Using Genetics to Prove Ancient Greeks Were "White"?

In a recent article by Prof. Denise McCoskey, she noted that our modern racial categories are socially constructed and that, technically, no Europeans are "white" since "whiteness" is not a biological reality but a socially created category that we try to place people with similar physical characteristics into. Race theories go deeper, of course, in that they also attempt to assign moral character to these biologically similar groups, and that is where racism emerges--attributing to groups of people who share inherited physical characteristics similarly inherited moral character that is then ranked in a hierarchy. One of the most consistent responses to the reality that race is social and not inherently biological is an appeal to modern genetics.

In a previous blog post, I discussed some of the communis opinio of the physical anthropology community on the ways in which forensic and genetic categories are subjective and not accurate reflections of a biological realty. "Current scientific consensus is that craniometric yields clustered geographic groupings, but those groupings are subjective and arbitrary"; bone measurements do not yield objectively, naturally defined groups of humans, but we can group them into pre-determined subjective categories of our choosing. Same thing with genetics--we can create broad groups based on criteria that we assume subjectively to be biologically distinctive. We can make that group as large as we like, then label it "caucasoid" or "white" or whatever, and then, we can place those who have the specific traits we have identified into the category. What we cannot do is create neutral, objective categories from the genes themselves.

For example, 23andme and "use both preexisting datasets as well as some reference populations that they have recruited themselves." They create the reference categories themselves based on preconceived notions of what those communities should look like.
"'When a 23andMe research participant tells us that they have four grandparents all born in the same country — and the country isn’t a colonial nation like the U.S., Canada, or Australia — that person becomes a candidate for inclusion in the reference data,' explained Jhulianna Cintron, a product specialist at 23andMe."  
They depend on the accuracy of those self reports and that colonial migration is the only type of migration. And they assume contemporary national boundaries. History doesn't support the methodology.

This is important to understand--the categories are subjective. It is even more important to understand when white nationalists or supremacists use genetics as a way to argue against the scientifically accepted reality that race is not biological, but social. Why? Because it means they can manipulate and morph the categories to suit their needs in the moment. What do I mean?

In the comments to Prof. McCoskey's article, one commenter noted that one of these for-profit gene testing companies (23andme) proved that more than 98% of New Yorkers were of European descent and this proved something. Let's leave aside the fact that people who pay for these tests are a self-selecting group and, apparently, white supremacists like having them done. I am not sure what it proved other than that the logic is circular. It certainly didn't disprove her point that whiteness is a social construct and that the ancient Greeks and Romans would not have had any concept of "whiteness" associated to "race" that equated to ours. Further, the pointing to European genes as proof of the inherent "whiteness" of the ancients is confusing, since there aren't genes for "white", but for "of European descent" and the genes of modern Greeks and, apparently, ancient Greeks, too (and Italians and Albanians, and Cypriots) aren't of European descent, but of southwestern Anatolian (i.e. Near Eastern Asian) descent.

Are you confused yet? If white = European descent, as the commenter seems to have been suggesting, then how are ancient Greeks and Romans white given that they are supposedly genetically from not-Europe, but migrated there in the Bronze Age from somewhere else? Well, because, conveniently for many white supremacists, over the course of the last 100 years, the category of "white" has expanded to include not just people of northern European descent (the original "Anglo-Saxon" definition used for whiteness), but also southern Europe, eastern Europe, north Africa, Syria and Turkey, Iran, Iraq, the Kurds, even India in some instances. And, of course, "hispanic" is a sub-category of white, which means that most people from central and south America and Mexico are "white."

This, however, causes a quandary for most white supremacists who also want to be anti-Arab, anti-middle Eastern of any sort, anti-hispanic, etc. because technically ALL OF THESE GROUPS ARE "WHITE." But, if they want whiteness to be defined genetically as people who have similar biological characteristics to those people genetically categorized as European, then they also can't have the ancient Greeks and Romans because they are not of genetic European descent according to the data. If one wants to live by the genetics sword, they also need to die by it.

I'm not staking a claim in this game as to whether I think that genetic data is more accurate than archaeological and historical data in understanding ancient populations and migrations other than to say that I think it needs to all be considered together. But, I will say that if people, particularly those who think the US should be a "white" heritage only country, then they need to deal with the fact that this includes hispanic peoples, Arabs and other north African and Middle Eastern groups, and other "brown" people and, importantly, non-Christian people.  If they want this country to be a European-descent only country, then they need to stop calling themselves "white" and acknowledge that race as defined through whiteness and blackness is just what anthropologists, historians, and even geneticists have been saying for years--a social construct. And they also need to leave the ancient Greeks and Romans out of it.

