Roman Perceptions of Blacks

Roman Perceptions of Blacks

By Lloyd Thompson

Electronic Antiquity, Volume I, Number 3 (1993)

Introduction: Certain preconceptions about ‘blacks’ in predominantly ‘white’ societies have distorted modern visions of the ways in which Aethiopes were perceived in Roman society, resulting in much misinterpretation of the relevant texts. In Roman perceptions categories like black African, white, ‘paleface’ and swarthy were neither communities nor socially defined ‘races’ with ascribed group-statuses. Categorisation was determined by the physical appearance of the individual person, not by parentage or ‘blood’.

In a recent discussion of ‘medium and message’ and ‘objectivity in the translator’, Peter Green saw ‘a certain element of unreality’ in questions as to whether the translator’s objective should be ‘to convey the alien quality of his original, however much violence that may do to the language into which he is translating and the culture it represents’, or whether one should make classical authors speak as one ‘imagines they might have done’ if they had been born in one’s own time and country. Green concludes that, in any case, the result is bound to be a ‘reflection, not of the alien culture’ one is transposing, but of one’s own ‘age and social context’. This discussion does not specifically touch upon the problem of transposing important alien concepts; and it no doubt explains Green’s own English translation (in the Penguin series) of Juvenal’s loripedem rectus derideat, Aethiopem albus (which he renders as ‘It takes a hale man to mock a cripple, / And you can’t bait niggers when you’re tarred with the same brush’, Juv. 2.23). Quite obviously this translation unwarrantedly sets the Roman satirist in a modern racist social and psychological context, in so far as the phrase ‘tarred with the same brush’ combines with the word ‘niggers’ to present a picture of familiar Western social situations in which so-called ‘black blood’ is perceived as a social taint and blacks and whites are socially defined categories or ‘races’. The translation unjustifiably implies that the Latin word Aethiops, when used by Romans negatively, carried the same social-psychological import as ‘nigger’ does in contemporary Western usage (as a contemptuous and savagely disparaging expression applicable to any black by any white person in any situation, whatever their respective social positions). It thus suggests to the unwary reader in Green’s own society that the same racist perception of blacks (or of the black ‘race’) with which he or she is all too familiar was also a characteristic of ancient Roman society, and it serves to fortify already existing assumptions of that sort, such as those portrayed by D. S. Wiesen’s interpretation of this same text of Juvenal. Wiesen saw this text as evidence of a Roman perception of blacks as natural inferiors of ‘the white man’, in so far as the text reveals a perception of the black African phenotype as ‘a kind of parody upon nature’ or as ‘an insult to nature and nature’s proper product of the white man’. Here Wiesen could readily transpose to Roman society the entirely modern taxonomic construct ‘the white man’, despite his awareness of the fact that Romans also perceived Germanic blue eyes and blond hair (and not only the Aethiops phenotype) as natural ‘defects’ (vitia) and deviations from ‘the norm’ (Juv. 13.162-66; Sen. De Ira 3.26.3).

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