Inspired by Frank M. Snowden’s Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks, ISBN 9780674063813. This should be essential reading in all ‘white’-majority countries, especially England and USA.
In a nutshell Snowden says that for a long time before the TAST (all the way from the beginning of Egyptian Pharaonic civilisation to the spread of Christianity through the Greco-Roman empire, approximately 3000 years) ‘whites’ did not hold negative views of ‘blacks’. They in fact held mostly positive stereotypes, even to the degree that Greeks regarded Aithiopians* as the gods’ favourite people!
* Since this is the original Greek form of Ethiopian they meant all east & east-central Africans, sometimes all “sub-Saharan” Africans, not nationals of the modern country Ethiopia. These were the same people called Nubians/Nehesyu by the Egyptians and Kushim/Kushites by the Jews & early Christians. Note Snowden doesn’t use this spelling but the modern “Ethiopian”; I use Aithiopian to distinguish between ancient & modern usage.
For clarity Snowden also uses the labels Napatans for those living in the period of the Napatan Kingdom of Kush (~750-300BC) and Meroïtes for those in the Meroïtic Kingdom (~350BC-300AD). Nubia/ Kush was divided into upper & lower parts exactly as Kemet (Egypt), also with south = upper and north = lower:
Also be aware that Africa was the Roman term for the region we now call north Africa (excluding Egypt); Libya, Tunisia, Algeria & Morocco.
To further clarify context, it should be understood that generally ‘whites’ didn’t know other continents than Africa & Asia (including Europe, which was eventually seen as separate) and they didn’t know how big they really were. For that reason north Asia (the Eurasian steppes) and equatorial Africa were believed to be the ends or extremities of the world. However, Arabs and Indians at least knew about China & southeast Asia, while west Africans at least knew about southern Africa & the Americas.
So how did ‘whites’ & ‘blacks’ even know each other that long ago?
By travel. No ethnic group stayed totally where they were in the world. If we did there’d have been no out-of-Africa migrations – can the Horn of Africa sustain 6.8 billion people?!? The Mediterranean was effectively the rendezvous point. Generally ‘whites’ lived north of it while ‘blacks’ lived south & east of it, though there was crossover in all directions.
Snowden lists Pharaoh Psamtik II’s (26th dynasty, ~595-589 BC) Greek contingents as among the first Europeans to directly meet Africans face to face as opposed to listening to hearsay or glimpsing relics of long-gone people. Psamtik had been on a rampage to eradicate Nubian monuments & pharaohs’ names from Egypt’s 25th Dynasty (late 500s BC) and assembled an army to kick them out physically so they couldn’t reconquer*. Those Greeks in his army caught wind of the Nubians’ prior rule of the country and told their fellow Greeks back home. Greeks met Egyptians and Aithiopians again during Pharaoh Amasis II’s (also 26th dynasty, ~570-526 BC) occupation of Cyprus during the mid-early 500s BC, and Aithiopians once again in Persian king Xerxes’s army in the 400s BC. After that Egypt maintained relations with Elis (a district in south Greece where the very first Olympic festival was held); travel became commonplace and Greeks were able to travel throughout the country for themselves – including Simonides “the Younger” (~556-468 BC) and “father of history” Herodotus (~484-425 BC).
* Note that not all Egyptians were happy with this. Some of Psamtik’s own soldiers defected and sought refuge in Nubia to get away from him!
For clarity’s sake: the word gets thrown around a lot but where exactly is the Mediterranean? Just the countries surrounding the Mediterranean sea:
Where the bloodclaat is that?!?
As you can see the Mediterranean comprises of north Africa, southwest Asia (the “Middle East”) and south Europe. But even people from further south (east, central and west Africa), east (the Arabian peninsula, Indian subcontinent, & possibly southeast-east Asia?) and north (north & west Asia including Europe, the Eurasian steppes) also travelled and encountered each other. The Greeks regarded them as just different types of people, and were intensely curious about them – especially ‘blacks’ it seems, judging from the amount of sculptures, literature, dramas & plays, idols, even cookware dedicated to them.
Yes, cookware. The image on the book’s front cover is a type of bowl called a phiale, with concentric rings of ‘black’ men’s faces all the way through (except for the innermost ring, which is of acorns for some reason).
