Romans Categorized Peoples by the Physical Appearance, Not By Parentage or ‘Blood’-Roman Perception of Mediterranean Phenotype was ‘albus or leukos’ (White) But Not Too White

Source: Roman Perceptions of Blacks (Virginia Tech University Libraries) 1993 A.D.

From the source, “Abstract. Certain preconceptions about ‘blacks’ in predominantly ‘white’ societies have distorted modern visions of the ways in which Aethiopes were perceived in Roman society, resulting in much misinterpretation of the relevant texts. In Roman perceptions categories like black African, white, ‘paleface’ and swarthy were neither communities nor socially defined ‘races’ with ascribed group-statuses. Categorisation was determined by the physical appearance of the individual person, not by parentage or ‘blood’…Wiesen saw this text as evidence of a Roman perception of blacks as natural inferiors of ‘the white man’, in so far as the text reveals a perception of the black African phenotype as ‘a kind of parody upon nature’ or as ‘an insult to nature and nature’s proper product of the white man’.( 3 ) Here Wiesen could readily transpose to Roman society the entirely modern taxonomic construct ‘the white man’, despite his awareness of the fact that Romans also perceived Germanic blue eyes and blond hair (and not only the Aethiops phenotype) as natural ‘defects’ (vitia) and deviations from ‘the norm’ (Juv. 13.162-66; Sen. De Ira 3.26.3).( 4 )

Quite obviously classical texts of this kind confront us with what some sociologists would call the Roman or ancient Mediterranean ‘somatic norm image’ (image of the ideal, appropriate or preferred form of human physical appearance), and with a Roman perception of the Mediterranean phenotype (briefly describable as albus or leukos) as a type of physiognomy distinct from both the Aethiops and the ‘paleface’ (candidus or flavus or xanthos) somatic types (Vitruv. 6.1.3-11; Pliny HN 2.189f.; Anon. De Physiogn.( 5 ) 79, 88-92; Ptol. Tetrab. 2.2.5; Lucian Gall. 14, 17, Dionys. 2; Claud. In Ruf. 2.108-110, Cons.Stil.2.240f., In Eutrop. 1.390).

The historian as ‘translator’ has a duty to seek the greatest possible understanding of the aspects of the past that he or she studies. The objective is definitely not one of purveying falsehoods and misinformation by consciously or unconsciously reflecting one’s own milieu instead of demonstrating the realities of the alien culture under study; and this objective demands systematic and critical inquiry: ‘a conscious, rational examination of one’s subject and its dimensions and implications, as free as one can make oneself of the automatic acceptance of received views, approaches and habits of mind’.( 11 ) To be sure, even great scholars may misinterpret a text under the influence of certain assumptions of their own culture and society. But misinterpretation remains misinterpretation and misinformation. One such example which held sway for many years is Hugh Last’s discussion of Suetonius’ reference to ‘purity of blood’ (Aug. 40.3) as a major concern of the emperor Augustus in his legislation on the manumission of slaves and in his policy of granting Roman citizenship to foreigners. Last’s interpretation of this text rested on an unconscious assumption that the Roman ruling class of the time of Augustus must have perceived slaves of ‘Oriental’ extraction as ‘racially’ inferior to slaves originating from the barbarian north-west of Europe.( 12 ) Such an assumption will have seemed quite ‘natural’ to Western scholars of Last’s generation, since it was a simple reflex of the then dominant Western perception of Orientals as ‘wogs’: pace Green, an obvious example of a ‘translator’ (unconsciously) making Romans behave and think as he ‘imagines they might have done’ had they been born in his or her own time and country.( 13 )…

When we move from iconography to literature we find reflections of several Roman images of blacks, some positive and others (the majority) negative, and all of them in their different ways and particular circumstances undoubtedly playing some role in the formation of prejudgments about black strangers encountered by Roman individuals from time to time: images of Aethiopes as sharp-witted and crafty southerners; or as ‘lustful, darkly mysterious and sexually fascinating’ people; or as backward barbarians ‘addicted to horrid practices’; or (in the post- Severan era) as brothers of the militant Sudanese warriors and marauders who were then causing havoc on the southern frontier of Egypt; or as members of a far-distant, exotic, noble-natured and pious nation of which Homer had sung in praise; or, again as strangers with a natural tendency to evil who were also harbingers of bad luck and disaster.( 18 )…

