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Doing Justice to the Classics

Scholars Respond to Racist Backlash against Black Achilles, Part 3: What Makes a Homeric Hero a Hero?

This is Pharos’ third post responding to racist criticism of the BBC/Netflix miniseries Troy: Fall of a City, in which a black actor plays Achilles. Our first post discussed Greek attitudes toward Africans in order to show that ancient audiences would have had no problem with a black Achilles, and our second post addressed the Iliad’s description of Achilles’ hair in order to show that the text does not definitively exclude a black Achilles. This post argues that the BBC’s decision to cast a black man to play Achilles should be understood as a modern extension of ancient epic’s flexibility in the representation of heroes.

We will explore this flexibility through the figure of Memnon, the “King of the Ethiopians” who came to the aid of the Trojans in a lost poem called the Aithiopis (“The poem about the Ethiopian”), which described what happened in the Trojan war after the events of the Iliad, including the death of Achilles. Memnon was one of the greatest warriors of the Trojan war, and at least in the historical period, and possibly earlier, was often represented as a black African. As proof that the Greeks told stories about Africans fighting in the Trojan war, Memnon exposes the ignorance of racist commentators who claim that Troy: Fall of a City, by portraying a black warrior in the Trojan War, “blackwashes” the Iliad and “deprives Europeans of their culture and their history.” But the mere presence of a black warrior at Troy is only the first part of the refutation of these racist claims: such arguments assume that there is one correct and authentic way to represent Achilles, when in fact the representation of heroes in the ancient tradition showed considerable variability that very likely would have allowed for a representation of Achilles with black skin.

Because understanding the relevance of Memnon to the portrayal of Achilles in Troy: Fall of a City requires some understanding of the way Homeric epic was composed and performed in antiquity, we have summarized our main points in bulleted lists below but have provided the scholarly background to those points in essay form.

What color was Memnon?

Those who charge the BBC with “blackwashing” accuse the BBC of casting black actors to play characters that, according to these critics, “should” be white. Pharos has already demonstrated that ancient audiences would not have objected to black representations of the Iliad’s characters, including the gods, and that Achilles’ skin color is not definitively described in the poem. To this we add here that Memnon shows that ancient versions of the Trojan war already featured a black warrior.

Memnon shows an ancient tradition of taking a character who was originally not definitively described and making him black

There is debate about whether Memnon was understood to be a black African by the earliest performers and audiences of Homeric epic. He is described as an “Ethiopian,” and as early as the 6th century BCE the Ethiopians are understood to be black Africans. The word “Ethiopian” was also popularly understood in antiquity to mean “burned skin.” But the Homeric epics do not describe the appearance of the Ethiopians (just as they don’t describe Achilles’). They do not even explicitly locate the Ethiopians in Africa. The Odyssey says the Ethiopians live near the rising and setting of the sun, and Memnon is associated with the east through his mother the Dawn. Since this description does not place the Ethiopians or Memnon in Africa, but to the far east and west, many have concluded that in the Homeric poems, at least, they were considered white. This could be right, but even the lines in the Odyssey are not decisive because black-skinned people were known to both the east and west of mainland Greece. In modern times, we think of black Africans as coming from south of the Sahara, but ancient Greek writers knew of “western Ethiopians” in the northwest of Africa. In the east, Herodotus described the “Indians” as “black-skinned, like the Ethiopians.” These observations may reflect a more highly developed knowledge of geography than that of the period in which the Homeric epics were first performed, but they suggest that Memnon coming from the east or west need not necessarily mean he was white. And if the belief that “Ethiopian” meant “burned skin” was common when the epics were first being performed — and we do not know when that belief became current — then the description of the Ethiopians living near the sun would mean they were considered black, because living close to the sun would blacken their skin.

In any case, whether or not Memnon was originally considered black, he refutes the charge of “blackwashing” that has been made against the miniseries:

  • If the earliest performers and audiences of epic thought of Memnon as eastern, or at any rate not an African, then the figure of Memnon shows an ancient tradition of taking a character who was originally not definitively described and making him black, since Memnon in the later tradition is certainly represented as black. Achilles, like Memnon, is not definitively described in the epics, and the BBC’s representation of him as a black man is comparable to the post-Homeric representation of Memnon as a black man.
  • If the earliest performers and audiences of epic knew or believed that there were black-skinned people in the far east and west, where the Odyssey says the Ethiopians come from, and/or understood “Ethiopian” to mean “burned skin,” they probably thought of Memnon as a black African. In this case Memnon shows that there is already an ancient tradition of the great warriors at Troy who are black.

