Is there a 'race' or 'ethnicity' in Greco-Roman Antiquity?

According to this chart, I am Roman and I plan on applying for an Italian passport now.

As some readers of this blog know, I am currently working on a book that has been about 10 years in the making--a discussion of race and ethnicity in Greco-Roman antiquity and some of its modern implications and complications (I talked about it with Elton Barker of Classics Confidential in Jan.). The book is yet untitled (I am trusting the people at Johns Hopkins University Press who get paid to come up with cool titles to help me out). One of the primary points of this blog is to give me a space to work through my research in a less formal setting as I try to figure out just what it is that I want to say and, of course, just what I think is happening in the past.

This is also something that I am fortunate to be able to do with students as well since I get to teach my research and the kids these days are really good at helping me see things from different angles. And I am also fortunate in having this space where I can work on improving how I communicate my scholarship to wider audiences than what scholars normally aim at (i.e. the 6 people in the field who work on our specific areas).

Anyway, back in January, I tried working through some of the issues with talking about 'race' and 'ethnicity' in antiquity and how it is historically contingent and what that means. As I work through writing the introduction to the book, I've given it some more thought. This is where I've gotten to (and it is likely not the final word). You'll see that I have a different approach than previous scholars who have discussed race in antiquity, though it won't be surprising to anyone who has studied contemporary race.

My question for today is ‘can we even talk about race and ethnicity in greco-roman antiquity?’ Obviously, enter any room and ask this and you will get numerous yeses and probably more nos. More importantly, there are likely in any room a dozen different definitions of race and ethnicity floating around and so when we speak of whether it exists in antiquity, we aren’t all really sure what we are considering.


Let’s start with ‘race’ since it has the longer, more complex history and because I really want to focus on it and just talk a little bit about ethnicity. And, because, ‘race’ as a concept has been around as long as the discipline of classics (way longer, in fact) and has been intertwined in its study and place in both the university and the popular imagination. And yet, what it has meant and how it has been applied as a concept has changed over time and its connections to classics erased or obscured.

Ways to talk about race in Antiquity

Option 1. Modern ‘somatic’ or 'epidermal' race: restoring color to the ancient world; valid--the history of the disciplines of ancient and medieval studies has been to exclude and erase people of color from the ancient Mediterranean.

Option 2. Race more as a technology that structures human interactions and embeds prejudices against racialized peoples into systems of oppression-- there are three things: human difference, prejudice, and race: race is the institutionalization of prejudice based on moving signifiers for human difference. Sometimes this involves the biological, sometimes not--I’ll explain this approach in a few minutes.

Let’s start with Option 1, since this has been something of the way that ‘race’ is typically discussed in association with antiquity. Here we see the history of whitewashing the ancient Mediterranean at play. What do I mean--let’s ask Bernard Knox:
“The critics [of the classics and the ‘western canon’] seem, at first sight, to have a case. The characteristic political unit of classical Greek society--the polis, or city-state--was very much a man’s club; even in its most advanced form, Athenian democracy, it relegated its women to silence and anonymity. Racism in our sense was not a problem of the Greeks; their homogenous population afforded no soil on which that weed could easily grow” (12).
What did this ‘homogenous population’ look like? Here is Knox again:
"In spite of recent suggestions that they came originally from Ethiopia, it is clear, from their artistic representations of their own and other races, that they were undoubtedly white or, to be exact, a sort of Mediterranean olive color." 
Lots to unpack here--like the assumption that discussions surrounding African origins of some aspects of Greek culture (to which Knox is responding) is deemed impossible, that ‘olive’ is ‘white’, that everyone who considered themselves Greek looked the same, and that this ‘Greekness’ was something that made them feel homogenous. It hardly seems possible if you know anything about the ancient Mediterranean (or Greek history).

Generally, for Knox, the Greeks are white, the Romans are white, Asia and N. Africa are white. The ancient Mediterranean was ‘white’. And it was homogenously white, which meant that ‘racism’ could not creep in. Knox, and the many classicists who preceded and follow him, did not 'see race’ in antiquity because they assume that race means somatic/epidermal (and is limited to black and white) and also because they only studied a limited scope of classical texts that do not much talk about skin color and, of course, spent very little time with ancient representations that weren’t white marble.

The assumption they made from these texts and selective artifacts was that, much as had been handed down to them from 19th century scholars, anyone whom we might call a person of color today was rare and far between in the ancient Greco-Roman world (despite spanning 3 continents) and any discussion of 'race' other than to mean 'white people' and 'black people' was anachronistic--this was despite the meticulous work previously by Frank Snowden and Lloyd Thompson on the prevalence of black Africans in Greek and Roman contexts (and the texts themselves and artifacts make it clear they were engaging with a myriad of peoples as far away as India).

It’s important to note that Knox gave this lecture, which was eventually published as "The Oldest Dead White European Males”, as a response to the Black Athena controversy, in which Martin Bernal argued for the roots of numerous Greek cultural institutions in Africa.

As Denise McCoskey has written in “Black Athena, White Power” in Eidolon (Nov 15, 2018), the response of the classics community to the challenge of Black Athena was a ‘failure’. The failure was this:
“ relegating Black Athena to the sphere of “identity politics” and “culture wars,” such outrage strategically allowed Classics to evade the many serious intellectual challenges posed by Black Athena.” 
And that failure, McCoskey suggests, helped make classics all the more appealing to white supremacism. McCoskey concludes in her essay:
“Given such profound contradictions, classicists’ treatment of race in the aftermath of Black Athena was the epitome of self-deception and bad faith. For even as they implicitly endorsed conceptions of Greek Whiteness, classicists adopted a widespread consensus, one that lasted for decades, that the terminology of race was simply not applicable to the ancient world.”
Of course, McCoskey is talking mostly about blackness and whiteness as they can be applied to antiquity--McCoskey rejects whiteness in antiquity, but seems to maintain blackness as a viable category. It is an attempt to add the color back to the ancient Mediterranean, something that people still fight about (especially concerning Cleopatra), despite its being closer to reality.

