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Prejudice of the Ancients: Humble Beginnings of Racism

This paper is a brief survey into the racial prejudices, or proto-racism, prevalent in the Greco-Roman Antiquity. I rely mostly on the excellent book The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity by Benjamin Isaac (2013). I also use some other sources, which are credited below, and my own experiences as a student of Latin and classical Antiquity.

My motivations for writing this text are twofold:

Firstly, I wish to demonstrate that racism as a phenomenon is socially constructed and therefore historically context specific. Although one might argue that bigotry and prejudice are ubiquitous, racism is always a product of historical processes. To understand its contemporary manifestations, one needs to study its origins and temporary developments.

Secondly, it is my intention to prove, relying on the framework provided by Isaac, that the history of racism is much longer than traditionally perceived. The 19th century indeed did see the rise of “scientific” racism based on social Darwinism, the roots of which lie in the Enlightenment thinkers of the previous century. Enlightenment thought, as we will soon discover, drew inspiration from a much earlier era.

On definitions of racism

In a paper that deals with racism, it is of course imperative to provide a definition for the concept. In such a short text as this I do not wish to delve too deeply into the various frameworks of defining racism. I remain content in relying on the wording provided by Benjamin Isaac, whose definition is by no means the only one available. It is, however, the one most suitable for analysing racism as a historical and premodern phenomenon, as it doesn’t include biological determinisms, which became a central feature of racism only during the 19th century. Isaac defines racism as follows: “An attitude towards individuals or groups of peoples which posits a direct and linear connection between physical and mental qualities.” He goes on to explain that the racist attitude assigns people collective, unchangeable traits, which are a result of hereditary inner or external factors, such as the climate of geography.[1] He emphasises the fact that racism of Antiquity is conceptually different from its contemporary variations, often referring to it as proto-racism.

The innocence of the ancients

As a former student of Latin language and Roman literature, I have been inclined to study Antiquity in hopes of discovering positive and inspiring feats of human agency. (I believe this is a common practice among all who study a certain time or place). While the ancients have indisputably produced some of the most beautiful art of any civilisation, their society, from a contemporary point of view, leaves much to be desired: more than half of the population were forced into a servile status! As a redeeming factor, it is often considered, their society lacked some of the vices of our contemporary world. Even though Antiquity was full of violence, hate and fear, it was mostly tolerant of different religions and races. Instead of race, discrimination was based on culture and ethnicity, which is of course not ideal, but at least it allows the possibility of naturalisation through the adoption of a new language and customs.

This favourable position, to which I too am guilty of clinging to, is sadly proven false. In his book, Isaac attests that the Greeks and the Romans were racists after all.

Environmental determinism

The traditional viewpoint is that while the ancients did not know the concept of race, and therefore couldn’t have been racist, they possessed some essentialist notions of people based on environment. These notions assumed that climate and geography determine human traits: The northern tribes, living in a cold climate, were vigorous and restless, often strong and warlike, but lacked intellectual capabilities. Peoples of the South, on the contrary, had sophisticated cultures, but were weak and sluggish due to constant heat. The Greeks, or from a Latin point of view, the Romans, lived in an ideal geographical condition, and possessed superior traits compared to others. This notion, environmental determinism, proved to be extremely influential in the discourse about racial hierarchies up until the 19th century.

Racism of the ancients

So, the key question is, were ancient Greeks and Romans, in fact, (proto-)racist?

There are two common counter arguments against this notion. Firstly, it is argued that in a relatively compact geographical area that was the Mediterranean world during Antiquity there simply did not exist any meaningful variation between people’s physical appearance that would warrant discrimination. Secondly, environmental determinism, explained above, theoretically allows improving the traits determined by climate and geography, as individuals simply migrate to a more hospitable location. It follows that discrimination would not be racist but some other form of (group) prejudice.

The first argument is a fundamentally fallacious one. Even though contemporary discourse on racism is focused on differences in physical appearance, there exist major cases where racist action has been directed towards racialised groups who do not differ physically in any meaningful way from the racist aggressors. The most infamous example is, of course, the Holocaust: one could hardly claim that the Jews of Central Europe were persecuted because they looked different. Race is a constructed concept used to justify hierarchies, not necessarily based on any actual difference between physical traits [2]. Therefore, it is reasonable that the ancients were just as capable of forming racist attitudes towards groups of people who looked like them.