The Variability of the Portrayal of Heroes in Homeric Epic

However, whether Memnon was “originally” black or not is less significant than the fact that ancient epic allowed for considerable variation in the representation of heroes. This is evident in the variety of traditions concerning Memnon: he is not always from Ethiopia (wherever it was), he is not always killed by Achilles, and he is said to be buried in at least five different places. Other heroes reflect this variability too, as different performers enjoyed some freedom in how they represented them. Often they used this freedom to emphasize and even create similarities between heroes, including Achilles and Memnon.

What we call the Homeric “poems” were not originally written works but oral performances. The performers of these epics, known as “rhapsodes,” did not recite memorized poems but improvised new versions of these well-known stories every time they performed. The major outlines of the stories were fixed—the Greeks always sacked Troy, Odysseus always made it home—but the rhapsodes enjoyed considerable freedom in how they portrayed the characters, which details and episodes they emphasized, the degree to which they expanded or contracted the narrative, and so forth. The texts of the Iliad and the Odyssey that survive for us to read are just one version of many possible versions that were performed in antiquity. Who “Homer” was is debated: it may be the name of the performer whose versions we have, or it may be a name used in antiquity as a kind of shorthand for the whole tradition that produced the poems.

Casting a black actor to play Achilles should be understood as an extension of the variability in the representation of heroes already visible in the ancient tradition

The four “arming scenes” in the text of the Iliad that we have — of Paris, Agamemnon, Patroclus, and Achilles — provide one example of how rhapsodes could vary the portrayal of heroes. The scenes differ in length and describe different aspects of each hero’s armor. These differences correspond to different aspects of the heroes that the performer wanted to emphasize. But the scenes also show a striking similarity: all four begin with the same three lines, which signal to the audience that a type of scene that they are already familiar with is beginning, and that these heroes are important characters in the narrative. Repeated words, phrases, even whole lines as well as scenarios like the arming scene, are known to scholars as “formulae” and are the building blocks of Homeric epic. The rhapsodes’ art involved combining these pre-existing building blocks in ways that balanced adherence to the well-known characters and broad storylines with innovative and poetically meaningful variation, often in response to an audience’s preferences or interests.

  • The ancient performers of Homeric epics constructed the portrayal of the heroes of the Trojan war, including Achilles, out of a repertoire of descriptions, speeches, and scenarios that could be, and were, applied to all the heroes.
  • Different performers were free to develop similarities between heroes by applying or emphasizing similar characteristics to each and placing them in similar scenarios. The representations of the heroes we have in the surviving Iliad are just one possible representation of these heroes out of the many that must have been possible in the period when the epics were improvised orally by rhapsodes.
  • The casting of a black actor to play Achilles should be understood as an extension of the variability in the representation of heroes already visible in the ancient tradition. Although no one seems to have represented Achilles as black in antiquity, ancient attitudes toward Africans would not have prohibited this (as Pharos has shown in a previous post), nor would have the few apparent descriptions of Achilles found in our surviving version of the Iliad.

Memnon and Achilles

What is striking about the portrayal of heroes in our surviving texts is the degree to which rhapsodes seemed to have employed formulae to emphasize similarities between them. The same line, for example, is used in the Iliad to describe the deaths of Sarpedon, Patroclus, and Hector. The repeated formula creates parallels between the heroes: in death, the three are  represented as versions of each other. The parallels between their duels also allow these heroes to occupy each other’s roles: Patroclus killing Sarpedon is similar to Hector when he kills Patroclus, who in turn is similar to Achilles when he kills Hector. Hector and Patroclus, that is, both occupy the role of victor and vanquished, and the representation of Achilles is built out of representations of both of them as victors. All the heroes of the Iliad share characteristics with each other and participate in similar story patterns that are deeply ingrained in the poetic tradition and not necessarily specific to any one warrior.

