Talking about Race and Ethnicity in Greco-Roman Antiquity

A couple of years ago, I gave a talk that was the seed of a book I am now in the process of finishing up discussing whether or not we can talk about the ideas of race and ethnicity outside of modern contexts. I posted the talk on the blog here and it seems to continue to be of interest to readers. There, I posited rethinking how we deploy those terms given that it has been the practice of those working in the discipline called "Classics" especially to just use them interchangeably, under the misconception that the terms are really just marking the same concepts. The result has been as one might expect -- from about the 1960 until 2010-ish, we only had scholarship on antiquity that talked about "ethnicity" and now, we are getting a lot of scholarship that is talking about ethnicity in Greco-Roman antiquity, but is calling it "race." We are also getting more studies that are talking about Blackness, Black people, or Africans in the ancient Mediterranean, as "race in antiquity". Very few scholars of antiquity are actually studying "race" as it is understood by sociologists, anthropologists, philosophers and legal scholars of race, some of which falls under the penumbra of Critical Race Theory™(OH NOES!).

My own work in this area has changed a lot over the last decade as I have engaged more and more deeply with both the theories and the histories of race and ethnicity in the modern world AND identity formation in Greco-Roman antiquity. Where I once followed the party line of using ethnicity and treating "race" as only a modern phenomenon, I now recognize that my mistake rested in thinking that "race" was actually a biological thing (even if I recognized it was an imaginary one) and so could only manifest in modernity. Simultaneously, in recognizing that "race" is really something quite different than its modern biological manifestation, I have also recognized that we can't simply use the words race and ethnicity interchangeably because they signify different relationships to identity. In other words, I have had to get serious about the research because these ideas are complex and just using the terms as we do in everyday life or as they are found in our Greek and Latin lexicons can be worse than not using them at all. 

The result of all of this research is that in order to write my current book (Ancient Identities/Modern Politics: Race and Ethnicity in Greco-Roman Antiquity, for Johns Hopkins University Press), I have had to develop a working vocabulary and clearly articulated definitions so as not to muddle the already muddied waters where race and antiquity and its modern receptions are involved.  As I have been giving talks around and about on the material from the book, I have found it is helpful for audiences to know how I am using these terms. Some of it I've already highlighted in my work on metics (a version of which is posted here), some of it will appear in a forthcoming article in Classical Outlook on teaching race and ethnicity in the Latin classroom, and some of it will appear in a forthcoming Classical Review review of he new Cambridge Greek Lexicon. But, I thought maybe it might be helpful to others to see these working definitions all together in one place. So, here they are.


Race: a technology or doctrine of population management that institutionalizes ethnic prejudice, oppression, and inequality based on imaginary and changeable signifiers for human difference, signifiers that manifest differently in different times and places (i.e. it is historically contingent and fluid). Race is, in many instances, a biologized type of class system. 

Biorace: One form of “race”; a fiction that certain visible physical characteristics and blood/biological descent among people are signs of moral and intellectual abilities and that people can be classified along the lines of these biological differences for explaining social, political, and economic inequalities. Common forms of biorace are skin color designations (somatic race) and genetic identities.

Ethnicity: a group identity shaped according to changing needs and contexts that most frequently reflects a form of self-grouping or identification of others based on a belief in shared characteristics that may include cultural practices, geography, and/or a notion of imagined shared descent or kinship. 

Racism: an ideology; the practice of a double standard that naturalizes the idea that human differences signify superiority or inferiority. These double standards enable and reinforce prejudice and justify oppression. 

Racecraft: "the practical, day to day actions that reproduce the imaginary, pervasive belief in natural distinctions between the groups." (Fields and Fields (2013) 18-19.

Race-making: the process by which communities define their in and out groups and develop justifications for and enforcement mechanism for maintaining these distinctions. Race-making institutionalizes ethnic and/or class prejudices along "natural" criteria.

White supremacism
: a specific racial ideology based on the assumption of superiority of a “White” race over other groups or of a “White” norm or neutral position from which everyone else diverges. It is not an extreme form of individual racism, but a structure; one can have White supremacism without overt racism. White supremacism describes a conceptual system (often concealed) that centers and supports a group called “White” against those excluded from the category. The category itself is historically contingent.

Race science: the actual categories and typologies still used in physical anthropology and population genetics. The science of categorizing people through biological or genetic expressions (phenotype). A form of racecraft for maintaining biorace as a way of categorizing peoples.

Scientific racism: racist ideas that dress themselves up in “science” to justify their claims, like the idea the IQ is linked to skin color or the idea that violence is correlated to bioracial categories.

Western: A term generally used to refer to Western and Central European countries and some of their colonial offspring (like the United States, Australia and New Zealand). Israel is also included frequently under the category, while Russia and eastern Europe frequently are not.

Western exceptionalism: The idea that countries included in the category of “western” have a distinctive destiny or historical trajectory that marks them as special and superior to those outside the group. Such “exceptionalism” is said to be rooted in specific values embraced by the west as foundational to their identity. "Western Civilization" is one packaging of western exceptionalism most frequently understood within a "clash of civilizations" model.

Classics: a specific packaging of the ancient Mediterranean world as an explicitly Greco-Roman world that developed beginning in the middle of the 18th century and became embedded within academic contexts. “Classics” came to be primarily identified with the ancient Greek and Latin languages in universities. “Classics” is not the content of antiquity, but a specific way of studying it and viewing it.

Some works informing these definitions and/or which are otherwise enlightening:

Appiah, A. 2019. The Lies That Bind. Liverlight. 

Bell, D. 2020 Dreamworlds of Race: Empire and the Utopian Destiny of Anglo-America (Princeton University Press).

Birney, E., Inouye, M., Raff, J., Rutherford, A. and Scally, A., 2021. “The language of race, ethnicity, and ancestry in human genetic research.” arXiv preprint arXiv:2106.10041.

Bonnett, A., 2016. “Whiteness and the West.” In New geographies of race and racism. (Routledge) 31-42.

Bonilla-Silva, E. 2018. Racism without Racists. 5th edition. Rowan and Littlefield. 

Fields, K. and B. Fields 2012 Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life. Verso.

Ifekwunigwe, J., J. Wagner, J-H. Yu, T. Harrell, M. Bamshad,and C. Royal. 2017. "A Qualitative Analysis of How Anthropologists Interpret the Race Construct" American Anthropologist 119: 422-434.

Mullings, L., J.B. Torres, A. Fuentes, C. Gravlee, D. Roberts, and Z. Thayer. 2021. "The Biology of Racism" American Antrhopologist 123: 671-680.

Sheth, F. Towards a Political Philosophy of Race. SUNY Press.