No More Dead White Men
Ancient Greeks and Romans didn't see themselves as White.
*Welcome to another edition of the #Nerdflow Newsletter!*
Last month, I tweeted this:
I think one of the biggest mistake[s] that progressive people can make is to concede to white supremacists that ancient and medieval history *IS* really just about dead white men.
It's not. In fact, that's just a modern racist fantasy imposed upon the past.
And I don't simply mean that ancient and medieval societies had diversity that we've neglected. I mean that even the 'whites' that they claim as their 'whites' are actually neither white nor theirs.
Now to say a little bit more. Several historians and classicists, such as Nell Painter and Shelley Haley, have demonstrated that the ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t see themselves as racially White. This is not to say that Mediterranean people didn’t construct hierarchies or harbor prejudices around skin color. But if there was a color “norm,” in involved degrees of brownness that weren’t anchored in the White Western identity that modern racists espouse. As Denise Eileen McCoskey explains, “race in no way pivots around ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness’ in antiquity, despite the centrality of those categories to racial thought today.” All of those white marble statues that we’ve become accustomed to? A racist, revisionist, and politically-correct rendering of the past.
I’ve recently been reading a fascinating anthology, Race and Ethnicity in the Classical World, that further illustrates these realities.
Here’s Aristotle in Politics 7.5.6:
The peoples living in cold climates and Europe are full of courage but lack intelligence and skill. The result is a state of continual freedom but a lack of political organization and ability to rule over others. The peoples of Asia, however, are intelligent and skilled but cowardly. Thus, they are in a perpetual state of subjection and enslavement. The races of the Greeks are geographically in between Asia and Europe. They are also ‘in between’ character-wise, sharing attributes of both—they are intelligent and courageous. The result is a continually free people, the best political system, and the ability to rule over others (if they happen to unify under a single constitution).
This passage displays a strong ethnocentrism with several problematic assumptions that still linger today. But, notably, Aristotle talks about Europeans as if they are some other group that he and the Greeks are not a part of.
Moving from ancient Greece to Rome, here’s Pliny the Elder in Natural Histories 2.80:
It is not in doubt that the Ethiopians are burned by the heat of the sun, which is nearer to them, and are born like burned people with their beards and hair frazzled. On the opposite and icy side of the world there are peoples with white skin and light-colored hair. The latter races are wild because of the cold, the former lackluster because of the weather’s fickleness…But in the middle of the world there is a healthy mixture of hot and cold.
Once again, Pliny thinks his Romans are the perfect balance of all things. But notice how he positions the peoples “with white skin and light-colored hair” as an extreme northern other. Pliny is also dismissive of “Ethiopians,” a term Greeks and Romans often used as a catch-all category for dark-skinned people below Egypt. Yet, even these negative views of darker skin were not universally held in the ancient Mediterranean. The author of the 4th century BCE Greek text Periplous describes Ethiopians as “the most beautiful people of all humanity.”
The long history of race is complicated. Ancient Greek and Roman views of environmental determinism, of barbarians, and of purity of blood or autochthony did influence the modern development of racism. But for all of their hierarchies, these ancient forms of racism (or proto-racism—a semantical debate for another day) were not centered around being White, or light skin, or even the idea of Western Civilization. The conscription of the Greeks and Romans into this cause came later. But if Aristotle and Pliny the Elder can refer to light-skinned people as inferior to their Greeks and Romans in some respect, then it’s at least safe to say that we shouldn’t see them as White.
What I’m Writing
I interviewed historian Keisha N. Blain for her new book on Fannie Lou Hamer. This interview will be going up next month.
Writing Life Tip
Writing at the level of sentences
One resource I’ve found very helpful over the years is the book How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by Stanley Fish. He provides plenty of practical examples. Here are a couple of principles that have stuck with me. He says, “The success of a sentence is measured by the degree to which the desired effect has been achieved.” Also, “The first thing to ask when writing a sentence is ‘What am I trying to do?’”
Sentences can follow grammatical rules. Sure. But the effect that you want your sentences to produce at any given time should determine how you construct your sentences (long or short, building with tension, tapering down, taking unexpected turns etc.) and even the exceptional moments when you intentionally break rules.
What I’m Reading
The Native Scholar Who Wasn’t by Sarah Viren
Adjunct Hell by Maggie Doherty
The Anxiety of Influencers by Barrett Swanson
The War on Critical Race Theory by David Theo Goldberg
We Condone It By Our Silence by Rebecca Futo Kennedy
How I Met My Mother (and Billy Graham) by Amy Fallas
Book: Race: Antiquity and Its Legacy by Denise Eileen McCoskey
Song I Love
Joey Bada$$ - Paper Trail$