative definitions of ‘otherness’ which have been suggested, including some during classical antiquity—for example ethnos (people group) and genos (family or blood group) —but rejects them (and equally the more recent ‘cultural identity’ distinction) because she does not think that they give sufficient weight to the racism which underlay the cultures of Greece and Rome. This racism was transferred into modern European thought via the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment and was thus, at least indirectly, responsible for the genetic ideologies of the 19th C and thus the current binary divisiveness.
She proceeds to examine each of the classical examples that she describes through the prism of racism. Her method is to summarise fairly objectively and in a predominantly fluid and approachable style the topics that she has chosen to describe; then to present approaches to each topic by recent scholars which employ the racism prism; to point out some of the anomalies to which these give rise but not to seek to resolve them. This is reasonable given that her stated objective is to stimulate thinking rather than to direct it.
It is perhaps worth noting that there is no exploration of racist ‘otherness’ relating to China or Japan and equally almost none relating to the Indian subcontinent. Forty pages of notes mainly double as a partial bibliography.
In Chapter One, ‘Racial Theory’, she discusses the obvious binary ‘otherness’ identified by the Greeks—Hellenes versus barbarians. She accepts that this ‘otherness’ did not stem primarily from racism but notes how the Greeks nurtured both their distinctiveness by developing their genealogical myths and their superiority by demonizing the Persians as unnaturally subservient. Aristotle’s labelling of hoi barbaroi as inherently servile is cited more than once. She also notes the different Roman approach to ‘otherness’: those groups that they could colonise which they chose to absorb rather than persistently to disdain; those they could not colonise they tended to admire. Indeed one of M.’s commentators describes Tacitus’ Germania as high among the hundred most dangerous books ever written—because its concept of the ‘noble savage’ so strongly influenced C19 genetic theory.
In Chapter Two, ‘ Race as Social Practice’, M argues that racism is not only observable in its overt form but is also perceptible more subtly through institutional and cultural behaviour which is imbued by racism. She accordingly identifies some examples of this more subtle prejudice, using Egypt under both the Ptolemies and the Romans as her exploration ground. Egypt interests her partly because in Upper Egypt an interface between classical antiquity and black Africa is almost uniquely observable and also because another binary ‘otherness’ existed in the Nile delta between the Alexandrian Greeks and the native Egyptians. She examines, for example, the bureaucratic caches of papyri from Xenon and other sources, a range of censuses and the riots in Alexandria between Greeks and Jews while Claudius was Emperor. Although she acknowledges that the evidence points in several directions, she suggests that her main point about subliminal racism is sufficiently met.
In Chapter Three, ‘Racial Representation’, M., having identified art and literature as also providing indirect evidence for racism, explores both literary sources such as Theocritus Idyll 15 and the Aeneid, together with Ovid’s slave girl mistress and artistic representations including Attic pottery, Egyptian mummies and triumphal depictions such as Trajan’s column. She had already in her introduction included a significant excursus into the colour of Cleopatra’s skin and the significance of that for her reception in Rome. She acknowledges that, if only because of the literary and artistic conventions of the times, it is more difficult to draw hard conclusions from this material.
In Chapter Four, ‘Whose History?’, M. challenges a European right to the ownership of the culture of classical antiquity. On the one hand she points to distinguished scholarship in the subject published by African and Asian authors and indeed by members of other subject groups like the Irish. More significantly she describes the thesis of Black Athena by Martin Bernal which, grossly oversimplified, proposes that the roots of the culture of classical antiquity came from the African south via Egypt and Crete rather than the Aryan north. She believes that this challenge, when combined with a re-examination of imperialism (which in turn derives from Romanisation), will lead to a fundamental reappraisal of the significance of classical antiquity.
During the early years of the Blair administration, I heard a junior minister, in a Freudian inversion of a then favourite trope, inform a Select Committee of the House of Commons that he believed passionately in ‘policy-based evidence’. There is a whiff of that about this book and for that reason it is unlikely to persuade those who are as yet ‘off message’. It is however a message that will be increasingly advanced in academic circles, and it behoves anyone interested in the classical world to become aware of this likelihood. This book provides an admirable compendium for those concerned to identify the scope, direction and intensity of the arguments that they can expect to encounter.