The "Typical" Family in Roman Britain

There has been a lot of chatter about the BCC Roman Britain cartoon still flitting around, mostly because Taleb seems set on personally attacking anyone who disagrees with him or questions his data. It's not the most productive way to discuss the issue of diversity in Roman Britain (or the classical world, generally). But one thing has not seemed to come up and I am puzzled by it--one of the primary bones of contention is on the "typical" nature of the family represented in the cartoon. Even those who have agreed that the evidence had difficulty accepting the word "typical" (though, see now Prof. Tim Whitmarsh for a different take).

Perhaps the reason this difficulty arose was because they assumed that the "typical" referred to the skin color of the characters. Actually, the skin color is irrelevant to the "typicality" of the family. Regardless of what type of Roman this family was ethnically--Italian, Syrian, Egyptian, Algerian, Greek, Gallic, etc--their activities and lifestyle would be the same--the way they lived their lives would be TYPICAL of a Roman family living in Roman Britain. That was the point of the BBC cartoon, not the skin colors of the Romans.

Why is it, then, that most of the commentary and controversy surrounded skin color? In part, because of the assumption that all Romans were actually ethnically Roman (or, at the least, Latin or Italian). But that was not the case a early as the 1st century BCE. Pick a well-known Roman author of the Late Republic or the Empire and you would be hard pressed to find an ethnic "Roman". Cicero? Nope. Catullus? Nope. Vergil? Nope. How about Caesar? Yes. Caesar. And Caesar himself made a bunch of Gauls "Roman," putting them in the Senate and in the ranks of the military. So, as early as the 1st century BCE, you could not even equate Rome with being Latin or Italian. Of course, all of these non-Roman Romans are still counted by us today as "white," but they weren't white by their own estimation (that's for women, lepers, and, maybe, Scythians) nor were they "white" until sometime around World War 2. So, assumptions in the general public about who does and doesn't count as a "typical" Roman are frequently mistaken.

The focus on their skin color is misplaced and shows our own preoccupations, not ancient ones. That a Roman family that had a sub-Saharan African father raises so much of a ruckus is our problem. This family was still "typical" in that is was Roman and participated in the life that being Roman in Roman Britain entailed as opposed to living the life of a non-Roman Celt. Those who focused on the skin color of the characters lost that typicality, assuming anachronism that was a projection of their own modern racial bias.

Anachronisms abound in the critiques defending Beard as well, however. For example, Massimo Pugliucci writes:
As a side note, I did find the BBC video just slightly too informed by modern sensibilities, as for instance in the scene, at 1'50", where a Patrician girl expresses the desire to one day become a military commander, only to be rebuked by her mother who explains that women are not allowed in the Roman military.
Actually, we have ample evidence that young girls and women chafed against restrictions placed on them and that warrior women or fighting women were a thing--from female warrior gods (Roma and Minerva!) to Amazons and Boudica and female gladiators, the idea that a young Roman girl--Patrician or not--wouldn't have any aspiration to be like her father or be in the military is, again, a projection of contemporary concerns. Especially in a place where the tales of Boudica leading her army against Rome would have been well-known, why would a girl raised by a soldier dream also of being a soldier? Gender is a social construct that needs to be developed and reinforced. Children are socialized into what are and aren't acceptable behaviors. That her mother told her no is socializing the girl into the historically accurate behavior--no Roman mother would say "you can be whatever you want!" That would have been an anachronism worthy of comment.

Hopefully, at this point, we can see that this debate reveals more about our own biases than anything about ancient Rome. It isn't the inclusion of a black father, but the assumption that there couldn't be one. But, skin color didn't make one Roman, it was citizenship and cultural practices.

Blood and Soil from Antiquity to Charlottesville: A Short Primer

In the recent white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville, chants of "Blood and Soil" were heard coming from some members of the marchers of a tiki torch procession. This chant was interspersed with chants of "You will not replace us." When I read about this, I was stuck by the irony of a group of white supremacists--all of whose ancestors are not native to this soil--would be chanting about being autochthonous. I mean, the whole point of the two groups that most closely identify with the Blood and Soil language (in their web presences and poster/flyer campaigns), Identity Europa and Vanguard America is the emphasis on their European (not American) descent. They aren't even trying to claim to be indigenous to the US, and yet are invoking an ideology that is explicitly about being native to one's land and thereby a part of it. 

If you are confused, that's ok. It doesn't make much sense at first. But what these supremacists are appealing to when they chant or put up posters or name their websites "Blood and Soil"  is meant to align them with and appropriate for themselves an ideological position that links them both to the Nazi tradition in Germany and to Classical Athens, whose imagery and ideas they sometimes use in their advertisements.