The second argument might be true to later, more modern variations of environmental determinism present in the 18th and 19th centuries. Modern thinkers could and did make the distinction between traits gained by external factors, like the climate or geography, and hereditary traits, that would be passed on regardless of location. This was true even before the theories of Darwin, which almost completely discredited environmental determinism (in e.g. Kant’s racist thinking it was theoretically possible for an allegedly inferior person to relocate to Europe and “ascend” to a superior race [3]). Ancient thinkers, however, did not perceive any meaningful difference between external and internal factors. It was a common notion that traits acquired during one’s lifetime would become hereditary. In fact, this applied to not just individuals but to groups of people in general: a people forced into servility would over time become more slave minded. Their offspring would then be naturally inclined to be slaves.

While following the logic of environmental determinism, a person could relocate and thus improve themselves, there aren’t many positive examples of this in the texts of the ancients [4]. It is important to keep in mind that ‘development’ and ‘progress’ are profoundly modern concepts. People in Antiquity did not generally see history, or time in general, as a movement towards betterment. Therefore, change was, usually, only for the worse: living according to nature meant the highest form of development, any deviation meant deterioration. Thus, the Gallic Celts, who had for a long time lived near the Romans adopting some of their customs, did not improve their level of civilization, but rather lost their natural warfare capabilities and became effeminate.[5]

While some concepts of Greco-Roman racism had gone through considerable change by the time they were adopted by Enlightenment thinkers, some remained peculiarly constant. The relationship between blood and soil, the notion of pure lineage, and eugenics were well-established ideas already in Antiquity. Especially eugenics, notoriously formulated by Plato, strongly influenced modern racist thinkers. During Antiquity many polities, most famously the Athenians, based their feeling of superiority on a concept of autochthony. It entailed the idea that they were the indigenous populace of their home region, having literally been born out of the soil. Many city-states as well as individuals invested a great amount of resources in proving, or at least persuading others to believe that their lineage was pure in the sense that it descended from primordial inhabitants of the region or some mythical founding fathers.

Conclusions 

I do not wish to argue, based on the examples presented above, that racism is a constant feature of human nature, ever-present in equal measure regardless of time and place. My intention was to demonstrate, based on the work of Benjamin Isaac, that racism is always tied to its context. Modern racism, like so many aspects of modern philosophical and political thought, is an heir of Antiquity. The ideas that inspired European thinkers to formulate such notions as liberty and egalitarianism, also engendered different ways to discriminate, dehumanise, and segregate. That is why it is important to understand the complete history of racism from its humble beginnings to the contemporary manifestations.

On a final note, I wish to express my sole disagreement with Isaac’s otherwise excellent and thought-provoking work. He states numerous times that the study of racism is a study of irrationality: That racism is irrational, as it is not based on sound knowledge, but on various misunderstandings and pseudo-scientific observations. I want to stress that racism is, and should be viewed as, rational. Rational in the sense that there is a coherent logic behind it. While certainly far removed from the truth, this rationality should be made understandable (although not admissible): Only through understanding is it possible to identify and eventually correct the root causes of racism. By branding racism as irrational, we remove it from the realm of rational action and treat it as something impossible to grapple, rendering it difficult to counter.

 

Sources:

Isaac, Benjamin. (2013). The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity. Princeton University Press.

Kenny, Kevin. “Race, Violence, and Anti-Irish Sentiment in the 19th Century”. pp. 364-378. In Casey, M., & Lee, J. (2006). Making the Irish American: history and heritage of the Irish in the United States. New York University Press.

Rattansi, Ali. (2007). Racism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press.

 

[1] Isaac 2013, 23. This definition is, however, problematic when applied to contemporary racist movements. This is something that Isaac himself seems to acknowledge (see p. 24). As an analytical framework it is useful for this paper, as it is focused on premodern forms of racism. Too narrow contemporary focus would render the concept unsuitable for Antiquity, and therefore it would make it difficult to point out early forms of racism.

[2] It is often considered that the Irish immigrants to the United States during the 19th and early 20th century were subjected to racist discrimination and not considered ‘white’. See e.g. Kenny, Kevin. “Race, Violence, and Anti-Irish Sentiment in the 19th Century”. pp. 364-378. In Casey, M., & Lee, J. (2006). Making the Irish American: history and heritage of the Irish in the United States. New York University Press.

[3] Immanuel Kant was enormously racist, like, ridiculously so. See e.g. this excellent video essay by Philosophy Tube: https://youtu.be/weiz9wbIcGQ

[4] Even so, relocation was an option only for individuals or groups, not for whole populations, so racist attitudes would persist.

[5] It is, however, possible to recognise positive assessments of foreign peoples by ancient authors. E.g. Tacitus admires some aspects of German society in his Germania.

Lauri Särkkä

Helsinki '21

A student of political history at the University of Helsinki. Interested in politics of history, Russia and shoes. Hobbies include doing whatever to avoid the existential dread.
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