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The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity

The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity

Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 592
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    The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity
    Book Description:

    There was racism in the ancient world, after all. This groundbreaking book refutes the common belief that the ancient Greeks and Romans harbored "ethnic and cultural," but not racial, prejudice. It does so by comprehensively tracing the intellectual origins of racism back to classical antiquity. Benjamin Isaac's systematic analysis of ancient social prejudices and stereotypes reveals that some of those represent prototypes of racism--or proto-racism--which in turn inspired the early modern authors who developed the more familiar racist ideas. He considers the literature from classical Greece to late antiquity in a quest for the various forms of the discriminatory stereotypes and social hatred that have played such an important role in recent history and continue to do so in modern society.

    Magisterial in scope and scholarship, and engagingly written, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity further suggests that an understanding of ancient attitudes toward other peoples sheds light not only on Greco-Roman imperialism and the ideology of enslavement (and the concomitant integration or non-integration) of foreigners in those societies, but also on the disintegration of the Roman Empire and on more recent imperialism as well. The first part considers general themes in the history of discrimination; the second provides a detailed analysis of proto-racism and prejudices toward particular groups of foreigners in the Greco-Roman world. The last chapter concerns Jews in the ancient world, thus placing anti-Semitism in a broader context.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4956-7
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
    (pp. 1-52)

    Less than a century ago nobody would write or wish to read a book about racism. Indeed nobody was aware that such a thing existed, for the word does not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) of 1910.¹ The term racialism has been around a little longer: It first appeared in print in 1907.² Does this mean that racism did not exist before the twentieth century? In fact there is a consensus that it originated in the nineteenth century and has its intellectual roots in that century, although some scholars give it a somewhat longer history. Most of those...


    • CHAPTER ONE Superior and Inferior Peoples
      (pp. 55-168)

      In the Introduction we defined attitudes which we described as proto-racism or pronounced forms of ethnic stereotypes. The following chapters will describe and analyze the conceptual framework which should allow us to determine to what extent Graeco-Roman antiquity used such attitudes in relating to other people. The period covered starts with the fifth century b.c. As already observed, at this time there was nothing resembling the forms of racism found in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which adopted or rather misused the insights of science to build an elaborate structure of reasoned discrimination.¹ Obviously, all ideas that derive from Darwinist...

    • CHAPTER TWO Conquest and Imperialism
      (pp. 169-224)

      This is an almost programmatic statement of Roman imperialism as seen by Pliny the Elder. The central role of the homeland in imperial ideology has been shown as present already in fifth-century Athens. Empire, in Pliny’s view, has four functions: it unites what is scattered; it improves customs, it unifies and links peoples through the imposition of a common language, and it civilizes. This is not, it must be stressed, an explanation of the aims of imperialism. It is no explanation of why Rome systematically subjugated one people after another. It shows, however, how Pliny represents the effects of the...

    • CHAPTER THREE Fears and Suppression
      (pp. 225-247)

      “Captive Greece took her savage victor captive and brought the arts to rustic Latium.”¹ This represents satire in the age of Augustus. As noted in the Introduction, we cannot use satire as considered reflection. The satire is a literary form, first developed in Rome, in which prevailing human vices, follies, abuses, or shortcomings are held up to censure by means of ridicule, irony, or related methods. It should not be treated as portraying daily life in an accurate manner. Yet it must be taken seriously as a form of commentary on the opinions of the speaker and, hence, of the...

    • Conclusions to Part 1, Chapters 2 and 3
      (pp. 248-252)

      These two chapters aim to illuminate some aspects of Greek and Roman views of other peoples and how these affected their attitudes towards conquest, rule over others, and empire. They do not “explain” how ancient Empires worked, but they attempt to analyze aspects of relationships between peoples that should be part of any analysis of empire. The chapters relate extensively to the primary theme of this book: various forms of stereotyping and proto-racism are traced, some of which became influential in later periods, while others belong to the Graeco-Roman world only.

      As is well known, the difference between the words...

      (pp. None)

      (pp. 255-256)

      The discussion so far has dealt with a number of general themes and questions regarding ancient prejudices, preconceptions, stereotypes, and collective judgments. It seemed proper to discuss first of all the emotional and intellectual processes which produced these views among Greeks and Romans. It also seemed relevant to consider similarities and differences between ancient ideas and comparable modern phenomena. It was concluded that it would be reasonable to speak of ancient proto-racism, as defined in the Introduction. There are patterns of thinking in antiquity that have features in common with modern forms of racial and group prejudices which justify applying...

    • CHAPTER FOUR Greeks and the East
      (pp. 257-303)

      Such views go back further than the scholars of the past century, cited here. They are already present in the work of the eighteenth-century French philosopher and revolutionary Condorcet (1743–1794): “The battle of Salamis was one of those events, so rare in history, in which the struggle of a single day decides the destiny of the human race for centuries to come.”⁸ What Condorcet means is clear from another pronouncement: “It is to that same revolution that the human race owes its enlightenment and will owe its liberty. It has had a far greater influence upon the destiny of...

    • CHAPTER FIVE Roman Imperialism and the Conquest of the East
      (pp. 304-323)

      Vergil’s Roman Empire had no boundaries and was to be eternal.¹ This was written in the age of Augustus, with its state-sponsored belief in progress—a belief rare for any period of Graeco-Roman antiquity.² Not everyone was so sanguine. Even while the empire was expanding, some Romans were worried about the peoples they incorporated—or failed to subjugate. In their old prayer the Censors asked for the aggrandizement of Rome, but Scipio Africanus changed it: it was large enough and he prayed that it would be preserved forever (Valerius Maximus 4.1.10). The old and superior cultures of the East, the...