Let's start at the beginning...What is "Blood and Soil"? Blood and Soil, or Blut und Boden, was an ideology that focused on two aspects of German identity--genealogy/descent and territory/land. Although most closely associated with the Nazis, it actually preceded them in Germany and has clear roots in the 19th century German Romantic nationalism and racialism, but it picked up adherents after WWI.

BLOOD: The term Volksdeutsche, supposedly coined by Hitler himself, encompassed all who were German of "race" or, as we would say today, ethnicity, as opposed to citizenship. The idea was that there were Germans by descent who lived both within and outside Germany, most notably in territories further east to which Germans had migrated in the preceding centuries. Some of these territories had belonged to Imperial Germany and been lost with the Versailles Treaty following World War I. Others had been part of the Habsburg Empire (which had been dominated politically by ethnic Germans); yet others never been part of a German state..  The Nazis, as historian Lisa Heineman notes,“joined the majority of Germans who were not only frustrated with the post-World War I settlement but who also felt the ‘small German’ solution of 1871 was inconsistent with ideals of national self-determination – ideals that were now endorsed by no less than Woodrow Wilson--the German state created in 1871 had not included the German portions of the Habsburg Empire.” 

Like many nationalists before them, National Socialists wanted all Germans to be united as part of the new Reich, a  perfect union of ethnic nationhood and state formation. Embedded within the idea was not just a unity of blood, but also a superiority of blood, an idea that German blood was purer than other blood. Where might Hitler and the earlier Blood and Soil adherents have gotten the idea that German blood was so wonderful? Sadly, a key source was probably the Roman author Tacitus, who, in his zeal to moralize about Rome's own decline under the emperor Domitian, maybe played up German isolation a bit too much.

Tacitus (58-120 CE) once wrote a book called Germania. This book, part of a long ethnographic tradition among the ancient Greeks and Romans, presents the German peoples to a Roman audience. The Germans had been a bit of a thorn in the side of Rome for a couple of centuries at the time he wrote about them, though it seems that both he and other Roman authors also admired the Germans. They were represented as both uncivilized and idealized--a true "noble savage," uncorrupted by the debaucheries of Rome. 

The key passage comes fairly early on (Germ. 2):
I believe that the Germans themselves are indigenous (indigenas) and the immigration and receiving of other peoples (gentium) has resulted in very little mixing, because, in earlier times, people who were seeking to change their homes came not by land, but by ships. The Ocean beyond them is immense, as I would say, on the opposite side and is rarely approached by ships from our world. Moreover, not even considering the danger or the rough and unknown sea, who would leave Asia or Africa or Italy behind and seek Germany, which is wild in lands, harsh in climate, and unpleasant in habitation and in aspect, except if it was your homeland?  
You have to wonder if Tacitus, knowing how this paragraph would be used centuries later, would have considered changing it or deleting it altogether. Alas, the paragraph is there and from the re-discovery of the Germania in the Renaissance until now, Tacitus' comment on the indigenous and pure status of the German peoples and their connection to their homeland has wreaked havoc on history.

According to classicist Christopher Krebs, this book, once called by the historian Arnold Momogliano a "most dangerous book" and by the Nazis their "little golden book," informed their attitudes towards other Germans, towards those with disabilities, and towards foreigners in Germany--especially Jews.  Real Germans, pure Germans were (Tac. Germ. 4):
...infected by no marriages with other nations and exist as an individual and pure race which is similar only to itself. It is because of this that the build of their bodies is the same in all the people, even though the population is so large. They have fierce blue eyes, red hair (rutilae comae), huge bodies, and they are strong only on impulse.  
The Nazis would ensure that this is how Germans would look again (with a little "Aryan" twist--with blond hair instead of red--perhaps all those white marble sculptures fetishized by 19th century Germans encouraged them). Nazi policy called for the enforcement of racial boundaries, of a purification of stock, of a weeding of the less perfect and impure. They had to be removed from German land, eradicated.

SOIL: One of the things you may have noticed in the Tacitus quoted above is the connection Tacitus makes between the Germans and their homeland--it is a climate and landscape only a native could love. This isn't the only reference to the connection between Germans and their land. According to Tacitus, and in line with environmental determinism theories of the times, the land made the ancient German able "to endure hunger and cold" (Tac. Germ. 4).  

Tacitus flatters the Germans by pointing out their purity and relationship with the land, which enables it. For the Germans, there was also the appeal of classical Athens, whose sculpture specifically was idealized, most obviously demonstrated in Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia. The long tradition of Classical Athens as an ideal in German Romanticism has been well-documented. But how deep did it go?

