Race in Classical Art
Art historical study of the depiction of black people in ancient societies is often informed by anachronistic cultural and ethnic identities. As a new volume from the Image of the Black series reveals, shedding these preconceptions enables a very different reading of black iconography
Jeremy Tanner, Tuesday, 1st February 2011
To give one very simple example, it seems to require a conscious effort for white academics to think of the Greeks as not being ‘white’, at least in terms of ancient Greek classifications of race and skin colour rather than our modern ones. For the Greeks and Romans, ‘white’ people were racial and social others as much as blacks: the effeminate Persians or the barbaric Gauls of the north, with their glacial skin, blue eyes and greasy blond hair.10 The Greeks and Romans seem to have thought of themselves as brown, occupying a central position on a skin-colour spectrum defined explicitly only in terms of its undesirable extremes, black and white. Something of the complexity of skin-colour classification and the perception of racial characteristics is suggested by the theatrical masks of what are probably two negro women – flattened noses, unusually large lips – depicted on a south Italian vase of the 4th century (Fig. 4).11 Their skin is depicted in white because of the conventions of gender depiction, making them thus doubly other to the normative Greek male somatype.
The projection of modern racial categories onto ancient art can of course have profoundly conservative implications, suggesting the heritage of classical antiquity is in some sense a white heritage. It has also been deployed in more progressive ways: much of Snowden’s work aimed to contest the racist assumptions that informed earlier accounts of blacks in antiquity and to combat the claims of separatist black radicals in America, by showing how much could be achieved by blacks in a predominantly white society. He characterised antiquity as a ‘world before colour prejudice’, in which blacks were integrated into the larger society, a useful model for solving the modern race problem.12 Yet reading ancient art in terms of modern racial categories and political aspirations has its own set of dangers. In particular, Snowden consistently reads images in rather literal terms, as indexes of the real presence of black people and their social positions in the ancient world. As a consequence he runs the danger of missing the specific cultural work accomplished by such visual representations in their original social contexts.
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