‘Black’ Africans and the Ancient Greeks

As a result of George Floyd’s murder and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, there have been calls to decolonise the academic fields of Classical and Byzantine Studies. For the edification of those mystified as to the connection between these seemingly arcane fields and the problem of systemic racism, it is argued that historically, these fields of study have been dominated by a western European discourse that, in the case of Classical Studies,, appropriates them from their natural context, presenting them as the foundation of “western” civilisation, asserting the primacy of that civilisation and by consequence, culturally and ethnically dispossessing the modern inhabitants of the lands in which they were engendered from that lineage.

Since Gibbon, in the case of Byzantine studies, false narratives of white supremacy and western superiority have also been propagated, portraying the Greek and Syriac speakers of Byzantium especially as effete and morally corrupt, while presenting the entire history of that civilisation as a debased and illegitimate form of the ancient Greek ideal that the West claims as its own. This form of Orientalism has caused an ontopathology of self-loathing and insecurity among peoples in the Empire’s successor states. In the case of the modern Greeks, it has resulted in the West colonising our own historical narrative and denying them the opportunity of viewing the linear progression of their history within the context and unique perspective of their own native tradition.

The well-worn cliché, propagated by western classicists and parroted by thousands of Greek school teachers around the world, that “ancient Greeks were blonde and blue eyed,” (and that by inference, the darker one is, the less Greek and the less worthy one is also)” embeds a racist discourse that was completely alien to the way ancient Greeks viewed people of colour. If Classical Studies are to be indeed “de-colonised,” a good starting point would be this simple proposition: That the ancient Greeks had no concept of racial superiority based on the colour of a person’s skin and that consequently, the relationship between ancient Greeks and peoples of colour, especially in Africa, was one of enduring curiosity, admiration and fascination.

READ MORE: Black Athena and the Incredible Whiteness of Being

Janiform kantharos with heads of a male African and a female Greek, ca. 480–470 B.C. African artists used specific hairstyles to convey a figure’s class, religious affiliation or social standing, but this Greek artist relied on racial stereotypes. The subjects may represent Herodotus’s theories of racial difference or a display of slaves and female companions in the service of Greek men.

That is not to say that ancient Greeks did not notice difference in colour. Having encountered Africans during the process of setting up colonies on the North African coast, and later confronting them in the Persian army that invaded Greece (Africans were among the soldiers said to have fought at Marathon), the ancient Greeks employed a number of terms to describe them, generally referring to them as “Ethiopians,” and using various terms to describe the colour of their skin, Hesiod referring to  the physiques of the «κυανέων ἀνδρῶν» (dark-skinned men), and Aristotle, to those «τὸ τὴν χρόαν μελάνων» (those with dark skins). Archaeological evidence suggests that Greeks encountered Africans at a very early time in their history; one is portrayed on a mask found in a Bronze Age tomb in Cyprus. Homer casts Eurybates, Odyssey’s herald as an African, describing him as «οὐλοκάρηνος» (wooly-haired) and «μελανόχροος,» (dark hued), and states that Odysseus honoured him above his other comrades. As a hero, he is depicted on a shield in a 5th century vase painting. Africans appear also in depictions of worshippers of Demeter and Persephone in Acragas, suggesting that there was no colour bar to participation in ancient Greek religious rites.

Further evidence for the integration of Africans within ancient Greek society can be found in the writings of Aristotle, who mentions a woman from Elis whose child had an Ethiopian father. Plutarch makes mention of a woman whose great-grandfather was Ethiopian, not to condemn her or argue against a miscegenation of races, a purely alien concept to the ancient Greeks, but to explain why it was that she gave birth to a baby of African appearance, and noteworthy, is comedian Menander’s sympathetic treatment of Africans in his comedies, referring to them as migrants who are “far from home.”

Herodes Atticus the sophist, is also recorded as having had an African pupil. In none of these writings is there expressed any prejudice against people of colour by virtue of the hue of their skin. Indeed, Atticus mourned the death of his African student and reputedly set up a statue in his memory. Menander on the other hand in one of his plays, dismisses pedigree as unimportant in measuring the value of a person: “the man whose natural bent is good, though his mother is Ethiopian, is nobly born.” His meaning here, is that it is character, not race that determines a person’s worth.

