Collections: The Queen’s Latin or Who Were the Romans? Part IV: The Color of Purple

This is the fourth part (I, II, III, IV, V) of our series asking the question “Who were the Romans?” and contrasting the answer we get from the historical evidence with the pop-cultural image of the Romans as a culturally and ethnically homogeneous society typically represented with homogeneously white British actors speaking the ‘Queen’s Latin’ with a pronounced insular accent.

Last week, we extended our time frame from the Republic to the Empire, looking at the ways in which first Italian and then provincial elites were brought into the Roman elite (both literary and political). We saw that while these elites forcefully adopted a Roman identity, they also kept hold of their own original identities, layering the identities on top of each other and thus being both Roman and provincial or both Roman and Italian. Pointedly, we focused on the period up to around 180 AD, the long stretch of Rome’s maximum power, wealth and territorial extent, showing that trying to connect the increasing diversity of the imperial elite to ‘decline’ makes a catastrophic, century-sized error in chronology.

This week we’re going to shift our focus away from the senatorial elite in Rome (though we will still in many cases be dealing with elites because that is whose likely to have had their appearance recorded) and move out of the city of Rome, in order to answer the question that I have already been accused of ‘dodging:’ ‘what color were the Romans?’ As we’ll see in just a moment, that question is founded on some flawed assumptions, but exploring the very literal meaning of that question can serve as another way of charting kinds of diversity within the Roman world. Were there certain ways for a person to ‘look’ Roman? We have already addressed religious, linguistic and cultural variety within the Roman world and indeed within the Roman citizen body, but if one looked down the street of a Roman town are we likely to see a relatively homogeneous group of people – similar hair, skin and eye color, height, etc. – or a wide range?

What color were the Romans? As we’re going to see, the answer is most of them.

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(Note: This is going to be an image-heavy post, particularly with a lot of Roman artwork. Some of that artwork, as ancient artwork is want, shows men and women in varying states of undress. I have not used any artwork that shows explicit sex acts (though I do note the existence of such), but there is some nudity.)

Rome in Color

Now, as I go through all of this discussion on ethnicity in the Roman world, I know there is someone – perhaps many someones – insisting that all of these different groups in Italy at least aren’t really different because they are ‘white’ or alternately insisting that what I am doing is dodging the question of skin color (by, one assumes, cowardly hiding behind the evidence that it mattered less to the Romans than other distinctions). First off, I want to note that I think this argument begins from a mistaken premise: it is assuming that the divisions we impose today on our culture are fundamentally true in all times and cultures and so we can impose them on people in the past who may have viewed other categories as more meaningful. This is an error, as it ought to surprise no one that social construction is socially constructed (shocking, I know) and so the organization of a society (including questions of ‘who belongs’ and social hierarchy) depends on human perception about what is and is not important. Consequently, there is no one system of social hierarchy because each society will view the matter differently. Frankly, in many cases, the view that our categories can be cleanly retrojected into the past clearly comes from the assumption of Big, Important biological differences that would somehow make groups today considered ‘white’ more compatible even in the deep past when they themselves defined their groups very differently (or, to put it another way, the emphasis on ‘were the Romans white?’ accepts unscientific, garbage-nonsense racial categories as fundamentally true in a way that they simply aren’t; the easy Roman integration of North Africa compared to the difficulties of Roman Britain and Germany ought to be fatal to this view in any event).

This is not to say that the ancients were unaware that people came in different colors. One striking example is Asclepiades of Samos’ poem (c. 270 BC or so) praising the beauty of a black woman named Didyme:

Didyme has captured me with her eyes,
Alas! And I melt like wax before a flame
When I behold her beauty.
And if she’s black, so what?
Coals are too, and yet when we heat them
They glow like rose petals

(Trans. Larry Bean from Sententiae Antiquae, which also features the original text and a discussion)

It is worth taking a brief aside that even in the early third century BC, εἰ δὲ μέλαινα (‘and if she’s black…’) was a line that could be put in a poem without a whole lot of other context. The reader is assumed to have no problem creating a mental image of a woman both κάλη (‘beautiful’) and μέλαινα (‘black’), a good reminder that Africans (including those with darker skin) were not new to the Mediterranean but rather a regular sight in the towns and markets of the ancient Mediterranean. After all, the Mediterranean borders Africa on one side and was in essence not a barrier but a great highway knitting together far distant communities in networks of trade, discourse and warfare.

Likewise, even a brief reading of the ethnographically oriented authors in the Greek and Roman literary traditions shows an awareness of different skin colors, though it also shows that such authors were far more interested in customs and religion than skin color (this isn’t the place to lay out all of the examples, but Race and Ethnicity in the Classical World: An Anthology of Primary Sources in Translation, eds. R.F. Kennedy, C. S. Roy and M.L. Goldman (2013) has a fairly wide and representative sample; you will find quite a lot of descriptions – some more than a little fanciful or absurd – of clothing, marriage rituals and burial practices, but only very rarely a comment on the color of the people). They also considered significant chunks of Africa and Asia, at least as far as India to be as much part of their ‘inhabited world’ as Europe (ironically it was Britain – again – which, being on the wrong side of Okeanos, was conceptually the furthest away in at least some Greek and Roman geographic conceptions).

And therein lies a key point. As we’ve already seen, the Romans found other cultural signifiers – language, citizenship, social organization – more important than skin-color in understanding ‘who someone was.’ Ethnicity – the ‘stock’ or people one’s ancestors came from – might matter (both positively and negatively), but skin-color was at most ancillary to that (recall that in all of the Roman bigotry from last week, we saw several references to clothing, accusations of greed, deceptiveness, debauchery, attacks on religious customs, but only one passing reference to color). Again, this should not be mistaken for modern tolerance! The Romans could be – as we’ve seen – very bigoted towards other peoples and cultures, but people were far more likely to be described through religion, language, culture or clothing – the Romans were, after all the ‘people of the toga’ (gens togata, e.g. Vergil, Aeneid 1.282, Martial 14.124) – than by the color of their skin. Indeed, clothing in particular was a potent marker of Romanness and readers from last week may recall that it was the trousers – not the skin – of the Gauls to which the Romans objected when Caesar introduced some into the Senate (Suet. Caes. 76.2, 80.2). Such ‘uniforms of citizenship’ matter a great deal, as we’ll see in a moment.

Consequently, I have to note that as a historian, we ought to take ethnic classifications from the time and place when considering ethnic groups, rather than striving to impose our equally arbitrary classifications. And so that is what I have endeavored to do so far, focusing on the ethnic, linguistic and religious distinctions that mattered to the Romans in the three previous posts in this series. But we all know there is a certain sort of reader who won’t accept any of this if we don’t discuss skin color. So we are going to discuss skin color, though I should note this isn’t quite the same thing as discussing race. The question “were the Romans white?” is one of those ‘not even wrong’ questions because white/non-white was simply not a distinction that very much mattered to the Romans, who, after all tended to view many supposedly ‘white’ people as more distant or foreign to them (e.g. Gauls, Britons, Germans) than many people who would be regarded today as ‘non-white’ (North Africans being the most obvious example). The thing is, while skin-tone is a real physical, biological thing, racial categories are ‘socially constructed’ (read: made up by people and not fundamentally rooted in the natural world) and different cultures and different times define them differently. Famously, some groups seen as obviously, clearly ‘white’ today were excluded from narrower definitions even relatively recently in the United States. And so the question ‘what race were the Romans’ is fundamentally flawed because it relies on importing a set of racial categories that the Romans didn’t use.

But because this is a question people have, we’re going to answer it and so discuss skin color in the Roman Empire, with a particular focus on Roman citizens because, as we’ve discussed, that legal status tended to be by far the most important signifier of if one was a Roman or not. Though ironically, as we’re going to see, we’re going to use all sorts of means to tease out Roman citizens, from the towns they live (which have citizen status) to the clothing they wear, to the social strata they are in, to whether or not they happen to be emperor, all of which will serve infinitely better in telling us who is a Roman and who isn’t than skin color.

Pictures in Pompeii

So, all of that preamble out of the way, we get to the question at hand: what color were the Romans?

Most of them. They were most of them. Indeed, surprisingly close to all of them.

This is actually one of those questions where we need not guess. We can get a sense of this by looking, for instance, at Roman frescos, quite a few of which survive. Fresco (technically buon fresco, the form of fresco the Romans paint) is a style of wall painting where the pigment is applied on still-wet plaster, so that the pigment mixes with the water in the plaster and when that water dries the pigment isn’t merely on the plaster but in the plaster. Consequently frescos which end up buried can have their colors very well preserved and (as we’ll see) fresco painters can recreate a wide range of skin-tones very accurately. Consequently, and I want to stress this, the ‘what color were the Romans’ isn’t a question where we need to guess; we know They very literally painted us a picture.

Naturally, the range of skin-tones we might see in fresco is going to vary by place so I wanted to start us off as near to Rome as we could get while still having a good broad sample range to work with. That means we’re going to focus on artwork from Pompeii, a town in Campania, south of Rome, which had a whole chunk of Sulla’s veterans (Roman citizens all) settled on it in the 80s. Consequently, in terms of population make-up, Pompeii actually makes a pretty solid stand-in for Italy writ large and we can be sure that essentially all of the free persons in Pompeii – certainly the sort wealthy enough to be commissioning large frescos – are Roman citizens, so this is all at least art for citizens. Pompeii also gives us a really strong terminus ante quem (the last possible date a thing can be) because Mount Vesuvius utterly annihilated the town and buried it under literal tons of ash and soot in 79 AD. That’s also handy for what we’re doing: there can be no accusation that these images reflect only the later more thoroughly blended Roman Empire because all of them were produced no later than the first century (many are older). All of that actually makes Pompeii a fairly effective stand-in for Roman Italy’s skin-tone range as distinct from the (wider) range of the entire empire, which is in turn valuable because Pompeii’s evidence base is so robust as a result of the circumstances of the city’s aforementioned destruction-by-Vulcan. So to repeat, for this section all of these images are from Roman Italy, no later than 79 AD.

All of that said, Picture Time With Dr. Devereaux!

All images in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons. From Left to right, a scene of the marriage of Venus and Mars from the House of Sallust in Pompeii, A scene of Hippolytus and Phaedra and a Roman banquet scene also from Pompeii but now in the Museo Acheologico Nazionale. Being Pompeii, all frescos date before 79 AD.
As an aside, note in the banquet scene, viewable more closely here, how class and color interact: some of the enslaved servants here (esp. bottom center) are notably lighter skinned than the aristocratic family, while another (top, second from right) is darker skinned. To the Romans, fair-skinned Gauls and dark-skinned Africans were equally foreign.
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/11/Villa_of_the_Mysteries_%28Pompeii%29_-_frescos_02.jpg
Via Wikimedia Commons, the figures of the frescos of the Villa of the Mysteries on the outskirts of Pompeii, painted c. 70-60 BC.
Via Wikipedia, a pair of frescoes from the House of the Vettii in Pompeii, completed between c. 62 and 79 AD
Via Wikipedia, fresco from Pompeii depicting a Roman market.

One thing you may immediately note is that the women in these scenes are consistently lighter skinned than the men. That’s not an accident; fair skin in women particularly was part of the Roman beauty ideal (as it had been for the Greeks). Elite, upper-class women weren’t supposed to be tan from being out in the sun and they also used white makeups to make them appear paler (including white lead, what would later be called Venetuain ceruse, which was about as healthy as the phrase ‘powdered lead-based cosmetic’ makes you think it is). Of course this does not mean that all of the fair skin color up there is nonsense; it is clear there were very fair-skinned Romans (there are some fair-skinned men in there too!), but that there were also very tan and olive skinned Romans (and as we’ll see in a moment, also black and brown Romans). But the impact of beauty standards here means that I suspect we ought to take the male skin-tones from fresco as a closer indicator of the natural skin color of people in first century Roman Italy. Chances are there were just as many tan and olive skinned Roman women but that, because of those beauty standards, they tended not to be depicted that way in artwork (or tended to be of the sort of social class that didn’t get depicted in artwork).