Petronius and the elder Pliny offer crucial information on Roman perceptions of Aethiopes and on the Roman concept Aethiops or ‘black African’ (Pet. Sat. 101f.; Pliny HN 7.51; cf. Mart. 6.39.6-9): first, mere blackness of skin did not suffice to ensure categorisation as Aethiops, for the categorisation depended on possession of the concomitant characteristics of black African hair, lips, and (according to Martial) nose; secondly, so-called ‘black blood’ was definitely not the yardstick by which membership of this category was perceived. In Roman perceptions the progeny (and a fortiori the later descendants) of a black-white mating might be ‘swarthy’ or ‘black’ or ‘white’; and such a person might produce a black offspring by mating with a white partner, just as he or she might produce non-black children from the same partner. In this perception, categorisation of a person as white or ‘swarthy’ or black African (Aethiops) or northern ‘paleface’ rested entirely on the individual observer’s optical registration of personal somatic characteristics, altogether uninfluenced by any facts of the observed person’s parentage or ancestry (Juv. 6.600; Lucian Philops. 34; Plut. De sera num. vind. ( 21 ) [563a]; Ach.Tat. 3.9.2; Lucr. 4.1210-32; PL 64.30, 56, 79, 132f., 145f. [Boethius]; 85.378 [Fulgentius]; PG 65.469 [Philostorgius]).21 That is why Ptolemy can speak of the people of the region of Meroe as by and large the first ‘real Aethiopes’ encountered in ‘Aethiopia’ as indigenes by a person travelling up the Nile (Ptol. Geog. 1.9.7-10; cf. 1.8.5, 4.65)…

The work of F. M. Snowden thus presents the internal contradiction of postulating a non- racial Roman society in which people were nonetheless perceived in American ‘racial’ terms: as mulatto, quadroon and the like; and in which people of these kinds, though not visibly black or ‘easily recognisable as Negroes’, were still blacks or negroes, like the woman represented by a marble statue of the first century AD from Lower Egypt who is at once ‘a mulatto woman’ with ‘flat nose, thick lips (neither very pronounced) and long flowing hair’, and ‘a charming Negro woman’; or Poulsen’s white ‘lad of distinctly plebeian type’ and Bonacasa’s ‘Egyptian or Libyan’ and Cumont’s ‘goddess Libya’ who are respectively Snowden’s ‘young mulatto’, ‘well-to-do black’, and ‘mulatto or quadroon’.( 23 ) Snowden rather strangely presumes that artists of the Roman world shared his own society’s concept of ‘the black’ or ‘the negro’, and so he can say that ‘the blacks of the ancient artists’ closely resemble modern blacks, including those today described as ‘coloured’ or ‘of mixed black and white descent’.( 24 ) He likewise sees in the iconography ‘a wide range’ of ‘black’ types with ‘varying degrees of Caucasoid admixture’ and resembling in physical appearance ‘many a descendant of black-white mixture in various parts of the world today’.( 25 ) Unable to break free of the tyranny of such modern habits of mind, scholars have also (‘naturally’) misinterpreted Lucian’s tripartite division of humanity into the categories leukoi, xanthoi and Aithiopes (Lucian Herm. 31), seeing this as a categorisation of ‘whites’, ‘yellow’ peoples like the Chinese (Mongoloids), and blacks,( 26 ) instead of (as Lucian clearly intended it) a categorisation of Mediterraneans, Central-Northern Europeans (‘yellow-haired palefaces’), and blacks. Evidently, in the perception here demonstrated by Lucian, so-called Mongoloids like the Japanese and Chinese were generally categorised as ‘white’ (with some individuals being perceived as ‘swarthy’ as was the case even for some Italians), and African albinos were perceived as ‘white’ also (albeit ‘whites’ with rather unusual facial shapes and hair-texture, somewhat like the snub-nosed or heavy-lipped Mediterranean whites to whom Lucian occasionally refers [Lucian Navig. 2, 45; Catap. 15; Gall. 14; Philops. 34]).( 27 ) But an excessive intrusion of modern preconceptions about ‘blood’ and ‘race’ will naturally blind one to this truth, just as it induced Snowden to misinterpret Statius’ allusion (Theb. 5.427f.) to the African peoples of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean areas (‘the Red Aethiopes’ or ‘Erythraean Africans’) as a reference to ‘Negroes of a red, copper-coloured complexion’.( 28 )…

