Questioning the whiteness of the classics – remembering the Black Romans

As with all disciplines in the humanities, the classics have responded to Black Lives Matter with justifiable soul-searching. As a study of the ancient world, and particularly that of Mediterranean cultures, the classics have an important colonial heritage: British, French and Italian colonialists saw themselves inheriting or continuing a “civilizing mission” which they associated with the Romans. They assumed that the Romans shared their prejudices, especially those associated with elitism and racism. When they thought or represented Roman imperial history, they imagined it as dominated by white men, who were the political leaders and were responsible for cultural achievements.

It is a legacy that has proven tenacious. Although there is no evidence to suggest that Roman rulers, cultural and political, were uniformly white, the classics and ancient history have been associated with whiteness. Many of my students have worried about a lack of representation that works on many levels in the classics. There are few speakers of color – this is changing, albeit far too slowly. But there is also alienation from what is studied: the Romans are not seen by these students “as people like them”.

The Roman world is seen as white and in which people of color had no place or were on the margins of society. However, one of the central elements of my teaching is to emphasize the cultural diversities of the ancient Mediterranean peoples and their social distance from contemporary societies and values.

There is a discrepancy here between the probable racial composition of the Roman population and how it has been understood. This gap, I suggest, stems from a systematic erasure of Black Romans from Roman history. This erasure is akin to the “whitening” of histories and cultures, in which the presence and contribution of blacks are ignored.

Thinking about race in Antiquity

Racism is understood as the use of various minor bodily differences, including skin color, to create categories of people. These categories are then associated with identities, which reinforce this categorization. Such categorization is a peculiar and perverse modern idea.

The Greeks and Romans didn’t think that way. They were aware of the differences. But for the Romans, white or black were not significant social categories. Therefore, our sources almost never mention skin pigmentation, as it was not important to them. It is normally impossible for us to associate ancient individuals with these modern racial categories. But this lack of evidence has led to the assumption that the most prominent Romans were, in our terms, whites.

However, there is every reason to believe that many prominent Romans were, in our terms, black.

Septimius Severus was a Roman general who became emperor in 193 CE. He was born in Leptis Magna in modern Libya. Almost all representations of Severus are statues or coins. They show him with short curly hair and an occasionally forked beard. Such depictions do not represent his skin pigmentation.

Portrait of the family of Septimius Severus.

But exceptionally, we have a painting of Severus, the Severan Tondo in the Altes Museum in Berlin. The Tondo shows Severus, Julia Domna, his wife and their children – the future emperors Caracalla and Geta.

Geta’s face was obscured after his murder by Caracalla. The grizzled Severus is clearly dark-skinned. Painted depictions of emperors circulated widely, partly by the military and partly by the imperial cult, as we can see in this marvelous bust of Severus himself in the Archaeological Museum of Komotini, Greece. No doubt this is what people thought Severus and his family looked like. And yet, Severus’ blackness has always been questioned.

Roman North Africa

Leptis was a place colonized twice, first by the Phoenicians in the 7th century AD. The Roman colony was formed around the veterans of the Legion III Augusta. This legion had served in Africa since its formation in 30 CE.

Although the first generation of soldiers may have been predominantly Italian, like all other legions, III Augusta increasingly drew recruits from local communities. The new Roman colony probably recruited local residents and certainly the pre-Roman elite.

After centuries of interaction, it is almost impossible to imagine that there were visible differences between the citizens of Leptis and the surrounding African inhabitants. We can’t prove Severus’ skin color, but it’s wrong to assume he was light-skinned.

Roman Africa was an economic and cultural powerhouse in the later Roman Empire. Goods from Africa circulated throughout the Roman world. One of the first Roman dramatists, Terence, came from Carthage in Tunisia and his appearance is described by the historian Suetonius as fuscus, “gloomy”.

The 2nd-century CE rhetorician, philosopher, and novelist Apuleius was a native of Madouros, present-day M’Daourouch, Algeria. Saint Augustine of Hippo studied in the same city. He and Cyprian of Carthage were major figures in Christian theology. Egypt was a major center of literary and theological innovation during the late imperial period. Why would we imagine any of these individuals to be white?

Cracked portrait of a man with white hair and a beard.
A portrait of Appulius which depicts him as white.

Empires move people. Mitochondrial DNA from skeletons of early Roman London showed that Greeks, Syrians and North Africans were among the earliest Londoners. The Africans have reached this most remote corner of the Empire. Many Romans had dark skin. Yet to moderns it seems startling and a claim that requires justification.

The classical world is part of our cultural traditions. Colonialism whitewashed the classics. Such bleaching marginalizes black people. Making the Black Romans visible resists colonial mentalities. It integrates blacks into this cultural tradition.

Black Romans were central to classical culture and not as the exceptional few or as slaves or servants. They were soldiers and merchants, playwrights, poets, philosophers, theologians and emperors. We have to reimagine the Imperial Romans as having quite a startling diversity of skin pigmentation.

About Wesley V. Finley

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