The Athenians promoted the idea that they were autochthonous, which translates as "indigenous" or "born of the earth," and passed laws aimed at ensuring that only those who were of "pure" Athenian birth would benefit from Athens' wealth and power. I've detailed in an article in Eidolon how the Athenians' obsession with their own purity manifested in practice and civic ideology. The ancient Athenians provided modern Germans with mechanisms and an ideology that would allow them to fortify and preserve the purity Tacitus sanctioned for them. 

The "Soil" portion of Nazi ideology of Blood and Soil was not just about the German homeland as a source of German strength and racial integrity. It was also an ideal way of life,  that sat in opposition to cosmopolitanism--another opposition adopted by neo-Nazi's and their sympathizers, and underscored policies of colonization outside Germany. Blut und Boden (an idea that, again, preceded the Nazis in Germany) was a German-specific type of environmental determinism premised on the notion that Germans were superior and other  peoples were inferior, in part because of their ties to their land--because of the relationship between the German people and their homeland (the "Soil"). Again, as Heineman comments, “The Germans’ mystical, and deeply virtuous, connection to the land contrasted with the rootlessness of those who had no such ties, notably diasporic and cosmopolitan Jews. Nevertheless, this ideology allowed for settler colonialism, or the implantation of Germans in soil to which they did not have a historically deep connection. As the German population expanded, it would need more Lebensraum, or living space. Otherwise the Volk might be compelled to curtail childbearing and lose its Darwinistic battle with other 'races'.” Since the point was to expand the ethnically German population, not to extend German power over other “nations” (for example to exploit labor and extract resources), inhabitants of conquered lands would have to be removed and replaced by German settlers.

Another component of this policy was a focus of the German "peasant" population--farmers and freeholders in the countryside were considered more German than those infected with urbanity and cosmopolitanism. Cosmopolitanism allowed for the "Germanizing" of foreigners (and of course threatened the “Judaization” of Germans), Lebensraum did not. We see hints of this in interpretations of ancient Athenian valorization of the hoplite as a citizen soldier who transitions from farmer to fighter, whose tie to the soil means he will fight that much harder for it. This "hoplite ideology" has a long history of being represented as a citizen ideal and as a mark of  the "traditional values" that allowed the Greeks (Athenians included) to enact the "Greek miracle." In this way, too, German Romantic Nationalism's elevation of  Classical Athens set the stage for Nazi policies that acted upon the racist fixation on the intersection between purity of descent (Blood) and the homeland (Soil).


After this little trip down knowledge lane, we can see why it might be confusing to have a bunch of Americans marching around chanting "Blood and Soil" for a land they aren't indigenous to. But, the idea of Lebensraum and the Athenian concept of autochthony both came with hefty doses of superiority complexes that manifested in imperial ambitions that allowed for the Blood to become more important than the Soil, and so allowed for those of the right Blood to assimilate the Soil of others. 

The idea that this is exclusively Athenian or Nazi, however, is mistaken. The Nazi ideology was built upon a century or more of idealization of Athens by the German Romantics and, this idealization was not unique to Germany. Wherever Athens was held in esteem and a central component of elite education, ideas of "Manifest Destiny" exist. For these contemporary white supremacists, Manifest Destiny happened and it happened at the expense of "white, European blood," blood that "soaked" the soil. That makes this land, in their twisted worldview, "theirs"--but only if one ignores all the African-American, Chinese, Mexican, Native American, or other of non-European descent whose blood was spilled in equal or larger amounts to make America what it has become. 

And that is where the irony comes in--for years they have believed in this fantasy, a fantasy promoted in our high school textbooks and TV and movies, that only "white" Americans participated in the building of our country. A fantasy crafted through the erasure of the contributions and oppressions of the participants in our nation's history who were not of European descent. As that narrative is increasingly revealed as the lie it is, they cry "revisionism" and "changing history." But it is the correcting of a lie, a lie that some people have been raised to believe is true--like the Tooth Fairy, only far more insidious. Blood and Soil and Confederate monuments are myths, so it's just a wee bit ironic that they march under their banners as if they were true.

UPDATE: after Charlottesville, American Vanguard split into two different organizations.  The website now belongs to Patriot Front whose manifesto begins:

Many thanks to Lisa Heineman for fact-checking my German history.

Further Reading:

Krebs, C. “A dangerous book: the reception of Tacitus’ Germania.” In The Cambridge Companion to Tacitus, edited by A. Woodman, 280-99. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 

Translations from: KRG = Kennedy, RF, CS Roy, and ML Goldman Race and Ethnicity in the Classical World: An Anthology of Primary Sources. Indianapolis: Hackett. 2013.  

