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Blog: Dissertation Spotlight: Racialized Commodities: Thinking about Trade, Mobility, and Race in the Archaic Mediterranean

A large, brown-skinned man, nude with a beard, stands amid a group of smaller men in togas. He is standing on some men and holding others in his hands.

One of the fascinations occupying Classical Studies in North America and Western Europe during the 1980s and 1990s was the way images refract the particularities of societies that produce them. One look at the imaginary of sixth- or fifth-century Athens would provide you a blistering array of human forms: doughty warriors, mourning women, drunken gods; the young and the old, Greek and barbarian. This last pair seemed especially interesting at the twilight of the Cold War. Picking up the (often unrecognized) lead of Edward Said, scholars sought to trace the lines that ancient Greeks drew between the “self” (think an imagery of balance, moderation, rigidity, and self-control) and barbarian “Other,” the Rabelaisian id that stalked civilization’s frontier. Ancient sources freely reference this polarity; as Aristotle would earnestly quote Euripides, “It’s right for Greeks to rule over barbarians, and not barbarians Greeks…Greeks are free and barbarians enslaved.” But as critics liked to point out, our literary sources’ most xenophobic comments cluster disproportionately in Athens after 479 bce. For these and other reasons, the self/Other dichotomy ran into significant headwinds in the 2000s. What replaced it was the idea of a kind of multicultural antiquity: however frequently the ancients expressed bias, they lacked anything like a systemic racism. People in antiquity basically got along: where they did not, identity was a pretense for conflict, not the cause. It was modernity that exported hatred to the ancients, and not the other way around.

The central contention of my book project — based on a 2020 dissertation, directed at New York University by Prof. Barbara Kowalzig — was that these images were linked to power structures, and that this power was localized in the morphology of the human body. In Racialized Commodities: Long-distance Trade, Mobility, and the Making of Race in Ancient Greece, c. 700–300 bce, I situate the emergence of what I call ancient Greece’s “racial imaginary” against the background of Greece’s remarkable economic growth during the mid-first millennium. As a Greek diaspora fanned out across the Mediterranean for trade, mercenary service, or as an ecological strategy, they constructed a detailed imaginary of human diversity. These images, memorably evoked by the mid-sixth century poet Xenophanes of Colophon (“Ethiopians say that their gods are flat-nosed and dark; Thracians say theirs are gray-eyed and ruddy”), became widespread by the height of the Archaic Period. They traveled as part of a broader body of commercial—and partially ethnographic—knowledge that circulated amongst traders, which encoded information including production cycles, the sailing season, and business in foreign lands. It would be this imaginary that, during the Greek-Achaemenid wars of 494–454 bce, would coalesce into the idea of the “barbarian.”

A black pendant shaped like a head, with a face carved into it and small holes on top to indicate hair.

Figure 1: Chlorite pendant in the form of the head of an African (known as Ethiopian). 9th–8th century B.C. Amathus, Cyprus. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 74.51.5010.

The earliest images of foreign bodies appear right at the start of this period, often in a very decontextualized manner. Writing — itself a technology borrowed from west Asia — was in its infancy in eighth- and seventh-century Greece, making it hard to determine what significance these images might have carried. But a look at the Homeric corpus suggests a very inconsistent attitude towards human diversity. Take the world of the Homeric poems: the Odyssey’s monstrous Laestrygones or Cyclopes barely garner a physical description, for the most part characterized as uncivilized and extremely large. The heroes look nearly identical to one another. But some minor figures are vividly described. Thersites is notable because he is ugly; a coward’s skin changes color; Eurybates, the herald of the (false) Odysseus in Odyssey 19, is described in detail with dark skin and curly hair. With the exception of Thersites, these do not amount to much. But change would be in the air after c. 550 bce.

A large, brown-skinned man, nude with a beard, stands amid a group of smaller men in togas. He is standing on some men and holding others in his hands. Below, another scene of six black-skinned men in loincloths holding canes and walking to the left.

Figure 2: Illustration of polychrome hydria by the Busiris Painter depicting Herakles fighting Egyptian priests and Egyptian soldiers, c. 550 BCE. Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna 3576. After A. Furtwängler and K. Reichhold (1904), Griechische Vasenmalerei (Munich: F. Bruckmann), vol. 1, pl. 51.