The Greek island of Crete has the oldest depictions of Africans outside Africa. Several profiles & frescoes from the 2nd-1st millennia BC show people of the “true Negro” phenotype – rounded noses, plump lips, tightly coiled hair. From ~550BC Greeks also depicted mixed-race looking people. Snowden asserts those ‘blacks’ depicted in Greek, Roman, Iberian & Egyptian art were not cookie-cutter models, as some modern historians have tried to claim, but live people standing directly in front of the artists. That’s why they paid so much attention to individual details; no-one could tell them ‘blacks’ all look alike. Furthermore, while some scholars have claimed those artefacts were designed to look grotesque, ugly &/or comical, Snowden points out that there’s nothing in the artists’ work suggesting that was normal. ‘Whites’ and even gods were also depicted satirically at times. The anti-‘black’ perception is thus all in modern ‘white’ minds:
I shouldn’t have to point this out but for completion’s sake I will. There was no automatic association between ‘black’ and servant/ criminal/ slave/ fool. Snowden asserts that one of the most common associations in those times was ‘black’ and warrior, while the vast majority of slaves ALL OVER THE MEDITERRANEAN were ‘whites’. Yes we were stereotyped as warriors, and damn good ones! Whether with weapons (bow & arrows, spear, sword, khopesh, etc.) or sheer muscle power & stamina, our strength was quite literally legendary (see the Greek legend of Memnon as an example, & sometimes Zeus & Heracles were described as ‘black). Because of this, and previous military encounters with Aithiopians, the Mediterranean as a whole developed a tendency to employ ‘blacks’ in their armies, and many ‘blacks’ likewise saw the economic advantages of a military career. This may seem inconsistent with nationalistic principles, but it must be remembered that in the ancient world loyalty was to your kith, kin & district first, not so much to your ruler or country.
Despite the legends and reputation it was rare to hear about ‘blacks’ being pillagers, expansionists, conquerors or the like. ‘White’ civilians knew us as staunch defenders of our loved ones and our borders – which of course their armies hated us for when trying to conquer our lands, but strength soon begets respect & admiration.
Not that ‘blacks’ were never invaders or conquerors, since Nubians & Egyptians had been trying to reclaim each other for ages, and Egyptians had been stationing soldiers all over the ancient Mediterranean. But after almost 500 years of Egyptian occupation and rule, Nubians gained control of Egypt in less than 100 years! Snowden describes it as “a kind of Third Intermediate Period” (i.e. the 25th Dynasty, ~747-656 BC) during which Napatans controlled Egypt all the way to the Mediterranean coast, which even their ancestors from Kerma never managed to do! The now-Meroïte Nubians (as the capital was changed from Napata to Meroë) had control of Egypt for 1000 years – longer than any single period of native Egyptian unification. During this time they instituted a policy of self-defence instead of conquest & aggression against other nations, and integrated into Egyptian and Greek societies while still maintaining sovereignty against more Greco-Roman incursions. The authors of the Bible knew Nubia as a sovereign military nation with a thriving economy up until the collapse of Meroë in the early 300s AD.
Herodotus claimed there had been 18 Nubian pharaohs of Egypt (versus 1 Egyptian pharaoh of Nubia), and they were considered to be revivers and protectors of Egyptian tradition during Greek & Roman invasions. And those Greeks & Romans always kept their eye on Nubian warriors, whether in Egypt or not. Roman emperor Augustus’s occupation of Egypt saw Nubians rise up yet again, with them even enslaving his soldiers, and although he eventually won Augustus’s victory was laden with policies to keep them sweet – including scrapping the tribute he’d imposed on the country before!
From the 200s-500s AD Romans were getting it in the neck from another ‘black’ race: the Blemmyes (almost unanimously believed to be the ancestors of modern Beja people). But even the Carthaginians of the Punic wars (264-146 BC, some of whom were known to have increased the ‘black’ presence in north Italy), Moors and Garamantes were staunch opponents of Roman rule in Africa. Even Assyrian king Ashurbanipal noted Egyptians taking refuge from him under Nubian pharaoh Taharqa (~694-660 BC), and despite Assyrian victory Taharqa’s sovereignty of Nubia was untouched.
(Maybe the self-defence policy is where Marvel got the inspiration for Black Panther’s Wakandan warrior culture?)
Ironically, the positive perceptions persisted even when Greeks encountered Aithiopians who went against them! It’s almost like they admired us so much they couldn’t accept the concept of villainous or weak ‘black’ people! For those rare occasions when some of us were “savages” it was explained away as being due to inhabiting the southernmost extremity of the world, exactly as those ‘whites’ who lived at the northernmost tip of the world, and it was freely acknowledged that everyone was liable to turning “savage” in bad enough environmental conditions. Romans & Greeks went to a lot of trouble to record everything they could about different peoples of the world*; they came to know of different groups of Aithiopians, and there were points when Europeans were building temples to worship African deities (Iset/Aset/Auset, better known as Isis) and inviting Aithiopians to be their priests! Italy seems to have hosted the clearest examples of this.