How is the Ancient Mediterranean Diverse If Everyone There Is "White"?

In my last blog post, I pointed to the slippery nature of the category "white" and its use to dismiss arguments for the diversity of the ancient world. I have a later blog post planned on the category of "whiteness" in antiquity, so I won't go into too much detail here, but it should be noted that, when commenters appeal to the over-arching racial category of "white" in order to co-opt a whole slew on non-European peoples into their narrative of white supremacy, they often do so by trying to turn the ancient Mediterranean into an "Anglo-Saxon" fantasy land through the use of technical language of out-dated physical anthropology.

As is pretty much accepted as fact by anthropologists, sociologists, historians, and biologists alike, race is a social construct that is not grounded in any biological facts. The "science of man" emerged from colonialism and slaveryThe terminology is still used by physical and, in particular, forensic anthropologists, but the scientists pretty much all agree that 
"Race is not an accurate or productive way to describe human biological variation" (Race Reconciled, 2009: 2; special issue of The American Journal of Anthropology)
The  pseudo-science of race even in its own day was considered highly questionable and was abandoned almost entirely around World War II. Nevertheless, the internet (and some die-hard ideologues) persists. For example (from a FB comment on my last blog post),
not africanoid its negroid. Its a valid descriptive term among physical anthropologists. African is a geographical term not a race. We North Africans are "Africanoids" too=caucasoid Mediterranean”
Note the terms. They exactly mirror the terms shown in the 1950s encyclopedia entry pictured above. Those terms derive from 19th century race scientists like Blumenbach, but are also incorporated non-Europeans into the category of "white", based on the linguistic category "Indo-European", conflating language family trees with made up biological categories, none of which are reflected in skin tones and none of which are considered very useful or accurate today (despite their perpetuation in popular fiction).

This is not to say that there are no legitimate physical variations among humans. Even the ancient Greeks recognized this reality. Take the Attic vase pictured. Represented is the myth of Andromeda. Andromeda was the daughter of Cepheus, a Phoenician (he was the son of Phoenix) and of Casseopeia (maybe an immigrant like Cepheus, maybe not). They were the mythical king and queen of Ethiopia. Andromeda is the figure being supported by the two smaller boys. Cepheus is the seated figure--they are both represented as "Persian" types--the hats and animal print pants are your typical dead give away. 

The physical features of the Phoenician characters, however, are indistinguishable from how Greeks would represent themselves--as Perseus is represented standing in travel gear near Cepheus. The other figures are all "Ethiopians" marked by their facial features (though clothed Greek-style). Here is another version of the same scene, though the painter uses skin tone instead of features as a marker for the "Ethiopian" characters and clothing (again) for the Phoenician.

What is the point? The point is that there IS recognizable physical variation in humanity, but that physical variation does not make "race" more than a socially constructed reality. And that physical difference didn't mean that some of the people were somehow inherently better than others. I put "Ethiopian" in quotation marks because, technically, all the character except Perseus in the vases are Ethiopian--Andromeda, Cepheus, and the rest. 

The Greeks recognized physical difference, but generally didn't think the people who had them were any more different from them than people in another family or in one Greek city-state and another (they used the same term, genos for everything from ones direct offspring to a household to women to a generation to what we might refer to as an ethnic group). The flexibility of such terms shows their constructedness. Those who appeal to biologically rigid categories of "race" don't seem to understand their fallacy. They appeal to physical anthropology as a defense for dismissing the realities of diversity in the name of coopting all historically "important" cultures to "whiteness". In reality, "white" only came to encompass the Mediterranean in the 1930s or 1940s at the earliest. 

But, what basis in fact do the appeals commenters make to these categories of race science and physical anthropology? In an in depth review (from 2013) of a special issue of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology (2009) titled "Race Reconciled" at Living Anthropologically (which you should read regularly if you want to say you know anything about what is happening in physical anthropology circles), we learn that leading physical anthropologists find skin color incapable of denoting race, cranial measurements only useful for locating possible geographic region of decent, and, the relationship between geographic descent group and genetic phenotype as "subjective". Use of skin color itself is called "arbitrary and subjective" and the scientists state that no actual group clusters or "races" can be discerned by skin color. One author, John Relethford, author of the textbook The Human Species, states of "race" that it is
“a culturally constructed label that crudely and imprecisely describes real variation” (Race Reconciled 2009:20).
This is not a new idea, of course (see link above)--the linked anthropology issue came out in 2009, which means the research was being done long before that and builds upon decades of earlier research. And, even Relethford's connection of craniometrics and genetics is increasingly being demonstrated to be inaccurate. For over 30 years now, as the articles at Living Anthropologically show, calls have been made within the field for admitting to the subjectivity and ideological underpinnings of racial classification by forensic science.