READ MORE: When did I become ‘white’?

This electrum hekte, struck circa 560-545 BC, is from the ancient city of Phokaia in Ionia and shows the head of an African man.

Indeed, persons of colour even appear on ancient Greek coins and were afforded places of honour. Delphus, after whom Delphi was said to have been named, was depicted as an African on some coinage (possibly because his mother was named Melanis – “the dark one”) and African legendary heroes are also depicted on the coinage of Athens, Lesbos and Phocis. In some vase-paintings, Homeric Circe is depicted as African, possibly in order to emphasise her exotic nature, as are some of Theseus’ youthful followers. A number of Africans are depicted on vases and masks, suggesting both close contact and fascination with them as people and at no stage is there any intimation that the African physical type was considered in any way ugly or inferior. While Philostratos wrote of the “charming Ethiopians with their strange colour,” Xenophanes argued that beauty is relative, stating that Africans portrayed their gods in their own image, just as Thracians did, according to their own type. The depictions of Africans in domestic ware such one portraying an Ethiopian being attacked by a crocodile, most probably an oblique reference to the Nile River, appear to be loaded with no racial connotations whatsoever. A tomb painting from a Greek cemetery near Poseidonia in southern Italy show an Ethiopian and a Greek in a boxing match, competing as equals.

In contrast to Western conceptions of Africans as primitive and thus worthy of enslavement, domination and colonisation, the ancient Greeks seemed to have identified in African peoples, a venerable lineage worthy of respect. Thus, Diodorus spoke highly of the civilised people of Meroe, who lived in what is today Sudan, considering that they were the first people to worship the gods and holding Egyptian civilisation to be a derivative of their own. This view is supported by some of the Homeric hymns which hold that Zeus dined with the Ethiopians, who were considered close to him. Lucian wrote that the Ethiopians were the first people to develop astrology and that they had a great reputation for wisdom.  Even Ptolemy, writing about the African tribes beyond the lands of the Ethiopians, attributes their apparent lack of civilisation, not to any inherent racial characteristics, but to the fact that their homes were continuously oppressed by heat owing to the climate. There is no underlying assumption that Africans are in any way racially inferior to anyone else, let alone the Greeks themselves.

Best articulating the Greek view of cultural ascendancy, Athenian orator Isocrates,  around 380BC, in praising Athens, famously suggested that the term “Greek” not so much connoted a race, but rather a state of mind, «διάνοια» to which all those possessed of the requisite education «παιδεία» belonged. This was symptomatic of a broad inclusive view of identity that was not in any way based on skin colour. It comes in marked contrast to the efforts of western scholars to claim the Greek legacy on the basis of “whiteness,” a principle that they even applied to archaeology, “whitening” the ancient Greek sculptures that they unearthed, by scraping the remnants of their original paint from them. It follows axiomatically that the racist discourse subsisting within sections of modern Greek culture has its roots in the western imposed ontopathology  of classical cultural appropriation and the reinvention of a particular conception of Greece in the nineteenth century rather than being symptomatic of any inherent tradition stemming from ancient or Byzantine times.

READ MORE: How to talk to your kids about Byzantium

Yet western whites were not the only people to attempt to appropriate Greek culture. Just after the American Civil War, Joseph Wilson, a black veteran of that conflict, published: “The Black Phalanx: A History of the Negro Soldiers of the United States in the Wars of 1775-1812, 1861-’65.” In that book, and especially by terming units of Black soldiers a “phalanx,” Wilson sought to connect them to the legacy of ancient Greek martial valour. In so doing, Wilson was hearkening back to a historic tradition much truer to fact that anything propagated by western classists.

In many ways, Greek-Australians, as kin to those modern Greeks who are considered by western narratives to be “fallen” Greeks by virtue of their Byzantine legacy and subjugation to the Ottomans, but at the same time, partaking, as Australians, in the discourse of “whiteness” deriving from an anhistoric appreciation of ancient Greek attitudes to colour, are in a unique position to appreciate the necessity of decolonising classical studies and stressing the importance of de-coupling our ancient legacy from the promotion or perpetuation of systemic racism. To do so, is to achieve emancipation for all involved.