Mapping Black Antiquity

Photograph shows four African-American women dressed in classical Roman attire reading the story of Aenone, c. 1889 (Library of Congress)

Consider the vagaries surrounding the label “antiquity”: whose antiquity do you imagine to be the norm? Greece? Rome? Africa? For artist Fred Wilson, antiquity is in Egypt. In his 1993 Grey Area (Brown version), Wilson uses ancient Egyptian art to reframe the parameters of modern beauty as it relates to skin color. Wilson’s installation features five plaster copies of the famous bust of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. Sculpted around 1340 BCE, the original limestone bust depicts a woman with light brown skin wearing a tall, flat-topped blue hat and elaborate neckwear. The color of each monochromatic head resembles the spectrum of human skin tones, ranging from off-white to dark brown. Through his creative rendering of Nefertiti, Wilson rebuffs modern attempts to colonize ancient Egypt without overlooking the historical context of his subject matter.

Wilson’s focus on Egypt is part of a larger network of thinkers who rehabilitate lopsided renditions of antiquity. This network includes members of the Nile Valley Collective and the William Leo Hansberry Society, both of whom situate antiquity beyond Europe, which in turn encourages audiences to treat prejudice as a specimen to be studied, rather than slavishly emulated. They build on the work of predecessors who championed the pairing of “antiquity” and “Africa,” including African scholars Ali Mazrui and Cheikh Anta Diop, as well as African American intellectuals William Leo Hansberry and Drusilla Dunjee Houston.

The map of African antiquity benefits from precise vocabulary, starting with the term “Africa.” One potential etymology of “Africa” suggests that ancient Romans renamed the region they acquired from Carthage (modern Tunisia) after the Aouriga, a group of people native to this region. A fragment from a poet named Ennius’ satires (239 BCE–169 BCE) provides the earliest recorded instance of “Africa” in Latin literature: “there are elegant witnesses whom the African earth bears,” (testes sunt . . . quos gerit Africa terra politos, Saturae, 3.16). Subsequent iterations of “Africa” in Latin literature split Africa into “Old Africa” (Africa Vetus) and “New Africa” (Africa Nova). 

The terms “Ethiopia” and “Aithiopia/Aethiopia” also indicate a specific linguistic trajectory. Although both share similar roots, deriving from two ancient Greek words: aithō = “I blaze” and ops = “face,” they do not denote the same area. Aithiopia (also known as Nubia or Kush) is an ancient region that coincides with modern-day Egypt and Sudan, and Ethiopia is a modern country located in the horn of Africa. Ethiopia’s extensive liturgical history, not to mention its victory against Italy in the Battle of Adwa (1896), elevated its status in the international arena. Even still, the two regions are distinct from each other. 

Despite the undeniably vibrant history of this ancient African landscape, the popularity of anti-Black racism worldwide has rendered Africa an amorphous mass situated at the margins of knowledge production, despite vast amounts of material evidence proving otherwise. In its place, anti-Black racism has promoted the study of ancient empires whose geography corresponds to modern Europe. For those in the discipline of Classics (ancient Greek and Roman Studies), a field whose name itself implies a hierarchy (classical for whom?), the mapping of antiquity is especially contentious. When discussions of skin color and decolonizing the academy enter the fray, debates reach a fever pitch. Seemingly innocuous decisions, such as the BBC’s casting of David Gyasi, whose parents hail from Ghana, as the ancient Greek hero Achilles or scholarly debate surrounding the whitewashing of ancient Greek statues, can lead to racist trolling galore

In the midst of this moment of reckoning, a dive into ancient Greek literature and art reveals that reductive notions of Black skin color are relatively recent. Dating to the eighth century BCE, Homeric epics describe Greek gods who relax and dine among sun-kissed Aithiopians. Jumping ahead three hundred years, the Greek historian Herodotus recounts a tale about a sophisticated Aithiopian king who thwarts a foreign invasion without lifting a finger. Seven hundred years later, Black skin color constitutes cultural privilege in the Syrian writer Heliodorus’ Aithiopika. In this novel written in Greek, readers trace the trials and tribulations of an Aithiopian princess who was rejected at birth because of the dissonance between her white skin color and her parents’ Black skin color. To be clear, nowhere in these texts is there a declaration that Aithiopians are inherently inferior to their Greek counterparts. Modern scholars who overvalue the few descriptions of enslaved Aithiopians in the ancient Greek and Latin corpus overlook the literary diversity within their reach. In the words of the late Classicist Frank Snowden, Jr., “[modern scholars] have regarded the Black man of antiquity as a kind of Ralph Ellisonian ‘invisible man’: they have refused to see him” (Snowden 1988: 63-64).

Intent on spotlighting the “Black man of antiquity,” I have spoken and written about visual representations of Black people (men and women) in Greek antiquity. In my work, I continually examine these portrayals in their historical context in order to dissuade readers from assuming that ancient Blackness operates in the wake of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. In other words, ancient Greek representations of Black people demand more robust interpretations than the inaccurate, anachronistic “Blackness = inferiority” trope that European enslavers generated to justify the violence they meted out to fellow humans. For example, in fifth-century BCE Greece, participants of drinking parties used a number of cups to imbibe alcohol, among them horn-shaped cups (rhyta) depicting a Black person engulfed within the jaws of a crocodile. These horn-shaped cups presumably granted revelers a sense of security, allowing them to witness the dangers of sea travel without putting themselves in danger. In addition to a travel warning, the sight of the violent fate awaiting the person on the horn-shaped cups perhaps encouraged drinkers to curb their drinking habits to avoid drowning in wine. Other exempla include tall perfume bottles found in Greece which portray a curly-haired, elaborately attired Black figure wielding an axe and a quiver. This imagery, as well as the palm tree opposite the figure, likens the figure to a female Amazonian warrior. Furthermore, the central figure’s black skin and afro suggest affiliation with the sun-kissed Aithiopians. 

In sum, ancient Greek sources deliver a variety of messages that surpass the erroneous “Black = enslaved” trope. I have put Greek antiquity in dialogue with recent histories to circumvent the wholesale importation of modern biases into the past. That is, the literary and visual culture of Greek antiquity is replete with iterations of Blackness that predate racism, and contemporary thinkers who engage with this material are poised to strip racism of its historical legitimacy while also democratizing Blackness in antiquity.

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Sarah Derbew

Sarah Derbew is an assistant professor of Classics at Stanford University whose forthcoming book Untangling Blackness: Representations of Color in Greek Antiquity promotes a deep, plural history of blackness. Her website is https://www.sarahderbew.com/.

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