In another of the articles, titled "Understanding race and human variation: Why forensic anthropologists are good at identifying race" the conclusion is that forensic scientists are so good at categorizing bones by race because the categories are, essentially, made up. Forensic scientists could just as easily invent a new classification system for humans and define our differences through that. In fact, the author attributes the ability to categorize bones by racial groups to "institutional racism". Another article in the volume asserts that the methods of forensic anthropologists themselves lead to racist classifications. The image below, from Nott's 1854 Types of Mankind might give readers a clue as to what type of racial bias has been present. Nott's so-called "science" was considered illegitimate and motivated by prejudice when it was published. The anthropologist to whom the book was dedicated (Samuel George Morton) essentially disavowed it.

What does this all mean in terms of people who dismiss diversity in antiquity? Well, the same commenter who had recourse to the pseudo-scientific language of race science to try to co-opt all Mediterranean peoples to their own whiteness showed their cards by committing all three of the actions I identified in my post. First, the individual posted a link to my Eidolon article and charged I advocate "changing history" in the name of "POLITICAL CORRECTNESS" [their caps] and in order to build the self esteem of minorities. Additionally, the individual used an appeal to "genetics" (out-dated physical anthropology discussed above that not even physical anthropologists support) to manipulate the category of "whiteness" to dismiss my points. 

All of this amounts to an attempt to dismiss the last 50 or so years of scholarship on race and ethnicity in the ancient Mediterranean and in anthropology as "revisionist" But that shouldn't be a bad thing. My fellow scholars and I are revisionist--we critically examine the past scholarship, bring in new evidence, and address methodological biases in order to correct the misrepresentations and manipulations of the 19th and early 20th centuries done in the name of appropriating Greek and Roman (and Egyptian and Persian) cultures for a mythical and supposedly superior "Anglo-Saxon white race". The general public doesn't seem to be ready to let it go. But, wouldn't it just be easier to admit that the world is and always has been full of people with differences and that this is ok? Instead, people clinging to the world view that "whiteness" is a biological reality march around carrying tiki torches in the name of their superiority, chanting "Blood and Soil" as if they were not immigrants in this land we call America. 

The Ancient Mediterranean Was Diverse. Why Do Some People Get So Upset When We Talk About It?

At this point, anyone who reads about things classical on the internet knows of the dust up over the BBC video on Roman Britain and its inclusion of a Roman soldier of African origin. If you need a quick refresher, you can check out a short article at Indy 100 (from the Independent) and another at The Atlantic. Then you can appraise yourself of the subsequent internet abuse heaped on historian Mary Beard when she involved herself in the discussion. This brawl over diversity in the classical world is one of a series that have occurred in recent months and echoes those surrounding Sarah Bond's article on painted marble in antiquity and the white supremacist motives for removing the paint and Donna Zuckerberg's call for a consciously more inclusive approach to Classics--the comments in both articles are amazing demonstrations of ignorance and virulence on one side and exasperation and resignation on the other. 

Janiform of African from Syracuse, Sicily.
These controversies in Classics mirror a broader questioning of the value of diversity in the US and British populations that have manifested in recent political elections and policy proposals--from Brexit to the Trump administrations proposals to restrict travel, build a wall on the US-Mexico border, and change the way visas are granted to work in the US. The rhetoric of inclusion has even been changed in the way the US government discusses citizenship--no longer is their a grant to help with "Citizenship and Integration", but "Citizenship and Assimilation" and the Department of Justice is looking to investigate Affirmative Action in colleges as if they believe that too many non-whites are getting into US colleges. 

The dynamics at play in the broader political world and Classics seem, in some ways to be related as it is not professional classicists who are up in arms about discussions about the diversity of the ancient Mediterranean--we have all sorts of archaeological, literary, and, increasingly,  genetic evidence to show this was the case. Those who are upset by the "un-whitening" of the ancient world are casual, non-professional consumers of the ancient world and, in some cases, scholars in other fields who have no professional expertise and no more knowledge than the average college student or who want to privilege unreliable evidence (like genetics) over all other types of evidence. What these individuals have in common, however, is a shared world view in which the ancient Greek and Roman worlds are filled with white people and that they, therefore, belong to white people--and underlying this assumption is another assumption that the ancients knew what whiteness was and considered themselves a part of it.