Perhaps, the most fruitful discussion of ‘re-coloring’ the ancient world as a practice of ‘racing the classics’ has come from Shelley Haley ("Be Not Afraid of the Dark" among others ), while others, for examples, like Frank Snowden and Lloyd Thompson (and now Sarah Derbew) worked to explore representations of blackness in ancient Greek and Roman contexts. In these cases, we see the evidence clearly that the ancient Mediterranean was filled full of people of different skin tones. And, if we can trust the scene in Aeschylus’ Suppliants (among others), when skin color is marked out in a text, it is not (usually) held up for ridicule or engendering prejudice (see the current controversy over the Sorbonne production)--notice here the focus is on clothing (and other customs), not on the fact that the women are black skinned, even though they specifically refer to themselves as melanthes earlier:
King Pelasgos: This group that we address is unhellenic, luxuriating in barbarian finery and delicate cloth. What country do they come from? The women of Argos, indeed of all Greek lands, do not wear such clothes. It is astonishing that you dare to travel to this land, fearlessly, without heralds, without sponsors, without guides. And yet here are the branches of suppliants, laid out according to custom next to you in front of the assembled gods. This alone would assert your Greekness…(Aesch. Suppliants 234-45; trans. Kennedy, Roy, and Goldman).
The work of re-coloring the ancient Mediterranean from the whitewashing it has received by generations of scholars is necessary. But is it the best approach to race in antiquity or could this ‘re-coloring’ be done under the term ‘ethnicity’ or just 'reality'? This is something that needs to be judged on an individual basis by scholars--so long as we inhabit a landscape in which the question of Kleopatra’s possible blackness continues to elicit vitriolic racist responses, then the re-coloring of the ancient world should continue. And I know from conversations with colleagues teaching at the K-12 level that there is great benefit as a person of color today to see oneself in an world that has long been claimed as the legacy of whiteness.  The question is, though, does it need to happen under the term ‘race’?

This is a very popular image
for lectures and books on race
and ethnicity in antiquity. 
Do we run the risk of reasserting a biological reality to ‘race’ if we define race in our studies of the ancient world as the very particular contemporary version of ‘epidermal race’ or ‘physiological race’? Do we reinforce the idea that 'racing' antiquity means finding non-white people when we make posters or books covers with the same janiform image over and over again? I worry about this.

What about Option 2?

Perhaps more important to understanding whether there can be a concept of race in antiquity--or even outside of the confines of the transatlantic slave trade and modern scientific racism--is to understand that race is NOT a content signifier, but a structuring mechanism for varying content over different times and spaces. I've found Falguni Sheth's Towards a Political Philosophy of Race (2009) really useful for thinking about this:
“Why wasn’t race considered an intrinsic feature of law? Of political institutions? Of political frameworks? For example, in much of the literature on race across the natural and cognitive sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities, the “reality” of race is still being discussed in terms of biology, empirical trends, government policies, philosophical arguments, or cultural discourse. Each of these is crucial to debating the reality of race, as well as racism and its pervasiveness. But what about the underlying framework makes the concepts of “race” and “racializing” possible? What about the discourse on race, as it has been conducted in the United States over the last 200 years, determines and re-produces certain anchors by which race is understood? Correlatively, how does this discourse obscure new, possibly more accurate ways by which to consider race, the racializing of various populations, and the way that race-thinking fundamentally infuses the most “race-neutral” of political and legal institutions? (Sheth, 2009, 3).
Sheth continues to consider how race theory in the US has been impacted by the legacy of African slavery and warns against reducing race to a black-white phenomenon only.
“Theoretical frameworks for race are also unsatisfying. We know that the legacy of slavery in the United States has viscerally affected the way that “Americans” think about race. Black–White relations often tend to determine the dynamics and general boundaries of race discourse. Yet, the presence of American Indians, Mexicans and “Californios,”the entrance of indentured servants from China and Japan, as well as continual immigration from other parts of Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East should influence how we understand the dynamic structures and production of race.”
Recognizing the limitations of defining race through modern slavery does not diminish the impact of this particular manifestation of race and racialization; rather, it helps understand better the mechanisms that allow anti-blackness to continue to be perpetuated as a tool for racism in the US and elsewhere. If we understand, as Sheth does, race not as a ‘descriptive modifier’, but as “a mode or vehicle of division, separation, hierarchy, exploitation", we can see better how institutions that seem to be, as she calls it ‘race neutral’, are actually how race itself functions. And this explains also why scientific racism reached its peak in power not while slavery was still legal, but as part of the Redemption period and Jim Crow (from the 1880s; I recommend Henry Louis Gates Jr's new Stony the Road book on this period as well as Du Bois's Black Reconstruction).

