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racism in the classical world

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racism in the classical world

Postby idoneus1957 » Thu Jun 08, 2017 3:14 pm

I guess I should have posted this on this board, instead of on open discussion.
Do you think that there was racism in ancient Greece or Rome?
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Re: racism in the classical world

Postby bedwere » Thu Jun 08, 2017 3:20 pm

How do you define racism?
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Re: racism in the classical world

Postby swtwentyman » Thu Jun 08, 2017 7:22 pm

This may be of interest:

viewtopic.php?f=36&t=65745

I've read that there wasn't as much a divide between black and white in those days (the contact they would have had with blacks would be for the most part Ethiopians and the surrounding peoples -- not that it was out of the question for sub-Saharan black people to wend their way up to the Mediterranean) but the Romans could and did make disparaging comments about other ethnicities. Wheelock's mentions anti-Greek sentiment, but I really ought to defer to someone who knows more. Caesar is not entirely kind in his depictions of the Gauls, and all the barbarians Xenophon comes across in book IV of the Anabasis are primitive and pretty cowardly -- but of course he puffs himself (and his ethnicity) up in relating their interactions!
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Re: racism in the classical world

Postby tanngniostr » Sat Jun 10, 2017 11:33 am

I guess it really depends on the definition of racism you would use. I'd say there are two general definitions of it right now. 1: prejudice against people with a different skin colour. E.g.: a white person using the N word as a derogatory term towards a black person, saying things like all black people are thieves, that kind of stuff. 2: the systematic oppression of people with a dark skin colour, by institutions, law, the majority groups, or people with more power in general than the minority. So this is not just a prejudice/nast comments made to people with a different skin colour. It is a systematic thing, which happens consistently in society. E.g.: police officers in the USA who act way more violently towards black people, than towards white people. This is a systemantic thing, done by peope with more power than the black minority. The two definitions can overlap though.
The first definition would cause a different answer than the second defnition. With the first definition, you would have to find out whether Romans mistrusted dark-skinned people, if they called them names or that kind of stuff. With the second one you'd have to look at their juridical system I guess, and maybe at how people in power in general treated dark skinned people, like governing people or the military for example. I know too little myself to really answer this, though. TBH, I wonder how this could be answered, as the context was way different. For example, in the most part of the western world, people of color have a lower socio-economic position, and people in such conditions are more prone to criminality in general, but as such a large portion of the people in such a position right now is coloured, it feeds into racism (for both definitions: people will be more prejudiced, + people in power are more prone anyway to discriminare against people who are poor I guess). So you'd probably also have to find out in what kind of socio-economic position PoC usually were in the Roman society. It's a really interesting topic, though. I'm interested in what other people think about it.
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Re: racism in the classical world

Postby jeidsath » Sun Jun 11, 2017 1:00 am

There is some misinformation above. Some points:

1. Skin color (mostly a function of latitude) does not line up well with social constructions of race. You can Google for "albino Africans" if you'd like. Few people would mistake an Indian (sub-continental) for an African, whatever their skin tones. I think more precise terminology would refer to "phenotype clusters." Ie., skin color + hair color + hair type + facial structure + the myriad of other things which tend to separate us into groups, and cluster in genetic lineages.

2. In the USA, the police are more likely to shoot a white (European) man in any particular engagement.

3. In the USA there some races that do better economically than the average, while others do worse than the average. Their skin color does not appear determinative. The lighter-skinned Hmong are much worse off than various dark-skinned Indians (sub-continental).

4. However this pattern occurs throughout the world. More "enlightened" European countries tend to have even worse economic stratification for their relatively smaller numbers of non-European descended populations. Their citizens think of it as a US problem partly because the US as larger percentages of non-European residents in absolute numbers. Is that anti-US racism? Perhaps.

5. Classical literature contains a great deal of ethnography. What it doesn't contain is anything like the bizarre binary white/non-white view that is so popular in the UK (and was similarly popular in the US until 20-30 years ago).

6. This bizarre binary view is perhaps the product of a very unique circumstance in some parts of the US where two groups whose ancestors were separated by a wide geographical gulf, were brought into close contact without any large numbers of other groups present. While not historically unique, it was a rare occurrence.

7. Every essay on the non-existence of classical racism that I've ever read seems to begin by taking the strawman of binary white-black racial groups as the definition of racism, and proceeds from there.