I have tried here to be representative of the sampling though I have also tried to keep the images mostly family friendly. There is also a large corpus of very sexually explicit fresco from Pompeii which I would note, if anything, shift the balance of skin-tones, particularly male skin tones (for the reasons just discussed), somewhat darker than the sample here (a lot more men with fairly deep olive skin, though women remain very fair skinned). But we can see pretty much the full Mediterranean skin-color range here, from very fair skin (especially among women) to fairly deep browns. Going by the Fitzpatrick scale, a standard six-grade classification of human skin color, we look to have at least one clear example of nearly every point on the range of light-to-dark human skin tone. In fact, let’s take the actual Fitzpatrick scale (diagram via Wikipedia) and contrast it with ‘swatches’ of skin-color from these frescos so we can see that.

Fitzpatrick Scale emojis via wikipedia. I’ve done my best to more or less accurately assign these swatches, though getting a nice solid block of color is difficult. If we limit the range to the men in the image (to try to control for the noted Roman fair-skin beauty standard in women) we end up with about the distribution one would expect in Italy: the whole range is still there, but III and IV are the most common, both I and VI are rare, but present. I couldn’t get good swatches from the enslaved servants in the banquet fresco, but they’d have given us another I and a V or perhaps VI as best I can make out from the fresco.

And I want to be clear here, if anything, Pompeii should be a relatively more homogeneous, insular sort of town. It isn’t the vast world-port of Rome or Carthage and because of Sulla’s veteran settlement its population would have consisted substantially of individuals whose families had Roman citizenship before the Social War. Moreover, because Pompeii stops existing courtesy of the local volcano quite suddenly in 79 AD, we know we’re not viewing the more blended Roman world of the high and late empires, but rather a decidedly Italian-Roman milieu.

And yet, even before we go into the provinces (which we will in just a moment), the skin-tone range in Roman Italy is already very wide, even in the two first centuries. And that should be no surprise, this is a Mediterranean culture which has been in trade and cultural contact with the rest of the Mediterranean, including Egypt and North Africa for centuries. It should also, of course, be no surprise to anyone who has been to Italy (or really anywhere on the Mediterranean littoral) and seen the relatively wide range of human pigmentation there now. The color range difference between Mediterranean Europe and Mediterranean Africa has never been particularly vast because these communities have been in contact with each other since at least the beginning of the iron age, if not earlier. The Mediterranean is not a wall; it is a highway and has been since antiquity. Instead the idea that there was some firm separation, that Italians were clearly ‘white’ in a way that, say, North Africans clearly wouldn’t have been is an assumption based on the Atlantic world of the early modern period, not the Mediterranean world of antiquity.

The problem with trying to import those modern categories is that the categories themselves – ‘white’ and ‘non-white’ – are artificial and only make sense in the context of the social structures that created them. In the Roman milieu the nonsense of that rigid categorization (and the great weight placed upon it) is revealed quite clearly by (as we’re going to see) fairly significant zones of overlap in terms of skin coloration. And that is before we even get outside of Italy…

Faces from the Faiyum (and elsewhere)

Unsurprisingly, the wide range of appearances we get for Roman citizens increases if we look more broadly at citizens in the empire outside of Italy. As in Italy, preservation makes the effort difficult. The artwork most frequently preserved are sculptures. But while we know that Roman sculptures were painted, often in very bold colors, that paint often doesn’t survive and can’t necessarily be confidently reconstructed. Paintings on perishable materials hardly ever survive (recall that we have a volcano to thank for the finely preserved frescos above). One exception to this preservation problem is Egypt: the hard dry climate enables the survival of all sorts of things that simply wouldn’t survive anywhere else. One such category of artwork are mummy portraits.

Mummy portraits were an Egyptian custom where a portrait of the deceased person being buried was painted on a rectangular board or panel, typically made of wood and placed in the tomb with the body. The practice itself represents an interesting cultural fusion on its own: a blending of Greek and Roman artwork styles with Egyptian burial practices. Beginning in the late first century BC the painting of these portraits runs into the third century AD (a handy date range for our purposes as it begins at the same time as Roman rule). The figures shown are mostly local elites – commissioning an artist for this kind of thing required at least some money, after all – though the wide variation in quality suggests that at least a fairly broad range of the elite engaged in this practice, not merely the very richest individuals. Let’s take one of these portraits and look at a few of the elements of it:

Via the British Museum, a mummy portrait (inv. EA74714), c. 140-160 AD, found at Hawara in the Faiyum, Egypt and now in the British Museum.

We have what looks to be a man, perhaps in middle age. A few things are notable. First, he wears a white toga (the standard formal Roman folded cloth garment, draped from the left shoulder) and a white tunic with a purple stripe (two, in fact, the other is concealed beneath the toga). When I show my students this picture, I joke that the man might as well have worn his, “I AM A ROMAN CITIZEN” t-shirt; the impact of the clothing here is similarly blunt. While a fellow might wear a toga in a variety of colors for fashion’s sake, this solid-white toga is the toga virilis: the distinctive formal dress of a Roman citizen. Meanwhile, that purple stripe on his tunic is the angustus clavus (or angusticlavius, literally ‘the narrow stripe’). That too was a bit of clothing reserved as a marker of status – whereas the toga virilis says “I am a Roman citizen” the angusticlavius says “I am of the equestrian order” (nothing to do directly with horses by this point, it merely indicates wealth and that the individual isn’t involved in politics in Rome). In short then, this man – or more correctly, his surviving family who commissioned the portrait – is telling us, in no uncertain terms, “I was a wealthy Roman citizen.” I want to stress that point: there was no real distinctive national appearance that indicated a Roman – no particularly Roman hair color or what have you – but there was a distinctive dress that indicated citizenship, which only citizens were entitled to wear and which was so important the Romans went so far as to call themselves the gens togata (‘the people of the toga’).

But of course we can see other things about him. His hair-style isn’t really typical of fashion in Roman Italy. And of course he has that star-diadem, under which he’s arranged three locks of his hair; that is meant to tell the viewer something too. In this case, it is meant to tell us that this man is associated with the cult of Serapis, probably a priest. Serapis emerged as a distinctively Graeco-Egyptian fusion deity in Egypt in the third century, promoted by the Ptolemaic dynasty in an effort forge some common ground in their kingdom between Greek and Egyptian subjects. Serapis was worshiped as an aspect of Osiris (merged with the bull Apis). This is, to put it mildly, not a Roman god (though the worship of Serapis spread through the Roman Empire from Egypt, though it doesn’t seem to have lost its Egyptian connotations). So our fellow is also telling us, just as clearly, “I was an important practitioner of an Egyptian religion” – keeping in mind that this fellow lived in Egypt. This is a good example of identities layering rather than obliterating each other – visually the artist and the deceased’s family have chosen to convey both that this man was Roman and that he was Egyptian (or at least Graeco-Egyptian).

But of course that fact about clothing is really very handy for us if we want images from the provinces in color where we can know with a high degree of certainty that the subjects are Roman citizens, since anyone wearing either the toga virilis or a tunic with that clavus is declaring their citizenship (in a way that would get them in rather a lot of trouble if they were lying!). And it turns out there are around 900 of these mummy portraits from all over Egypt. So what do our Romans in Egypt look like? Well…

All via the British Museum these mummy portraits are:
Top Row (starting from the left): inv. EA74715, dated 100-120AD; EA 74718, dated 80-100AD; EA74704, dated 150-170 AD, all from Hawara in the Faiyum, Egypt.
Bottom Row (from the left): EA63396, early second century from Rubaiyat, Egypt, EA 63396, early second century from Rubaiyat Egypt and EA74707, 70-120 AD, from Hawara in the Faiyum, Egypt. All six are now in the British Museum.

If your mental image of ‘Romans’ for the Roman Empire doesn’t include these six fine gentlemen, update your priors! But it is also worth noting the variety we have here, even though all six of these portraits are from one province in the Roman Empire (Egypt). We have a range of skin-tones, from fairly light olive to deep browns and also a range of hair, from straight to curly to very tight curls. But all of these fellows have one thing in common which is that their dress marks them out as Romans – something they very much wanted you to know.

Now, mummy portraits weren’t only for men but assessing the status of women in these portraits is tricky. Women’s tunics could also sport clavi and in a wider range of colors, but these patterns didn’t have the same clear “I am a citizen” message as the man’s white tunic with purple clavi with toga virilis and so it can be hard to gauge citizenship status simply from a woman’s clothing. That said, the style was a Roman fashion not an Egyptian one (to my knowledge) so at the very least we may say (and indeed, others have said) that the women of many of the mummy portraits from the Roman period in Egypt are wearing Roman-style dress, although often with local touches. Some examples:

All via the British Museum these mummy portraits are:
Top (from left): EA74706, 100-120; EA74712, 100-120; EA74716, 55-70
Bottom (from left): EA74713, 55-70; EA74710, 160-180; EA63395, 100-120. All are from Hawara in the Faiyum except for the last which is from Rubaiyat. All now in the British Museum.

Again, we can see here a wide range of skin colors, from the fashionably (for the Romans) fair-skinned (top center, bottom left) to darker (and probably truer to life in many cases) skin tones. These are upper-class ladies and so their portraits show a conscious effort to display wealth (like the expensive perfume bottle that the woman in the bottom right caries, or the heavy use of purple-dyed cloth) and also their fashion sense, which mirrors the fashions of the Italian Roman elite quite heavily. Again, we can’t know these women’s status from looking at their clothing (besides that they are clearly fairly wealthy elites) but the fact that clear displays of citizen status are so common among the men buried in the same condition – men of the same social milieu who may well be these women’s fathers, brothers, sons or husbands – strongly suggests that most of these are provincial citizen women. At the very least we may say for certain that they are all interacting quite a lot with the broader Roman world and its trends.

Moving out of Egypt our evidence thins greatly, but there are still some things we can say. We have evidence of citizen communities in Gaul from a very early point (you will remember Claudius talking about them last week) and it should take relatively little convincing to imagine that Roman citizens native to Gaul (=France) or Britain were likely on the fairer end of the skin color spectrum as what we see here, even if we don’t have a lot of surviving artwork from the region to tell us that. Of course that doesn’t mean that all of the residents of Rome’s northern provinces were fair-skinned locals either. A Roman woman, whose skeleton and grave goods were found buried in York, England (nicknamed the ‘Ivory Bangle Lady’ after her bracelets) appears to have been of North African extraction, though isotope analysis suggests she spent her childhood in Britain. There is some debate on the validity of the analysis that marks her as North African, but there’s no reason to be skeptical about Africans in Roman Britain; the Historia Augusta (SHA Sept. 22.4-5) notes one such – an Aethiops e numero militari at the end of the reign of Septimius Severus (r. 193-211). You’ll see that phrase translated as ‘an Ethopian soldier” but aethiops was equally a generic way in Latin to refer to someone as being black, regardless of where they came from. Now the Historia Augusta is often quite unreliable as a source, but the point here isn’t the truthfulness of the particular episode, but the fact that a black Roman soldier serving in Roman Britain was, to the author of the Historia Augusta, a perfectly reasonable thing to posit. And of course the same would be true of Roman soldiers from Gaul, Spain, Italy or Britain serving in Africa or the East. We’ll talk more about the Roman army’s role in all of this next week, but in brief it functioned to move individuals all around the empire as units were transferred from this or that frontier.

But back to our portraits: all of these people were Romans; that part of their identity was probably never seriously in doubt. Many of them had likely been Romans for generations. Indeed, we should observe the profundity of what these people and their families (since it was the families that would have commissioned the portrait as one generally cannot commission artists while dead), reaching through time to convey the essentials of themselves chose to show us. A great many of them, it seems, put a great deal of effort into communicating to the future that proudest of boasts, Romanus civis fui – ‘I was a Roman citizen.’

It must have been very important to them to say it.

The Color of Purple

And yet this wide range of skin color is rarely captured by the popular imagination or absorbed by the public, often because it simply does not appear in the materials produced for them. We’ve beaten up a fair bit here on HBO’s Rome (lest anyone think I am bashing for bash’s sake, I will say I actually like HBO’s Rome quite a bit), but it is hardly alone. For another example take the recent project by Daniel Voshart to visual with modern software the faces of the Roman emperors. This project – which I will say, I think is quite good though we are about to point out some flaws – was feted everywhere and shot all around the internet:

Image
A set of portraits of the Roman Emperors as originally released by Daniel Voshart. Please note that Voshart subsequently reissued this chart with darker skin-tones for some of the emperors, notably the Severans. That said, I have never seen the corrected version (which I’d argue is probably still too fair on the average) in the wild on the internet, whereas I continue to see the uncorrected version shared and disseminated.

