Rome: a “white colonial occupation”?

[Updated April 27]

On  April 15, Holy Saturday, the Twitter hashtag of the day was “WhatWouldMillenialJesusDo.” The results were interesting; much of it forgettable, much of it clever (cleverness and forgettable-ness go together on Twitter), some of it worth thinking about. Among the tweets was this one, which caught my attention:

I don’t know who Anthony Oliveira is, aside from what his Twitter bio tells me, though the name is vaguely familiar; but he has thousands of followers and seems to be one of those academic celebrity Twitter types. The subsequent thread, which you can read if you wish to lose time you’ll never get back, is a mixture of people saying “The Jews did it!” and Oliveira going on about Pilate (not all incorrectly, though Kevin Williamson’s Easter column is better), at one point telling one of his trolls “I invite you to read a book.”

I retweeted him, since the core point is a good one. Had Jesus of Nazareth appeared today, He most likely would have appeared in one of the countries of the (de)colonized second or third world and would have fallen afoul of the power structures there in ways that most Americans wouldn’t recognize as deserving reverence, let alone worship. It’s a thought experiment that helps remind us of the geographic origins of the Christian religion, and also reminds us why, as St. Paul says, it was “to the Greeks foolishness”–it was not “of” Europa. Or, as Peter Frankopan has more recently pointed out, Rome looked east for everything from silk to religion. [1] Put simply, Jesus wasn’t “white.”

But, and this is a crucial point, neither were the Romans. At least not in any way that makes sense if you are trying to use the past as a sound platform for drawing conclusions about the present (unless you’re saying the old racist articles from the AHR in 1916 or Hereditas in 1921) are, well, based on sound historical observation). And yet Oliveira, by using this one word, transformed his tweet into a perniciously wrong historical argument in front of a large audience. The Roman Empire absolutely functioned as a colonial occupation, and they absolutely had ideas about race and ethnicity that put themselves on the top of the heap, but–notwithstanding the generations of white British actors who’ve portrayed them on screen, and notwithstanding the white sculptures that greet us in museums, as Sarah Bond writes–they were not “white.” [2] They did not “racialize” themselves in the way we do today, they did not write of themselves or others that way, nor did others write so of them, and, perhaps most importantly, they did not behave toward other peoples in ways that constituted “performative whiteness.” Were they (somewhat) pale-skinned? Sure–but so were many of the peoples whom they colonized, exploited, oppressed, and exterminated, far worse, I may add, than what happened to the Jews until Bar Kochba’s revolt in 132 AD. [3]

Dacian heads on pikes while Romans build camp, on Trajan’s Column, 113 AD.

Why go after this one word? For two reasons. One, using it in that context and in that moment, as Oliveira did, is to deploy the entire range of modern racial, post-colonial, postmodern discourse in a way that is inaccurate, and that falls into the trap too many of Foucault’s devotees fall into, that of thinking the past is nothing but memory, and that we must semantically and semiotically collapse the epistemological distinction between memory and event. Historians, being a “realistic” lot on the whole, have generally processed this wave of theory and moved past it; as Gaddis said, just because a map is a representation doesn’t mean the breakers aren’t real. A lot of the most interesting recent historical work takes as its starting point the uneasy balance in The Force of history–wie es eigentlich gewesen and wie es sich ins Gedächtnis gerufen. 

And two, in deploying the heuristics of post-colonialism, it asserts what progressive ideologues too often assert, that precision and care in discussing the past is irrelevant to the present’s concerns –it doesn’t matter whether the Romans were  a “white colonial occupation” so long as, by describing them as such, people are prompted to meditate on current “white colonial occupations.” The phrase therefore ipso facto asserts a false hegemony over not only what is, but what was, and dares those who read it to keep silent or risk slings and arrows.

Nevertheless, a good historian should, in my book, anger both left and right by constantly reminding ideologues that, like Facebook relationships, “it’s complicated.” In fact, I am more than ever convinced that historians are Academia’s trolls, because we insist on epistemological distinctions and, quite often, we just can’t help but speak. So, here are some points on the nature of race and identity in the Roman world to consider.

