Ancient familiarity with Africa

Modern television shows set in ancient Greece and Rome will probably give viewers the impression that blacks existed only as part of the slave class, like in Antebellum America. But when it comes to racism in the classical period, scholarly debate varies anywhere from denying it existed at all to claiming it was strong enough to last well into the 18th and 19th century. Of these, the former position is possibly best supported by evidence, and is best argued by scholar Frank Snowden in his ubiquitous books Blacks in Antiquity (1970) and Before Color Prejudice (1983).

african king shaking hands with greek diplomat in style of painting
AI-generated image with prompt “african king shaking hands with greek diplomat in style of painting”

It is common thought that modern day racism is based on or influenced by negative assumptions that, through generations of time, leave a lasting mark. However, such assumptions can be combated by familiarity and experience with minority groups— like the Ethiopians in the case of the Greeks and Romans. In fact, the Greeks and Romans were so familiar with the Ethiopians that they were, according to Snowden, “the yardstick by which antiquity measured colored peoples.” Although Snowden qualifies this statement by pointing out the semantic ambiguity involving the term “Ethiopian,” it is showcased that since the term is used to compare skin colors— even outside of Africa, like with Indians— the ancients were able to distinguish the different ethnic groups and associated skin colors within Africa.

There is other evidence besides the linguistic. The Greeks and Romans also kept detailed records of their anthropological observations of the Ethiopian. The physical characteristics the Greeks and Romans kept detail of included skin color, lips, nose and hair types, cicatrices on the forehead, prognathism, and even bowlegs. Snowden also mentions that the “Negroid race” includes the tallest and smallest groupings of peoples, both of which the Greeks and Romans were acquainted with as they had fought in wars and were showcased frequently in art. In fact, their art provides perhaps a more complete description of their understanding of Africans, as it shows us visually (and therefore most directly) what they thought of blackness.

Perhaps most important, though, is that the sentiments expressed in these Greek and Roman writings were those of respect, and occasionally admiration. For example, the Greek explorer Scylax described Ethiopians as “the tallest and most handsome of men.” Additionally, as pointed out by Evin Demirel in his honors thesis: “One way in which praise for the black somatic type was expressed was through amatory poetry. Examples include Asclepiades… Ovid… [and finally] Martial.” This evidence, both the textual and archaeological, makes a strong case for the no color prejudice theory of the ancients.

It is therefore revealed through linguistic, textual and archaeological examination that the Greeks and Romans held respect for the Ethiopians, specifically. They held extensive knowledge of the anthropological characteristics of the Ethiopian, though their knowledge extends outside of Ethiopia. This makes sense as they had a lot of history and experience with Africans personally, through warfare and through trade. This is in contrast to the common misconception of prevalent racism in the ancient world.


Boyle, Kevin. Dimensions of Racism: Proceedings of a Workshop to Commemorate the End of the United Nations Third Decade to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination, Paris, 19-20 February 2003. New York: UN, 2005.

Demirel, Evin. Roman Depiction of the Aethiops Type in Literature and Artwork. Master’s thesis, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, 2005. University of Arkansas Undergraduate Research Journal.

Snowden, Frank M. Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 1995.





2 responses to “Ancient familiarity with Africa”

  1. Elizabeth Avatar

    Love this! It would be cool to add illustrations too.

    1. ensemblelearner Avatar

      Thanks for the suggestion! I updated the page with an illustration and a few links.

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