Greece and Rome can often seem very foreign places to any historian looking at them- for all kinds of concepts, democracy, republicanism, rulership, imperial power, citizenship and freedom, we derive our understanding from them but we have changed the meaning of the concept and often as in the case of democracy the meaning of the word that they bequeathed us. Sometimes it pays though to look back to see how features of our own society are neither permanent nor inevitable, but local variations which have occured in this time and place, and which may in the future fade away as our era passes.
One of the most interesting recent intellectual discoveries of mine was just such a concept- that seems vital and often vicious in the modern world but didn't really trouble the ancient world. James Dee wrote perceptively about this topic in the December 2003 issue of the Classical Journal (I should warn that the article is behind a subscription wall at JSTOR you need an Athens password to access it). He described through a sympathetic analysis of literary sources- from the Odyssey and the Illiad forward to the times of Catullus how in both Latin and Greek words for colour were used to connect to human beings. We know for example that Catullus wrote of Caesar
Nil nimium studeo, Caesar, tibi velle placere
nec sciri utrum sis albus an ater homo
which can be easily transalated, roughly as "I don't care to know whether Caesar you are a black of a white man". Rather an odd line if the Romans thought that Romans were white. Similarly in the Illiad, the Achaeans become white through the dust kicked up by their horses. The Homeric epic uses a word analogous to white, leukolenos, 39 times but every time the bard(s) applied it to a woman and on 24 times to the queen of the Gods Hera- at no point are we told that a man is white. In the Odyssey similarly the words white and black don't denote race but denote gender- so Odysseus himself is at one point described as black. Just look at the vase above and so many Greek vases, where women are white having stayed in doors all day and the men are bronzed by the sun having worked in the fields.
Why should this be so? If you think about it for a moment it becomes almost self evident. For the Greeks and Romans there were two major distinctions within humanity. The Greeks saw themselves as superior to all the other human beings in the world- the rest of the world spoke nonsense, ba baing in their confusion, hence our word barbarion. The second major distinction the Greeks admitted was that between themselves and Slaves. The Romans kept the second distinction, but their definition of the first was more elastic- allowing non-Italians to become citizens of the eternal city. We might summarise this by thinking that in Greece and Rome there were two sorts of people, those who were entitled to be household leaders in a world of city states, those who could run households and be in positions of command- almost all of these people were men and citizens- and those who couldn't, foreigners, slaves, women etc.
But it remains fascinating that race emerged as a category in late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, as the Roman world collapsed, as the Muslims conquered the near East and ruptured the ancient Meditereanean, turning the world on its head. The first Blacks were like Othello the Moors, not Africans necessarily. Race like nationality was invented at a specific point in history by a vast variety of authors and thinkers- but it was probably unknown to the ancient world, consumed in other bigotries. Before that invention though Catullus by saying that Caesar might have been black could have been making a jibe not about his nationality but about his masculinity. Never a poet to turn down a scurrilous jibe- Catullus looked at vases like that above and knew just the way to hurt the General's masculine pride.
Race was long ago exploded as a category for judging human biology- now it seems we might have to see it as a much more recent invention- time to revise the idea that black and white are eternal verities that all human beings have always recognised- they haven't, other divides like that between Hellene and Barbarion, free man and slave, man and woman and of course civis Romanus and foreigner divided the ancient world.