The first point to make is that the most recent survey of Roman attitudes toward race and ethnicity, Benjamin Isaac’s massive 2006 study The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity, begins by acknowledging that Roman perceptions do not line up with ours very well.  A formidable work of scholarship, Isaac’s study is of the formation of racial prejudice as such, irrespective of skin color. The bulk of the work lays out Greek and Roman attitudes toward different peoples, grouped geographically–Egyptians, Persians, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Germans, Jews, etc.–but notably, as several reviewers have mentioned, no chapter on Africa. Indeed, Isaac explicitly concedes at the start that Roman racism contained few direct parallels to 19th and 20th century racism.  This isn’t to say that Greek and Roman authors didn’t talk of Africa outside of Egypt and Numidia–Rebecca F. Kennedy et. al. ‘s 2013 Race and Ethnicity in the Classical World: An Anthology of Primary Sources in Translation is an outstanding collection that includes sources discussing various parts of Africa. But rather, their discussions didn’t betray the attitudes Isaac was looking for–or at least he felt they didn’t, which isn’t the same thing (Frank M. Snowden’s 1991 study Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks basically came to the same conclusion). Certainly the Romans, as did most civilized (civitas–city) peoples, regarded those without cities, temple bureaucracies, and civilized clothing as inferior. Brent Shaw, in his perceptive review of Isaac’s tome, suggests that Isaac accepts too readily the American model of racism (based on appearance and skin color), when in reality the Greeks and the Romans demonstrate that racism can exist outside of that paradigm, and be incoherent at the same time.

Ptolemy, Tabula Prima Aphricae, from Johann Schott’s edition

By way of example, the Augustan-era historian Diodorus Siculus’ description of Ethiopia (3:1-10) bears many of the same admiring hallmarks of Herodotus’ or even Homer’s descriptions centuries earlier; and yet, he clearly differentiates between the kingdoms of Meroe, and those Ethiopians not touched by the “civilizing process” (Book 3, chapters 2 and 8):

Now the Ethiopians, as historians relate, were the first of all men and the proofs of this statement, they say, are manifest. For that they did not come into their land as immigrants from abroad but were p91natives of it and so justly bear the name of “autochthones1 is, they maintain, conceded by practically all men; furthermore, that those who dwell beneath the noon-day sun were, in all likelihood, the first to be generated by the earth, is clear to all; since, inasmuch as it was the warmth of the sun which, at the generation of the universe, dried up the earth when it was still wet and impregnated it with life,2 it is reasonable to suppose that the region which was nearest the sun was the first to bring forth living creatures. 2 And they say that they were the first to be taught to honour the gods and to hold sacrifices and processions and festivals and the other rites by which men honour the deity; and that in consequence their piety has been published abroad among all men, and it is generally held that the sacrifices practised among the Ethiopians are those which are the most pleasing to heaven.

Further on, however, are the “other” Ethiopians, whose skin color is held by Diodorus as marker of difference:

But there are also a great many other tribes of the Ethiopians, some of them dwelling in the land lying on both banks of the Nile and on the islands in p105 the river, others inhabiting the neighbouring country of Arabia,12 and still others residing in the interior of Libya.  The majority of them, and especially those who dwell along the river, are black in colour and have flat noses and woolly hair. As for their spirit they are entirely savage and display the nature of a wild beast, not so much, however, in their temper as in their ways of living; for they are squalid all over their bodies, they keep their nails very long like the wild beasts, and are as far removed as possible from human kindness to one another; 3 and speaking as they do with a shrill voice and cultivating none of the practices of civilized life as these are found among the rest of mankind, they present a striking contrast when considered in the light of our own customs.