Several Roman texts clearly attest a quite widespread upper class perception of the Aethiops phenotype as a combination of certain somatic ‘defects’ or ‘flaws’ (vitia): colour, hair, facial morphology, and (in black women) over- large breasts (Juv. 13.162-66; Sen. De Ira 3.26.3; Mart. 6.39.6-9, 7.89.2; Pet. Sat. 102; Anth.Lat. 182f.; Moretum 31- 35; Claud. Bell.Gild. 193; Luxorius 43, 71, 78). It may resonably be deduced that, in general, ‘sensory aversions to the physiognomy of Aethiopes were less powerful and durable’ among the peasantry and the lower classes as a whole, ‘since the ideals of beauty and “the appropriate” in facial and bodily shape were generally much more remote from everyday reality among the humble and toiling masses than they were among the refined and leisured rich’.( 32 ) The physiognomy of white peasants and members of the ‘sordid plebs’ was, like that of the Aethiops, frequently a target of upper class mockery (Cat. 39.12; Mart. 10.68.3; Lucian Navig. 2.45, Philops. 34; Anon. De Physiogn. 14, 79, 90, 92).( 33 ) But many texts also attest the currency, among people of all social classes, of a negative symbolism of the colour black which fed a superstitious belief that a chance meeting with a black stranger was an ominous presage of bad luck or disaster (Plut. Brut. 48, App. BC 4,17; Florus 2.17.7f.; HA Sev. 22.4f.; Pet. Sat. 74; Apul. Met. 6.26; Lucian Philops. 16, 31, Charon 1; ps.-Lucian Lucius 22; Claud. Bell.Gild. 188-195; Juv. 2.23, 15.49f.; Suet. Calig. 57.4; Anth.Lat. 182f., 189). This superstition was evidently at its strongest among those members of the illiterate lower classes who were also unfamiliar with the sight of black people, and in such cases perceptions of blacks were likely to be modified only in consequence of growing familiarity with the presence or company of one or more black persons.( 34 ) Snowden has put much unnecessary effort into attempts to play down the obvious fact that a good number of white people in Roman antiquity felt a sensory aversion to the black African physiognomy. His motive was no doubt mainly a false conviction (nurtured by his own social and cultural environment) that this phenomenon, like the public and unashamed mockery of the black phenotype that evidently occurred in certain circumstances in the Roman world, necessarily attests racism.( 35 ) But, in an evidently non-racist society like that of ancient Rome, this purely ethnocentric kind of adverse perception of the black phenotype has to be considered in the context of other social facts relating to blacks–in particular, the Roman ideology relating to social status, which (as is well known) definitely gave no role to phenotype in the system of social stratification.( 36 )…

In itself, the evidence for matings of blacks and whites in Roman society (like the evidence for other forms of intensive relationships between black and white individuals) implies that familiarisation reduced and eliminated any initially adverse perceptions of blacks on the part of those whites who became involved in such relationships (Ach.Tat. 3.9.2; Mart. 6.39.6-9, 10.87; Juv. 6.597-600, 15.49; Plut. De sera num. vind. 21 [563a]; Pliny HN 7.51, 10.121f.; Calp.Flacc. 2; ( 42 ) Quintil. fr. 8; ( 43 ) Moretum 31-35; HA Sev. 22.4f.; Luxorius 67.6-14).( 44 ) Hence the attested fact of white mothers publicly claiming a black ancestry as a biological explanation of their own non-white infants (which must often actually have been the fruits of such women’s own adultery with black men [Pliny HN 7.51; Plut. De sera num. vind. 21 (563a); Lucr. 4.1283; Ov. Ars Am. 2.653f.]). This social phenomenon of publicly expressed claims to black parentage or ancestry on the part of whites is entirely incompatible with the sort of perception of blacks and the sort of black-white social relations which scholars have generally imagined that their own studies have brought to light about the ancient Roman world.

This source does a stellar job highlighting some the key ways in which ancient race and ethnicity was defined in the ancient world. Primarily, people were categorized broadly through physical appearance. However, individual perspective on another’s appearance also played into one’s categorizing style in nuanced ways (taking into account hair texture, lip size, etc). This is why Herodotus plainly stated in a broad sense that the Colchians and Egyptians were black. This is why Aristotle paired Egyptians and Ethiopians together, while but others said the Egyptians were less dark/black than the Ethiopians. In the Greco-Roman realm, peoples like the Egyptians, Colchians, Jews, Ethiopians, Moors, Indians, and others were placed onto a “dark colorization” spectrum. All of them, for the most part, were darker than Greeks and Romans but how much darker each group was or a specific individual in that group was subjective. Beauty and identity were in the eyes of the beholder.

This source also does a great job trying to instruct us to avoid presentism (the art of enforcing our present values on the past). This highlights that some Greco-Roman individuals admired blacks while others detested blacks just as some Greco-Roman individuals detested other “white” peoples such as Germanic types who were too pale, they had blonde hair, and they had blue eyes.

This source also highlights that ethnic mixing took place in ancient Greco-Roman realm between black and white peoples, as well.

By One For All

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