Memnon is represented as a reflection and counterpart to Achilles

Because the poem in which Memnon appeared has been lost, we possess only limited knowledge about his story, beyond the barest outlines preserved in ancient summaries: Memnon comes to Troy to fight on the Trojan side, he kills Nestor’s son Antilochus, and Achilles kills Memnon in revenge. However, even from the small amount of evidence preserved in these summaries, we can tell that the rhapsodes emphasized similarities between Memnon and Achilles. Even though Memnon is an opponent of the Greeks, and one from a far-away, even alien, land at that, he is also represented as a reflection of and counterpart to Achilles:

  1. Both have a divine mother and a mortal father: Achilles born from Thetis and Peleus, Memnon from Eos (the dawn) and Tithonus. Both mothers foretell their sons’ deaths.
  2. Both have special armor made by the god Hephaestus, and it has been argued that Memnon’s armor was described in as much detail as Achilles’ was.
  3. Both were given immortality after their death, at least in the summaries of the Aithiopis. This example also shows the variability described above: in the version of the Odyssey that survives Achilles appears in the underworld with all the other mortals who died at Troy. That performer made Achilles mortal, while the performer of the version of the Aithiopis that informed our summary gave Achilles immortality, possibly in order to make him more similar to Memnon.

Even though Memnon does not appear in the Iliad, both he and the heroes of the Iliad were built out of the same repertoire of formulae since the poem in which he appeared was constructed by the same rhapsodes who constructed the Iliad. Thus the portrayal of Memnon, too, very likely combined characteristics of heroes who are better-known to us, and, in turn, their portrayal in the Iliad incorporates some characteristics of Memnon. For example, the death of Memnon in the Aithiopis seems to have shared many elements with the death of Sarpedon in the Iliad, making Memnon and Sarpedon reflections of each other. Furthermore, since Sarpedon, Patroclus, and Hector all die in similar scenes, this makes Patroclus and Hector reflections of Memnon as well, and vice versa. An even more striking example is the scene in the Iliad where Nestor’s horse is wounded by Paris, and Diomedes has to rescue Nestor as Hector is moving in for the kill. Many details of this scene are parallel to a scene described in the summary of the Aithiopis and supplemented by a detail from Pindar: Nestor’s horse is wounded by Paris (as in the Iliad), and then Nestor’s son Antilochus rescues Nestor from Memnon. This connects Memnon and Hector, a connection that is extended by the fact that in the Aithiopis Memnon kills Antilochus, which, in that poem, prompts Achilles to kill Memnon in revenge. In the Iliad we find the same story pattern: Hector killing Patroclus leads to Achilles killing Hector. A final example of the many connections between Memnon and the heroes in the Iliad is that the gods weigh the souls of Achilles and Hector to decide who will triumph; vase paintings and a play by Aeschylus portray the gods weighing the souls of Achilles and Memnon when they fought.

Ancient epic downplays physical and cultural differences between heroes in favor of emphasizing similarities relating to heroic qualities

The portrayal of Achilles is made up of a composite of the attributes of these other heroes as well. His vaunt over the fallen Hector is similar to Hector’s vaunt over the fallen Patroclus. Sarpedon is described calling out to his companion Glaucus with the same kind of language that is used when Achilles calls out to the dead Patroclus. When Hector criticizes Paris for retreating, Paris describes Hector, via a simile, as νηλεής/nêleês, “pitiless”; this word is elsewhere only used to describe Achilles. The portrayal of Memnon, too, is linked to the portrayal of Achilles: It has been argued that we can reconstruct the outlines of the death of Achilles from a description of the death of Memnon in the Aithiopis. Undoubtedly Achilles, called in the Iliad “the best of the Achaeans,” is the supreme warrior of the Trojan war, but his attributes are also found in the other supreme warriors of the tradition, including Memnon, whom Achilles himself called the most beautiful man he had ever seen, and whom we should recognize, in parallel to Achilles, as the best of the Ethiopians.

Our understanding of the similarities between Achilles and Memnon is aided by evidence from vase paintings, which represent Achilles accompanied by Scythian archers, who are recognizable by their distinctive dress and style of beard. But Scythian dress is also found on some surprising figures, including Amazons, and even (in the beginning of the 5th century BCE) Africans, even though Scythia was located far from Africa, in what we now call central Asia. It has been argued that these archers should be understood as the attendants of the Amazon queen Penthesilea, who also appeared in the Aithiopis, and of Memnon: Memnon’s are made black since he is from Africa; Penthesilea’s are women because she’s an Amazon. By giving all the great leaders of the Trojan war “Scythian” archers, these vase paintings prioritize creating similarities between Memnon, Achilles, and Penthesilea, rather than emphasizing differences of gender or national origin. Achilles has archers who wear Scythian clothes, and so Memnon and Penthesilea should too.