Sheth's questions also allow us to see the functioning of race in antiquity as well as in the medieval world, as the work of Geraldine Heng and Dorothy Kim demonstrates. Here is Heng on the topic:
“Race” is one of the primary names we have—a name we retail for the strategic, epistemological, and political commitments it recognizes—that is attached to a repeating tendency, of the gravest import, to demarcate human beings through differences among humans that are selectively essentialized as absolute and fundamental, in order to distribute positions and powers differentially to human groups. Race-making thus operates as specific historical occasions in which strategic essentialisms are posited and assigned through a variety of practices and pressures, so as to construct a hierarchy of peoples for different treatment. My understanding, thus, is that race is a structural relationship for the articulation and management of human differences, rather than a substantive content” (Heng, Invention of Race, 3).
These approaches to race are far more accurate and productive for thinking not only about the medieval worlds, but also the modern and the ancient. So, where might we see ‘race’ in this configuration as a tool for organizing human difference into hierarchies and oppressions in antiquity that can shift through time and space as the conditions of the processing of and attitudes towards and power structures surrounding human difference shift?

Race in Antiquity?

One theory that is often considered a source of racism or 'race' in antiquity is environmental determinism as found represented in the Hippocratic Airs, Waters, Places, Aristotle, and Vitruvius. Possible, but it's not a fully developed 'theory' that actually structures hierarchies. Here are some key passages from the theory--you can see the beginnings of what will become a foundation for scientific racism in the 19th century, but it isn't quite there in antiquity.

Here's the Hippocratic version (5th century BCE):
This is why I think the physiques of Europeans show more variety than those of Asians and why their stature changes even from city to city. The thickened seed is more prone to flaws and irregularities when the seasons change more frequently than when they remain constant. The same logic holds for character. In such inconsistent environments, savagery, anti-social attitudes and boldness tend to arise. The frequent shocks to the mind make for wildness and impair the development of civilized and gentle behaviors. This is why I think those living in Europe are more courageous that those in Asia. Laziness is a product of uniform climate. Endurance of both the body and soul comes from change. Also, cowardice increases softness and laziness, while courage engenders endurance and work ethic. For this reason, those dwelling in Europe are more effective fighters. The laws of a people are also a factor since, unlike Asians, Europeans don’t have kings. Wherever there are kings, by necessity there is mass cowardice. I have said this before. It is because the souls are enslaved and refuse to encounter dangers on behalf of another’s power and they willingly withdrawal. Autonomous men—those who encounter dangers for their own benefit—are ready and willing to enter the fray and they themselves, not a master, enjoy the rewards of victory. Thus, laws are not insignificant for engendering courage. (AWP 23) 
Here is Aristotle (4th cent BCE):
Concerning the citizen population, we stated earlier what the maximum number should be. Now, let’s discuss the innate characters of that population. One could potentially learn this from observing the most famous cities among the Greeks and how the rest of the inhabited world is divided up among the various peoples. The peoples living in cold climates and Europe are full of courage but lack intelligence and skill. The result is a state of continual freedom but a lack of political organization and ability to rule over others. The peoples of Asia, however, are intelligent and skilled, but cowardly. Thus, they are in a perpetual state of subjection and enslavement. The races of the Greeks are geographically in between Asia and Europe. They also are “in between” character-wise sharing attributes of both—they are intelligent and courageous. The result is a continually free people, the best political system, and the ability to rule over others (if they happen to unify under a single constitution). Aristotle Politics 1327b
And, finally, Vitruvius (1st cent CE--though not the last version from antiquity):
Regarding the need for bravery, the people in Italy are the most balanced in both their physical build and their strength of mind. For just as the planet Jupiter is tempered due to running its course between the extreme heat of Mars and the extreme cold of Saturn, in the same manner, Italy, located between north and south and thereby balanced by a mixture of both, garners unmatched praise. By its policies, it holds in check the courageousness of the barbarians [northerners] and by its strong hand, thwarts the cleverness of the southerners. Just so, the divine mind has allocated to the Roman state an eminent and temperate region so that they might become masters of the world. (Vitruvius de arch. 6.11)
We have a sorting of the world and explanations for human difference--physical and character-wise--with a bit of chauvinism thrown into the mix, but there are no institutions or mechanisms for segregating, discriminating, etc using this theory as a basis. The same theory is functional contemporaneously in ancient China and it might be closer to racialization in those texts than what we see in the Greek and Roman since the geographic and topographic associations for ‘barbarians’ in Chinese texts are used to rank peoples into hierarchies and lead to different forms of treatment (see Yang in Identity and the Environment in the Classical and Medieval Worlds 2015).

There is one particular version of environmental determinism among the ancient Greeks and Romans that I do think rises to the level of racialization and should be discussed in terms of race--the Athenian metic system.

Here is a list of the restrictions the Athenians placed on metics, often translated as either 'resident foreigner' or 'immigrant' but also included freed slaves and the descendants of immigrants and freed slaves: Metics paid a special tax, the metoikion (12 drachma per man/family, 6 drachma for independent metic woman and children), they could not own land or house without special exemption, and there were special laws that defined their status and policed it: the graphê aprostasiou (failure to register and pay the metic tax) and the graphê xenias (pretending to be a citizen). These laws were policed heavily in the 4th century especially, when it seems that citizens who turned in violators would get a bounty for it--half the price of the sale of the person into slavery (the penalty for violating these laws) if convicted.

Of course, the most well-known of the metic laws was the Citizenship Law of 451 BCE, supposedly crafted by Perikles. According to this law, no child of a female metic with a citizen man could be citizen (whereas they could have been prior to the law). This double-descent law was, as far as we know, the first of its kind since it required the woman as well as the man to be citizens. The law was accompanied by a rise in rhetoric and public representation of autochthony, the ancient idea of indigeneity, which the Athenian, somewhat uniquely among the Greeks, promoted as their origin.