Strabo, another early imperial writer, speaks only slightly differently than Diodorus, and subscribes whole-heartedly to what Isaac terms the “environmental” racial theory that Christian and Islamic civilizations would adopt (Book 17:3 and 18:1) It is noteworthy that his dismissive account of Ethiopia encompasses the kingdom of Meroe:

indeed the Aethiopians lead for the most part a nomadic and resourceless life, on account of the barrenness of the country and of the unseasonableness of its climate and of its remoteness from us, whereas with the Aegyptians the contrary is the case in all these respects; for from the outset they have led a civic and cultivated life and have been settled in well-known regions, so that their organisations are a matter of comment. And they are commended in that they are thought to have used worthily the good fortune of their country, having divided it well and having taken good care of it….

In the earlier parts of my work I have already said many things about the Aethiopian 253 tribes, so that the description of their country may be said to be included with that of Aegypt. In general, the extremities of the inhabited world, which lies alongside the part of the earth that is not temperate and habitable, because of heat or cold, must needs be defective and inferior to the temperate part; p143 and this is clear from the modes of life of the inhabitants and from their lack of human necessities. They indeed live a hard life, go almost naked, and are nomads; and their domestic animals — sheep, goats, and cattle — are small; and their dogs are small though rough…

Compared to this, Roman attitudes toward the Germans varied slightly more. Strabo says that his description of  the Celti worked for the Germani as well, a description which accorded some slight praise to their customs, dress, and weapons. Yet the Celts and Germans were “war mad” and “fighters by nature.” Of the Celts, however, there was little danger, since they had been enslaved:

At the present time they are all at peace, since they have been enslaved and are living in accordance with the commands of the Romans who captured them, but it is from the early p239 times that I am taking this account of them, and also from the customs that hold fast to this day among the Germans.

When we turn to authors like Valleius Paterculus, however,  (also an early imperial writer) his description of “the Germans” invokes the trope of sub-humanity for his readers. This belief in “Germans” as subhuman, which Valleius doesn’t precisely refute, is given as the reason Varus lost the legions in 9 AD (Book 2, 117-118):

When placed in charge of the army in Germany, he entertained the notion that the Germans were a people who were men only in limbs and voice, and that they, who could not be subdued by the sword, could be soothed by the law. 4 With this purpose in mind he entered the heart of Germany as though he were going among a people enjoying the blessings of peace, and sitting on his tribunal he wasted the time of a summer campaign in holding court and observing the proper details of legal procedure….But the Germans, who with their great ferocity combine great craft, to an extent scarcely credible to one who has had no experience with them, and are a race to lying born, by trumping up a series of fictitious lawsuits, now provoking one another to disputes, and now expressing their gratitude that Roman justice was settling these disputes, that their own barbarous nature was being softened down by this new and hitherto unknown method, and that quarrels which were usually settled by arms were now being ended by law, brought Quintilius to such a complete degree of negligence, that he came to look upon himself as a city praetor administering justice in the forum, and not a general in command of an army in the heart of Germany.

(It is worth pointing out that this image of Germans, possessed of animal cunning and beastly, yet calculating, fury, had a long shelf life–it became the furor Teutonicus of the twelfth century, which I presented on at Leeds in 2014).

When it comes to the subject of slavery, the Romans weighed skin color in ways that also don’t mesh well with our views, so completely shaped as they are by TransAtlantic Slavery. Sandra Joshel, emeritus professor at the University of Washington, writes on BlackPast.Org that

To use modern terms, the Romans were “equal opportunity” enslavers: they did not limit their enslavements to one people, place, or, in our terms, race.  From the late third century BCE through the early third century CE, as the Romans conquered the Mediterranean basin, the Balkans, much of the modern Middle East, Europe west of the Rhine River, they often enslaved at least some of their defeated enemies.  Although the numbers given in ancient sources are notoriously unreliable, a few examples indicate the scale of capture and enslavement.  In 177 BCE, during his campaign in Sardinia, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus killed or enslaved 80,000 of the island’s inhabitants.  In 167 BCE the Roman senate granted the victorious Roman general in Greece the right to sack seventy cities on the west coast of Greece: 150,000 persons were enslaved.