8. The world before mass population growth was very different from our own. It was not very long ago before you could tell that someone came from the village a few miles off just by his accent. (And distrusted him because of it.)

9. The ancient world had a well-established practice of making military captives into slaves. Outsider groups were often military adversaries.

10. Outsider status could be conferred by simply being from the next city over. At other times and places, it could be conferred only by much wider gulfs.

11. What's strange isn't people of another race with outsider status, rather what is strange are the limited times and places in the ancient (and modern) world, where insider status has been spread out over geographically and politically wide areas.
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Re: racism in the classical world

Postby bedwere » Sun Jun 11, 2017 4:39 am

jeidsath wrote:
8. The world before mass population growth was very different from our own. It was not very long ago before you could tell that someone came from the village a few miles off just by his accent. (And distrusted him because of it.)

This I can personally confirm. As an Italian who lived in a village in the Po River valley (Portomaggiore), I can tell people from 10 miles away (Argenta). There is still rivalry, although, I am afraid, it will die one day.
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Re: racism in the classical world

Postby tanngniostr » Sun Jun 11, 2017 10:22 am

jeidsath wrote:2. In the USA, the police are more likely to shoot a white (European) man in any particular engagement.

''According to the most recent census data, there are nearly 160 million more white people in America than there are black people. White people make up roughly 62 percent of the U.S. population but only about 49 percent of those who are killed by police officers. African Americans, however, account for 24 percent of those fatally shot and killed by the police despite being just 13 percent of the U.S. population. As The Post noted in a new analysis published last week, that means black Americans are 2.5 times as likely as white Americans to be shot and killed by police officers.
U.S. police officers have shot and killed the exact same number of unarmed white people as they have unarmed black people: 50 each. But because the white population is approximately five times larger than the black population, that means unarmed black Americans were five times as likely as unarmed white Americans to be shot and killed by a police officer.'' (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/pos ... 400cb30220)
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Re: racism in the classical world

Postby jeidsath » Sun Jun 11, 2017 1:41 pm

What the Washington Post wrote is correct. But what I wrote is also correct. (There is an assumption of a particular equality in your reasoning which is not actually so.)
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Re: racism in the classical world

Postby tanngniostr » Sun Jun 11, 2017 2:19 pm

How can it both be correct and incorrect that black people are more likely to be killed by cops? Could you please explain what makes what you wrote correct? because (
jeidsath wrote:W(There is an assumption of a particular equality in your reasoning which is not actually so.)
is not actually an explanation :P
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Re: racism in the classical world

Postby jeidsath » Sun Jun 11, 2017 2:40 pm

It will remain a mystery to you for life, I guess. Let us get back to the classical world.
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Re: racism in the classical world

Postby Paul Derouda » Sun Jun 11, 2017 2:42 pm

I'm with Bedwere here: how do you define racism?

As far as I'm aware, there's no trace of racism specifically aimed at dark-skinned people in antiquity. But why should accept such a narrow definition of racism? We have people participating on this forum who were already born when 6 million Jews were murdered. Doesn't that classify as racism?

jeidsath wrote:2. In the USA, the police are more likely to shoot a white (European) man in any particular engagement.

I'm not sure I follow your argument here. This could be due to a number of reason, including the possibility that the police are stopping dark-skinned individuals for frivolous reasons (i.e. ethnic profiling), which would raise the number of engagements with black people. If the police are stopping black people for really no reason, they're not likely to shoot them either. This is pure speculation of course, but if black Americans are 2.5 more likely to be shot by the police than whites, I find the figure alarming. On a more general note, I find that the excessive use of force in the US alarming, especially given that it's a rich, politically stable country. US police kill more in days than other countries do in years. (Fact from the article: the police in Finland (pop. 5 million) shot six bullets in all of 2013. Still, there are lots of guns in Finland, which is very high on the guns per capita list).

6. This bizarre binary view is perhaps the product of a very unique circumstance in some parts of the US where two groups whose ancestors were separated by a wide geographical gulf, were brought into close contact without any large numbers of other groups present. While not historically unique, it was a rare occurrence.

7. Every essay on the non-existence of classical racism that I've ever read seems to begin by taking the strawman of binary white-black racial groups as the definition of racism, and proceeds from there.