While most other Greek poleis had migration stories as their foundations, the Athenians suggested they were 'born of the soil'. The Citizenship law, with its emphasis on purity of birth to preserve this autochthonous descent is our earliest 'blood and soil' ideology.  Further, we see accompanying this praise of Athenian purity a language of disease and infection attached to metics--whether it is Phaedra in Euripides' play Hippolytus or in the law courts, this language of infection and purity was used to segregate all non-Athenians into this category of 'metic' that embodied institutional oppressions, dehumanization, and systemic abuses based on the supposed supremacy of Athenians over all others--Greek or non-Greeks [1]. This was a racialized system and much closer to Sheth's definition of 'race' above.


I’ll start this section with an anecdote: I was at a bar one night with a colleague in religion and her partner, who was visiting from Canada. We were talking about race and ethnicity in antiquity (they do ancient Mediterranean religions). The partner of my colleague objected to the use of ‘race’ for discussing antiquity. Fine. Lots of people say this. But it was his reason that I remember:
“Race is political, ethnicity is academic.”
Oh, so incorrect, my friend. So incorrect!

Ethnicity is a 20th century term that seems to first appear in Weber’s works (around 1906). Weber’s coinage includes the caveat that ethnicity should refer to customs and  biology should not be considered a foundation for group identity unless that was somehow a shared characteristic of the group--there are ample biologically or kin based peoples who did not consider themselves of the same group--customs should be the common denominator.

As Jonathan Hall discusses in the introduction to Ethnic Identity in Ancient Greece, the term ‘ethnicity’ was taken up as a replacement for ‘race’ by many scholars based on recommendations found in the UNESCO 1950 Statement on Race. It wasn’t necessarily intended that scholars maintain the work of preserving racism under the guise of ethnicity studies, but this is what happened in some cases (and is happening again with the new genomics; See the work of Kim Tallbear, Dorothy Roberts, and Ann Morning for discussions). Omi and Wyant comment in their most recent edition of Racial Formation (2015, x)  as follows:
"In many ways the post-World War II social sciences disciplines still reproduce white supremacist assumptions…In prevailing social science research, race was conceptualized and operationalized in a fixed and static manner that failed to recognize the changing meaning of race over historical time and in varied social settings."
Meaning, as Dorothy Kim (in a forthcoming essay) summarizes from Omi and Wyant in discussing race in medieval studies:
"In this way, using the term “ethnicity” when what is being discussed is race, structural racism, and racialization, is to uphold a white supremacist political and neoconservative position that is itself being discussed as racist frame (i.e. colorblind). Therefore, recent ambiguity, or the eschewing of the term “race” in medieval critical discussions for “ethnicity,” ignore not only the history of the social sciences in Western academic discourse of over a century, but also either because of willfulness or ignorance, gloss over the political stance the use of the term engenders."
The decision to take up the term ethnicity was EXPLICITLY political and many fields, anthropology in particular, have come to understand that this decision had serious consequences in that it allowed racism to continue to sit below the surface and blossom uninterrogated.

If we recognize that ethnicity was a term developed in the 20th century and was, essentially, taken up as a substitute for ‘race’ after 1950, and that many scholars have done so as a way (intentionally or not) to avoid the unpleasantness of addressing contemporary race issues, should we actually just talk about 'race' and not 'ethnicity' as a more authentic and less ‘political’ and ‘colorblind’ concept?

This is, in fact, was Denise McCoskey’s decision in her book Race: Antiquity and its Legacy as a way to try to force the issue. BUT race and ethnicity are not actually interchangeable. If race means talking about systems of oppression based on variously constructed packages of human difference in different contexts, then we still need a word to talk about the cultures and societies of various peoples in particular geographic contexts in antiquity. Especially when those groups are structured around descent (real or imaginary, as Jonathan Hall articulates it).

This is what makes that Old Herodotus passage (8.144) so appealing for those of us who want to talk about ethnicity in antiquity!
Athenians: “It was quite natural for the Spartans to fear we would come to an agreement with the barbarian. Nevertheless, we think it disgraceful that you became so frightened, since you are well aware of the Athenians’ disposition, namely, that there is no amount of gold anywhere on earth so great, nor any country that surpasses others so much in beauty and fertility, that we would accept it as a reward for medizing and enslaving Hellas. [2] It would not be fitting for the Athenians to prove traitors to the Greeks with whom we are united in sharing the same kinship and language, together with whom we have established shrines and conduct sacrifices to the gods, and with whom we also share the same mode of life.”
Here is what I had to say about this passage from the entry on "Ethnicity" in the Herodotus Encyclopedia (forthcoming; edited by Christopher Baron with Wiley-Blackwell)--see this previous post for my frustration with Herodotus on this front:
"Herodotus’ network, therefore, seems to embrace linguistic, cultural, political, and descent elements. At Hdt. 8.144.2-3, his Athenians express their relationship to their fellow Greeks as rooted in shared descent (homaimos), language, religious practice, and cultural ethos. Thomas (2000) sees this list of characteristics defining ‘Greekness’ (and thus ethnicity) as ambiguous and unreflective of the reality embedded within the Histories themselves of any shared sense of Greek ethnicity. Munson (2014) emphasizes the privileging of custom given the shared kinship evident throughout the Histories of distinctive groups. If we view these elements as part of a network, however, we need not view the absence or elevation of any of single element at a given moment as defining an absolute Herodotean concept of ethnicity."
"The list Herodotus’ Athenians provides us, then, at 8.144 in this key moment in his histories of what group identities entail may be the most explicit definition of ethnicity, but a specifically Athenian one as there are numerous stories throughout the text that express variations on what constitutes group identity and how these identities are formed and maintained. Herodotus’ history offers various ways to construct identities that recognize differences between ethnic groups even as they share some commonalities--ethnicity as contingent identity shaped according to changing needs and contexts (Hall 1997; Demetriou 2012). Herodotus also allows for the multiplicity of identities that any group or individual has--ones ethnic identity could include an ethnos, a genos, a phylla, and a polis depending on the circumstance and need. Ethnicity for Herodotus, as for modern scholars, “is a concept with blurred edges” (Wittgenstein §71)."