And yet,

If all differences of ethnicity and origin were reduced to the category of defeated captive in the crucible of conquest, sale in the marketplace reinscribed natio not as a social, ethnic, or racial identity but as a set of personal characteristics….The slave’s place of origin interested buyers as an index of character and behavior.  Imagine, for example, the author and writer of the late first century BCE, Marcus Terentius Varro, at the slave market near the Temple of Castor in Rome.  His manual on agriculture includes advice on the kinds of slaves fit for different tasks on the farm and suggest the standards that he, or a reader following his advice, applied in the slave market.  He would pay close attention to origin in his selecting slaves.

Of course, it’s also worth noting that the peoples Varro would be choosing as slaves likely had no ethnic resemblance to today’s populations. For example, the populations of North Africa and the Sahara seem to been remarkably stable in ethnic composition until the Arab conquests. Such, at least, is the conclusion of Richard L. Smith, and his observations remind us that Romans’ fragmentary observations on race and ethnicity are especially difficult to map on any current population. [4]

If we fast-forward into the early Middle Ages and examine the Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, we will see these themes of environmental racial determinism fully absorbed by these late/post/neo-Roman societies. Gaul, Isidore writes, “is so called from the whiteness of its people, for milk is called γαλα in Greek. The mountains and the chilliness of the sky keep the heat of the sun from this region, so that the whiteness of bodies does not darken in color.” [5] When he arrives at Libya, he mentions one explanation for the name “Africa” as again due to exposure to the sun: “Further, there are those who think that Africa (Africa) is named as though the word were aprica (“exposed to the sun”), because it is open to the sky and the sun and without bitter cold.” On Libya’s southern border “are Ethiopia and various barbarian nations and inaccessible wilderness, which also brings forth basilisk serpents.” [6] In 5:9, the nomadic nature of Numidians, their lack of cities and towns, is their distinguishing feature: “Numidia is so called after inhabitants that wander about far and wide because they do not have a fixed abode. For in their language temporary and mobile settlements are called numidia.”

It is when Isidore reaches Mauretania and Ethiopia that our ears prick up, so to speak, for the inhabitants of this region are dark in appearance:

Mauretania is so called after the color of the inhabitants; for the Greeks call ‘black’ μαυροσ. Just as the name for Gaul is derived from the whiteness of its inhabitants, so also the name for Mauretania from blackness. Its principal province is Mauretania Sitifensis, which contained the town of Sitifi, from which the name for the region is thought to be derived….

Ethiopia is so called after the color of its inhabitants, who are scorched by the proximity of the sun (cf. αιφειν, “burn”; ωψ, gen. ωποσ, “face”). Indeed, the coloring of the people demonstrates the force of the sun, for it is always hot there, because all of its territory is under the South Pole. Around the western part it is mountainous, sandy in the middle, and desert toward the east. It stretches from Mount Atlas in the west to the borders of Egypt in the east, bounded in the south by the Ocean and in the north by the river Nile. It has very many tribes, fearsome with their different faces and strange appearance. 15. It also teems with a multitude of wild beasts and serpents. There, indeed, the rhinoceros and the giraffe are found, the basilisk, and huge dragons from whose brains precious stones are extracted. There one finds the hyacinth stone as well as the chrysoprase, and cinnamon is gathered there. 16. There are two Ethiopias: one to the east, another to the west, in Mauretania. 17. Apart from these three parts of the world there exists a fourth part, beyond the Ocean, further inland toward the south, which is unknown to us because of the burning heat of the sun; within its borders are said to live the legendary Antipodes.  [7]

The similarities with Diodorus Siculus, centuries earlier, cannot be missed: Ethiopia as a liminal landscape, at once civilized and uncivilized, stands out. But so, of course, does the juxtaposition of the natural causes of skin color, mirrored in binary opposition with the “whiteness” of the Gauls (it is worth noting that Isidore makes no comment one way or the other on the skin color of his own Iberians, save to note that Gauls were “whiter”).  “People’s faces,” he writes in Book IX, “and coloring, the size of their bodies, and their various temperaments correspond to various climates. Hence we find that the Romans are serious, the Greeks easy-going, the Africans changeable, and the Gauls fierce in nature and rather sharp in wit, because the character of the climate makes them so.” [8]