* Not always accurately though, nor without resorting to the occasional mythical beings; men with 3 and 4 eyes, men with feet like leather straps, men with faces on their chests instead of their heads, etc.
Perhaps even more ironic was early Christianity’s treatment of ‘blacks’. It basically continued the Mediterranean tradition of universalism, granting people all over the world full access and opportunity to “the truth of the gospel”. In the same way ‘whites’ & ‘blacks’ worshipped an African goddess together, they worshipped a ‘black’ Jesus & Mary together. Italy at least still does; Google ‘black madonna vatican’.
Now pay attention because this is where it gets confusing.
While racism didn’t exist, it becomes easy to see its origins in Christianity. Why? Because of its heavy emphasis of using white & black to symbolise good & evil, even to the point of occasionally describing devils as Aithiopian (but only in colour, not in ethnic background or other features like hair, nose, etc.).
So how did this not equate to racism? 2 reasons:
- the Mediterranean view of ‘blacks’ as the first and first God-conscious people was well in force (Snowden calls this belief Aithiopian priority), and
- the symbolism was universally understood to mean an inner spiritual state dictated by choice as opposed to skin colour dictated by biology – or the sun, according to contemporary thought.
Another common perception was that we were very just, honourable and even-handed when by rights we could’ve been total assholes. The Aithiopian king Hydaspes, though fictional, was said to follow Egyptian queen Piye’s (~744-714 BC) tradition of taking prisoners alive and granting mercy if they pleaded. As alluded to above, ancient Egyptians regarded Nehesyu (southerners, i.e. Aithiopians) as the world’s very first people, and Greeks considered us favoured by the gods because we were the first to recognise and worship them! Amun/Zeus came to Earth to have an annual 12-day feast in Kush, with Iris & Poseidon joining in! Agatharchides (sometime in the 100s BC) talked about a tribe of Aithiopians he called Fish-Eaters (Ichthyophagi) who, despite wearing no clothes and living in wilderness, were so civilised and moral they didn’t need written laws or bother invading other nations – unlike his fellow Greeks. Even Origen (~184-253 AD) seemed to agree with the Greco-Roman belief in Aithiopian priority in recognising divinity.
It was also taken for granted that we were good-looking. How good-looking was down to individual preference; Snowden posits the somatic norm theory that basically says “of course any given people will prefer the looks of their own kind over others.” Despite that Greeks and Romans recognised their own subjectivity and were able to appreciate & describe the beauty of other races in dramatic poetic detail. In fact, it wasn’t unusual for individuals to openly state their preference for people of other backgrounds. Herodotus for one called Aithiopians the handsomest people in the world, and Martial (proper name: Marcus Valerius Martialis, ~between 38 & 41- between 102 & 104 AD) was in love with a woman “blacker than an ant” while rejecting the advances of a woman who was “whiter than snow”. The zeitgeist was that nobility was attained through culture not birth or race.
Interracial relationships were common and no-one gave a shit, so there was no stigma against a ‘white’ woman for marrying & having children with a ‘black’ man or vice versa. On the topic of adultery, Martial said the only reason mixed-race babies aren’t more common is the high rate of abortion. The only time interracial relationships were made an issue is for questions of fidelity (e.g. if a ‘white’ woman gave birth to a ‘grey’ baby while her husband was ‘white’).
One thing that jarred me, though, was Snowden’s understanding of who was who:
- He described Maures (Moors) as “predominantly white” – but Europeans from the 8th-14th centuries never knew them as anything but ‘black’,
- He said the Egyptian queen Tiye’s (~1390-1353 BC) dark skin implied Nubian ancestry, which there is no evidence for,
- Any ‘blacks’ who in his words have “less pronounced Negroid” features must be mixed or ‘white’,
- He says Egyptians never made mention of Nubian skin colour because they “became” familiar with Nubians in 2000BC, as if they weren’t familiar with them before. That is strange since he mentions elsewhere that Egyptians were regarded as descendants of Aithiopians and therefore would’ve been familiar with them since forever!
In short, he seems to be flip-flopping between the contemporary Eurocentric belief in the “pure Negro” and the modern knowledge of features never being specific to any race or group.
