Racism in Greece and Rome
I didn’t actually watch Jade Goody and friends attack Shilpa Shetty. But it’s been impossible to avoid the endless follow-up wrangling about what was really going on. Was this appalling racism? An episode in the class war? Brutal bullying? Or just plain hatred of foreigners (which, though unpleasant enough, is not necessarily racist)?
It all reminded me uncannily of the debates about whether racism existed in Greek and Roman world.
There is no doubt at all that they often treated outsiders badly. The idea of the ‘barbarian’ (someone whose speech is just an incomprehensible “ba ba”) is a well known Greek invention. But the cultural identity of both societies was even more pervasively based on what we would now see as an unhealthy distrust of anyone different from themselves. Xenophobia in other words.
The list of unnatural things that foreigners were supposed to get up to is a long one. It ranged from peculiar eating habits (not just frogs legs or poppadoms, but at its worst cannibalism) to strange regimes of hygiene (women standing up to piss was a notable source of wonderment and/or disdain) and topsy-turvy ideas of sex and gender (women in charge).
The Greeks painted a contemptuous picture of the Persians as trousered, decadent softies who wore far too much perfume. Then the Romans came along and, minus the trousers, said much the same about the Greeks: a nice example of being given a taste of your own medicine.
But, strikingly, it’s usually claimed that neither Greeks nor Romans bothered very much about skin colour. This was a time ‘before colour prejudice’.
It’s certainly the case that there seems to have been no general idea of social, cultural or intellectual inferiority based on the colour of a person’s skin. There was no homogeneous slave class, of a different race and colour from their masters. And, in fact, exactly what skin colours were represented, and in what numbers, in the multi-cultural population of the Roman empire is something of puzzle. The second century AD emperor, Septimius Severus who came from modern Libya definitely wasn’t black (even though that’s sometimes asserted); but then he probably wasn’t as white as some of his marble busts make him seem either.
Ancient stories too suggest a very different set of assumptions about blackness and whiteness. There is marvellous episode which touches just this subject in the Aethiopica (Ethiopian Story), a novel by Heliodorus, a third-century AD Greek writer from Syria. Persinna, the black queen of Ethiopia, with a black husband, gave birth to a white daughter. How did she explain it? She had been looking at a picture of (white) Andromeda at the time of the girl’s conception.
But is it all quite so simple? Probably not. There’s a recent book by Ben Isaac, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity, which claims to have identified if not racism, then at least “proto-racism” in the ancient world. Isaac insists (as do most serious analysts) that racism goes beyond casual xenophobia. It is a deterministic ideology, which sees some groups as unalterably inferior, thanks to natural or inherited characteristics. In modern society, the key natural characteristic has been skin colour.
Not so in the ancient world. But Isaac thinks he can identify something similarly deterministic (and so racist) in other, quite different, natural factors. For him, the ancients were not colour-prejudiced; instead they were geographical and environmental determinists. To over-simplify a bit, he charges the Greeks and Romans with being “proto-racists” in the sense that they believed that the characteristics which certain races derived from their (inferior) environment and from the climate in which they lived – the rain and fog of Northern Europe, for example -- were fixed and irreversibly inferior.
I’m not sure I wholly buy this line. But if just some of the sophistication of these debates about the ancient world, and about what racism might be, had been in evidence in all the huffing and puffing about Jade Goody and her faults, more sense might have been spoken.