Whether or not “racial formation” actually occurred in the Middle Ages, as some scholars like Geraldine Heng have argued (not altogether convincingly), or whether it occurred later as orthodoxy would have it (also not altogether convincingly), there are very few grounds for claiming the Romans as practicing “white colonial occupation.” [9]  Inasmuch as they thought of race at all when they were slaughtering their way to immortality, it was as an indicator of climate, and they passed their geographic knowledge, itself based on that of the Greeks, to the civilizations that succeeded them: the Romani of Constantinople, the Latins of the old Western Empire, and the Arabs of the new umma, all of whom knew a thing or two about colonial occupations. [10]

When we arrive at Ibn Khaldun’s monumental work, the Muqaddimah in 1377, we have reached an extension of Roman thinking that was but dimly prefigured in the 1st century AD:

To the south of this Nile, there is a Negro people called Lamlam. They are unbelievers. They brand themselves on the face and temples. The people of Ghanah and Takrur invade their country, capture them, and sell them to merchants who transport them to the Maghrib. There, they constitute the ordinary mass of slaves. Beyond them to the south, there is no civilization in the proper sense. There are only humans who are closer to dumb animals than to rational beings. They live in thickets and caves and eat herbs and unprepared grain. They frequently eat each other. They cannot be considered human beings. [11]

If you need the Romans to be “white” (or Cleopatra to be black or white, or the Barbarians to be…barbarians) in order to show some kind of historically continuous “white past,” that says a lot more about you than it does about the Romans. Progressive, alt-right, or just your average museum-goer amazed at all those white marble statues, the need for an “oppressive” or “glorious” “white past” is a dubious one, and doesn’t help achieve truly useful historical understanding.  “White colonial occupation”? If only it were that simple…


[1] Peter Frankopan, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World  (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), 26.

[2] For an interesting overview of Romans in Italian, British, and American cinema, see Carl J. Mora’s article in Film-Historia 1997.

[3] For a bibliography of scholarship on race in the ancient Mediterranean, see Michael Satlow’s 2014 syllabus from Brown University.

[4] Richard L. Smith, “What Happened to the Ancient Libyans? Chasing Sources across the Sahara from Herodotus to Ibn Khaldun,” Journal of World History 14:4 (Dec., 2003), 459-500.

[5] Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, ed. Barney et. al. (Cambridge UP, 2006), Bk. 14, ch. 4:25, p. 291.  For a handy Latin edition online, Bill Thayer’s on LacusCurtius is useful.

[6] Ibid., Bk 14, ch 5, p. 292.

[7] Ibid., Bk 14, ch 5: 10, 14-16

[8] Ibid., Bk 9, ch 2:105.

[9] Geraldine Heng, “The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages I: Race Studies, Modernity, and the Middle Ages,” Literature Compass 8/5 (2011), 258-275; and Heng, “Reinventing Race, Colonizations, and Globalisms across Deep Time: lessons from la longue durée,” in PMLA 130:2 (2015), 358-366. On much firmer, or at least less controversial ground, is Heng, “An African Saint in Medieval Europe: The Black St Maurice and the Enigma of Racial Sanctity,” in Sainthood and Race: Marked Flesh, Holy Flesh, ed. Vincent William Lloyd and Molly Harbour Bassett (Routledge: 2014), 18-44.

[10] See John O. Hunwick, “A Region of the Mind: Medieval Arab Views of African Geography and Ethnography and their Legacy,” Sudanic Africa 16 (2005), 103-136.  And also Edward Mason’s 2013 thesis on early Christian racial discourse, More than an ‘Immoderate Superstition’: Christian Identity in the First Three Centuries, from the University of Kentucky.

[11] Second Prefatory Discussion, pdf pages 101-102, The Muqaddimah.