Black and White

It has been a long time since I last posted on here – the reason is simple: I’m frantically trying to finish a book about the Latin verse inscriptions of Rome’s poor and marginalised. I hope to have everything done by the end of this year – and there’s still a fair bit to do. But I haven’t forgotten this little blog!


Head of a Roman Boy (second century A. D.). – Image source:

October is Black History Month in the U. K.

I don’t particularly like the idea of  Black History Month.

To me, black history is human history.

As such, I am just as interested in it as I am in any other facet of human history, and I firmly believe that it should be studied by everyone as just that, every month, every day – unafraid to embrace the complexity and diversity of human life in all its shades and nuances (not shying away from those bits in our history that give us little reason to be proud of or that we no longer find convenient as part of our narratives).

Unfortunately, not everyone seems to find it easy to come to terms with that, for reasons I cannot fathom or respect. As a result, marginalised groups remain marginalised in their representation in historical and literary disciplines. And that is one of the many reasons why we do need Black History Month, promoting cohesion and diversity to counterbalance biases that otherwise often remain unaddressed.

A recent string of heated exchanges made it quite obvious that this is true for my own discipline, Classics, as well – a discipline that (to me, anyway) is so exciting because it is so diverse and complex (even though we do not always do justice to that, myself included).

What had happened?

Over the last couple of months or so, there has been a long row on Twitter, with Mary Beard (once again) at the centre of some unspeakably vile trolling and abuse, challenging the notion of a presence of Blacks in the Roman Empire as something ‘normal’. (My colleague Matthew Nicholls contributed a nice little piece about this debate here, and Mary Beard added an interesting item to it here.)

As part of the debate focused on the presence or absence of genetic evidence for the presence of sub-Saharan types in the DNA available for the classical world, it may be worthwhile, I thought, to look at how the ancients themselves thought about genetic inheritance and race – concepts not at all alien to them, if conceptualised and expressed differently.

The following piece comes from a little-read ancient author called Calpurnius Flaccus who seems to have produced his work, a collection of rhetorical exercises, around the reign of Hadrian in the early second century A. D.

As a rhetorical exercise, it presents a (made-up) case, an accusation, and a defence – the text is somewhat fragmentary, but the main lines are clear (Calpurnius Flaccus, Declamations 2, transl. L. A. Sussmann):

(i) The Case:

The Son Who Was Born Black (Natus Aethiops)

(ii) The Accusation:

Love is blind: it has neither rhyme nor reason. Otherwise, we would all love in the same way. Not infrequently the reason for sinning is to sin in a manner that invites disbelief. “Children don’t always take after their parents,” she tells us. What business do you have with employing this sort of defense plea, other than to reveal that you have sinned quite recklessly? Are we surprised for this to be a law of nature, that a person’s features are inherited by his offspring, and that the races of man preserve these like the transcribed copies of a document? Indeed, for each race of man its own characteristic physical appearance remains fixed. In Germany, they have ruddy faces and their great stature is crowned by blonde hair; in Spain <…> they are not all imbued with the same shade of skin. In the opposite direction, where the vault of Heaven, curving out and coming to an end + dispatches the rising sun, there more sprawling, and yes, there more compactly sized bodies are born. The races of men are diverse, yet nobody is dissimilar to his own particular race. “What are you saying then,” she goes on, “I made love to a black man?” Gentlemen of the jury, now and then disgusting acts also have their own distinctive qualities of attraction, and people take a certain pleasure in . Are you surprised that someone falls in love irrationally, since it is by no means the mark of a rational person to embark upon a love affair at all? Grant me the eyes, sensible ones, of a woman: no adulterer is handsome. Chastity doomed to be lost cares not the last how it should be lost. It is a peculiarity of depraved lust not to care where it may drop. When once chastity has been ruined, no source of ruin is degrading after people’s minds have sunk into vice. In the end, the man who gratified her lust was one on whom her husband’s suspicion could not fall.

(iii) The Defence:

Is not therefore the fact that she desired to give birth stronger evidence of her chastity than the fact that she did give birth disastrously is evidence of her inchastity? You see a fetus violently discharged from her possibly injured internal organs: much of its plight may even yet be inside her womb. You see scorched skin – it’s the blood’s fault; but you regard it as the pigment of its skin. What you see may well be an injury to the baby. This very condition, the fact that bruising has darkened and deeply discolored its skin, a long lapse of time may alleviate. Quite often snow-white limbs are tanned by the sun, and a pale complexion departs from the body. Shelter from the sun forces limbs to become pale, however naturally swarthy they were. Grant as much time as you think nature allows for this process.