A recent discussion of ethnicity in antiquity is Erich Gruen’s 2013 article “Did Ancient Identity Depend on Ethnicity? A Preliminary Probe” (Phoenix 67: 1-22). There he attempts to argue that the ancient world did not really have any concept of ethnicity as we understand it. It is an interesting take, mostly because Gruen rejects decades of scholarship on ethnicity and even the originating definition of ethnicity by its coiner, Weber, to define ethnicity exclusively as shared lineage—the one thing Weber said when he coined the term was NOT necessary unless it was integral to the cultural character and self-definition of the people. Gruen goes on to say that ethnicity is, for him the equivalent of ‘race’. Of course, defining ‘race’ as ‘shared descent’ is itself a problem, i.e. as my undergraduate students pointed out last years when I asked to read the article, “Gruen doesn’t know what race is” and, as his bibliography shows, he doesn’t seem interested in learning.

Most other scholarship understands ethnicity closer to its roots and closer to the definition Herodotus has his Athenians provide—as a people linked through shared customs who may or may not share descent (real or imaginary). And ethnicity is, as a result, mutable and flexible. This makes ethnicity a concept with clear relevance and use value for the study of antiquity, as it allows us to look both at peoples as they self-defined and as they defined others through customs and helps us make sense of the hundreds of texts and images from antiquity (from the Mediterranean to Egypt and China and India) that describe and discuss the practices of those they considered ‘other’. There has been a tendency in recent history to conflate ethnicity with the nation-state, but this is a mis-approximation and one that has failed both for antiquity and the modern world.

Ethnicity gives us a language and structure to think about the facts of human self-grouping and sorting and the recognition of others doing the same thing. We should not throw the term out despite its political origins, but we should not pretend it can serve to cover the territory that ‘race’ is needed to do either--i.e. institutionalized segregations for the sake of oppression based on moving signifiers of what counts as 'difference'. My suggestion is that we keep both and recognize that as with any terms we use to translate the ancient world, there will never be exact equivalences. We just need to be clear to define our terms.

The question remains--is there 'race' and 'ethnicity' in antiquity? Can we use these terms to talk about identity formation by ancient peoples? What do we benefit or lose?

We need to acknowledge that for many in the ancient world, there may have been multiple functioning ethnicities or other identities--sometimes they were Greeks, sometimes Athenians, sometimes Ionians--and that this could change--just as Athenians had been, according to Herodotus, Pelasgians, until they changed to being Hellenes. Or how many people living within the Hellenized post-Alexander world or Roman empire could be functionally Persian, Greek, and Roman (for examples) at the same time.

We can’t ever assume that because a language doesn’t have a term for a concept that their aren’t places where that concept is functional. What we now call ‘race’ in common practice (i.e. in our census), is not what ‘race’ actually is in practice--it is a manifestation of a process that seems to occur transhistorically and transculturally as a way for dealing with the anxieties and fears that seem to accompany encounters with difference. We should expect to find ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’--our current terms for this process--in other places and times and in trying to understand how it functions in antiquity, we can, hopefully, understand better how it impacts us now.

We are long past a time (centuries, in fact) when we can pretend that any choice we make in these debates is not political. Our best hope is to try to be as accurate as we can and use carefully defined language that does the least injustice to those who have lived under the weight of prejudice and racist hate in the modern world while also trying to build the most accurate view of the ancient past.

[1] I've written about this in my book Immigrant Women in Athens and Susan Lape lays out some of the dynamics as well in her 2010 book Race and Citizen Identity in the Classical Athenian Democracy. You can also read some previous discussions of this system here and here at Eidolon with links to ancient sources, etc. 

On the History of 'Western Civilization', Part 1

This picture is used on a lot of sites and stories about 'western civ'
NOTE: here is a link to some recent updates from my research (these are discussions cut from a forthcoming article). 

In a recent tweet thread, I brought together a small number of the early 20th century sources on the concept of 'western civilization'. These sources are some of the earliest--the term doesn't appear as far as I and other scholars have been able to discern, before the 1840s. This is, of course, interesting given how many people who are wedded to the idea of 'western civ' and the classics as its foundation present it as a natural and somewhat 'eternal' identity for Europe and European colonized places, like the US, Canada, and Australia (especially when it gets pushed back to Mesopotamia and Egypt!). As we have heard others state, 'western civ' is a construct. Well, yes. Of course it is. All identities are constructs. Saying it is a construct gets us to point A on the map. In the next few posts, I'd like to get us to points B and C.

What matters is to recognize that neither it nor others are 'natural', that there is no biological claim to any culture(s) based on this constructed identity, and--most importantly--it is necessary to understand how and why it was constructed. This is important especially given that there are people in our world who are willing to kill in the name of 'saving' 'western civilization' from 'white genocide'.

'Western Civ' is, to borrow a term from Benedict Anderson, an 'imagined community'. It is a concept that binds together individuals on three continents who share in 1. settler-colonialism, 2. Christianity (preferably protestant), and 3. whiteness.  These things combined form the foundation of a 'western' identity that claims to have its roots in antiquity, but really only has its roots in the last few centuries. The concept of 'western civ' itself doesn't emerge until the late 19th century. And when it does, it is explicitly white supremacist. As I will show below, this was the point and no one was trying to hide it.