 I have written elsewhere on how the field of Classics can be complicit in the construction of this narrative by playing up the "foundations of western civilization" angle and downplaying the racism and misogyny in some of our ancient sources--an approach that lends credence to white supremacy groups. People seem less bothered by the notion that the ancient Athenians were racist. In fact, that is one of the appeals. Some people get very upset, however, when scholars point out the variety of ways they weren't racist and were, instead, open to diversity. 

Clay figures of African characters from the theater in ancient Syracuse, Sicily. 

What these people often have in common is a flexible understanding of whiteness that sometimes includes people of Near/Middle Eastern descent and sometimes doesn't. If they want to prove that there were no black Africans, they emphasize that north Africa in antiquity was "white"--according to the US census, Near/Middle Eastern counts as white, not "of color". This makes it convenient to assume the cultural achievements of ancient Egypt, Persian, the Phoenicians and their colonies, etc for "whiteness". However, when one speaks of ancient and medieval Islam, all the sudden, those same people are no longer "white". Why? Arab peoples are considered white in the US census, but non-white when religion is mentioned. So, in modern terms, racially, they are white, but culturally "other"--if one assumes that the US is a "Christian nation", which is debatable; the Founding Fathers intentionally left religion out of the picture, but it is a majority Christian population. This makes one wonder how the ancient Greeks and Romans--definitively non-Christians--can get to be the foundation of a civilization that seems to hold Christianity as a key identifier and how they get to be "white" in this particular sense. It also makes one wonder why so many people are so invested in a white Greco-Roman antiquity.

A further commonality of many of the individuals who are unsettled or even angry at the notion of a multiethnic/multiracial Classical world is that they will typically try to argue that the un-whitening of antiquity is political correctness run amok or the imposition of modern ways of thinking on the ancient world--as if the ancients had no concepts of race/ethnicity. When you hear the argument that talking about the diversity of the ancient world is some sort of liberal political correctness, you can fairly easily gauge the ideological position of the person--that language is straight out of the Karl Rove and now Pres. Trump playbook for dismissing academic expertise and for undermining any study or discussion that might counter a narrative that white, western civilization is ancient in its foundations and superior to any others. 

And, this, at last, gets us to the question posed in the title of this post--why do some people get so upset when we talk about how diverse the ancient Greek and Roman societies were? Because if Classical antiquity is the foundation of western civilization and they were multiracial/multiethnic societies, then the idea that western civilization is a white accomplishment based on a history of white superiority is called into question. And if you truly believe that your own identity is bound to being white and to this historical narrative of whiteness, then finding diversity and inclusion at the roots of western culture means that maybe your whiteness fetish is problematic and the drive by those who embrace it to exclude other religions, traditions, skin tones, etc. from our society is most likely good old fashioned modern racism and not inherent in our destiny after all. 


I was involved recently in a Facebook blowout, one of those “Someone Was Wrong on the Internet” moments where I had to take a deep breath and walk away in the realization that nothing I said, no evidence I brought out, would convince the interlocutor (who was mansplaining one of my areas of expertise to me) that he was not correct. What was the issue? Commenting on an article in Teen Vogue (leaders of the modern resistance) about  how sex with slaves was always rape, he threw out the “x is a modern idea” trope, i.e. consent doesn’t really apply in the past because we modern PC types invented it. That isn’t true. Ancient laws for both rape and adultery dating back as far as the Gortyn law code (6th century BCE) clearly factor consent--either of the women, if free, or the owner, if a slave--into what sort of crime has been committed [EDIT TO ADD: a colleague pointed out that Hammurabi's law code also contains this type of law]. If no consent was given by the woman (or even the slave in some instanced), the crime was hubris, i.e. rape. In fact, the idea of rape itself can only exist in a world where it is assumed that sex needs to be agreed upon by the parties involved.

So, let's start with the obvious: there is a difference between rape and not rape. In ancient Greece, rape typically fell under laws associated with hubris--the outrage against or abuse of another person intended to cause shame. I know, I know. Everyone thinks the word means arrogance, but that is its least common usage in Greek texts! Anyway, point being, the Greeks placed having sex with someone against their will under the category of hubris. They didn't have a single specific word for "rape", as far as I can tell. Athenian texts just use hubris. The Gortyn law code uses κάρτει (for κρατέω), which means to "force", "conquer", "control", or "seize"  or δαμάζω, "to subdue"  or "tame".  Either way, implicit in both words is the idea that rape is done without the person's consent. That there are laws against it, therefore, mean that the Greeks had a concept of consent. Otherwise, sex is just sex, regardless of whether the object of one's affections agrees to have it or not. And I say "object of affection" because men and women alike could be raped according to the law.

