No racism in the classical world?

As far as I know, there was no racism in the classical world, in the modern sense of prejudice by skin color.

I originally wrote this as a reply in comments to a previous post, but the subject deserves its own spot. The absence of evidence cannot be taken for evidence of absence, but it is the case that there is zero evidence for racism, not in Greece, and not in Roman times either to my knowledge. This might seem hard to believe for a modern reader, but anyone who wants to claim racism existed would need to come up with some solid evidence.

The classical world did of course have slavery, and lots of it, but this can't be equated with racism since they didn't care what color your skin was, and many societies were perfectly happy to enslave their own people and ethnically identical neighbors.

Social stratification based on skin color is not known anywhere in the classical world. I think the historical record is probably complete enough that we can say it either didn't exist, or if it did, was a pathologically small sample far from the norm. If anyone knows of a counter-example, feel free to tell us in comments.

The caste system was probably being invented in India around this time, and that probably counts, but India is a long way from the Mediterranean and is not normally considered part of the western classical heritage.

Tribalism however is very evident. The major conflicts in the Greek world are split between the Dorian and Ionian super-tribes. The alliances in the Peloponnesian War are split along Dorian/Ionian lines. But these tribes are genetically identical.

Similarly the Greeks and Persians had a tendency to kill each other, but this was clearly geopolitics and in particular a huge divide between the two in system of government; individuals married across the cultures and a number of high profile Greeks medized. (Medized means adopted Persian culture). Greeks who medized were looked on in contempt by other Greeks. This was because the Greeks considered themselves culturally superior to everyone except the Egyptians, so a Greek who medized was rejecting his own culture.

Other than Greece/Persia, the other great neverending conflicts of the classical world were Rome/Carthage and Rome/Asia. The Rome/Asia conflict was essentially a continuation of the Greece/Persia wars: geopolitics and culture clash and because, frankly, fighting each other is what empires did to pass the time back in those days.

But there was genuine repugnance between Rome and Carthage, the only instance I can think of where emotional hatred was at the core of an ancient war. The Romans were horrified that Carthage practiced large scale child sacrifice. The Carthaginians loathed Roman dominance. The Mediterranean simply wasn't large enough for the two of them. It led to three Punic Wars, which Rome was lucky to eventually win, and they razed Carthage to the ground to ensure there were no mistakes about a fourth war. It's hard to see this as racism though because, although Carthage is in North Africa, it was a Phoenician colony.


Stephanie Thornton said...

Of course the Egyptians were superior to the Greeks. Everyone knows that! ;)

CKHB said...

Wow. Cool.

Gary Corby said...

You're right Stephanie, of course the Egyptians were superior. How could I deny it? :-)

I agree Carrie, I find this little factoid so very cool, and it rather raises the question then, when and why racism arose in the western world, because it must have been in historical times.

Amalia T. said...

I'm going to say something that might be considered controversial, and I promise I don't mean to be rude or insulting-- but consider, perhaps, from a purely historical standpoint, that the rise of racism could coincide with the rise of Christianity? The idea of the White Man's Burden, and that those who do not know the TRUTH, and aren't SAVED are lesser than those who are could have been a very serious contributing factor. God's Chosen people vs. God's unchosen?

I could be way off base, as my historical education was strongly centered around the Classics, not more modern history, but it seems like it makes a sad kind of sense.

Gary Corby said...

That's an interesting idea, Amalia, and yep, it's controversial. :-)

I've been wracking my brains, and the earliest instances of racism in western society I can think of are in mediaeval times: the mistreatment of Jews, which obviously has its roots in religious differences but morphed into general racial fear and hatred.

The other possible example I know of is Norman suppression of the Anglo-Saxons after 1066. I'm not sure if that's racism though or tribal politics. Persecution of the Welsh, which I'm sure was racist, didn't occur until later.

If anyone can name an earlier instance I'd be fascinated.

Robert said...

I haven't read the book, but this might be relevant:
The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity

It's got good reviews

Gary Corby said...

Thanks Robert. I'll have a look.

Amalia T. said...

The Jews were mistreated by Rome too, and later the Christians were blamed for a lot of things. Didn't Nero blame them for the burning of the city? But I'm not sure that was racist, exactly. I suppose that any religion of the state was always an excuse for oppression.

Where exactly is the line between tribal politics/disagreement and racism? Or political oppression and racism?

I suppose you could argue (if you were determined) that Rome was kind of racist against the Germanic tribes, what with the "Barbarian" stereotyping, and kind of making them second class citizens. But Barbarian, it's been my impression, was simply the term to describe ANY non-Roman entity, so maybe that isn't true either.

(I know this comment is super late, sorry!)

Gary Corby said...

The dividing line IMHO is prejudice or persecution based on skin color or some equivalent minor physical differentiation.

In which case persecution based on tribal politics wouldn't count because it would have happened irrespective of skin color.

Lee said...

First of all, you are quite correct when it comes to racism in the Classical European world-there wasn't any. Black people existed,obviously since there were comments on why the Ethiopians were dark in the legend of Phaethon. Greeks were often dark skinned too.

The problem of racism first came up with the rulers of Egypt and their enslavement of the Jews. Remember that they killed their young boys due to their fears that their population was growing dangerously large. This control was certainly racially tagged and motivated. The problem of the Jews comes up again in the story of Haman and his attacks these same people. We can argue all we like about the miracles of Exodus and such but the fact that the Jews are a distinct group with identifying DNA is accepted by just about everyone now. The fact that they were singled out and either lauded or hated is also a fact.

As for Christianity being the start of racism, as they say Down South, "That dog don't hunt" The Church did not care about color for a thousand years and beyond. Examine the fact that EVERY European country revered Black Madonna statues and icons. Now some people want to argue that a) these are all statues of Isis and Horus. But that would not explain how they got these statues all in places where the cults never existed, (such as Poland) or why the earlier icons of the same subject were also dark skinned and b) that these statues and icons were all black because the could darkened by smoke. That would mean that the churches cleaned everything on the statue but their faces and hands. Why? I used to be a sister in the Roman Catholic Church and I regularly cleaned the statues for Eastertide. I doubt if a young novice sister cleaning the high up statues and brass started with me. So that explanation doesn't hold water either.

The bottom line is that Black Madonnas were revered, Ethiopians like Prester John were turned into legends, and Saints like St. Maurice were lauded as Black as far north as Switzerland ( Color based racism came about to justify the economics of the modern slave trade. Black people were better able to work the fields than Caucasians. So they were bought, sold and snatched to be used like animals. How do you justify this? You simply start tagging black skin as cursed and Black people as being deserving of slavery. That is NOT Biblical. It is not anything in Christianity either East or West. It is simply what happens when greedy people want to excuse their greed for as Saint Paul says, "The love of money is the root of all evil." In other words, if there is not profit to be made by marking people and persecuting or exploiting them there would be no racism.

The same could be said of sexism. If there was not profit to be made by exploiting, persecuting or controlling women there would be no sexism either.

Gary Corby said...

Wow, Lee, that's very erudite. I'm impressed. Also that you're a former sister. So I take it that there were entry level jobs that everyone was happy to be done with?