I agree that the binary view is absurd in the way that the concept of race has no basis on genetics. Socially, however, it's very relevant. In the US (and elsewhere) slave trade created a situation where black skin color marked you and your descendants for life to the slave caste. This situation didn't arise before that because slave trade didn't exist at such a global scale. If people conquered neighboring peoples at war and took them into slavery, they didn't look very different. An almost similar situation was the rule until the 1990's in South Africa. There were all sorts of absurd test to determine whether you were black or white when it wasn't obvious.

I wrote about slavery in an earlier thread, if anyone wants to look: viewtopic.php?f=36&t=65405#p184892.
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Re: racism in the classical world

Postby jeidsath » Sun Jun 11, 2017 4:23 pm

Finland has a overall murder rate very similar to US states Iowa, Hawaii, Vermont, Minnesota, Maine, and New Hampshire. (1-2 per 100,000)

US states with the highest overall murder rate (as much as 10 times that) are Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, South Carolina, Maryland. (6-10 per 100,000)

I currently live in one of the more violent cities in the U.S. People keep getting robbed at gunpoint right in front of my apartment, and a few are murdered in the park across the street every year. I recently lived in one of the least violent (better than Finland!), and it's only a few miles away.

You can predict the above murder rates in various cities and states from some simple demographic facts with almost actuarial precision, and Finland lands on the chart about where you'd expect it to.

EDIT: A couple of hours after writing this post, a friend at Church told me that he was robbed at gunpoint this week. He told them (truthfully) that he didn't have any money, so they smashed him in the face and left. The same thing happened to him before, but it was easier on him in his 60s than it is now when he is in his 70s.
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more on racism

Postby idoneus1957 » Tue Jun 13, 2017 4:49 pm

How could you possibly define racism except in terms of race? I mean, race is in the word "racism."
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Re: racism in the classical world

Postby Tertius Robertus » Tue Jun 13, 2017 9:09 pm

perharps this is useful: history of the race idea: from ray to carus, by eric voegelin.


indeed, racism was impossible without the idea of race, which emerged, if i recall correctly, with 17th century modern science.
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Re: racism in the classical world

Postby mwh » Tue Jun 13, 2017 11:29 pm

Yes, racism is based on an idea about race—the idea than one race (mine, ours, or his, theirs) is inherently superior or inferior to another race. But the point is that race itself is a social construct, with no scientific basis in biology (ask any biologist), despite persistent 19th- and 20th-century attempts to show otherwise. It’s easier to define race in terms of racism than the other way round.

In the US, mainly because of its history of importation and exploitation of enslaved Africans and that history’s long lingering aftermath (I’ve been reading Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning), racism has been on the part of “whites” and has operated against “blacks,” as if race were a matter of skin color—which it is, in the minds of those who think it is, but not otherwise. In parts of the world with different histories, such as ancient Greece and Rome, that’s simply not the case.

It’s possible to find attitudes among Greeks or Romans that could arguably be called racist (among Romans, at least), but for the most part ethnically or culturally different peoples were simply that, different, not necessarily inferior. Slaves might be considered inferior (at least by Aristotle), but that is not a racial distinction. Sexism, on the other hand, was all-pervasive, even more so than it has historically been in the US.
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Re: racism in the classical world

Postby jeidsath » Wed Jun 14, 2017 1:07 am

I believe that the implicit bias people say that they can measure racial preference starting from infancy. There were some articles in Development Science and Child Development on it earlier this year. This would be surprising in something that only appeared a few centuries ago.

I used to work at a genetic testing startup, and what race someone happened to be was about the easiest thing that we were able to figure out from a spit sample. It was the sort of thing that we liked to know for figuring out your chances of inheriting various conditions like Sickle Cell Anemia, or Tay Sachs. And in fact, you can pay $100 to 23andMe (a different genetics startup), send them a spit sample by mail, and they'll tell you exactly what box you should tick on the census report.

This could not be done with religion, political party, or economic class. Because those really are social constructs.

In general, when a biologist argues against the existence of race, he is saying that the idea of race with clear and sharp boundaries is foolish and unscientific. And he is quite correct. He'd be equally correct to say the same thing about dog breeds, color on the visual light spectrum, biological species, nations with disputed borders, languages, etc., etc.. All of these things are fuzzy at the edges, and we need to respect that when talking about them scientifically. Of course, you don't get published in the New York Times for saying that language doesn't exist (you just get laughed at).