A window onto the changes happening during the lifetime of Xenophanes can be seen in the name vase of the Busiris Painter. The vessel depicts Herakles massacring the court of the mythical Egyptian pharaoh Busiris. The hero, given red skin and black hair, thrashes Egyptian priests in white robes, portrayed alternately with tan skin and black hair or black skin and tan hair. (The exception appears to be a single priest with a red coif). On the back, the painter depicts a march of black-skinned, black-haired warriors in alternating white or red clothing. Nearly everyone, save Herakles, has short, curly hair; the warriors are given facial features that appear distinctly African. (As other scholars have noted, using historicized racial terms to describe an archaeological object raises interpretive issues). The painter alternated skin color, hair color, and costume to balance the figures in his composition, a popular technique in the polychrome styles of the sixth century. It seems clear that the painter was familiar with Egyptian images: Herakles takes the stance reserved for pharaohs striking Egypt’s enemies. Is this act of appropriation an homage to Egyptian styles or a derisive parody? Out of all these considerations, what does appear clear is that the painter rendered Egyptians identifiable on the level of the body. This was not the case in the Homeric poems.

The significance of biological indices — skin color, hair texture, nose shape, and so on — cannot be taken at face value. Today, these would be identified as markers of race. Since the late 1940s, social scientists have overwhelmingly taken the position that race is a social construct. Barbara and Karen Fields characterize race as a technology for assigning legal or social (dis)ability to individuals based on notions of ancestry — often, but not exclusively, visualized via biological indices. Eric Williams (1911–1981) formulated the position in 1944 that anti-Black racism developed hand in hand with the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and this argument was widely cited in the midcentury. Indeed, for decades it has been the consensus position in Classical Studies that to speak of racism in antiquity, and particularly anti-Black racism, is an anachronism. The sense that the premodern world was, in some way, preracial lay at the heart of Frank M. Snowden, Jr.’s (1911–2007) very influential monographs on Black people in antiquity. Snowden’s thesis was that antiquity lacked structural racism of any kind; and because of their perceived absence of “color prejudice,” Greece and Rome were appealing models for a post-segregation American world order. It is difficult to understate the liberatory potential of the Snowden thesis: white scholars, after all, had been probing antiquity to legitimate racial apartheid since at least the eighteenth century, and certainly many believed it offered just that.

But refashioning antiquity as pre-racial comes with pitfalls of its own. To start, the professional study of antiquity came of age as part of the same late eighteenth-century movement that produced western Europe’s obsession with whiteness; as Kara Walker has so palpably visualized, it took enslaved Black labor in the West Indies to make Europeans see themselves as white. It was in this period that western European intellectuals began locating the “origins of the west” in Greece, and the paradigm they bequeathed remains alive and well. More to the point, minimizing the obvious, incessant, and derogatory references found in ancient sources to the skin of Thracians or hair of Ethiopians obscures the reality that these images, too, emerged out of a social world. (We need only think of the vast number of Phrygians and Thracians enslaved in the Classical Aegean). It is for these reasons that the Medievalist Geraldine Heng emphasizes that race and racism are not exclusive products of modernity. Premodern societies produced their own varieties, which met distinct and sinister ends in their own times. As the Early Modernist Margo Hendricks writes, when contemporary scholars encounter these, we necessarily contextualize them in terms familiar to ourselves. This produces, in essence, a “bi-directional gaze”: race in modernity and premodernity are necessarily entangled.

A beige pendant of a head carved with facial features, which are worn away.

Figure 3: Glazed composition amulet in the form of the head of a black African, laterally pierced across the forehead, the base decorated. Naukratis, early sixth century BCE. British Museum, London, EA35981. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Let me offer a brief case study of this entanglement. At some point during the first quarter of the sixth century bce, artisans at Naukratis in the western Nile delta began making some very distinctive scarab seals in the shape of human heads. (This trading settlement, first founded during the reign of the Saite pharaoh Psamtik I, r. 664–610 bce, was the hub of Egypt’s small, but very influential, Greek community during the Late Period.) The heads are rendered in various shapes, including animals, deities, and people with distinctly African facial features. Over 600 molds for making scarabs in these shapes were discovered by excavators working for the British Egyptologist W.M.F. Petrie (1853–1902) during his 1884 campaign. Petrie was under the impression that the scarabs were produced by Greek artisans working in an Egyptian medium, faience, and borrowing Egyptian motifs. With this gesture, Petrie imagined the faience artisans as participants in the type of souvenir industry that flourished under the British Empire. (Interestingly, despite his rather open racialist views, Petrie did not identify the scarabs as Black.)

The Naukratis head scarabs first entered debates over the nature of “race” in antiquity in 1929, when they took up several pages of the American art historian Grace Hadley Beardsley’s Negro in Greek and Roman Civilization. Beardsley — whose odious racial attitudes were not subdued — positioned the scarabs as among the earliest images of Black people to appear in the western canon. She specifically interpreted the Naukratis scarabs as the ancestors of the racist figurines wildly popular in the 1920s. Beardsley’s book, which was the first specialist monograph on the history of Black people in antiquity, was panned in the Black academic press. But as W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963) would write in the 1940s, Beardsley’s book represented a specific threat that needed to be met by a Black scholar.

