What was ‘race’ in ancient Rome?

Kathryn Wilson is senior lecturer in the Department of Classics and faculty curator of the Teaching Gallery exhibition “Colonizing the Past: Constructing Race in Ancient Greece and Rome” at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum.

Colonizing the Past: Constructing Race in Ancient Greece and Rome
Tuesday, November 2, 6 pm

Join faculty curator Kathryn Wilson, senior lecturer in the Department of Classics, and Claudia Swan, the Mark Steinberg Weil Professor of Art History in the Department of Art History & Archaeology, both in Arts & Sciences, in conversation with Margo Hendricks, professor emerita in the Department of Literature at University of California, Santa Cruz, as they discuss the construction of race in visual culture through works from the Kemper Art Museum’s permanent collection.

My Teaching Gallery exhibition at the Kemper Art Museum, Colonizing the Past: Constructing Race in Ancient Greece and Rome, examines the development of a selective, racialized interpretation of antiquity, one in which the ancient Greeks and Romans were White and all other peoples of the ancient Mediterranean were not. 

There have been a number of stories in recent months about the intersection of race and classics, and most of them address issues in the discipline that are inextricably linked to this narrative about the ancient world. In truth, it is anachronistic to think of the ancient Greeks and Romans as White; after all, contemporary racial categorizations, especially the concepts of “Whiteness” and “Blackness,” are fundamentally products of the modern era. 

The question of whether race existed in some form in the premodern past, especially in the ancient world, is extremely murky. We know that the Greeks and Romans would never have thought of themselves as part of an identity group with others solely because they shared a skin color, nor should we assume that all Greeks and Romans even had the same skin tone. But does denying the existence of race in the ancient world sanitize our view of ancient people, who could be just as xenophobic and oppressive — does it have to be this concept of race to be “race”? Or does trying to apply the term too broadly water down its impact and merely serve to reinforce inaccurate ideas about the similarity between our culture and those of people who lived millennia ago? There is no answer, in part because the type of evidence we would want to understand the structural impacts of race in the ancient world is largely gone. We cannot truly know, for example, what it meant to live in Athens as a person marked as “non-Greek,” or how that person would have defined their own identity. All we have are elite male Greeks and Romans writing about other peoples.

C Painter (Greek, Attic, active c. 575–555 BCE), Siana cup, 560–550 BCE. Earthenware, 5 3/8 x 12 5/8". Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis. Gift of Robert Brookings and Charles Parsons, 1904.

This is why I wanted to use a teaching gallery in the course. Art often reveals the implicit assumptions of a culture that are not explicit in the literary evidence. In the gallery, I have included a sample of some of the ancient materials from the Kemper collection to show the range of colors used to depict skin, from a deep black glaze to pale white marble. It can be hard for modern audiences to unthink our own tendency to use skin color as the ultimate signifier of racial identity. For most of these objects, the color of the skin doesn’t mean anything about the person’s race.

The one ancient artifact where skin color is a marker of identity is a drinking cup with the face of an African woman on it, and here, the deep black glaze is intentional to reflect her skin tone. This is a challenging object to study, because her facial features resemble the racist caricatures of blackface. An important distinction must be made, however: Whereas blackface images were intended as dehumanizing mockery, the Greeks and Romans did not have the same aesthetic or cultural biases. This woman is exoticized and marked as “other,” but we should not assume the maker thought she was ugly or laughable. It is still a stereotypical representation, and it is still a depiction of a subaltern person, but, as Shelly Haley has written, we should not assume that the same anti-Black racism and beauty norms existed in antiquity that are so prevalent in contemporary culture. 

Art often reveals the implicit assumptions of a culture that are not explicit in the literary evidence.

I think it is important that many (including myself) struggle to view this object without thinking about the painful history of race in this country. We are always viewing the ancient world through the racialized lens of the modern world, even when we don’t notice. This is the focus of the remainder of the exhibit, where a collection of pieces from the Renaissance to the 20th century show how artists have constructed an image of Greco-Roman antiquity that aligns with modern racial formations. These artists were rarely shaping a narrative about the ancient world intentionally, but nevertheless their works have had a powerful influence on what we imagine the ancient Greeks and Romans looked like, and this inevitably includes their race. Part of the reason people assume the Greeks and Romans were White is the long history of European artists depicting figures from classical mythology and ancient history as Europeans, such as the maioloica bowl showing a light-skinned, blonde Cadmus killing the serpent. We have internalized that image of Greco-Roman antiquity.

I am particularly interested in the way that temporal boundaries to race have been constructed, such that ancient cultures can be appropriated into Whiteness while the modern inhabitants of the same places are excluded. To demonstrate the contrast, I included two works that depict people from ancient and modern Turkey: Anne-Louis Girodet de Rouçy-Trioson’s The Meeting of Aeneas with Anchises in the Elysian Fields shows the mythological Trojans as White. In contrast, Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Peña’s The Smyrna Girls, just a few hundred miles from the ancient site of Troy, shows a huddle of girls with dark skin and hair. These temporal boundaries demonstrate the irrationality of modern racial formations, but they are not arbitrary. They establish who gets to claim the past as theirs, and who is denied that right.

Left: Anne-Louis Girodet de Rouçy-Trioson (French, 1767–1824), The Meeting of Aeneas with Anchises in the Elysian Fields, 1820. Pierre noire and ink wash heightened with white on vellum, 11 x 14 13/16". Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis. University purchase, Plant Replacement Fund, 1962. Right: Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Peña (French, 1807–1876), The Smyrna Girls, 1875. Oil on mahogany panel, 12 1/2 x 15 7/8". Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis. Bequest of Charles Parsons, 1905. 

One thing I appreciate about the Teaching Gallery is that it demonstrates the range of roles museums can play. Professor of African and African-American Studies Geoff Ward’s “Truths and Reckonings” exhibition showed how museums can be places of emotional healing and commemoration. My exhibition intends to use the museum as a place of scrutiny and examination, where the narratives of the past can be questioned and emended. Classics is hardly blameless in creating the link between Whiteness and the ancient Greeks and Romans, and we have a responsibility to dismantle that link, as well as to better understand how it shapes our field today.