Blacks in Antiquity

Dan Georgakas

A few

years ago Martin Bernal’s Black Athena stimulated considerable commentary about

the role of blacks in antiquity. Many leftists applauded Bernal’s perceptive

analysis of the racism of many nineteenth century German scholars without

understanding the thinness of Bernal’s general argument regarding the supposed

Egyptian roots of Greek culture. Popular books by Afrocentrists, vaguely

proceeding from Bernal, posited an absolute victimization of black African

culture in which discoveries made by Africans have been attributed to Greeks or

were outright stolen by the Greeks. Much of this nonsense and Bernal’s notion

that Egyptians colonized mainland Greece centuries before the arrival of

Indo-Europeans have not withstood scholarly scrutiny. Mary Lefkowitz has been

particularly prominent in debunking Bernal and those who went far beyond

Bernal’s hypothesis.


unfortunate aspect of the intellectual fallout of this controversy has been a

diminution in interest in the actual role of Africans in the ancient world. Nor

have many leftists taken up Lefkowitz’s suggestion to look at the interaction

between black Africa and the Greco-Roman world. A starting point for any such

consideration is the work of Frank Snowden, whose most important single work is

Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience.


distinguishes Snowden’s work from Bernal’s is his marshaling of physical

evidence. Even on the literary side he bests Bernal by citing numerous Greek and

Roman sources with explicit evaluations of Ethiopians rather than citing vague

similarities in folk tales. He points out that the Greeks considered the color

of Ethiopians as stemming from environmental factors and never posited any moral

or intellectual consequences stemming from color, a view accepted by the Romans

and early Christians. Snowden’s texts go back to Homer and move through to the

early Christian era. This vast array of poems, essays, plays, histories, and

other written texts trace how the idealization of a distant black people evolved

into references to black people completely meshed into the Greco-Roman world.


impressive are the one hundred and twenty-four images Snowden reproduces from

ancient pottery, murals, sculpture, and other graphic arts. These range as far

back as six centuries before the Christian era and like the written texts often

depict events from even older time periods. These images show black Africans

were involved in all aspects of life rather than limited to a single occupation

or myth. Common people of all kinds rather than a legendary hero are usually the

subject matter.

What is so

refreshing in reading Snowden is that instead of a back formation reading of

history based on the modern assumptions about black Africans in Europe, Snowden

goes to the ancient texts and limits his analysis to unambiguous

identifications. What emerges is a portrait of black Africans well integrated

into the ancient world in scenarios of explorations, trading, and wars that make

geographic and chronological sense. Snowden demonstrates that even when blacks

were slaves they were slaves like other peoples and manumission through various

means occurred with the same frequency and consequences as with those other

peoples. Rather than vague references to individuals who might be black or the

making black of Macedonian royalty such as Cleopatra, Snowden offers a history

involving the interfacing of entire nations.

As we

continue to struggle with the problem of color in the modern world, it is

enlightening and hopeful to know that color prejudice was not part of the

ancient world and was not part of the origins of Christianity. Rather than

promoting the culture of victimization and paranoia, Snowden allows the role of

black Africans in the ancient world to stand on the usual historic proofs. That

role proves to be substantial.


Blacks in Antiquity is not a new book. It was first published in 1970! What a

shame that it is rarely referenced in leftist commentary on the role of blacks

in the ancient world. Underlying all of this discourse, of course, is the

erroneous notion that black contributions to the world depend on their immediate

impact upon the West. Leaving that discussion aside, the two major roots of

modern Europe are the pagan world of the Greco-Roman and the Judeo-Christian

traditions. Snowden shows us the positive manner in which both those worlds

regarded and interacted with black culture in Africa. Postmodernists who think

all history is more or less subjective and invented often intersect with

nationalist thinkers who invent histories to fit their ideological and political

agendas. Neither fare well when confronted with the kind of data Snowden has

mounted. Score one for traditional research by a distinguished African American



Georgakas is coauthor of Detroit: I Do Mind Dying and currently is teaching at

New York University.




Leave a comment