This person would be Frank Snowden. Much of Snowden’s 50-year publishing career would be devoted to point-by-point rebuttals of Beardsley (whose name he often left unmentioned). In his monograph-length contribution to The Image of the Black in Western Art (1976), Snowden directly follows Beardsley in granting the Naukratis scarabs pride of place as the first representations of Black people to be produced by whites in historical times. Snowden interpreted the facial markings evident on many of the scarabs as visual testimony for facial scarification practiced by people up the Nile. (I have suggested elsewhere that some of these ‘Africans’ might actually be the tutelary god Bes.) Unlike Beardsley, who saw the scarabs as derogatory portrayals, Snowden interpreted them as true-to-life renderings of people living in the environs of Naukratis. This rebuttal to Beardsley is, in essence, one of personality: neither scholar had studied the scarabs in person or had uncovered any additional evidence. (Indeed, nobody would until the objects were restudied in 2018.) Their interpretations were heavily conditioned by their own differential positions in America’s racial hierarchy.

This makes the silent debate between Snowden and Beardsley (who was long dead by the 1970s) an interesting case study in Classical Studies’ evolving position on race in the midcentury. In 1929, Beardsley looked at America’s racial hierarchy and postulated that things could not have been much different in antiquity. In 1976, Snowden looked ahead to the prospect of a better future for American race relations and postulated the return to how things were in the distant past. This was the spirit in which the Kennedy brothers would repeatedly claim through the 1960s that they dreamed of things that “never were,” rather than “things as they are”; if we remove modernity from the equation, we could return to the garden — a world without the color bar. Putting aside the question of their respective moralities, the two scholars were asking very distinct things from the reader. All Beardsley had to do was assume that racial apartheid was the way of the world; things are as they have always been. This, in essence, is an organic reading of the past, and to some extent intuitive — isn’t modernity the fruit of antiquity? It was Snowden who was making the big ask, to sharply disentangle the present, the recent past, and the distant past. Separating one from another is not the way people naturally experience history.

Snowden’s encounter with Beardsley was just one of the countless small battles waged in the footnotes of twentieth-century scholarship over how much of a foreign country the past really was. My fundamental premise, shared with much recent work on race in premodernity, is that it was not: evils today could have been evils yesterday, and identities conceivable today had parallels in the past. My intended contribution in Racialized Commodities is to trace the entanglements between ancient material structures and the racialized images they produced; how, where, and when people in Archaic and Classical Greece first drew a link between the body, cultural identity, and social rank. These were the entanglements that the race theorists of the late eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries were especially keen to. Even if they required no special imprimatur from antiquity to do evil, the existence of a racialized logic in ancient texts helped to legitimate their construction of a more terrible machine.

Do you want to write a spotlight on your dissertation or thesis, or want to recommend someone to do one on theirs? Get in touch with the SCS Blog’s Editor-in-Chief, T. H. M. Gellar-Goad!

Header image: Glazed composition amulet in the form of the head of a black African, laterally pierced across the forehead, the base decorated. Naukratis, early sixth century BCE. British Museum, London, EA35981. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Christopher Stedman Parmenter's picture

Christopher Stedman Parmenter is an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Wolf Humanities Center of the University of Pennsylvania. He received his doctorate in Classics from New York University in 2020 and has published articles in Classical Antiquity (https://online.ucpress.edu/ca/article-abstract/39/1/57/107456/Journeys-into-Slavery-along-the-Black-Sea-Coast-c?redirectedFrom=fulltext), Classical Receptions Journal (https://academic.oup.com/crj/advance-article-abstract/doi/10.1093/crj/clab001/6148992?redirectedFrom=fulltext), and elsewhere. His book project, entitled Racialized Commodities: Long-distance Trade, Mobility, and the Making of Race in Ancient Greece, c. 700-300 BCE, asks how and why Greeks came to see their Mediterranean neighbors—like the “gray-eyed Thracians” and “dark-skinned Ethiopians” listed by the poet Xenophanes around 550 BCE—as racialized ‘Others’ in the middle of the first millennium. While at Penn, he is serving as a national lecturer for the American Institute of America. He is also involved in the publication of his family’s Armenian-language business archive on Ajam Media Collective (https://ajammc.com/2019/11/17/george-kevork-race-law-michaelian-family/).

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