And I do mean everywhere. Here it is at The Verge. And Smithsonian Magazine (mercifully using the 2.0 versions of the portraits). And Popular Mechanics. And also a 30 minute Youtube video by the World History Encyclopedia (which, by the by, is not a good or reliable website, despite its popularity with students; Wikipedia is honestly better. Pointing out some of the serious errors in their articles could be a blog of its own for there are many). And it was all over social media. Which is a real issue because the original set of portraits were so badly flawed they had to be reissued and even then I think there are serious problems in how the skin color of these emperors is reconstructed.

And I want to note at the outset that I am also not here to bury this chart nor its creator. This was not a fundamentally flawed project and I don’t mean to imply that it is, merely that the sort of errors it fell into (particularly in its 1.0 version) speak to the pervasiveness of the problem we have been talking about. Because this chart assumes unless otherwise indicated (and sometimes even when otherwise indicated) that Roman emperors were essentially white – and very white in most cases – as its baseline assumption. Now, to his credit, Daniel Voshart reissued the chart after getting some criticism of some of the portraits which darkened some of the skin colors used, though the treatment was applied only to specific emperors, not generally, whereas I might have suggested that systemic errors require systemic solutions. Moreover, and Voshart can hardly be faulted for this, the reissued chart made much less of a splash and spread over the internet quite a bit less than the original, making this an instance where Voshart is both innocent victim of the ‘whitening’ of Rome in the popular culture and an accidental purveyor of the same. To be clear, I am not faulting Voshart; it seems to me a rather difficult and big thing to admit the mistake and change the chart and I respect the honesty to do that openly. He seems to be doing his best and nothing is perfect on the first run. But I do want to interrogate the mistakes that led to the first problem chart, some of which remain in the re-issue:

The reissued version of Daniel Voshart’s chart, available as a fancy print via his medium post here. While I still have substantial issues with the reconstruction here (I think the whole thing could probably be improved by shifting effectively all of the portraits one notch higher on the Fitzpatrick scale with just a few exceptions for emperors we know were explicitly fair-skinned), as it goes this chart is the best of its kind currently available and Voshart is to be applauded for it.

I think we can see a trend in the thinking here with the very first portrait, of Augustus blown up a bit from the chart:

Augustus, from the original issue of Voshart’s chart; his version 2.0 version is slightly less blonde, but only slightly.

Now, what do we know about how Augustus looked? Well, we have a lot of sculpture, and Voshart has done an excellent job with his software in capturing the structure of the face we see in statues of Augustus. One thing I was made to learn as part of my MA was the ability to recognize the first 18 or so emperors on sight (a thing you can do if you know Roman imperial sculpture well enough) and, absolutely, that’s Augustus. But of course those sculptures are in marble and while they would have been painted originally, that paint is now gone, so how do we interpolate the color of Augustus’ skin or hair or eyes? Well, good news, Suetonius essentially tells us (Suet. Aug. 79; Voshart has this citation wrong in his notes due to an error in the English transcription on Perseus, for which he can hardly be faulted though I assume this error is indicative of Voshart’s lack of familiarity with the Latin which is about to matter) that Augustus hair was leviter inflexum et subflavum (lightly curly and dirty-blond) and his skin was colorem inter aquilum candidumque (“colored between dark and bright,” by which we should probably understand ‘tan’). But somehow dirty-blond and tan became, as above, very blond and quite fair; this particular portrait is almost entirely unchanged in the reissue (the hair is a little darker). That Augustus is colored pretty close to Simon Woods’ portrayal of Octavian in HBO’s Rome (below), except that Simon Woods is an English actor and Octavian was…you know…Italian? And apparently at least a little brown by Italian/Roman standards!

From HBO’s Rome, Simon Woods, playing Octavian. I didn’t intend it this way, but you know the (Italian?) extra standing behind him really just makes the point, doesn’t it?

(Language note: this is a case where I think familiarity with Latin matters, because color words are always finicky. The Romans have a word for ‘blonde’ or ‘golden haired’ and it is flavum, so if hair is subflavum is isn’t blonde, it’s quasi-blonde, almost-blond but dirty-blond is, well, at least a fair bit brown; the reconstruction is really very blond. Meanwhile his skin is between aquilum (‘dark’) and candidum (‘white’) according to Suetonius. Candidus here is easy – that’s very white, like chalk or paper; here as a skin-tone, I think Fitzpatrick I or II. How dark is aquilum? That’s more difficult, aquilum is a rare word but here we have the grammarians to the rescue, particularly Sextus Pompeius Festus (1.1) who notes “Aquilius is a color tawny and almost-black” (aquilus color est fuscus et subniger; Latin niger for ‘black’ has exactly the English cognates you think it does); aquilum is probably around a V on the Fitzpatrick scale. So Augustus’ skin is somewhere in the middle between ‘very fair’ (candidum) and almost-black (aquilum). Probably that’s something like a III or IV on the Fitzpatrick scale, but here we’ve got, generously, a II, almost I. That’s simply not what Suetonius’ Latin says.)

The more obvious initial problem was with the version 1.0 of the Severans. That was easily what drew the most immediate criticism because we have surviving artwork in color of Septimius Severus, here juxtaposed with Voshart’s version 1.0 and version 2.0 depictions of him:

Left: Version 1.0 of Voshart’s reconstruction of Septimius Severus.
Center: via wikipedia the Severan Tondo (c. 199) showing Septimius Severus, his wife Julia Domna, and their sons Caracalla and Geta (Geta’s face is blotted out; after Caracalla assassinated his brother he had his images removed in a damnatio memoriae)
Right: Version 2.0 of Voshart’s reconstruction.

Again, good on Voshart for constructively responding to criticism, but also it isn’t hard to see the problems between the frankly pale original reconstruction and the red-brown contemporary portrait (which is, to be clear, not obscure; it is a famous piece of artwork and on Wikipedia). Even the reconstructed version doesn’t quite catch the hue of the artwork which I think implies something closer to a Fitzpatrick V than what we have, which is perhaps a III or maybe a IV. And that dark skin makes a lot of sense! Septimius Severus was born in Leptis Magna in what is today Libya; his father at least seems to have been of Punic extraction and so may have been living (and marrying) in North Africa for centuries; his mother was from an Italian family, but it isn’t clear how long they’d been settled in North Africa.

How does a glaring error like that get made for an emperor for whom we have a contemporary color-painting? I should note that I hardly think the two emperors I’ve focused on here are the only reconstructions which have problems. Just looking at where the skin color of Roman era Italian artwork clusters suggests to me that nearly all of the Italian-born emperors probably ought to be rather more tan. The problem here then is that the reconstructions systematically whitened the emperors (through, I suspect, an error in the software used which was probably ‘trained’ primarily on very fair skinned faces). How does that happen and more importantly how does it go so easily unnoticed both by the creator but also by so many of the early evangelists for the project? The answer, of course, is what we’ve been talking about all along: the Queen’s Latin – the built in assumption that the Romans, or at least elite Romans, were mostly ‘white’ and looked at lot (and sounded a lot) like not just Europeans, but north-western Europeans. It is why the notion of a Roman Emperor who was not only African, but also at least brown if not black strikes most people as absurd, but of course it’s true. It’s not Septimius Severus who was absurd, it is the Queen’s Latin and the vision of Rome it promotes.

(Also, while we’re here, to keep noting the Roman trend in artwork towards lightening the skin of women, Septimius’ wife, Julia Domna, pictured above was a native of Syria, probably of Arab extraction and so while I cannot be sure, we may suspect that she was not generally so pale. The choice of skin tone may either be the artist trying to be flattering or it may reflect Julia wearing fashionable skin-lightening cosmetics, well attested in ancient sources as something fairly common. Nevertheless, it turns out unrealistic beauty standards are not merely a product of modern mass culture.)

Septimius Severus was, by the by, hardly the only emperor to hail from outside of Italy, although we have to be careful because some emperors with ‘provincial’ origins may have come from Roman colonies in the provinces (and thus be perhaps only a generation or two removed from the Italian elite). Nevertheless, we know that Trajan was born in Spain (though perhaps descended from Italian colonists; how much intermarrying there would have been there is unclear) as was Hadrian. Didius Julianus, briefly emperor, was born in Cisalpine Gaul (by that time part of Italy); his heritage on his father’s side was Gallic, from the Insubri, while his mother was from Hadrumentum, an old Phoenician colony in North Africa (SHA, Didius 1.2); he was a senior senator before briefly being emperor. Septimius was African, as noted, so Geta and Caracalla, his children, were mixed African-and-Syrian in ancestry; Elagabalus, his nephew was of Syrian origin, same as Julia Domna, as was Severus Alexander. Maximinus Thrax was…well, a Romanized Thracian as his name suggests; we needn’t believe the predictable slander in our sources (chiefly the Historia Augusta and Herodian) that brand him as a ‘barbarian,’ but he clearly was from Thrace. The Gordiani (there are three of them) seem to have been perhaps Anatolian in origin, being granted citizenship perhaps by Mark Antony, though by the third century that origin may have felt quite distant. Philip the Arab was…well, a Romanized Arab; sometimes this stuff is easy. And so on and so forth; Diocletian was Dalmatian, Constantine was Illyrian through his father and perhaps Bithynian through his mother.

It should be no particular surprise that Roman emperors from outside of Italy begin first slowly – with Spain and North Africa represented first – and then accelerate, particularly after the Constitutio Antoniniana expanded citizenship to all free persons in the empire in 212. That’s precisely the same pattern as we saw with senators and literary elites, as the Roman upper-crust slowly expanded to encompass a wider range of Romans, both new and old. But that expansion is important for us because it goes right to the question of who was a Roman – by the 190s, not only could a Spaniard, an African, a Gaul be a Roman, they could be the Roman without being meaningfully treated as an outsider (of the above, only Elagalabus and Maximinus Thrax seem to have been seen as somehow un-Roman by many of their contemporaries, the former for his Syrian religious practices which seem to have offended Roman sensibilities and the latter – who came up through the army – because he never actually visited the city and deeply antagonized the Roman senate, a mistake which cost him his rule and his life).

Would a Roman, In Any Other Color…

All of which brings us back to the pop-cultural representation of the Romans. As we’ve seen, Romans, both in Italy and beyond it, covered a wide range of physical characteristics. We see fair-haired Romans and dark haired Romans; Romans with straight hair, curly hair and hair with tightly coiled curls; we see Romans with very light skin, very dark skin and every color in between. And this should be no surprise because Rome was – as we’ve seen – essentially poised on a crossroad of crossroads, at the center of the Great Mediterranean Highway.

Again, contrast that with the popular image of the Romans:

The Senate from HBO’s Rome. On that same scale above, this is a wall of Fitzpatrick I and IIs, despite the fact that, as noted, such fair skinned men are less common in Roman artwork.

We can see here quite clearly a few problems. The first is of course that we see none of that range of coloration from all of this Roman artwork we’ve been looking at. These fellows aren’t merely fair skinned, they’re uniformly so, which gives the – by now we’ve seen, wholly incorrect – sense of Rome and its Senate as homogeneous institutions when they weren’t. But of course the broader issue is that the Senate here is presented not merely as homogeneous, but as homogeneously white. Now this is the Senate of the mid-first century BC, so at this point we ought to expect them to all be Italians, but even by this point that would suggest a wider range of appearance than this (as we saw above with our Pompeian frescos). I’ve seen no indication anywhere that the Roman elite was notably whiter than the common Roman (although that sure does seem to be the impression you’d get from a lot of pop-culture depictions of Rome).

And there, at least, we come to the real problem with the implication of the Queen’s Latin: visually and aurally it claims the Romans as ‘white.’ And sure, if you are Spanish or British or German or Italian or French and you want to claim Roman history as part of your heritage, go right ahead. I will stick to my guns and declare it is still wrong to say anyone in the Roman world was ‘white’ (or ‘non-white’) in the sense that term is used today, but if you want to say that Roman history is ‘yours’ because some of the Romans looked like you do, came from the part of the world you do (or your ancestors did), go right ahead. Were there Romans who looked ‘white’ in today’s terminology? Absolutely.

