People of Changing Colour

In a vitriolic letter to Marcella about one Onasus, dated to A. D. 385, St. Jerome, one of the Christian fathers, makes a remarkable, commonly overlooked statement (Letters 42.2):

non et lucus ideo dicatur, quod minime luceat, et Parcae ab eo, quod nequaquam parcant, et Eumenides Furiae, et vulgo Aethiopes vocentur argentei?

Isn’t the grove (lucus) called just that because it doesn’t at all shine (minime luceat), and aren’t the Fates (Parcae) called just that, because they spared (parcant) no-one ever, or the Furies the ‘Well-Meaning Ones’ (Eumenides), and aren’t the Aethiopes commonly called ‘the silvery ones’ (argentei)?

The sentiment was then recontextualised and reused in the seventh-century work Etymologiae by Isidore of Seville (1.37.24):

Antiphrasis est sermo e contrario intellegendus, ut “lucus” quia caret lucem per nimiam nemorum umbram; et “manes” id est mites (quum sint inmites) et modesti, cum sint terribiles et inmanes; et “Parcas’ et “Eumenides” Furiae quod nulli parcant vel benefaciant. Hoc tropo et nani Athlantes et caeci videntes et vulgo Aethiopes argentei appellantur.

Antiphrasis is a phrase that is to be understood from its opposite, like lucus (‘grove’) because it lacks light (lux) due to the excessive shade that groves have; or manes [denoting the spirits of the deceased] which means ‘gentle’ (although they are the opposite) and modest, as they are terrifying and savage; or the ‘Parcae’ and ‘Eumenides’, the Furies, has they spare (parcant) no-one nor show any good intention. By this trope dwarves are also called Athlantes, the blind are called the seeing, and, commonly, Aethiopes ‘the silvery ones’.

Recent and not-so-recent studies of black people in Roman antiquity – taking Aethiopes (probably correctly) as a catch-all term for ‘black people’ (as opposed to, say, people of a swarthy skin type) regardless of regional origin – have not altogether ignored this passage.

At the same time, this most remarkable throw-away statement has never been discussed in any noteworthy detail: instead, it was typically put into footnotes about ancient disparaging references to black skin – a common (vulgo!) slur, if anything.

Both Jerome and Isidore touch on antiphrasis, a hobby-horse of folk etymologists in the ancient world (and ever since): allegedly, according to this mode of reasoning, words have been formed on the basis of terms that express the opposite of a thing’s main characteristic. A grove is called lucus, because there is no light (lux) in it. A dog is called canis, because it cannot sing (canere).

Funny, but obviously false.

The inclusion of Aethiopes – a word that has been in use since the beginning of European literature in Homeric epic – in this list, however, puzzled me. Aethiops quite literally means ‘(person with a) burnt face’, and, as already indicated, it is one of those terms that are rather unambiguously used to refer to black people in ancient literature, Greek and Roman.

Jerome and Isidore claim that they were commonly – or by the common people –, vulgo, referred to as argentei in ancient Rome. There is no other evidence for that, of course, but all other examples they list are well documented otherwise – making this one unsuspicious of being a hoax.

But is it really a case of antiphrasis? I have my doubts about that.

Silver, as is well known, is a precious metal – and a metal with one annoying characteristic: it tarnishes, rendering the shiny precious metal rather dark (and robbing it of one of its most useful characteristics, namely to reflect light, e. g. when used as a mirror).

Assuming that my suspicion is right and argenteus was not, in fact, used as an antiphrasis, then it would seem that argenteus is a rather more potent slur: there is something valuable underneath, but discolouration has rendered the silver less attractive and seemingly less valuable.

This ties in nicely with the common trope of the need (or the impossibility) ‘to wash an Aethiopian white’, which was recently studied in great detail by my colleague Federico Faloppa.

The passages from Jerome and Isidore may not, however, be the only Roman references to black skin as something that has changed its appearance. There is a famous, often debated graffito in verse from Pompeii that reads as follows (CIL IV 6892 = CLE 2056):

Quisquis amat nigra(m) nigris carbonibus ardet.
nigra(m) cum video mora libenter {a}ed{e}o.

Whoever loves a black woman burns on black coals. When I see a black woman, I gladly eat a mulberry.

Many aspects of this are puzzling – not least the reference to ‘black coals’, as black coals may well be understood as coals that are not, in fact, ablaze, as coals of course turn white once they are set on fire.