    • CHAPTER SIX Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Syrians
      (pp. 324-351)

      The Phoenicians, as distinct from the Syrians, are familiar from the Iliad and even more from the Odyssey. “At once the son of Peleus set out prizes for the foot-race: / a mixing-bowl of silver, a work of art, which held only / six measures, but for its liveliness it surpassed all others / on earth by far, since skilled Sidonian craftsmen had wrought it / well, and Phoenicians carried it over the misty face of the water.”² In the Odyssey the Phoenicians appear on one occasion as honest sailors who do what they can to keep their side of...

    • CHAPTER SEVEN Egyptians
      (pp. 352-370)

      References to Egypt and the Egyptians are very numerous in ancient sources,¹ and this chapter will therefore focus only on a few aspects which are especially relevant to the present discussion, looking at hostility and stereotypes as well the theme of the Egyptians in their natural environment.² This study, given its subject matter in general, will focus on the Egyptians proper, the “native Egyptians” as they are called in many contemporary works, rather than the city of Alexandria or the Ptolemaic rulers and Hellenized Egyptians.³ Here, as elsewhere in this study, we are concerned with current attitudes towards contemporary Egyptians....

    • CHAPTER EIGHT Parthia/Persia
      (pp. 371-380)

      The attitude of the Greeks towards the Persians has been considered extensively above. The fact that it played a major role in Greek history may be one reason why the theme of Persia is echoed in Roman literature as well. There are several other reasons why Parthia should have been prominent among foreign peoples discussed by Roman authors.¹ Parthia, as the only major empire facing Rome, was important enough to guarantee it a special place in the Roman perception of foreigners. On the other hand, Parthia and the Parthians do not seem to be mentioned as frequently as one might...

    • CHAPTER NINE Roman Views of Greeks
      (pp. 381-405)

      The relationship between Greece and Rome and their mutually ambivalent attitudes have attracted great attention in the scholarly literature.¹ Greece occupied a unique position among all the peoples which were integrated into the Roman Empire over time. Their influence on Roman culture and religion was greater than that of any other people and was felt to be so by the Romans themselves. This has led to familiar manifestations of philhellenic attitudes of a number of emperors: Nero,² Hadrian,³ and Marcus Aurelius, who wrote his meditations in Greek. That will not be our topic. Anticipating the conclusions of this chapter, I...

    • CHAPTER TEN Mountaineers and Plainsmen
      (pp. 406-410)

      Herodotus 9.122 explains that the Persians followed Cyrus’s advice “and chose rather to live in a rough land and be rulers, than to cultivate plains and be the slaves of others.” This is the first instance of the common ancient notion of the opposition between rugged mountain and fertile plain. The inhabitants of the former tend to rule and the latter to cultivate and serve. It is found with more details in Airs, Waters, Places, 24.2–3 and it recurs in the work of the sixteenth-century author Jean Bodin.¹ We are concerned here with the division between two of the...

      (pp. 411-426)

      We cannot know from contemporary sources how the Romans saw the Gauls in the centuries of the greatest Celtic strength. Plato mentions the Celts among the warlike peoples of his time—the others being the Persians, Carthaginians, Iberians, and Thracians (637d). Aristotle lists the same people, while omitting the Iberians (Pol. 1324b).¹ Plato and Aristotle, like other contemporaries, knew of the military successes of the Celts in many parts of the Mediterranean world, although they did not know too much about them as a people,² while they were hardly or not at all aware of the existence of the Germans.³...

    • CHAPTER TWELVE Germans
      (pp. 427-439)

      The Germans have already been mentioned frequently, since it is impossible to discuss attitudes towards Gauls without referring to Germans, especially since the two are rather similar in some descriptions.¹ The name as such is used first by Caesar.² According to Caesar one distinction that stands out is that the Germans had no Druids.³ Tacitus’s ideas about the pure lineage of the Germans required discussion under that heading and will not be repeated. It is not my subject to discuss the Germans as such, their internal, social, and economic history, or the specifics of trade or Romanization. What we do...

      (pp. 440-491)

      Mommsen often combines many of the themes which were to determine and focus later views on the subject. He has no doubt that Roman enmity was essentially the same as the nineteenth-century phenomenon. It is a form of hatred to be understood in the broader context of the opposition between West and East. The more specific root of the enmity is found in the opinions and customs of the Jews. All of these assertions have been debated since, separately and in combination, in an ever increasing number of publications.

      Hostility towards the Jews in antiquity is a more emotionally loaded...

    • Conclusions to Part 2
      (pp. 492-500)

      It was the aim of Part 1 to trace general concepts and approaches towards others in Greece and Rome in a roughly systematic manner. Part 2 represents an attempt to show how these ideas are applied to specific peoples. The selection contains peoples from various parts of the ancient world, all of them of importance to the Greeks and Romans for different reasons. The aim is not to trace interaction, but patterns of hostility, xenophobia, and early racism. Here, as elsewhere, I repeat that this is necessarily a very particular viewpoint that is nonetheless legitimate, because it exerted much influence...


    • Ethnic Prejudice, Proto-Racism, and Imperialism in Antiquity
      (pp. 503-516)

      The first chapter of Part 1 attempted to describe and analyze the conceptual framework of Graeco-Roman attitudes towards other peoples, tracing patterns of proto-racism or pronounced forms of ethnic stereotypes, as defined in the Introduction. It will suffice here to note once again that the dominant approach, accepted in some form by almost all the available sources from the second half of the fifth century b.c. on,¹ is the environmental theory: an environmental determinism which made it possible for Greek and Roman texts to describe foreign peoples in terms of fixed physical and mental traits, determined by climate and geography....

    (pp. 517-540)
    (pp. 541-552)
    (pp. 553-564)