But the uniformity of the Queen’s Latin – and the fierce, reflexive outrage whenever it is challenged – works to deny other people, people who trace their roots to Tunisia or Algeria or Morocco or Egypt or Syria or Anatolia or a dozen other places the ability to say that Roman history is ‘theirs.’ The Queen’s Latin declares (falsely) with the power of the visual medium that Rome was a ‘white’ man’s empire, re-imagining Rome in the shape of the white European colonial empires of the early modern period (empires we may truly call white because they were empires in which power and full membership was marked out by the color of one’s skin and the continent of one’s ancestry in a way that was not true of Rome). Subtly but consistently, this way of depicting Rome tells those students located in the upper 4/6ths of that Fitzpatrick scale (which is, to be clear, most of the scale and most humans), “this isn’t for you.” But it is for them, if they want it. Rome is theirs, just as it is yours – just as it is mine, though there is an excellent chance that a student whose ancestors hailed from Algeria would have a far better claim to Rome as their history than I do! And I want them to come study it with me because we all – whether our ancestors lived in the Roman empire or not – our world is built atop the Roman’s world, in some places literally and in some cases figuratively (though it is often the figurative foundations that are the more profound). And if the ‘you’ who is reading this is that student who wants to claim the Romans, regardless of where you come from – come study Rome with me, in whatever capacity you wish.

The impression that Rome was merely a ‘white man’s empire’ isn’t true to the evidence and it is both a detriment to our understanding of the past (including our ability to understand societies that valued different things than us, and so our ability to understand that we might choose to value different things too) and it is a poison for the study of the ancient world in general and Rome in particular, because we cannot afford to turn away even one eager student. It is long since time we abandoned the Queen’s Latin’s portrayal of the Roman world in favor of an accurate portrayal of the Roman world, with the helpful but secondary benefit that such a portrayal cannot help but be more welcoming.

Were there black and brown Romans? Yes, absolutely, without question. Were there African Romans? Western-Asian (or ‘Middle Eastern,’ if you prefer) Romans? Yes, absolutely, without question – our evidence on this point is indisputable. The evidence that Rome was a diverse society, by essentially any measure, is so preposterously strong – consisting of the unanimous testimony of every sort of evidence we have, including the endless complaining of Roman bigots! – that it is hard to view the continued popular resistance to this notion (scholarly resistance to this notion, from actual specialists rather than non-specialists straying out of their expertise to try to score political points, is effectively non-existent because there isn’t much evidence to argue from) as anything but stubborn bigotry of its own sort. So let’s say it once more, loudly and with feeling, for the folks in the back:

Rome was diverse. It was ethnically diverse. It was religiously diverse. It was linguistically diverse. It was culturally diverse. And, yes, though this mattered much less to the Romans than it seems to matter to us, it was color-diverse. And Rome was diverse from the very beginning; its strength was built on its diversity. Moreover, Rome was not merely diverse in the cheap way that all empires are diverse; the Romans did not merely keep multi-colored slaves (although, it is necessary to be honest about the uglier elements of Rome, the Romans did keep many different diverse peoples in cruel bondage), rather a great part – perhaps the defining part – of Rome’s triumph was in successfully integrating those many diverse peoples into itself, in allowing them to become Roman (to again borrow a phrase from Greg Woolf) without demanding they lose their own local identities. This sort of diversity was the thing that set Rome apart from its competitors, predecessors and successors and fundamental to Rome’s ability to leave such a strong legacy after its empire began to (very slowly) crumble.

Next week (assuming I can keep up my writing schedule), we’ll finish up this series by asking if Roman diversity led to the fall of the empire, as some claim. Spoiler alert: it didn’t – but heightened Roman intolerance might have.

177 thoughts on “Collections: The Queen’s Latin or Who Were the Romans? Part IV: The Color of Purple

  1. Typos:

    A Roman woman, whose skeleton and grace goods were found buried in York,

    “grave goods”, I assume.

    You’ll see that phrase translated as ‘an Ethopian soldiers”

    soldiers or soldiers?

    1. It amuses me that your typo correction itself contains a typo.
      At least I assume that one of the “soldiers” in “soldiers or soldiers?” was meant to be “soldier” without the last “s”.

      It really can happen anywhere (in fact I almost spelled wrote “tyop” instead of “typo” when I wrote this comment).

  2. If someone were to fake Roman citizenship, how would they get caught (not asking for a friend)? Also, did wearing the toga virilis decline after the Constitutio Antoniniana? I would guess that displaying the status became less important when everyone was a citizen.

    1. Somebody faking Roman citizenship wouldn’t be on any citizenship rolls, have any documents to that effect, or have anybody willing to vouch for their status.

      1. Although, it seems that quite a few people more or less entered Rome, and then some years later claimed Roman citizenship. This was apparently an ongoing sore-spot for a fair number of body politic. if you could speak Latin and you moved to Rome, well, it wasn’t too hard to blend in after awhile. However, during the early imperial period actual birth certificates came into use, which may have cut down on the issue legally. However, in the aftermath of multiple civil wars the whole issue may have been hopelessly muddled in the city. And in the Republican period, given how many people wound up in Rome, intermarrying and living side-by-side, that that the question of citizenship was a right mess to begin with.

        In many of the provinces, who held Roman Citizenship would have been a semi-public knowledge, although it would generally be documented somewhere.

        1. But the courthouse burned down after the last proscription! Honest! –says every Not Real Roman ever…

  3. Good post, I really agree with your two key points, that a) color is mostly a silly lens for Classical studies but b) literally whitewashing the Romans is wrong, and might make people feel unnecessarily excluded from trying to understand them. And of course in this one sense of relative diversity they are a positive model for America.

    On the specific question of the pre-Empire Roman elite though, quite a few of them are described as ‘fair’, aren’t they (e.g. Caesar in Seutonius being ‘colore candido’)? or having russet hair – which is quite rare in modern Italy. Is it possible that there was a broader range both ways in coloring than in modern Italy? I note that even for Augustus, that if an adult is subflavum (which is a useful word for a common European hair colour, incuding my own!) then as a child they would likely have been blond, which again is not super common in undyed hair in today’s central Italy.

  4. Women are paler because they stay inside.

    Indeed, in the Song of Songs, a woman is described (in some translations) as black because working in the sun.

    1. Roman women were a bit less cloistered than Greek or Levantine women, though if they did go outside, they would have been veiled (upper class women at least), which may have helped in avoiding tans.

      1. Even the lower-ranking women would try. Pallor is beautiful in a woman because women are palest when they are most fertile — and runaway sexual selection has produced a distinct paling effect.

        When it also speaks of high social status, that gets doubled.

    2. Women are also paler because they have more subcutaneous fat, and fat is paler than muscle. Since paleness is a biological marker of femaleness, it tends, like most sexual markers, to be fetishized and exaggerated by both evolution and culture.

    3. In Song of Songs 1:5 the Hebrew word שחורה is literally just black (followed by נאוה, which means good-looking – there was no white beauty ideal in Biblical Hebrew). Then in 1:6 the word is שחרחרת, which is a reduplication of שחורה that means blackish and has the same -ish meaning with a bunch of adjectives.

    4. And that’s the reasoning behind fancy dresses and suits, especially white suits. They show off you can’t work. You can’t work presumably because you have other people to do any kind of work for you. This went to the extreme with female blouses, which have buttons on the other side so that they’re easier to button/unbutton for a servant.

      1. The one about blouses is mostly a myth: things buttoned on the female side are actually slightly *easier* to button on your own… if that’s the way you’ve always buttoned things.

        Back buttoned blouses and dresses are somewhat harder to button on your own, but even here:

        * somebody with average mobility has a decent chance of being able to deal with the back buttons of a blouse, possibly also those of some dresses (it depends on the dress);
        * people and especially women in the past rarely lived on their own, and even people who didn’t have servants could ask for help to a mother, sister, daughter or well trained husband to do that pesky button right in the middle of the back.

        As for other clothing that is supposed to prevent people from working, for many of those there are period sources that point to it being used by the working classes, e.g. https://imageleicestershire.org.uk/view-item?i=7559 or https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Maid_and_mistress_in_crinoline._Punch_Almanack_for_1862-2.png

        Of course, fancy dresses would use expensive materials that would be impossible for a working class person to afford (at least new), but that’s unrelated to their practicality.

  5. The Fitzpatrick scale looks strange to me. I’m pretty sure I’ve met people darker than #VI, but not as pale as #I, even though I’m white with a blond mother. Also, the middle colors are literally yellow.

    1. I think I’m as pale as I. I’m a blue blood in the original sense, my skin is so lacking in melanin that the blue veins are clearly visible. I take after the northern European side of the family. My brother on the other hand is II or IV, as he takes after the Sephardic/ Mulatto side of the family.

    2. IIRC, it was only designed (by an american dermatologist) as a way of prediciting how people react to UV, but it has become widely used as a general classification of skin colour.

    3. Look at Conan O’Brien–“I was born in a bog and was never intended to see the sun”.

      1. Which is one of the things, my impression is often that british and some french people tend towards the paler than eg. scandinavians. (if you go to a beach in one of the popular touristy hotspots you’ll see tanned swedes and norwegains and burned-red brits and french)

  6. The ancient description of somebody being ‘black’ may well be entirely different from the modern usage which means persons of sub-Saharan descent, many of whom are very light skinned due to European admixtures. In ancient usage, as Mary points out, it may simply mean sun tanned or black haired. But the artwork certainly shows people we would call ‘Black’ today among the elites.

    The convention of tinting men dark and women light in artwork goes back to the Cretans and Egyptians. Dark skin was a sign of virility just as pallor was feminine. I wonder if men were occasionally depicted as darker than nature just as women were lightened?

    Fair skinned blonds certainly existed in the ancient Mediterranean world and such coloring was admired, but then as now olive to brown skin and dark hair and eyes was more common.

    As Bret says skin tone was irrelevant to the Romans. Discussion of the color of Romans indicates our modern obsession with the issue.

        1. People will not use paint to achieve a look that is not already preferred. A reason for the preference is needed.

  7. You mention slavery…but I wonder if the ubiquity of enslaved people in Roman society – of all hues but many of them quite pale war prisoners from Germany, Dacia, Britain (and so on and so on…) – didn’t go a long way to reducing Roman skin-color bigotry?

    If your mental picture of “low-status person” is “pale blonde German slave”? Your mental calibration of status might well never be based on color…

    1. I’m not saying this happened, but I could imagine Romans associating any non-Italian skin color with low status.

      1. The point is there was no Roman skin color. Romans didn’t label people by tint like so many of us do. And while pallor was admired in women it was emfeminate in men.

      2. Non-Italian skin colors? Currently ‘native’ Italian skin colors vary wildly from north to south, from pale skinned people (albeit in a sunny country) to dark skinned ones (not ebony black, albeit some south italians are very dark skinned).

        This isn’t that non-Italian skin colors don’t exist but that they are mostly very far from Italy: very pale skin from way upper north, very black from way upper south, not considering skin colors from East Asia. I could better imagine Romans associating non-Italian skin colors with exoticism.

        Do we have any surviving account of ethiopians or chinese (for example) merchants or dignitaries arriving at Rome or another big Roman city and the reaction of the Roman population to their skin colors?

        1. Current native Italian skin colour vary widely even in the same area of Italy (and even among people with surnames that aren’t indicative of recent internal migration – I know it doesn’t mean that there wasn’t an ancestor or ten from a different part of the country), excluding just ebony black and very pale (I and VI on the scale).

          To the point where skin colour isn’t really the predictor of discrimination (of which in Italy there is still a lot), because the people who are getting discriminated are mostly impossible to distinguish visually from the one doing the discrimination. The most frequent discriminated people who are frequently met in Italy and *can* be distinguished to some extent (but not always) would be people from east Europe, and those tend to be somewhat paler than the ones doing the discrimination. I believe that *the* indicator of discrimination is language use, although of course dress and other cultural hints are also used.

          Looking at the visual evidence from the past points to the idea that the variation in skin colour in Roman Italy was pretty similar to what we have today (other than the fact that today there are more tanned and sunbathing women 😀 ), which makes the geographical area inhabited by similar-enough people pretty wide, easily extending e.g. into India.

  8. Sorry but Algerians are not black and most of them would have not been what in the modern world you call black in roman times the racist claim that North Africans are black is mostly made by African Americans to attack us and call us fake don’t spread misconceptions

    1. I do not think he claimed Algerians are (what we would consider) Black, just that they tend to be darker than the cast of HBO’s Rome or Voshart’s portraits

    2. Unless I missed something, I don’t think Algerians were ever said to all be black in this article, just that people we would call black today lived in the Roman Empire, and that Algerians are able to claim Roman heritage.