As far as the classical world not having any idea of race and not being racist, I am deeply skeptical that a mostly agricultural world that had very clear ideas about horse and dog breeds and animal species, would have had no inkling about the ideas carrying over to human beings -- scientifically or unscientifically. The idea of raising children being a form of animal husbandry comes up again and again in Socrates. There is plenty of ethnography in classical literature. And as far as I can tell, the Spartans were literally conducting eugenics.

Benjamin Isaac wrote a book a few years ago arguing that the "race didn't exist in the classical world" trope is just another in a very long series where we project something onto the classical world that we want to be there. He argues that yes, racism existed in the classical world, and anti-Semitism. I suppose that the alternative is to argue that the Roman genocides of the Jews were conducted without hate in anyone's hearts.

As far as ideas of ethnic superiority or inferiority, it's all over classical literature. Trajan replies to Pliny's request for architects by asking why he wants them from Rome, when architects generally come from Greece? Lucian says the same sort of thing in various places. Xenophon and Herodotus say mean things about the Lydians. Ceasar opens his Gallic Wars with an ethnic study.
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Re: racism in the classical world

Postby mahasacham » Wed Jun 14, 2017 4:18 am

An interesting read concerning racism in the late classical period is contained in the Apophthegmata Patrum in the section of "Saint Moses the Black":

Moses, called the Robber or the Negro, was a released slave who lived as
a robber in Nitria; late in life he became a monk and was trained by
Isidore the Priest. He was ordained priest and became one of the great
fathers of Scetis. On the advice of Macarius he retired to Petra; he was
martyred with seven others by barbarian invaders.


3. Another day when a council was being held in Scetis, the
Fathers treated Moses with contempt in order to test him, saying,
'Why does this black man come among us?' When he heard this he
kept silence. When the council was dismissed, they said to him,
'Abba, did that not grieve you at all?' He said to them, 'I was grieved,
but I kept silence.'

https://archive.org/stream/Apophthegmat ... s_djvu.txt
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Re: racism in the classical world

Postby daivid » Sat Jun 17, 2017 6:20 pm

Polybios' depiction of the war of the Gauls is clearly based on prejudice :
Such was the end of the war against the Celts, a war which, if we look to the desperation and daring of the combatants and the numbers who took part and perished in the battles, is second to no war in history, but is quite contemptible as regards the plan of the campaigns, and the judgment shown in executing it, not most steps but every single step that the Gauls took being commended to them rather by the heat of passion than by cool calculation.

Gauls are depicted as courageous, violent and irrational. But is it racist? The argument that there was no racism in the ancient world seems to me based on the claim that hostility between groups was more due to ethnic hatred rather than racism.

But if you were a Serb being exterminated by the wartime Croatian quisling NDH it would not be much comfort to know that the Croatian fascists only objected to your "culture" rather murdering you for your race as the Nazis were at that time doing to the Jews.

Cynical political leaders can find it in their interests to secure their rule of an in group by stirring up hatred against an out group. The ancient world doesn't seem so different from any other era to me.

EDIT
Saying Polybios' view is clearly based on prejudice is on reflection overstating it. It does dovetail into the standard Polybian line that Rome's rise is unstoppable and that any rational statesman would recognize that resistance is futile. But the irrationality of the Gauls gets especial stress here and as such fits into the Ancient Greek and Roman prejudice about Gauls and northern barbarians in general.
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Re: racism in the classical world

Postby RandyGibbons » Mon Sep 04, 2017 5:53 pm

I just saw this thread now, so pardon a late reply. Those researching this question may be interested in Blackwell's Companion to Ethnicity in the Ancient Mediterranean (2014). I haven't read from it (it's prohibitively expensive), but you can use Amazon's "Look Inside" feature to browse its table of contents. For the sole reviewer on Amazon, the book is too much "sociology," but for purposes of this thread, that may be just what is wanted.
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Re: racism in the classical world

Postby daivid » Wed Oct 18, 2017 1:28 pm

Worth checking out is The invention of racism in classical antiquity by Benjamin Isaac. The tittle is a little misleading in that he argues that what existed in the Ancient World was proto-racism. This is not simply that skin color was not especially important but also that there was a fairly weak concept of racial characteristics being inherited through birth. Rather, places were thought to shape peoples. Isaac's book brings together a huge amount of references though the final section which breaks the data down by specif ethnic groups is really a repetition of the same sources organized in a different way.
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