The ancient Greeks and Romans were white

Who made antiquity “white”?

Main pictureThe Romans especially loved white marble: a bust of a naked man, 1st century BC. Chr.Getty Images

How the “red” Greeks and Romans became representatives of the “white supremacy”: Reconstruction of a culture war.

Who would have thought that the study of classical antiquity would still have an impact? That it could even be classified as so dangerous that some are calling for it to be abolished? Some prominent academics at US universities argue that the culture of the ancient Greeks and Romans is the founding myth of the racist and colonialist western civilization, the “white supremacy”. Some go so far as to question the right to exist of the "Classics", as classical philology is called there. Recently Howard University in Washington, D.C. decided to close its department ("Die Presse" reported). How should, how can one understand this American culture war over antiquity?

At least as a proxy war. The ancient Greeks and Romans did not know any racism of skin color, had no concept for it. They didn't see themselves as white either, but when they did, then as red. The peoples of the north, such as the Celts and Teutons, were considered white to them. As brown, for example, the Egyptians and Mauritanians. As black the Nubians, Ethiopians or Indians. These categories were seen by Greek geographers as the result of different levels of solar radiation. They were ideologically meaningless. This is also proven by the art in which people of different skin colors were portrayed as equal.

An Arab skin color racism

There are hardly any concepts of ethnic purity. The Roman Empire stands out precisely because of its multiculturalism. No matter whether Syrians, Judeans, Nubians, Egyptians or Gauls, everyone could acquire citizenship, it was not tied to ethnic origin. Equally rare was the idea that certain peoples were “naturally” inferior. An exception was Aristotle, who said that there are “slaves by nature”. This theory remained remarkably irrelevant in ancient times itself.

However, according to Greek scholars, one factor in nature could favor the development of “better” or “worse” peoples: the climate. They attributed their own high culture and democracy to a "medium", in their eyes optimal climate and sometimes speculated about the connection between climate and character traits. This Hellenistic climate determinism then also led to the first racism of skin color. However, not in Greco-Roman antiquity, but centuries later in the Arab world. From the 10th century onwards, geographers from Iraq to Persia, including Avicenna, took up the Hellenistic climate theories - but now with clear hierarchies linked to skin colors. For them, the “whites” (Slavs, Turks, Chinese) were among the inferior peoples, like the black Africans, while the “red” or “light brown” peoples were of high quality.

For the racist readings of antiquity, of course, Arab geographers of the 10th century are as little responsible as the ancient Greeks and Romans. Who else? Perhaps the inventors of “white antiquity”? The archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who not only shaped the image of antiquity in German classical music, is now denounced as such. Starting from white antique sculptures like the Apollo of Belvedere, he developed his ideal of culture - the “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur” of the ancient Greeks. In this way, according to the critics, he shaped the image of a “white” antiquity as a superior civilization.

“Since the white color is the one that sends back the most rays of light, the whiter it is, the more beautiful a beautiful body will be”: Winckelmann actually writes in his “History of Ancient Art” (1764). The fact that, despite traces of paint on ancient sculptures, he considered the painting to be an exception has nothing to do with the racist theories of the following century. Above all, it was a backlash against the late Baroque opulence of its time. For him, the ancient Greeks did not prove the superiority of their own culture, but on the contrary their plaintiveness.