    3. Gibbon calls five of the Moorish tribes (I think he means Berbers) “white Africans”. We can probably infer that they’re pale-skinned, if even Gibbon calls them white.

      1. Not exactly. Gibbon is writing about the Roman era but he’s writing IN the Scientific Racism era; ‘scientific racism’ is a really long topic so I’ll just say that by Gibbon’s time the pseudoscience had progressed from using color words to describe the actual hue of a population, to using the same color words to describe what a population was ‘supposed’ to look like.
        Gibbon is saying that these ancient North African peoples have facial bone structure, hair type, etc. that ‘proves’ a ‘common origin’ with, well, with Gibbon. You see echoes of this in how white Americans today apply race to pictures and in other situations, using complexion last.

  9. “the artist and the deceased family have chosen…” I assume you meant “the deceased’s family” although I guess they are deceased by now.

      1. l am sorry but Algerians are not black and most of them would not have been black even in ancient times there is far more fair skined people there than black and l noticed a contradiction in that you said that Romans were not out to assimilate people despite the fact that you mentioned emperor cloudis speech to the senate about the importance of asmilating the gauls anyway l like the your content l hope you keep uploading

  10. This was a fantastic series, thank you! Aside from the skin colour issue (which is a big problem), Voshart made some other basic mistakes like making Nero a redhead and basing Pertinax’ portrait on a bust of Plautianus. The program he uses also appears to have difficulty modelling the sort of slightly curly hair common in Roman statues (for example of Augustus)

  11. Concerning Elagabalus, that Emperor’s gender identity is also so… unclear I would not be entirely confident describing them in male terms

        1. We must remember our knowledge of Elagabalus comes from hostile sources, there’s no telling how much scandal is invented or exaggerated.

        2. Suffice to say that the question is a minefield precisely because of Roman chauvinism. Within Roman culture, “this person thinks of themselves as a woman,” was about the most sneering thing you could say about someone you believed to be male. And Elagabalus, like some other holders of the imperial title, was short-lived, hated by many powerful men, and mostly written about posthumously.

          So it’s functionally impossible to tell, 1800 years after the fact, whether:

          1) Elagabalus was a transwoman, and as part of their attacks against her character, her Roman enemies exaggerated a grain of truth that they hated about her, or

          2) Elagabalus was a cis man being lied about by Romans who hated him for something else unrelated to his gender and sexuality.

          Either interpretation is at least broadly plausible as far as I can tell. Without a time machine- probably without something more than that- there’s just no way to know.

          We view the distant past through a very narrow keyhole.

    1. Latin is a gendered language. If the Emperor told people, “Call me ‘she'”, wouldn’t that have recorded?

      1. From Cassius Dio:

        “Aurelius addressed him with the usual salutation, “My Lord Emperor, Hail!” he bent his neck so as to assume a ravishing feminine pose, and turning his eyes upon him with a melting gaze, answered without any hesitation: “Call me not Lord, for I am a Lady.””

      2. As Josh notes, the problem isn’t a lack of sources claiming that Elagabalus:

        1) Instructed others to use she/hers pronouns
        2) Dressed as a woman
        3) Offered truly prodigious sums of money to any surgeon who could invent SRS seventeen hundred years ahead of schedule.

        We have all of those, mostly (as I understand it) from Cassius Dio.

        The difficult part is figuring out whether or not Cassius Dio made parts or all of this up. Because as I understand it, it’s exactly the kind of thing that a person who hated Elagabalus would say to destroy their reputation among future generations of the very chauvinistic, dare I say misogynistic and queer-phobic Roman society. We may speculate that Dio would have said it whether it was true or not, on the grounds that it was ‘scandalous.’

        As I note in my previous comment, I suspect it’s impossible to prove the question one way or the other, or at least I know of no way to do so and doubt it can be done so long after the fact.

  12. I asked about this last week, but:

    last week:

    > He then asserts his education in Rome and notes prominently his assumption of the toga virilis, the narrow purple stripe of which marked him as a Roman citizen

    this week:

    > this solid-white toga is the toga virilis: the distinctive formal dress of a Roman citizen.

    1. Yes, this was something I also wondered. From what I have read the only togas with purple stripes were the toga praetextera of senatorial magistrates and (perhaps, this appears to be unclear) the trabea that equites used at formal events

  13. Put simply Romans were triggered by outlandish forms of dress or religion, and could be very nasty about freedman status or ancestry, but skin color was a non starter prejudice wise.
    I like Bret’s point that people of all ethnic backgrounds can feel connected to Rome, culturally if not lineally. A great many diverse people’s lived under Roman rule and participated in her politics and literature as citizens without giving up their previous identities.

  14. I am not sure if this is a glitch on my end, but I can only see the second image for Voshart’s artwork, when I think there are supposed to be two. My apologies if this is purely on my side.

  15. The problem with Voshart’s images is that the lighting makes the portraits look washed out, and it is difficult to tell the intended skin color.

  16. I know what you mean by “the Queen’s Latin,” but I can’t stop thinking of the scene in Loki where Tom Hiddleston speaks impeccable and unmistakably Cambridge-y Latin to a (nicely diverse) bunch of TV Pompeiians.

  17. The New York Times magazine is actually not a scholarly historical publication, and the idea that Italians (or Irish, or Jews, or whatever) were at one time considered “non-white” has been fairly thoroughly refuted by those who have studied the issue. If you want to say that those groups, and others, faced prejudice and discrimination, fine, but they always rode in the front of the bus.

    1. Not quite. The Irish, for example, were regularly played against free blacks in northern cities before the Civil War, and Eastern and Southern Europeans were definitely considered to be inferior to those from around the North Sea.
      It’s inarguable that they were integrated and assimilated quicker than blacks were (lack of obvious visual differentiation helps with that) but your last sentence considerably overstates their status in the early years.

      1. You mean, there were separate seating sections in public transport for Irish or Italians? There were laws against Irish or Italians marrying people of British, German, or Scandinavian descent? There were separate schools for Irish and Italians? No, there were none of those things. Yes, they faced prejudice and discrimination, but analyzing their experience in terms of “whiteness” is no more useful than are concepts of “white” and “black” in Roman history.

        1. If a restaurant puts up a sign saying “No blacks/chinese/irish”, we can infer that these groups were considered at least similarily repulsive by racist WASPS. The Irish may have been considered white, but they were not a part of what the people then considered American, just as they did not consider Tejanos, Cajouns, Mexicans and Germans to be Americans. Even though by any practical definition, these groups are white.

          1. “No Irish need apply.”

            There were academics claiming that didn’t have, a claim rebutted by a minor for a school project.

        2. You seem to be arguing against the contention that the Irish and others had it as bad as blacks did. That is not the contention being made.

          1. Not really, they’re arguing about the contention that they would fall within the same mental classification – the cultural construction of being “black” or generally “non white”. You could be treated badly for different reasons – racial bigotry isn’t the *only* form of bigotry.

          2. The catch is that the category of “whiteness” is irreversibly and invincibly tied up with the category of “like us.” Implicitly, the person who gets to define what is and is not “white” is always themselves “white,” and gets to exclude from the category whichever groups they don’t like.

            Because it’s not a statement about skin pigments. The pigmentation question is a red herring.

            A very pale Japanese or North Chinese person whose skin tone is identical to a northern European is never “white,” they are (politely) “Asian” or impolitely a bunch of other words. Because what matters to the race theorists who invented the concept of “whiteness” as we know it isn’t literally what color your skin is. It’s common ancestry, or more precisely, the fiction of common ancestry. What matters is the belief that you and your people share a common small pool of ancestors whose natural increase has filled a certain area of land and made it theirs, and which is fundamentally unmixed with any other lesser groups from outside it.

            See also Part IIIb of the Fremen Mirage collection on this site, if you haven’t already. 🙂

            A bigoted nineteenth century Englishman or Anglo-American would certainly concede that the skin of an Irishman was literally colored white in the same sense that his own was. But he would immediately assert that the Irish were nonetheless a lesser breed of men, feckless and reckless and stupid and suitable mostly for brute labor and breeding too quickly and causing trouble. In short, a lot of the same stereotypes that in modified form have been wielded against African-American ‘blacks,’ but in a different form.

            The Irish were not, during this period, part of the self-selecting and self-promoting club of “whites” who acknowledged only among themselves a presumptive right to be treated as equals and heirs to a common heritage worthy of respect and future dominance. They were still on the outside, looking in- and often enough, so were Italians, even as the self-designated “white” identity group of that time tried to claim the heritage of the Italians’ own Roman ancestors.

          3. Simon Jester: You mean that in 19th century America, Irish or Italians were legally denied the right to vote? They were denied the right to stake claims under the Homestead Act? To sit on juries? No, none of those things happened. They were treated as having equal civil and legal rights in every area. There weren’t even any restrictions on their right to immigrate.

        3. You mean, there were separate seating sections in public transport for Irish or Italians? There were laws against Irish or Italians marrying people of British, German, or Scandinavian descent? There were separate schools for Irish and Italians? No, there were none of those things.

          There are none of those things now for blacks. By your logic, that means there are no such people as blacks.

    2. Apparently the fact that people of pallor were also discriminated against as ‘other’ bothers a certain kind of theorist who prefers to see the world in black and white. Skin color is only one of several markers chosen for discrimination. National origin was very much such a marker in this nation of immigrants.

      1. The problem is that in effect, “white” is both a word for a color and a word for a socially constructed racial/ethnic group invented by 18th and 19th century race theorists. The English language isn’t good at helping us parse what are in effect two homonyms.

        This is why some people capitalize ‘Black’ and ‘White’ when referring to ethnic groups- but the ‘White’ ethnicity is particularly vague because it’s been subjected to Calvinball rules over the years. When it ceases to serve the interests of a certain kind of person to say “that group over there is not part of ‘Whiteness,’ then that kind of person ceases to do so. And within a generation or two, their descendants are choosing to forget that the discrimination ever happened, and acting as if the boundaries between ‘Whiteness’ and various forms of not-Whiteness loom large and fixed and reflect profound biological realities.

    3. It really does depend on who you asked.

      Even today the racial status of people from the Middle East, and of people with mostly European but very distantly removed African (or some other non-European) ancestry, are touchy topics with many conflicting models applied by different people.

      There was no point where Italian or Irish people were universally (or anything close) considered non-white, but at the same time, neither were they near-universally considered white until recently. Some people viewed whiteness as a binary (one-drop rule – which, note, excludes many we might today consider white), others as more of a spectrum where one might draw the line in different places.

      e.g:

      “Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of [German] Aliens, who will … never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.

      “Which leads me to add one Remark: That the Number of purely white People in the World is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth. I could wish their Numbers were increased. And while we are, as I may call it, Scouring our Planet, by clearing America of Woods, and so making this Side of our Globe reflect a brighter Light to the Eyes of Inhabitants in Mars or Venus, why should we in the Sight of Superior Beings, darken its People? Why increase the Sons of Africa, by Planting them in America, where we have so fair an Opportunity, by excluding all Blacks and Tawneys, of increasing the lovely White and Red?”

      -Ben Franklin

      Incidentally, the NY Times article linked above does claim that Italians were sometimes segregated alongside those we would consider black people:

      “They were sometimes shut out of schools, movie houses and labor unions, or consigned to church pews set aside for black people. They were described in the press as “swarthy,” “kinky haired” members of a criminal race and derided in the streets with epithets like “dago,” “guinea” — a term of derision applied to enslaved Africans and their descendants…”

  18. The question “were the Romans white?” is one of those ‘not even wrong’ questions because white/non-white was simply not a distinction that very much mattered to the Romans…

    I’d go a step beyond that: White/Non-white isn’t a distinction that Romans would be able to understand, at least not in the way we do. If you asked a Roman about “white people,” I imagine they’d probably assume you were talking about people who were pale because they didn’t get sun (and/or used the makeup mentioned in the article) before assuming you meant their “base tone”. After all, whether someone was in the sun a lot could actually be a marker of something the Romans cared about.

    And, of course whiteness isn’t just about skin; even if we accept that Italians and Poles and Jews are white today (which they weren’t a century or two ago!), Japanese people (for instance) have paler skin than many Caucasians, and nobody would call them white. Obviously, our sources don’t record any ninjas in Rome, but explaining that these pale- to tan-skinned people in Europe are “white” would feel as arbitrary and alien to Romans as separating French and German people from southern Europeans would to us..