This 'western' identity is, as are all imagined communities according to Anderson, a form of nationalistic identity (a 'white nationalist' identity, as we will see) and created through media-- [great] books and works of art and architecture that allow the people so constituted within the identity to project that identity back into antiquity and forge a linear (imagined) line of descent that is grounded in the equally imaginary foundation myth--sometimes rooted in ancient Mesopotamia, but more frequently in the cultures of ancient Hellas and Rome. By imagining their roots in these ancient societies, they create a bridge between themselves and those peoples through appropriations and receptions of these cultures.

It is because this identity is imaginary, I believe, that people cling to it so fiercely. Without it, there really is nothing that binds together northern Europeans, North Americans, and Australians and New Zealanders of European descent except that the latter are former settler-colonies of the first and a belief in the inherent superiority of ourselves over indigenous peoples. But before we get there (which will be a different post), we need to make sure we understand the nature of the term itself, how it came to be, what the construct contains, and a bit about why it formed. We can then as a community consider more seriously how classics became yoked to the concept and whether we still want to let our discipline be used for promoting ideas of white supremacism (which is NOT just extreme manifestations of racism).

An important point to emphasize: one can have histories of antiquity, of Europe, of the US, without recourse to the imaginary identity of 'western civilization'. There are more programs in the US today (classics and history) that don't use the term 'western civilization' than do and still teach the histories of these regions and people. And the histories are still fascinating. What removing the language of western civilization does is allows these histories to exist more so on their own terms than tied to an artificial justification of white superiority. It also exposes the reality that modern white Americans (among others) are no more or no less the heirs of the ancient Greeks than they are the heirs of ancient China. There are no trajectories prior to the emergence of the western civ narrative in the 19th century that give us priority ownership over the ancient peoples of any place. And we should not need to ground our identity in these myths in order to exist and be healthy and happy.

In this post, I will provide an outline of the development of the concept prior to World War II only. Part of my reconstruction is based upon research of early uses. I also draw from Alastair Bonnett's The Idea of the West (2004). The next post will take up the Cold War reconfiguration (NOTE: who are we kidding. I have yet to get around to this. However, you can read Weller, R. Charles.“’Western’ and ‘White Civilization’: White Nationalism and Eurocentrism at the Crossroads.” In R.C. Weller (ed.) 21st-Century Narratives of World History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 35-80). I will also only deal here with its meaning among Anglophone groups.


Let's start with a Google ngram. It isn't a definitive statement on the uses of the term, but it does accurately represent the trends visible with deeper research. I've made it case insensitive so we can get different norms in capitalization. Below, I'll fill in the details with representative samples, but I think the spike between roughly 1940-1965 tell us what we would expect--the term is strongly associated with the Cold War and Civil Rights movement (with a small spike during the Culture and Canon Wars), though its initial rise is clearly linked, as we shall see, with the development of scientific racism. 

If I was a big data person looking to score a publication in a top journal, I'd stop here, but I'm a historian, so let's dig into some specific examples.

1840s-1880s: The earliest use of the term 'Western Civilization' I've been able to find is from 1844 in the annual report of the Society for the Promotion of Collegiate and Theological Education.  The term does NOT refer to some anglo-european culture rooted in antiquity. It refers to the world of the American frontier--at risk for falling into barbarism if Christianity cannot be injected into it through newly established 'western' colleges (like Beloit and Wittenburg--my home university isn't mentioned here but it was established at the same time by Baptists, so maybe?):

Although this is NOT our contemporary meaning of 'western civ', the idea that "A Civilization without Christianity" is defective sticks into future uses. This use of the term 'civilization' here is what Maximus Planudes has referred to as 'civilization 1.0' in the previous post on this blog. Civ 1.0 can only appear in the singular and is in opposition to barbarism and savagery. It is explicitly linked to progress or evolution. You can move up on the ladder of civilization and those with a higher level of civilization are, of course, superior. This idea of 'civilization' may be 1.0, but it remains popular throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The idea of 'western', however, doesn't yet have the vague reference point of anglophone former settler colonies from northern Europe (mostly England). In this 1844 usage, it refers to the direction from the vantage point of the original US states on the Atlantic coast. 

When do we see the shift in the use of 'western' to refer not to an internal continental direction, but to an idea? An 1846 review of fine literature discussing Paget's Hungary and Transylvania uses the geographic 'west' that we are familiar with from the division between western and eastern Europe that dates back to Diocletian. Hungary, here, is the 'connecting link' between east and west, 'like Poland'. This paragraph--the only one that uses the phrase 'western civilization'--is of potential interest for us:

The text goes on and you can see here that 'west' means western Europe, while 'east' means across the Danube. Civilization is also still in its 1.0 guise:

BUT! As the paragraph continues, we see some of the outlines of what will become the future values attached to 'western civ': freedom and against (not yet called 'eastern') barbarism and despotism. 

This 1863 book on Poland and western civ gets us into what will become some of the most important aspects of the Cold War narrative (seems early, I know!). The author, H. Forbes is most likely a Scotsman who participated in the 1848 revolution with Garabaldi in Italy and in Sicily again in 1859. In between, he journeyed to the US as an emigre and hired himself out as a soldier of fortune during the Civil War (see Ch 2 of Lause 2011 A Secret Society History of the Civil War, though this article from 1859 connecting him to Harper's Ferry is revealing--he's kind of the one who told everyone about John Brown's plans). Russia and the Czars are the 'eastern other', the destroyers of civilization. Mr. Forbes here is calling for British support of Poland as a firewall against Czarist autocracy and manifest destiny moving further into western Europe:

Czarist Russia is the destroyer of constitutions, the Czar is the 'Autocrat' or the 'Emperor Demagog'. His goal is to foment 'discord, hatred, and bloodshed.' We see 'western civilization' taking shape--it is 'free', 'constitutional', and Christian--but the right kind of Christian; at one point, Mr. Forbes says "yes, I know the Poles are Catholics, but at least they aren't Orthodox!" The centering of Poland in a discourse of 'western civ' shouldn't surprise us either. It will happen again and again.  

