At the opening of his book, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity, Benjamin Isaac notes that the term ‘racism’ is relatively recent, but the term racialism has been around a longer. But as he goes on to show, just because we do not use a particular name for an act at an earlier time, it does not mean the action we come identify with that label did not previously exist. What has changed is the acceptance of the action and when that changes, so does the label to reflect the rejection of the action that was once accepted. And, so it should. There are actions in the past that would not have been dubbed sexist, racist, or ageist in their own time, but to which one can identify as such, whilst still bearing in mind that these actions were not viewed in the same way at the time. The approach we should take is to consider why an action might once have been culturally and politically acceptable and what has changed which means it is no longer.
But as to racism, I agree with Isaac that we can find evidence for it in Classical Antiquity. He argues:
“Ethnic and racial prejudice and xenophobia are forms of hostility towards strangers
and foreigners at home or abroad. They occur in every society, but in widely differing
degrees, social settings, and moral environments.” (p.3)
Human beings have not really changed a great deal. They have and perhaps will always fear the unfamiliar. When this persists without understanding, fuelled by fear, and goes unchecked by reflection, this is when prejudice develops and escalates into phobias, which then further spiral into acts of violence. Such responses may be natural, but it does not make them right or any less harmful.
Isaac is right that this can exist in varying degrees. For example, in Herodotus’s third book, he reports a discussion about burial customs between the Indian Callatiae tribe and the Greeks. They are horrified by each other customs, because of their very different cultural approaches. The Callatiae eat their dead, the Greeks burn them (3.38). There is no compromise, but there is no real conflict. Nor is this, I think, racism. They cannot understand one another’s customs, but no dangerous prejudice arises. When Herodotus says ‘Custom is King’, he is simply saying that practices are a powerful part of a people’s society, ingrained into their mindsets. One can see plenty of such differences between peoples nowadays, but no problems arise.
However, we can perhaps see in this the seeds of what could have developed into racism had one side attacked the other as inferior in its practices, or escalated into conflict, had one or both sides perceived the other as a threat. And this can certainly be seen in Antiquity. The word barbaros, although not originally pejorative in its connotations, simply meaning non-Greek speaking, came to denote ‘uncivilised’. This was certainly fuelled, if not caused by, the Persian Wars and the rhetoric of Greek superiority that grew around Greek collective action against and eventual victory over the vast empire. The fear and threat posed by Persia to Greece helped to crystallise a view of the Greeks as a ‘free’ people and the Persians as ‘slavish’, being governed by an absolute ruler especially in contrast to democratic Athens. One can also find justifications of slavery in the ancient philosophers that reflect what we might term racism. Slaves for Aristotle were naturally intended to be so, but Greeks were not intended to be slaves.
Peoples conquered by the Romans could be portrayed as either inferior or unpleasant to explain Rome’s superiority, both imperially and morally. The Carthaginians emerge as duplicitous in book 1 of the Aeneid. One could go on: Polybius’ disparaging view of the Celts, Caesar and Tacitus on the Britons.
The point is that human beings have always come up against each others’ differences. It does not always lead to conflict. It might cause puzzlement at first, but can also be celebrated. But when a superior power sees their might as a vindication of their own values, leading them to mis-portray those of others as inferior or wrong, and then even to suppress other peoples, that is when we racism and cultural prejudice wreak havoc on the human world.
On this topic, see also:
Bernal, M., (1987) Black Athena (Rutgers University Press)
Hall, E., (1989) Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-Definition through Tragedy (Oxford)
This is a fine and very important topic, and so much broader than I can do it justice in my little offering here. Further questions include:
· How does this extend to ancient attitudes to animals?
· Do visual media betray racial or sexual generalisations?
· Are such prejudices ever questioned in Antiquity?
· How does justification of such views compare to modern empires and conceptions of the
Classics offers great food for thought in exploring this topic and one that should make us reflect on our own times and questions how far we have really come as human beings.