    1. I would say whiteness is a sort of empty identity, even with all the privilege it carries. White culture is hard to pin down or define, though “Stuff White People Like” did it’s best to do so (really it was more what suburban bourgeoisie white people like). Really all of the colorist sort of terms have this problem, but being white I can say for certain whiteness is not an identity that means much to me though obviously it affects my life. I think whiteness has mostly existed as something defined against blackness in the Americas due to the history of slavery. Certainly African diplomats were not treated the same as “black people” in 1950s USA, and from what I’ve heard this is part of what drove some name changes in Black Americans as having the right name could get you better treatment in some cases.

      1. African diplomats facing discrimination in the 50s/60s era US was a known and widespread phenomenon, most notoriously for diplomats driving through Jim Crow Maryland on the way back and forth between their embassies in DC and UN headquarters in New York, to such an extent that the mounting diplomatic humiliation for the US (at one point the USSR, with the support of several newly independent African countries, raised the issue to the UN as grounds to relocate their headquarters away from the US) was a not-insubstantial impetus for the federal government to throw its weight behind the struggle against Jim Crow at all!

  19. I think there is a clear color pattern, but I mean **hair color**. Most of them have black hair typical for Southern Europe and most of the humanity, really. Blonde and light brown hair common in Northern Europe is scarce.

  20. Okay, so Jesus was not a (full) Roman citizen but a jewish citizen of Judea, a kingdom that was a client state of Rome. But he’s most likely the most striking example of whitewashing. In European iconography he’s usually depicted with pearl white skin. But he lived in sunny, arid climate and it was typical of his peers to have olive or tan skin. He was born there, not in Ireland or Sweden.

    1. In East Asia he is depicted as East Asian. In Africa as African. The Byzantine images show him as Middle Eastern. People depict their God in a way they can identify with. What the real Yeshua bar Yosef looked like is immaterial.

    2. One has to make allowances for how much racial variation the artists would see.

      There are illuminated manuscripts where the bride in the Song of Songs has black skin — using India ink — and because she is beautiful, blond hair (in gold leaf) and blue eyes and her features are distinctly European down to a rather narrow nose even for a European, and the entire effect is that she looks like an anime extraterrestrial rather than an Earthling.

  21. The plot of one surviving Hellenistic romance is a marital rift caused by the birth of a black child to two Greek parents. He is convinced of adultery: she protests her innocence. After much travail the truth is finally accepted by all: the child is black because a portrait of a noble Ethiopian king hung behind the marriage bed (it was a common belief that development was influenced by what the expectant mother saw). Everyone lives happily ever after…

    The heritage of Rome can be widely claimed: the Ottomans were ‘sultans of Rum’ (as were an earlier Seljuk dynasty in Anatolia) and saw themselves as inheritors of East Rome – reformed by the true religion of course.

  22. I must say . . . nicely done!

    Here are the only three proofreading corrections I noticed as I read:
    that is whose likely -> who’s
    towns they live -> they livein OR in which they live
    we know They very -> [add period]

    1. Annnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnd . . .once again I am forced to use the reply function to “subscribe” to this thread. Trust me, I was careful to click that “Notify me…” box for the short list above, so I have no clue what’s going on. This is the 3rd or 4th week I’ve been forced to come back and do this.

  23. You’ve mentioned in this series that the Romans were “outraged” by some religious practices, such as the Gaul’s human sacrifice, but also the syncretic elements that appear, like the worship of Serapis. On the face of it those two appear incongruous (and the syncretism is more what I’d expect from your excellent series on how polytheism worked in ancient cultures), so I’d be really interested in a post/series on “where exactly the Romans drew the line” when it came to foreign religious practices, and why they adopted some and tried to stamp out others.

    1. Human sacrifice is very clearly the line. If the Romans think you are doing human sacrifice, they become very hostile. Notably, this was one of the charges leveled against Christians, based (one is left to assume) on a profound misunderstanding of the nature of the ‘blood and body of Christ’ during communion. That wasn’t the only reason Christianity was viewed with hostility by the Roman elite – it was also a quasi-secret religion which rejected ruler cult and thus seemed seditious to the Roman mind.

      1. My Bible-talk is very rusty, but in the Gospels Jesus clearly views his own death as an act of human sacrifice, and the apostles definitely understand and teach his crucifixion as part of a pattern of animal sacrifices that was still a common part of local religions there and all over. So there’s something there for hostile authorities to take out of context.
        I tend towards the Beatles explanation of Roman Christianity: The Beatles aren’t huge because they’re a good band, lots of bands are good; the Beatles are huge because the squares freaked out, and everybody who liked them had to defend their preference until it crystalized into a fervor. It could have been any number of convert-accepting cults, but the quadrata freaked out about Christians, and so eventually Jesus was bigger than Augustus.

        1. Sort of in the right ballpark, but way off base. As Prof. Devereux has noted, the Roman elites were disdainful of many non-Roman religions, but that hardly sufficed for long-term success. (Where now are Cybele and Osiris?) The reasons Christianity flourished were: (i) its exclusivity (Christians are not allowed to worship other gods) meant that it affirmatively weakened its competitors, as most pagan religions did not, (ii) its monotheism made it compatible with elite philosophy (once you identify Yahweh with the Unmoved Mover), (iii) its (relative) sexual egalitarianism made it appealing to women, who raise the next generation of believers, and (iv) its emphasis on charity made it appealing to deracinated urbanites, deprived of the familiar supports of extended family and village community.

          1. I’ll have to modify my Beatles theory to include the empowerment and acknowledgement of female adherents as a factor in the freakout feedback loop!

  24. I am not sure how possible/feasible it is to correlate any of this with historical genetic studies/theories on phenotype.

    That said, and correct me if I’m wrong, but I think there is a general consensus that North Africa (prior to Islam) was not at all “Bantu” or “Congoid” or any dominant Central or South African phenotype.

    In essence, North Africans were MORE related to European and Middle Eastern populations genetically than what people now conceive of to be “African” prior to the massive population movements (and slave importations) of Islam.

    Given that, I feel like repeatedly using the word “African” can possibly be misleading in a discussion of race or phenotype (color notwithstanding). Even among later period Roman-Egyptian images, the lack of inclusion of PURELY Congoid/Bantu folk supports the idea that “Sub-Saharan African” (and NOT African) is a necessary distinction when painting “Romans” with the broad brush of “diversity.”

    1. Depends on the area. As we can see in the mummy portriats, Egypt has had a WIDE range of pheotypes that include a lot of “Sub-Saharan African” features ans that goes way way way back.

        1. I have to disagree. I’ve seen stone heads from the Old Kingdom that look distinctly sub-Saharan. Ancient Egypt was in contact with people to the south via the Nile. sub-Saharan slaves were certainly among the goods traded but there were also mercenaries, noble hostages, diplomatic brides and ordinary immigrants. The majority of ancient Egyptians looked like modern Egyptians but sub-Saharans were also present as were other North Africans and Levantines,.
          The AEs could see differences in color and feature but what mattered to them was culture. If you dressed like an Egyptian, worshipped Egyptian gods,followed Egyptian customs you would be accepted as an Egyptian, wherever your ancestors came from.
          To be very clear, North Africans are distinct from sub-Saharan Africans but the latter were a presence in the North.

    2. Carthage, a far-flung colony of a people from the easternmost coast of the Med, became that people’s most prominent city because it served as the main Mediterranean port for the Niger watershed. Every single day of the Roman Republic and Roman Empire, the western trans-Saharan trade persisted and included commodified Black humans.
      This was a rate of human importation that may seem quaint to modern eyes, but it was real and continual and known about all over. And it was relatively common in ancient times for people who survived transportation, to subsequently survive long enough to have children; however, it is extremely rare in any era for an enslaved person to have ‘pure’ children and almost unheard of for them to have ‘pure’ grandchildren.
      Modern genetic studies establish a difference between the populations on either side of the Sahara, but also show that gene flow (small but likely larger than enslaved transportation alone can account for) has been going on longer than anyone can remember. You should not expect to see more stereotypically sub-Saharan features in pre-Visigoth/Vandal North Africa than in Islamic North Africa, but you should not expect to see less either.
      Still, while I object to your certainty, I generally agree with your larger point. Indeed, the US government has always, and continues today, to list North Africans as White; note that for most of US history though it was possible for a sufficiently motivated individual to sue to have a member of a non-European White ethnicity’s citizenship revoked on the grounds that they were Asian, I don’t remember if there’s any cases of that happening with a North African.
      Lastly, I don’t want you to feel attacked, but you should be warned that, um, any ‘theory of human phenotype’ old enough to be considered “historical” is…and I want to be kind here so I’m going to use the euphemism: ‘unhelpful pseudoscience.’

      1. ‘Became the main Med port for the Niger watershed’. What is the source for this? I had thought that Carthage primarily prospered based on its own excellent situation and control over the much smaller (but fertile) Bagradas river system. Was there really so much trans-Saharan traffic

        1. There was definitely a traffic in sub-Saharan goods including slaves up the Nile but I was unaware of a trans-Sahara trade with the Niger area. But then I don’t know much about Carthage.

        2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trans-Saharan_trade

          “The westernmost of the three central routes was the Ghadames Road, which ran from the Niger River at Gao north to Ghat and Ghadames before terminating at Tripoli.”

          “By the 4th century BC, the independent city-states of Phoenicia had expanded their control to the territory and routes once held by the Garamantes.[14] Shillington states that existing contact with the Mediterranean received added incentive with the growth of the port city of Carthage. Founded c. 800 BCE, Carthage became one terminus for West African gold, ivory, and slaves. West Africa received salt, cloth, beads, and metal goods.”

      2. Thanks for your response Endymionologist. Would you characterize breed/species categorization of localized specially adapted wild canines by region as “pseudoscience” also?

        Are your opinions on this matter well received by leading anthropologists?

  25. Modern, Western identity categories aren’t just projected onto the past; they are often projected into modern-day societies where they really warp people’s analysis.

    My example is, of course, the Israeli one, but there are similar ones elsewhere. Westerners who see any colonial or ethnic conflict as “racial” tend to imagine that skin tone is roughly correlated with commitment to the high-status group, and in the Israeli case you often see Western leftists assume that non-Ashkenazi Jews (who, by the way, are the majority of Israeli Jews) are anti-Zionist and hostile to the state. Because, of course, Israel is a conflict between white people and non-white people, so less-visibly-white people must be less attached to the in-group identity.

    But in fact, non-Ashkenazim are more hard-line on average than Ashkenazim, the erosion of Ashkenazi political dominance in the ’70s was part of a turn to the right in the same period, and nationalist rhetoric in any case sees the Jewish communities of the Middle East as more “authentically Jewish”.

    (Note: I use the term non-Ashkenazim because the usual term “Mizrahim”, lit. “Eastern”, elides an enormous amount of variation within that group; and because this applies also to groups not considered “Mizrahim” like Ethiopians.)

    (Note the second: Ashkenazim may be on average more leftist on issues of nationalism, but also tend to be more extreme; the national religious far right is overwhelmingly Ashkenazi, as are the Zionist far left and the anti-Zionist left.)

    1. ‘Racism’ has become the hammer and every problem is a nail. The nuances of reality are most unwelcome.

      1. Racism is obviously a huge thing but it gets constructed very differently in different societies. Americans often assume that their own system of racial categorization is much more universal than it is.

        This can often lead to hilariously tone-deaf statements from Americans. For example stuff that assumes some kind of overarching “Asian” identity that REALLY doesn’t exist in Asia itself.

        1. Anymore than an overarching ‘European’ identity exists. Or for that matter an ‘African’ identity outside of African-American circles.

          1. There were (are?) pan-Africanists on the African continent, as well as pan-Europeanists on the European one.

            In Europe at least, such an identity is now mostly linked with the EU.
            I know there are African institutions but I’m not well read on this subject and on contemporary pan-Africanism.

            A pan-Asian identity though I know very little to nothing about. Wikipedia seems to say there were some thoughts about it, especially in pre-WWII Japan. As with pan-Africanism, I’m not sure that more people than an handful of intellectualls ever embraced such an identity.

          2. Pan-Europeanism is real, as a conscious political project, but is having real trouble getting mass buy-in, and is in any case not “racial” in that it’s often defined in opposition to Russia and the US.