  • Even considering the limited amount we know about how the Ethiopian Memnon was portrayed, it is clear that the rhapsodes emphasized many similarities between him and Achilles. This suggests that ancient performers of epic had no problem producing similarities between Achilles and a non-Greek, and possibly African, warrior and in fact were inclined to do so.
  • Both the Iliad, which does not make any racial or cultural distinction between the Greeks and Trojans, and the vase paintings showing Achilles, Memnon, and Penthesilea accompanied by similar retinues of archers, downplay physical and cultural differences between heroes in favor of emphasizing similarities relating to heroic qualities.
  • The ancient epics represent Memnon and Achilles as having many of these qualities in common: divine parentage, divine armor, immortality after death.
  • The representation of Achilles as a black man may be seen as an authentically Homeric extension of this set of similarities that already existed in the ancient tradition between Achilles and Memnon, who, even if he was not so-regarded in the most ancient versions of his story, came to be represented as a black man.
  • Put another way, the BBC/Netflix version can be seen as the most recent performance of Homeric epic in a line stretching back to the rhapsodes of antiquity. Like the versions of the rhapsodes, this version is free to build its portrayal of their heroes out of a range of building blocks that have also been used to characterize other heroes. They have decided, as any rhapsode of antiquity could, to transfer Memnon’s skin-color (even if taken from post-Homeric representations) to their portrayal of Achilles.

“Blackwashing” or Epic Variability?

Some scholars, practicing what is known as “neo-analysis,” argue that the stories about Memnon are older than the stories we have in the Iliad. This would mean not just that Sarpedon and Memnon are constructed from the same repertoire of characteristics and scenarios, but that the death of Sarpedon in the Iliad is an adaptation of the death of Memnon, which was already known to the audiences of the Iliad. It would mean that the rescue of Nestor from Hector by Diomedes in the Iliad is an adaptation of the rescue of Nestor from Memnon by Antilochus. These scholars point out that the rescue of Nestor is unnecessary in the Iliad, on the grounds that it does not have any significant consequences for the plot. By contrast, the rescue of Nestor from Memnon by Antilochus is essential to the Aithiopis because, by killing Antilochus, Memnon provokes Achilles into killing him, which in turn leads to Achilles’ death. These scholars take this to mean that the story of Memnon and Antilochus is older than the corresponding story in the Iliad and that the performers of the Iliad felt the need to adapt such a famous and important scene in order to make their heroes similar to those described in the Aithiopis even though they did not need it to advance the story of the Iliad.

  • There is controversy about whether it is even possible to establish which of two versions is earlier than the other, and doing so is not essential to the points made in the earlier sections of this post. But it is nevertheless relevant, since racist commentators are accusing the BBC/Netflix adaptation of the story of the Trojan war of “blackwashing” it by casting an actor of African descent to play Achilles.
  • If the story of Memnon is older than the Iliad, then the Iliad itself, in which no Africans appear, is already an adaptation and replacement of older material in which non-Greek and possibly African characters figured prominently. The kind of transformation that the racist commentators complain about, from a neo-analytical point of view, was already inherent in the Iliad itself.
  • This should not, however, be understood as an accusation of “whitewashing” against the Homeric tradition. It is more correct to recognize that the ancient epic tradition was always adapting and transforming earlier material and to see the BBC’s portrayal of Achilles as a continuation of that tradition of transformation.

The following scholars contributed to this post:

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

Richard Martin (Stanford University)

Gregory Nagy (Harvard University/Center for Hellenic Studies)

Jonathan Ready (Indiana University)

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:

Burgess, Jonathan. The Death and Afterlife of Achilles. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

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.

Lord, Albert Bates. The Singer Resumes the Tale (edited by Mary Louise Lord). Cornell University Press, 1995.

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

Nagy, Gregory. Homeric Questions. University of Texas Press, 2005.

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

Rutherford, R. B. Homer. Cambridge University Press, 1996/2013.

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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