This remarkable passage (which is not for the faint-hearted – or those who think of the ancient world as a safe refuge from a world that has become somewhat unhinged recently) is a masterful example of ethnocentrism. It places Rome and Italy at the centre of its considerations and has it defined the default: the husband (accusing) and the wife (accused) are safely placed there, and their physical appearance and complexions define the normal.

From here, all other types are defined: there are the Germans in the North (wrinkly, tall, blonde), the Spaniards in the West (partly not transmitted, but with great variation to their complexions), and the Asians in the East (who are either somewhat more sprawling or more compactly sized). None of them compare particularly favourably to the default.

The reason for such variation in appearance, according to the accuser, is adaptation to climate (a common view in the ancient world) – each region produces a specific type of humans, related to proximity to the sun, humidity, and so forth.

And then there are the Blacks, named by their mythical name Aethiopes (literally ‘those with the burnt face’). And it was one of them, the accusers claim, who fathered the woman’s child – someone who, according to the husband, was deemed least likely to be the suspect: presumably because he was a slave.

The accusation therefore: this child was the result of an act of adultery with a black man (an Aethiops) – which one can easily tell, as certain features are heredetary, including skin colour.

This was well-known at the time.

As our author has the accuser put it: miramur hanc legem esse naturae, ut in sobolem transeant formae, quas quasi descriptas species custodiunt (‘are we surprised for this to be a law of nature, that a person’s features are inherited by his offspring, and that the races of man preserve these like the transcribed copies of a document’)?

Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History, gives evidence for a Roman understanding of genetic dominance of black skin colour when he describes that it will prevail in mixed-race children.

Plutarch, in turn, relates a story in which a woman, though not particularly dark-skinned herself apparently, gave birth to a black baby and eventually was found to be the great-granddaughter of an Ethiopian.)

Remarkably, despite the heavily race-focused discourse of the accusation (the Latin term in use here is gens, ‘family’, as identified by the blood-line), none of it challenges in any way the humanity, worth, or the very right to existence of any gens. Instead, any diversion from the norm, resulting from climatic differences, comprises a certain level of disfigurement (ruddiness, body height, body spread, shades of complexion etc.) as compared to the ideal that is the Roman archetype (which remains undefined!).

It is in that regard that the text describes black skin as a deviation from the norm that is less than aesthetically pleasing (and it makes this point in rather strong, bold terms). At the same time, the text also does not object, in principle, to such mixed-race encounters – it may be an aesthetically questionable choice (following the logic of this text, that is), but one that is perfectly normal from the perspective of lovers, who are all a bit mad to begin with.

What is (and remains) bad about the whole scenario is the (alleged) act of infidelity – and, as if that was not bad enough, infidelity with someone as low as a slave: the husband certainly never expected her to sink so low (as the final sentence would appear to imply).

The defence, too, focuses on the adaptability of the human skin to its environment, but in a rather more short-termist way, working forward from the assertion that the entire birth process had been profoundly upsetting and dramatic  – in fact, true credit to the accused’s fidelity rather than the opposite. (Time to remind oneself: this is a fictitious case!)

In this context it is pointed out that one’s complexion may change even in the short term (rather than as part of one’s genetic inheritance), depending on exposure to the sun (or lack thereof). Something similar, it is argued, may have happened to the baby as it was born under very difficult circumstances.

Time will show, it is claimed, that the baby’s skin colour is not, in fact, the result of an act of infidelity (note, too, what the text does not say, namely that intercourse with an Aethiops would be out of the question for a woman of high reputation!), but of complications.

A difficult text, no doubt, and one full of potentially quite challenging remarks about genetic inheritance.

The message I prefer to take away from it, however, is this:

Expers iudicii est amor; non rationem habet, non sanitatem; alioquin omnes idem amaremus.

Love is blind: it has neither rhyme nor reason. Otherwise, we would all love in the same way.

A statement even the (allegedly) spurned (made-up) accuser cannot disagree with.


About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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