Also, importantly, this idea of 'western civilization' in this particular book and later, is explicitly connected to nationalism (the 'present struggle' being the January Uprising):

So, by the mid-1860s, we see the links forging--'western', at least in Anglo-European authors, is connected to western Europe (not the US frontier, as continues into the 1880s in US authors), to superior culture (in opposition to savagery and barbarism, with Christianity as a key element of civilization), about constitutionalism and 'freedom' (in opposition to autocracy and despotism), and it is linked to the idea of the nation-state and national sovereignty. 

What we don't see here are direct appeals to the Greco-Roman past as foundation (though I imagine Forbes' work on Garibaldi may have had some ancient Rome references). We do see in our example discussing Hungary the clear influence of a classical education on the author, of course. I will need to look at Johanna Hanink's The Classical Debt  again to see if we have 'western civ' in the mid 19th century discourse surrounding Greece and the Ottomans because I'm not seeing it in the texts I've found. 

What we also don't see is an explicit connection to whiteness, though the discourse of the American frontier is loaded, of course, with white supremacism as the civilization narrative for the 'west' is about cleansing it of 'savage' and 'barbarous' indigenous peoples and resettling it with properly Christian and 'civilized' white people.

Things change between 1890 and the 1930s. We can take it in chunks.

1890s-1900s: In this period, ‘western civ’ emerges both within discussions of how to deal with imperial possessions by the British, French, and US and it begins to take shape as an alternative to ‘white’ that 1. can encompass an identity beyond national boundaries, and 2. can hide the explicit racism and classism of ‘whiteness’. Alastair Bonnett is good on this material. I will just highlight some of it and contextualize the classical within it, because this is when we start seeing the connections that have yoked the Greco-Roman world and classics as a discipline to the narrative of 'western civ' as we understand it today.

This period of the 1880s-90s is of particular interest in terms of the development of “western civilization” in both the university and popular media with classics at its root. In the US, during this period, we see the move away from Greek and Latin requirements (Columbia University, for example, cut its Greek requirement and reduced the Latin one in 1897) and the appearance of new ‘practical’ programs like anthropology and the physical sciences. At the same time, this idea of a shared ‘white civilization’ that was ‘western’ and linked aggressively to the classical past was popularized through world’s fairs (the Chicago 1893 expo is a great example as is the 1904 St Louis fair ‘The Coronation of Civilization scheduled to coincide with the Olympics in St Louis also) and the development in the US of large public museums.

The entry gate to the 'Creation' exhibition on the Pike at the
1904 St. Louis World Expo.
In other words, as Classics was decentered at the university for science (which included anthropology), it became a vehicle for public dissemination of the same science in support of racism.

This change coincides in the US with the continued expansion of the US westward and the displacement of indigenous populations to ‘reservations’, those, of course, who were not killed as the army preceeded settlers west in battles like Little Big Horn (1876) and Crow Agency (1887). This was also the era of Reconstruction and the installation of Jim Crow and the nationalization of southern segregationism and the wars of US expansion into what had been Mexican territory in what is now the US southwest. It was the golden age of American imperialism and settler colonialism and the whitening of the North American continent. It is also when ‘whiteness’ began to expand beyond its Anglo-Saxon Protestant core and incorporated the French (French Catholics, in particular) and Irish--it would not be until the 1940s that Spaniards, Greeks, Italians, eastern Europeans, and Jews (after WW2) were granted this ‘honor’. It was as if the wounds of the Civil War were being healed by uniting the former white adversaries through their whiteness, a whiteness explicitly defined through the Classical as the root of their shared identity.

Here's an example of how 'western civ' appears in use from 1898: its sounds about like we expect it to sound--evolutionary, with this thing called 'western' as the culmination of millenia of progress (pg 7-9 from the introduction). The great ancient civilizations all get an appearance here, it seems--at least the ones claimed for 'whiteness':

Of course, as soon as 'western civilization' comes into existence, it is doomed (from 1907's aptly titled The Doom of Western Civilization by James Stanley Little). He does not mention Greece once, but refers to Rome, appropriately, since, of course, it is frivolous wealth and dedication to MONEY that will doom the West:

The 1901 "Propaganda of Civilization" by British Prime Minister JR MacDonald and delivered to the West London Ethical Society is one that Bonnett discusses quite a bit. I'll just post some shots. The issue of 'western civilization' is explicitly here mentioned in relation to governing the empire (with a hard dose of Christianity):

One final trend from this period I will note: we begin to see an obsession with the issue of white, i.e. 'western' birth rates and a yoking of a very deep misogyny to the need to perpetuate a pure white race. It is the stirrings of the US eugenics movement (the British had gotten an earlier start with good old Sir Francis Galton, who doesn't talk about 'western civ'). For example:

This 1907 gem in the American Journal of Sociology has lots of charts and serious concerns about the 'fecundity of the foreign-born element' (p2). But the bulk of the article seeks to explain why white people aren't having babies. Blame is set on class mobility, decay of religious values, and, of course, the ladies:

Now, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, because it's GOOD that the lower classes aren't having too many children and exploding the population, he says. There are benefits:

What are some of the 'disquieting effects'? I'll just give some fun quotations and we can move on:

1920s-1930s: The 1907 article above on birthrates which ended on such a racist high note seems to capture a trend for 'western civ' oriented writings We are still connected to debates about empire, but ‘western’ is also a new go-to term within the ‘white crisis’ literature emerging to deal with the various pressures of 1. fracturing of whiteness along class and religious lines and moves beyond the ‘Anglo-Saxon races’ to encompass Catholicism in addition to Protestantism, and 2. Continued fracturing of whiteness along national lines (and rankings of who is properly ‘white’).