To me, this Pompeian piece is an expression of fetishising black women, however – coals are black again, once the white layer of ash is blown off and the heat rises even stronger.

And then there is the reference to mulberries.

The archetypical story related to mulberries in the ancient world is that of Pyramus and Thisbe, as told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses.

Ovid has the pair of hapless lovers meet by the tomb of Ninus under a mulberry tree (Ov. met. 4.88-90, transl. F. J. Miller):

conveniant ad busta Nini lateantque sub umbra
arboris: arbor ibi niveis uberrima pomis,
ardua morus, erat, gelido contermina fonti.

They were to meet at Ninus’ tomb and hide in the shade of a tree. Now there was a tree there hanging full of snow-white berries, a tall mulberry, and not far away was a cool spring.

Later on, when Pyramus thinks that Thisbe has been killed, he impales himself on his sword – and the blood gushing out of his wound has a remarkable effect on the tree (without which the story, of course, would not have qualified for inclusion in the Metamorphoses, Ov. met. 4.121-127, transl. F. J. Miller):

ut iacuit resupinus humo, cruor emicat alte,
non aliter quam cum vitiato fistula plumbo
scinditur et tenui stridente foramine longas
eiaculatur aquas atque ictibus aera rumpit.
arborei fetus adspergine caedis in atram
vertuntur faciem, madefactaque sanguine radix
purpureo tinguit pendentia mora colore.

As he lay stretched upon the earth the spouting blood leaped high; just as when a pipe has broken at a weak spot in the lead and through the small hissing aperture sends spurting forth long streams of water, cleaving the air with its jets. The fruit of the tree, sprinkled with the blood, was changed to a dark red colour; and the roots, soaked with his gore, also tinged the hanging berries with the same purple hue.

Thisbe, upon realising the way in which events had begun to unfold, chooses to end her own life – and she utters a wish as she does so (Ov. met. 4.158-161, transl. F. J. Miller):

at tu quae ramis arbor miserabile corpus
nunc tegis unius, mox es tectura duorum,
signa tene caedis pullosque et luctibus aptos
semper habe fetus, gemini monimenta cruoris.

And do you, O tree, who now shade with your branches the body of one, and soon will shade two, keep the marks of our death and always bear your fruit of a dark colour, meet for mourning, as a memorial of our double death.

– a decision that has an additional impact on the very tree itself (Ov. met. 4.162-166, transl. F. J. Miller) –

dixit et aptato pectus mucrone sub imum
incubuit ferro, quod adhuc a caede tepebat.
vota tamen tetigere deos, tetigere parentes;
nam color in pomo est, ubi permaturuit, ater,
quodque rogis superest, una requiescit in urna.

She spoke, and fitting the point beneath her breast, she fell forward on the sword which was still warm with her lover’s blood. Her prayers touched the gods and touched the parents; for the colour of the mulberry fruit is dark red when it is ripe, and all that remained from both funeral pyres rests in a common urn.

Not only is the mulberry the symbol of fatal attraction – it is also a fruit that goes from white (unripe and poisonous) to black (ripe and delicious): an observation that surely must have informed the writer of the Pompeian graffito. (Interested in another story about interracial relationships in the Roman world? Click here!)

Thus for once, however, a skin turned black – namely that of the mulberry – symbolises something ultimately positive, something that has changed for the better, even though it gave reason for lament in the process.

The vulgus that referred to Aethiopes as argentei, silvery ones, almost certainly were not try to flatter. But there is scope in that image nevertheless. To my mind, all human beings are made of the same precious material – and that is something we should celebrate, not only during Black History month.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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3 Responses to People of Changing Colour

  1. Pingback: People of Changing Colour — The Petrified Muse – „Ingerii sunt spirite inaripate, prietene cu spiritul tau inaripat.“

  2. selizabryangmailcom says:

    Interesting that those words/concepts/discussions seemed to be going on so far back in time. It was my understanding that very little attention was paid to people’s races until much later, and then at some point the history of black people in Europe, along with their significance to civilization in general, began to be systematically suppressed and erased, making way for others’ claims of superiority. I’d even go so far as to say your way of thinking may have been a commonality among most people up to a certain point in time, and while it’s a great loss that it didn’t last forever, and maybe it’s even some sort of natural progression that will right itself again one day, it’s still a beautiful lens to see the world through: “all human beings are made of the same precious material – and that is something we should celebrate, not only during Black History month.” Thank you, P.M.!


  3. fedefa says:

    Thank you so much, Peter! You have given me so much food for thought!


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