The Romans aren't much different. In fact, both the words for "rape" and "consent" are Latin! Rapio means to seize or take something/someone through violence. If someone has been "rapio-ed", they have been "ravished" or "raped". The Romans also used other words--in the story of Lucretia's rape by Sextus Tarquinius, he is said to "capture her by force" (per vim capit, 1.57.10). Capio has both neutral and violent connotations, but means essentially the same thing as rapio and κρατέω in its violent uses. And the story of Lucretia really gets at the heart of the issue of whether or not consent was "a modern idea" only. I'll quote some of the story (in English translation; you can read it in full here):

A few days afterwards Sextus Tarquinius went, unknown to Collatinus, with one companion to Collatia. He was hospitably received by the household, who suspected nothing, and after supper was conducted to the bedroom set apart for guests. When all around seemed safe and everybody fast asleep, he went in the frenzy of his passion with a naked sword to the sleeping Lucretia, and placing his left hand on her breast, said, ‘Silence, Lucretia! I am Sextus Tarquinius, and I have a sword in my hand; if you utter a word, you shall die.’
When the woman, terrified out of her sleep, saw that no help was near, and instant death threatening her, Tarquin began to confess his passion, pleaded, used threats as well as entreaties, and employed every argument likely to influence a female heart. When he saw that she was inflexible and not moved even by the fear of death, he threatened to disgrace her, declaring that he would lay the naked corpse of the slave by her dead body, so that it might be said that she had been slain in foul adultery. By this awful threat, his lust triumphed over her inflexible chastity, and Tarquin went off exulting in having successfully attacked her honour.
While some might say that she "consented", because she finally agreed after being threatened with death and with shame to let him rape her, Livy is very clear (as is the rest of Roman tradition) that she was forced against her will, that she did not consent, and, therefore, it was not adultery, but rape. Lucretia committed suicide (1.58)--her body was "violated" (violatum), but her soul was innocent (animus insons), and death was her proof of innocence (mors testis erit). She was innocent of a crime (adultery), but was too chaste to allow anyone to slander her as if she had. History has proven Lucretia's fears that she would not be believed otherwise, but with her death, she began a revolution. How so? Because sex by force was not just sex to the Romans. It was rape.

On one last note, we can muddy the waters here even more for those who say that consent is a modern idea only--adultery. In the laws of most Greek city-states in antiquity, the woman was not held responsible for adultery. One of the most well-known cases attesting to this is that of Euphiletus again the adulterer Eratosthenes, preserved in Euphiletus' speech written by Lysias. In Attic law, essentially, a woman was not considered mentally competent enough to consent to non-marital sex (whether she consented to marital sex is not at issue). Athenian law allowed Euphiletus to kill Eratosthenes on the spot if he caught him with his wife (or daughter or mother or household member). The wife, on the other hand, couldn't be harmed other than she would be divorced and sent back to her father (or brother). She was considered incapable of consenting to seduction legally, but the divorce implied that she did consent. 

If the perpetrator is committing adultery (seduction), then he can be killed on the spot. If he is raping her, he is committing hubris and is NOT legally able to be killed on the spot. The woman's CONSENT matters--even if she is not legally considered adult enough to be responsible for giving it under the strain of seduction. And, although a colleague of mine once said that he was sure women divorced for adultery were stigmatized, we have evidence that shows they still were remarried (the law just stipulated that they had to wait about 10 months before doing so).

The Gortyn law code is similar--the adultery law stipulates that if "someone" (always a man) is caught in adultery with women of various statuses, the man is punished. No punishment at all is given for the women in the laws. What this implies is that adultery is a crime of consent--the consent of whoever the male legal representative (kurios) is of the woman--father, husband, brother, owner (for slaves). So, adultery, like rape, involves consent. The difference is that the women must consent to avoid it being rape, the kurios must consent to avoid adultery. And, just on an aside--the Gortyn law code also stipulates that in cases of "he said, she said" involving slaves, the female slave is believed over whoever rapes her. This is, of course, intended to protect her owner's property (her), but it is still a pretty amazing stipulation.

What can we say about the notion that "consent is a modern idea"? Well, I think it is pretty clear that if there are laws differentiating rape from sex and laws concerning adultery, there is inherently a concept of consent. The problem for my FaceBook interlocutor, it seems, is a confusion over the notion of "affirmative consent" and simple consent. Affirmative consent--the idea that a woman must say or indicate "yes" explicitly at every stage of a sexual interaction--is modern, consent is not. To use one of my students' favorite (inaccurate) trite phrases, "since the beginning of time", laws have distinguished rape from not rape by asking the question "did they consent?". So, in answer to the question "Is consent a modern idea?", the answer is clearly "no".