          3. Pan-Africanism is absolutely a thing. And it makes lots of sense. The history of most African regions 1850-2000 have clearly run along parallel lines (colonisation/decolonisation/post-colonial struggles). Moreover the experience of frequent long distance international travel for elites clearly makes a difference. While Africans may not in the first instance think of themselves as ‘African’, extensive travel would soon reveal to them that Europeans and Americans *do* see ‘Africans’ (especially sub-Saharan black Africans) as one undifferentiated mass. (A similar thing is seen with Europeans – I – Dutch – have nothing in common with a Frenchman until we’re both in front of a Chinese or an American who clearly see the pair of us as ‘Europeans’. Post-war dealings with the Americans especially had a tendency to help West Europeans realise we were all in the same boat.)
            It is therefore no surprise that Pan-Africanism largely started with well travelled African descendants in the Westen Hemisphere, but did catch on in Africa from the 1950s onwards. In my limited experience ‘ordinary’ African people are not very taken by it, but students, senior academics and political figures often cite it as an inspiring thing.

          4. Pan-Arabism (as opposed to ‘Islamiam’) was a common feeling going at least back to the latter 19th C: see “Lawrence of Arabia”.

    2. “you often see Western leftists assume that non-Ashkenazi Jews (who, by the way, are the majority of Israeli Jews) are anti-Zionist and hostile to the state.”

      As a Western leftist, I have never heard of the assumption that non-Ashkenazi Israelis were anti-Zionist or more leftist. If anything, there is a feeling on the left.against Sephardic Israelis, who are seen as supporters of Likud or the even further right.(earlier settlers being associated with socialist kibbutzniks).

      1. If your leftist friends know what kibbutzim were, and that they were mostly Ashkenazi, then they are unusually knowledgeable about the region.

        Think “LGBTQ-rights activists deciding what their policy is on Jewish and Zionist symbols”.

  26. Very interesting as usual. It does seem to me, however, than the questions of “which color” is not the same, as “which race”. From what I read here and see in the pics, it looks as the Romans were mostly (or all) Caucasian – and this is probably what people asking about race are interested in. Am I mistaken?

    1. Race is a social construct the Romans’didn’t subscribe to, there are definitely images of Romans who show sub-Saharan phenotypical traits. See the center male mummy portrait for an example. Roman territories covered the Mediterranean basin and portions of what is now France and England. Obviously most Romans originated in those areas. The Romans were in touch with the Far East via the Silk Road and with the African civilizations in the Sudan and Ethiopia.

    2. Yes, most people asking about race would go and ignore what our host explained to still assume most Romans were Caucasian (and as such white) whatever that term even means.

      Romans would have look like modern Algerians, Armenians, Bosniaks, Bulgarians, Croatians, Egyptians, Englishs, Frenchs, Greeks, Irakians, Lebaneses, Lybians, Morroccans, Palestinians, Portugeses, Romanians, Serbians, Spanishs, Swiss, Syrians, Tunisians,Turks, Welshs…

      Many of modern physical traits come from people and ethnicities who came after the Roman Empire losed their respective regions, or during this loss (I’m thinking of Slavs in the Balkans here, but there were other large movements of population) but that doesn’t mean that most of the physical traits didn’t stay the same during the centuries.

      1. The issue is one of framing, acknowledging that race is a socail construct *within* that social construct as traditionally used, all of those people would be “white”.

        1. Yeah but then Iranians are white, and then Indians too I guess? As there is no geographic point where ‘Caucasian’ and ‘Asian’ ‘races’ are neatly separated.

          Also this ‘white’ identity encompassing Middle-East Arabs clearly hits a problem when there is a rise in racism against Middle-East population.
          Arabs, Armenians, Turks,… are white as long as they are a tiny minority.

          1. Well, afaik at least Middle East populations do self-identify as white, when they are in their countries (I don’t know enough about India, but I have a vague feeling that they have an internal distinction between white Indians and non-white ones, none of them descending from modern¹ europeans in any way).

            Also, when going by looks only, I’d say that all of those people (Iranians, Indians, Arabs, Armenian, Turks…) can’t really be distinguished from southern europeans except through dress and other cultural signifiers.

            The fact that they are currently suffering from racism a lot, both in the US and in Europe makes me think that it’s the white / black distinction that is no longer a good predictor for discrimination, rather than having to reclassify people as black.

            ¹ ignoring indo-greeks and all other contacts that happened before modern european colonialism.

          2. If it isn’t clear I’m not arguing that those people should be classified as black!

            Only that trying to look at racism in the region through white/black lense is mostly useless. Labelling the whole Middle-East ‘white’ while mostly correct for the skin tone is completely unable to explain racism and discrimination as they’re not there linked to skin tones.

            Also I think the ‘Caucasian’ denomination is garbage as there isn’t a clear separation from the ‘Asian’ ‘race’. And so trying to see it in the past is a clearly misguided move.

          3. Yes, that is the point “Whiteness” has (at least in Europe, it gets different in the colonies) been the criteria for racial hegemony, because everyone that you want to discriminate against is white too, so you have to invent different categories.

    3. It’s interesting that you see mostly Caucasians in the pictures. I see an almost exclusively mixed-race population; or rather, since modern concepts of race don’t apply, I see exclusively the children of men and women for whom ‘race’ was not a factor in mate-selection.
      People DON’T like to see the messages de-obfuscated, but there is extensive (albeit fading) messaging in present-day Western societies that a person’s ideal mate should have an appearance that is on a range between the average appearance of their (often partially racially segregated) neighborhood and the average appearance of their siblings. You can see in the faces of the real people that that messaging was absent from ancient Rome.

      1. I think there’s a genuine difference in terms of how racial differences are socialized here. Like, I would see a few examples of people I might call “non-white”, but the vast majority of them I’d describe as “white”, someone might get subdivided (eg. “Southern european” or “middle eastern” ) but those are generally subdivisions of whiteness, if that makes sense.

  27. At least in my country (Sweden), the higher degree of anti Arab racism of non Ashkenazi Jews ar often taken for grantet in newspapers and such. The comparison is with SA Boers and Southerns whites in the US. The Israeli Ashkenazim is considered more like SA English or northern whites in the US.

    1. The Sephardic lived under Arab rule for the better part of a millenia. There is reason for their hostility. The popular illusion of Muslim tolerance is just that. An illusion. And one popularized by Ashkenazim trying to shame western anti-semitism.

          1. It’s quite obvious that medieval/early Modern Christians were generally less tolerant of non-Christians. Just compare the fates of non-Christians in parts of Europe conquered by Christians (or whose rulers converted to Christianity) with regions conquered by Muslims. None of the varied pagan religions of Europe have survived, and the Muslims of Sicily and Spain were expelled or forced to convert within a century or two of their conquest by Christians. By contrast, there are parts of the Middle East that, prior to the last few decades, were still 5 or 10% Christian (Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Iraq) 1300 years after their conquest by Muslims. (With smaller numbers of Yezidis, Zoroastrians, Mandeans, etc. also persisting.)

            As for the treatment of Jews, it’s maybe worth noting that medieval and early Modern incidents of expulsions of Jews are almost entirely a Christian European phenomenon.

          2. The Roman paganism did not survive. One notes who did the persecuting there.

          3. I like to say my ancestors have been thrown out of some of the best countries in Europe.

            However those minority populations in the Islamic world were permitted to exist in return for money, had no redress against a Muslim, could not practice their religion openly and were at constant risk of mob violence or a change of policy from above. Such was Muslim tolerance. As I say, not that different from the limitations imposed by Christians.

          4. Insofar as “life” is not different from “death” and “grudgingly allowed to stay” is not different from “expelled from the region at spearpoint,” you are correct.

          5. And so you need figures to establish how much of each was involved.

            To insinuate that one side was one, and the other the other is simply to show bad faith.

        1. There was actually very little difference. Jews lived precarious lives on sufferance under both Islam and Christianity. There were times and places that were fairly hospitable but that could change in an instant. There were pogroms is Muslim countries and tolerant periods in Christian lands

          1. To be honest, I don’t think devout (Abrahamic) monotheists have ever been great at long term broad tolerance when they’ve been in charge (almost by definition really). Islam at least has a clear ‘box’ to put Christians and Jews in and on average Islamic states have respected that box…but it is still a box, and as for its attitude to pagan religions, fuggeddaboudit. Christians don’t have such a ‘box’, and in consequence have engaged in more frequent repression against just about everybody, though Christian-inspired liberal values have offered a better shield to other religions from the 18th century onwards. The Jewish states of later antiquity rarely had the opportunity to act fully independently against non-believers, but I think that when they could, e.g. the early Hasmonean period, that thing did get harder for non-Jews and forced conversion was seen (e.g. the Idumeans)

  28. Indeed, there is sexual polymorphism in human skin color. Melanin is not one single molecule, but a family of several slightly different pigments. Going beyond “lighter” and “darker”, we can more specifically say that there are “pinker” and “browner” color components based on the ratio of pigments. The practical takeaways aren’t about race, but about how to use pinks and browns in color theory to paint more realistic portraits.

  29. This is a bit out of period, but:

    “…a tale from the 590s. The story goes that Pope Gregory the Great saw some fair-haired and fair-skinned slaves in a slave market in Italy, and was told that they were Angles. ‘Not Angles but angels,’ he replied.”

    This suggests that the Bishop of Rome had skin notably less fair than your average Anglo-Saxon, This is totally unsurprising, but ties into the article’s point.

  30. So, British and American film/TV projects set in the ancient Mediterranean world should cast a larger number of olive-skinned actors (think Riz Ahmed, Gal Gadot, and Rami Malek) than they typically do. I’m reminded of Ridley Scott’s infamous comment “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.” It’s arguable that it should come up, for moral reasons if not business ones. I’m not sure if this is a factor in the British TV/film industries, but I know that in American TV/film a major barrier to this kind of casting is that a lot of entrenched Hollywood studio heads, financiers, industry veterans, etc. believe there is no ”financial incentive” to prioritize this kind of casting. They’re sometimes willing to do it, but they see it as a way to appease activists and they don’t think anything’s in it for them. I thought that was worth mentioning.

    1. I got massacred on twitter once for suggesting Gadot would make a decent Cleopatra. Comes from halfway between Macedonia and Memphis. Has an actual nose. Oozes class.
      Doubtless much better looking than the real Cleo but that’s show business!

      1. Ooh, someone else wants to talk about this topic! Yay! I have more thoughts on it.

        When I said “they’re sometimes willing to do it” I was thinking of a handful of Bible movies / faith-based movies (specifically The Nativity Story, Risen, and The Shack) that cast olive-skinned actors as first-century Jews. Notably, these are *not* big-budget movies, and therefore the Hollywood bigwigs I mentioned don’t see them as such a financial risk. (Nativity Story and Risen do cast lily-white actors as all of the Roman characters, though. Precisely the thing our host is complaining about.) Contrast this with the 2016 Ben-Hur remake which cast Morgan Freeman as Sheik Ilderim (an Arab in the novel). It was a big-budget movie, and therefore olive-skinned actors were considered “risky.”

        The only real problem with casting Gal Gadot as Cleopatra is that Gadot is unpopular in Egypt for political reasons. (Egyptian moviegoers would not make up a major chunk of the the target audience, though.)

        1. Slight corollary to what I said above: the 2016 Ben-Hur film is actually filled with olive-skinned actors playing the Jewish characters, although none of them are playing the Roman characters. I thought of Freeman’s character because I remembered a review which lamented Hollywood’s unwillingness to cast an Arab as an Arab. And that film was a bomb, which if anything reinforced Hollywood’s beliefs that “Mohammad so-and-so” is box office poison.

        2. The Morgan Freedman as an Arab thing illustrates the anger I ran into; not the political issue of casting an Israeli as an Egyptian heroine. Apparently the real problem was failing to suggest that Cleo be played by an African-American actress…(Egyptians are AFRICANS!!). I made my excuses and left, but I do find American enthusiasm for dragging everything into their own battles to be a bit much. The one thing we can be fairly sure of is that Cleo was *not* of the mixed West African/North European heritage that characterises the majority of African-Americans. Cleopatra would almost certainly identified as a Macedonian, perhaps with some Egyptian or other Eastern Mediterranean (some Pontic?)…and I believe that is most of what we know (other than the magnificent nose that she apparently insisted on reproducing on all her coinage!)