The ‘Great Books’ programs at universities develop as a way to recenter classics despite reductions in the languages at universities--an elite discourse of whiteness separate from the ‘working class’ whites, a discipline to demonstrate elite status. But central to these developments, which Bonnett discusses at length, are the ‘white crisis’ authors, many of whom are part of the American Eugenics Movement which used classical sculpture as part of its demonstration of idealized whiteness. Here is one of the most well-known members of the movement,  Lothrop Stoddard, from The Revolt Against Civilization, 1922 (the less racist of his works):
“CIVILIZATION is the flowering of the human species. It is both a recent and a fragile thing. The first glimmerings of genuine civilization appeared only eight or ten thousand years ago. This may seem a long time. It does not seem so long when we remember that behind civilization's dawn lies a vast night of barbarism, of savagery, of bestiality, estimated at half a million years, since the ape-man shambled forth from the steaming murk of tropic forests, and, scowling and blinking, raised his eyes to the stars. Civilization is complex. It involves the existence of human communities characterized by political and social organization; dominating and utilizing natural forces; adapting themselves to the new man-made environment thereby created; possessing knowledge, refinement, arts, and sciences; and (last, but emphatically not least) composed of individuals capable of sustaining this elaborate complex and of handing it on to a capable posterity.”  
WHO IS LEFT OUT FROM CIVILIZATION? “Not all the branches of the human species attained the threshold of civilization. Some, indeed, never reached even the limits of savagery. Existing survivals of low-type savage man, such as the Bushmen of South Africa and the Australian "Black fellows," have vegetated for countless ages in primeval squalor and seem incapable of rising even to the level of barbarism, much less to that of civilization. It is fortunate for the future of mankind that most of these survivals from the remote past are to-day on the verge of extinction. Their persistence and possible incorporation into higher stocks would produce the most depressive and retrogressive results. Much more serious is the problem presented by those far more numerous stocks which, while transcending the plane of mere savagery, have stopped at some level of barbarism. Not only have these stocks never originated a civilization themselves, but they also seem constitutionally incapable of assimilating the civilization of others. Deceptive veneers of civilization may be acquired, but reversion to congenital barbarism ultimately takes place. To such barbarian stocks belong many of the peoples of Asia, the American Indians, and the African negroes.” 
 WHAT ABOUT OUR GREEKS & ROMANS? For the last eight or ten thousand years civilizations have been appearing all the way from Eastern Asia to Europe and North Africa. At first these civilizations were local—mere points of light in a vast night of barbarism and savagery. They were also isolated; the civilizations of Egypt, Chaldea, India, and China developing separately, with slight influence upon each other. But gradually civilizations spread, met, interacted, synthesized. Finally, in Europe, a great civilizing tide set in, first displaying itself in the "Classic" civilization of Greece and Rome, and persisting down to the "Western Civilization" of our own days.” 

Lothrop Stoddard, the author of these unpleasant quotations, was a Harvard trained historian, journalist, and prominent member of the mainstream American eugenics movement. He was well known enough to have been parodied in The Great Gatsby and to have served as a consultant for the Nazi high command.  And yet all of them, a part of the early adopters of the concept of ‘western civ’, use it in ways that are clearly meant to refer to a specific culture, a ‘west’, that is defined not by principles of ‘liberty’, ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’, but through race, religion, and power. He isn’t alone. I can give you a dozen more such texts from 1900 to the 1990s that do the same thing.

Three other developments on the 'western civ' front I want to make note of in this post before recognizing that the post really has gone on too long: 1. I have only found one 1906 article that refers to something called 'eastern civilization' that serves as a parallel for 'western civ' (Bryan, William Jennings. Letters to a Chinese official: being a Western view of Eastern civilization. Harper, 1906). Eastern civ = China and it is a response to an earlier article offering a Chinese view of 'western civ'. The opening paragraph is about as fragile as you might expect it to be:

2. "Western Civilization" is sometimes used as translation for the German term"Europäisierung". As in this example from 1936:

So, western civ just means in this case making something European, "Europeanization". That is about as clear as one can be connecting 'western civ' to imperialism, colonialism, and appropriation of the past.


Conclusion to Part 1 of this history of the term 'western civilization':  
The historical development of the 'western civ' narrative is bound up to imperialism and colonialism, white supremacism, classism and exceptionalism—a whole range of -isms that position ‘western civilization’ as a ‘white’, Christian, elite culture that is somehow still ‘universal’ and superior to all others. As Alastair Bonnett has argued (quite persuasively, I think): “The term ‘western’ remained and remains racially coded, burdened with the expectation that the world will never be ‘free’, ‘open’ and ‘democratic’ until it is Europeanized” (The Idea of the West34).

It is a narrative premised on a world divided into ‘cultural’ (but really ‘racial’) groups that, as most famously formulated by Sam Huntington, clash and must be ranked against each other--Amartya Sen has said it well, I think: “Theories of civilizational clash have often provided allegedly sophisticated foundations of crude and coarse popular belief. Cultivated theory can bolster uncomplicated bigotry.” (A. Sen, Identity and Violence, 44). I think he has a point. But that's for the next post, because this one has already gotten too long.