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Doing Justice to the Classics

Scholars Respond to Racist Backlash against Black Achilles, Part 1: Ancient Greek Attitudes toward Africans

In February of 2018, the BBC broadcast an eight-part miniseries, Troy: Fall of a City, that told the story of the Trojan War. Netflix later released the miniseries in the United States. The casting of David Gyasi, a British-born actor of Ghanaian descent, to play Achilles provoked a storm of racist criticism on social media and racist sites. There has been less controversy around other characters played by black actors, such as Zeus, Athena, Aeneas, Patroclus, and Nestor. Soon after the show started airing in the UK, Pharos contributor Tim Whitmarsh wrote a refutation of many of the racists arguments being made, which he followed up recently with a more detailed critiquePharos, too, documented the racist backlash against the show and over the coming days will report on the responses we received from specialists working on Greek epic. The volume and complexity of the response was such that we have decided to split our response into several posts.

Racist commentators have attempted to conceal their prejudice under a range of arguments, one of which is the charge of “historical inaccuracy” against the show. Subsequent posts will consider the irrelevance of this argument to Homeric material. Here we point out that their racism against black people would have been incomprehensible in the ancient Greek world and that ancient audiences would likely have had no problem with seeing a black Achilles in, for example, a play.

  • The ancient Greeks recognized and commented on the physical differences between people from different places. Many ancient writers, including Hippocrates and Aristotle, promoted environmental determinism, which attributes the perceived differences between people as the product of different environmental factors in their home regions (weather, food, etc). These perceived differences often include claims about differences in intellect, motivation, and courage, which are very similar to the claims made by modern racists. It shows that ancient thinkers were indeed capable of creating hierarchies of racial superiority. This ancient material is often cited implicitly or explicitly in support of modern pseudo-scientific racist theories and lies at the root of the invention of “race” as a category for differentiating and oppressing others.
  • However, the racists commenting on Troy: Fall of a City are prejudiced specifically against black people. This does not seem to have been a common prejudice in ancient Greece. Ancient sources contain many expressions of admiration for black Africans, especially for those that the Greeks called “Ethiopians,” a name popularly understood in antiquity to refer to their black skin. For example, Herodotus calls them the most beautiful people in the world. In Homer the gods take their vacations with the Ethiopians. As we will discuss in a future post, we do not know whether the early performers of Homeric epics thought the Ethiopians had black skin, but later generations, beginning in the 6th century BCE and possibly earlier, certainly did. From then on these lines would contribute to admiration for black-skinned people.
  • Although there is a persistent, racist preference for lighter skin over darker skin in the contemporary world, the ancient Greeks considered darker skin to be more beautiful and a sign of physical and moral superiority. In the Odyssey, when Athena wants to make Odysseus look like a god before he re-enters his palace, she gives him new clothes, darkens his beard, and makes him “dark skinned”. (Od. 16.175: μελαγχροιήςmelanchroiês, which is a compound of melan, “dark,” and chroiê, “flesh”).
  • By contrast, in ancient Greece excessively white skin was thought to mark a man as weak and effeminate. The Spartan king Agesilaus, for example, is said to have shown his troops naked enemy captives because “when his soldiers saw them white because they never stripped, and fat and lazy through constant riding in carriages, they believed that the war would be exactly like fighting with women.”
  • Achilles being played by a black man has attracted the most criticism, but the casting of Nigerian-born Hakeem Kae-Kazim to play Zeus has also generated controversy. But there is ancient precedent for portraying Zeus, the king of the gods, as an African in ancient entertainment. Sophocles, the most popular of the Greek dramatists, portrayed Zeus as black. In fragment 269a of his play Inachus, Zeus is described by the play’s chorus as “black,” using a word (αἰθός/aithos) that was believed in antiquity to be part of the word Ethiopian and so is connected to black skin. Interpretation of so fragmentary a text is difficult, but it is possible that a black Zeus even appeared on stage in this play. Sophocles may have made Zeus black because Epaphus, the child of the Argive Io and Zeus, was black.
  • Elsewhere in Greek popular entertainment we find that racial differences do not exclude people from being considered Greek. In Aeschylus’ Suppliants the Danaids, fleeing as refugees from Egypt, come to the Greek city of Argos seeking protection. The Argive king Pelasgus comments that they look like Libyans, not like Greeks, indicating that he recognized physical differences between people. But in the play the Argives give the Danaids the protection they seek because they regard them as kinswomen: their ancestor, Io, was from Argos.
  • So although the Homeric epics do not represent Achilles as being an African, there is no reason they couldn’t have. Indeed, to judge from the most prominent and celebrated writers of ancient Greece (Herodotus, Sophocles, Aeschylus) it probably would have been accepted by ancient Greek audiences, who had seen gods represented as Africans (one of Achilles’ primary epithets in Homer is “godlike”), who had no prejudice against black skin and even considered it beautiful, and who associated dark skin with military prowess.

Our next post will discuss the interpretation of the passages in Homer that the racists say make the BBC/Netflix casting impossible.

The following scholars contributed to this series of posts:

Siobhan Ball
Joel Christensen (Brandeis University)
Al Duncan (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Research Fellow, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa)
David Elmer (Harvard University)
Casey Due Hackney (University of Houston)
Rebecca Futo Kennedy (Denison University)
Matthew Lloyd
Jonathan Ready (Indiana University)
Ruth Scodel (University of Michigan)
Kevin Solez (MacEwan University)
Rodrigo Verano (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid)
Phillip Zapkin (Pennsylvania State University)
Donna Zuckerberg (Eidolon)

This post is a composite of scholars’ responses and it should not be assumed that every contributor agrees with every point made above.

We also consulted the following scholarship in preparing this series of responses:

Davies, Malcolm. The Aethiopis: Neo-Neoanalysis Reanalyzed. Center for Hellenic Studies, 2016.

Dee, James H. “Black Odysseus, White Caesar: When Did ‘White People’ Become ‘White’?” The Classical Journal, Vol. 99, No. 2. 2003. pp. 157-167.

Dué, Casey, and Ebbott, Mary. Iliad 10 and the Poetics of Ambush: A Multitext Edition with Essays and Commentary. Center for Hellenic Studies, 2010.

Griffith, R. Drew. “Gods’ Blue Hair in Homer and in Eighteenth-Dynasty Egypt.” The Classical Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 2. 2005. pp. 329-334.

Isaac, Benjamin. The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity. Princeton University Press, 2004.

Jones, Prudence A. Africa: Greek and Roman Perspectives from Homer to Apuleius. Center for Hellenic Studies, 2017.

Kozak, Lynn. Experiencing Hektor. Bloomsbury, 2016.

Nagy, Gregory. “The Shield of Achilles” in New Light on a Dark Age, Edited by Susan Langdon. University of Missouri Press, 1997.

Pinney, Gloria F. “Achilles Lord of Scythia” in Ancient Greek Art and Iconography, edited by Warren Moon. University of Wisconsin Press, 1983.

Seaford, Richard. “Black Zeus in Sophocles’ Inachos.” The Classical Quarterly, Vol. 30, No. 1. 1980. pp. 23-29.

Sherratt, Susan. “The Trojan War: History or Bricolage?” Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies, Vol. 53, No. 2. 2010. pp. 1-18.

Snowden, Frank M. Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks. Harvard University Press, 1983.

Snowden, Frank M. Blacks in Antiquity. Harvard University Press, 1970.

Willcock, Malcolm. “Neoanalysis” in A New Companion to Homer, edited by I. Morris and B. Powell. Brill, 1997.

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