          1. The frustrating thing is that this Egyptian energy isn’t poured into telling authentically West African stories. There are whole eras of fantastic, absorbing history there that never get a hearing or a showing, especially the great Empires – Mali, Oyo, Tukulo etc. Larger-than-life characters, vast trading cities to overawe the few Europeans who made it there, gorgeous art, squadrons of Yoruba cavalry…I think the success of Black Panther shows there’s a broad willingness to take in authentic content with these authentically sub-Saharan African backdrops..

          2. Ah but the Cushite kings aren’t as well known as Cleopatra!
            Given the apartheid nature of Ptolemaic Egypt it is unlikely that Cleo had any native Egyptian ancestry, much less sub-Saharan African. The identity of Cleo’s mother, and the mother of her father Ptolemy Auletes, is uncertain but it is highly unlikely that the child of an Egyptian concubine would have been accepted by the Macedonian aristocracy as king or queen.

          3. John T. raises a significant point. We in the West tend to fixate on Egypt when talking about pre-modern Africa. Is it because of proximity? Written records? Relative cultural similarity? Or some other reason?

            Incidentally, I’d love to see our host (or anyone else in this comment section with some classicist training) talk about the ancient-world epics produced by Hollywood in the 50s and 60s, like (for example) Fox’s 1962 Cleopatra film. (I watched that film last year and was surprised to discover that Cleopatra is not really its viewpoint character. It spends its first half being a pretty entertaining Julius Ceasar movie and its second half being a really boring Mark Antony movie.)

          4. “John T. raises a significant point. We in the West tend to fixate on Egypt when talking about pre-modern Africa. Is it because of proximity? Written records? Relative cultural similarity? Or some other reason?”

            The root of Western culture is ancient Greece. One of Greece’s nearest neighbors was a wealthier and vastly older civilization. Even though the Greeks considered themselves the best, they couldn’t help but be impressed by Egypt. The Greeks learned math from the Egyptians, and Greek architecture was influenced by Egypt, and I’m sure there were other influences from Egypt to Greece that I’m not aware of.

            As for sub-Saharan cultures, the Greeks were only barely aware of them. Too far away, and too hard to get to.

          5. “I’m sure there were other influences from Egypt to Greece that I’m not aware of.”

            Our host has talked about the influence of Egyptian statues on Greek ones.

  31. “The Roman paganism did not survive. One notes who did the persecuting there.”

    Both sides. Late Roman Christians were often zealous in persecuting pagans — or other Christians — when they could. Destroying temples, banning practices. Much like the Taliban today.

    1. Or like woke protesters, getting rid of Walt Whitman statues. Why is it that we always criticize the other, and never ourselves?

    2. And, of course, other “not surviving paganisms” include Irish paganism, German paganism, Norse paganism, Slavic paganism, etc., etc. Medieval Christians were remarkably efficient at extinguishing non-Christian religions (with the partial exception of Judaism) wherever they held power. Medieval Muslims, less so.

      1. Well, the muslims were quite efficient at destroying Arab polytheism. Christians and Jews where tolerated as “people of the book”, that is fellow abrahamitic monotheists. With a stretch, that could even be applied to Zoroastrians and smaller gnostic groups like the Mandai. Muslims seems first have tried to extinguish Hinduism and Buddhism earn they went into the Indian subcontinent, but then stretched the concept of people of the book to them. Celtic and Germanic polytheism seems closer to Arabic polytheism than the other examples.

        1. As I point out above, Muslim tolerance was purchased, limited, and might withdrawn at any time.

          1. After all, when the Almohads conquered Cordoba and abolished Dhimmi status, Maimonides fled to Rome, Or was it Paris ? London? Oh, it was Fez, then Cairo.

      2. While not claiming for a minute that Christians didn’t work to eliminate pagan cults we cannot ignore the powerful appeal of Christianity, especially to the poor and disenfranchised. Even when persecuted it spread like wildfire. The Church was also somewhat syncretic, turning gods into saints. Adopting holy days and christianizing folk practices.
        Christianity, and Islam, are not monolithic ideologies but riven by different sects and philosophies. Early Christianity was VERY diverse with all kinds of ‘heresies’ and good deal of conflict. The ideal of a unitary, all powerful church was never really achieved.

        1. It’s also quite baffling to not consider any nuance in all those “paganisms” destroyed by christianity.

          Roman, Celtic, Slavic and Germanic “paganisms” were mostly destroyed by the voluntary conversions of their adherents to christianity. For Roman polytheism at least, the conversion process was slow and gradual.

          In contrast, the Baltic people got mostly converted by the sword of their christian conquerors.

          1. Monotheistic religions by their very definition are less tolerant of other “gods” and the end goal is not to have any others.

            If you look at any such religion over a long time period, you’ll find examples of tolerance and examples of oppression. Conversion can be peaceful, can be “encouraged” by rulers, can be a straightforward convert or die. Often all three in the same area of the world.

            (In case Roxana is feeling left out 🙂 Tom Holland opens his book “In the Shadow of the Sword” about the rise of Islam with a brief account of a 5th Century Jewish King of Arabia who massacred Christians.)

          2. @scifihughf

            (I read through the wiki articles on the Roman religion so I’m now an expert on it)

            That said, polytheist religions can and have been at times extremely intolerant. Romans persecuted harshly Celtic religions and I guess other polyteistic religions (Phenician ones maybe?), without even talking about Christianity.

            And that’s not the only non-monotheistic religion being intolerant. So I’m really not conviced that monotheisms are by nature more intolerant that polytheisms.
            I would say though that state religions tend to be intolerant as ‘unbelievers’ are then subversive elements.

            You said <> and that I disagree

            In most of Europe, conversion to Christianity was first peaceful then “encouraged” by rulers (sometimes violently, of course). That’s why conversion of the campaigns and of the traditionnal way of life was so slow. One can only look at former ‘pagans’ leaders having multiple spouses even while being christian for one or two generations.

            Conversion by the sword was confined to regions conquered by states already having a christian majority. So mostly southern Iberia and the Baltic people.

            For the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, we cannot make too much generalization.
            The ‘problem’ of Judaism is that for christians it is a true religion but that in standard christiology jews ought to have converted.

        2. As Brett pointed out, classical polytheisms are less about faith than process. The Romans had a strong aversion to human sacrifice (which had largely disappeared in the Mediterranean other than among the Phoenicians and some Celts), but by and large were otherwise happy to let others get on with their own way of worship. Faith-based religions raise the stakes – if one does not believe in the right way then divine favour is forfeit, not just for the follower but for the community (cf all those Biblical stories about God smiting Israel because some among them have fallen away). So it is essential to have near-universal agreement on the core elements of the faith, and to punish heresy and unbelief.

          Unity is never quite achieved, but the quest for it is a source of constant conflict.

          1. Roman didn’t let anyone get on with their own way of worship.

            Human sacrifices were of course a non-starter, but were they that prevalent in Celtic and Phenician religions or did Romans made up this claim to persecute them? The same Romans accused christians of incest or child-murder so I’m sceptical that they told the whole truth on the matter.

            Some mystery cults were also persecuted by the Roman state.

            Finally, while monotheism tends to be intolerant to heresy or apostasy (and not necessarly of paganism), Greek and Roman states weren’t exactly tolerant of those who refused to take part in civic rites. Something that was unbearable to jews and christians alike.

            To paint Greco-Roman religion as tolerant as opposite to the intolerance of monotheisms is imo wrong. Romans didn’t have the same understanding of religion and as such didn’t have the same understanding of religious tolerance.

  32. “Instead the idea that there was some firm separation, that Italians were clearly ‘white’ in a way that, say, North Africans clearly wouldn’t have been is an assumption based on the Atlantic world of the early modern period, not the Mediterranean world of antiquity.”

    It’s an interesting thing because (outside of a few americans) I haven’t really ever seen that? Even today most people would here (grudgingly perhaps) agree that algerians or egyptians are (mostly, although not entirely) “White”. They might be racist and quibble about the “quality” of their whiteness, or about all sorts of other things, but they’d be sorted as “White” fairly unproblematically in a way say, an Igbo or a Thai person wouldn’t be.

    1. That’s because ‘whiteness’ isn’t just about skin color, it’s about phenotype, the shape of facial features. It’s also about cultural identity. Some American ‘blacks’ look like somewhat tan Caucasians but insist on their black identity. It’s all nonsense however you sort it.

  33. Ben Franklin on whiteness:

    “And since Detachments of English from Britain sent to America, will have their Places at Home so soon supply’d and increase so largely here; why should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.”

    “the Number of purely white People in the World is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth.”

    “I could wish their Numbers were increased. And while we are, as I may call it, Scouring our Planet, by clearing America of Woods, and so making this Side of our Globe reflect a brighter Light to the Eyes of Inhabitants in Mars or Venus, why should we in the Sight of Superior Beings, darken its People? why increase the Sons of Africa, by Planting them in America, where we have so fair an Opportunity, by excluding all Blacks and Tawneys, of increasing the lovely White and Red?”

    (Commentary claims ‘Red’ just meant rosy cheeks.)

    So: French, Germans, and Swedes: not White.

    1. Late to the party, but actually the obsession with skin colour seems particularly acute in the Anglo world. In France, in the 50s the president of the Senate was black; in the 1890s, the mayor of Paris was black, too; ditto many prominent personalities since the Revolution at last (and the famous black general Dumas). Also many American Blacks (GIs or musicians, mostly) were surprised to be well received in France comparatively to their own country. That doesn’t mean racism wasn’t a thing, of course.

  34. The only one I’m a little suprised at is how dark Marcus Aurelius, Commodus elder twin brother was named Titus Aurelius Fulvus Antoninus, so I always assumed that Fulvus meant the kid was blonde. So, I wouldn’t think Marcus Aurelius could be so dark if he was able to have kid with blonde hair.

  35. The corrected Emperor face reconstructions still seems a bit off to me as it seems to, to a large degree, specifically because it seems to have largely assigned the darker skintones, at least at a glance, to those who had descent from North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean/Middle East.

    The thing about Italians, Greeks, Syrians and Tunisians and such looking very similar today and then isn’t really that Italians and Greeks can occasionally have dark skin like Syrians and Tunisians it’s that generally people in these countries have the same range of skintones ranging from light or even pale to various shades of tan/olive and brown.

    What I’m saying is that someone being from Italy or from Africa (which as people posting here are probably aware specifically referred to something corresponding to modern day Tunisia in Roman times) should not be the deciding factor for whether or not we assume they were relatively light- or dark-skinned.

  36. Excellent post!

    There’s one thing I wanted to correct though: you speak as if there is some sort of universal racial categorisation system today. There isn’t. Groups considered obviously none white to many Americans (people from North Africa) can and are considered white in other parts of the world depending on their looks and religion (which might seem absurd until you remember that racial categories are social constructs, ergo what religion you practice and what clothing you wear really can change your race depending on local context). Hispanics are another great example.

    Likewise, groups that would obviously seem white to Americans aren’t white in other contexts (Romani, Slavs, and even the Portugese aren’t considered white in some places of the world today).

    There are also systems of racial hierarchy that look nothing like America’s (with different groups on top). It becomes impossible to understand these situations if we keep trying to pretend their situations are all like America’s.

    The Americanisation of racial paradigms in is a real issue in the world today, and it deserves to be called out.

  37. Wow. I have recently run across your website here, and have been thoroughly enjoying myself reading through it. Love this topic in particular, especially with how much Rome gets used in inane political comparisons to the modern US.

    That said, I ran across a claim that the ancient Greco-Roman world actually did have a lot of what we would call systemic racism against black people. The person said stories, such as the following of Septimus Severus’s experience with an Ethiopian soldier, indicate a strong racial bias as we’d recognize it today.

    “An Ethiopian soldier, who was famous among buffoons and always a notable jester, met him with a garland of cypress boughs… Severus in a rage ordered that the man be removed from his sight, troubled as he was by the man’s ominous colour and the ominous nature of the garland…”

    Or this piece written by Appian,

    “When the soldiers were going out to the fight an Ethiopian met them in front of the gates, and as they considered this a bad omen they immediately cut him in pieces.”

    I was referred to this thesis here which goes into more detail making this claim. https://arminda.whitman.edu/theses/420 es

    I was just wondering if this was something familiar to you, and if you think the claim has merit, or if it’s an innacurate understanding of Greco-Roman culture.

    Again, love the work, and thanks for taking the time to read this post!

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