However, his comment about Garamantes (closely related to Moors but from modern Fezzan, Libya) being largely ‘mulatto’ could be true. For several millennia north Africa had been taking in escaped European slaves (like the ancestors of modern Imazighen according to some), and from roughly the spread of Islam in the region (as well as the Arabian peninsula) started actively taking European slaves in the millions, thereby increasing the ‘white’/mulatto presence. The Egyptians depicted Libyans as ‘white’, while Hesiod considered the god Kronos’s son Epaphus to be the common ancestor of both (‘black’) Libyans and “high-souled” Aithiopians.
Furthermore, Snowden alluded to his contemporaries’ distinction between ancient peoples as sometimes pointless and deliberately obfuscating:
“Nubians … may be described as black or white according to the prejudices of one’s time and temperament. On the question of physical characteristics of African blacks, however, the ancients were far from unclear …
Regardless of modern opinions as to the precise racial identity or proper anthropological classification of Kushites, Nubians, or Ethiopians, the blacks of ancient artists often bear a close similarity to racial types designated in the modern world as “colored,” “black,” or “Negro.” And many of these, had they lived at a later time, would have been regarded as black or Negro and subjected to prejudice because of their color…
Following the Greek and Roman practice, I use a color term, “black,” as a general designation for the dark- and black-skinned Africans of this study. Like the word “Ethiopian,” “black” in my usage properly emphasizes color and includes the colored peoples comprehended by the classical term.”
And towards the start of the book he mentioned that since ‘black’ people were seen as individuals their skin colours were likewise not regarded as the same. All populations in the world were thought to have an average skin colour, which was darker the closer they were to the Equator and lighter the further they were from it:
And in ancient Greece exactly as Aithiopians were the blackest of all people, Scythians* were seen as the whitest people of all complete with stereotypical thin hooked noses and lank hair. However, as they were so fascinated by dark skin Greeks & Romans didn’t even mistake Aithiopians as being all the same colour; ‘blacks’ were described as fusci (dark), nigerrimi (very black), perusti (sunburnt), furvi (swarthy), nigri (black), adusti (scorched) and more in various attempts to describe different degrees of ‘blackness’. They acknowledged that despite general trends, there was widespread variation among individuals; sometimes Egyptians were described as Aithiopian to emphasise their ‘blackness’. Snowden doesn’t mention it but I believe it’s likely they were not just describing tint, tone & shade but actual hues too, exactly as Arabs had different words for different hues (aswad/sawad for darkest-skinned or literally black, adam & asmar/ sumra for dark brown, akhḍar/ khiḍr [lit. green!], abyaḍ for “yellow/golden-black”, aḥmar/ḥamar [lit. red] for ‘white’, etc).
Who were the Scythians? An Iranic tribe from the central & south parts of the EURASIAN STEPPES including much of modern eastern Europe, north India and parts of east Asia, which gives yet more credence to the ‘whites’-are-albino-Asians theory. They were also known as Yuezhi (by the Chinese), Saka, Sakae, Iskuzai, Askuzai and Sai.
Though they were seen as the ‘whitest’ people on Earth, Scythians were not well-known for having hair colours other than black or brown and eye colour other than brown. Other hair & eye colours, especially blond/ginger & blue respectively, were much more commonly ascribed to Germanic tribes such as were encountered by the Romans when they first invaded western Europe & the British isles. Germanic tribes included the Angles & Saxons (ancestors of modern English people, where the term Anglo-Saxon comes from), Goths, Jutes, Norsemen (whose seafaring criminals we call Vikings), Suebi, Vandals, and others. In his book Germania, Tacitus describes them thus:
Unde habitus quoque corporum, tamquam in tanto hominum numero, idem omnibus: truces et caerulei oculi, rutilae comae, magna corpora et tantum ad impetum valida: laboris atque operum non eadem patientia, minimeque sitim aestumque tolerare, frigora atque inediam caelo solove adsueverunt.
Which translates to something like:
Hence, too, the same physical peculiarities throughout so vast a population. All have fierce blue eyes, red hair, huge frames, fit only for a sudden exertion. They are less able to bear laborious work. Heat and thirst they cannot in the least endure; to cold and hunger their climate and their soil inure them.
It should be noted that in Snowden’s day it was believed pharaonic Egypt was founded about 5000 years ago. That pretty much squares up with the modern archaeological & historical view, but it should be highlighted that this only refers to pharaonic or dynastic Egypt. The country had at least another 2000 years before then, known as the pre-dynastic period, when there were no kings, pharaohs, royal families, etc.
Despite Snowden’s minor misidentifications of ancient peoples, Before Color Prejudice made for a very informative read shedding light on a side of history kept hidden for a long long long time.
6 thoughts on “Back when Racism didn’t exist”
I think it’s pretty obvious that anti-Black bias was deliberately cultivated by European culture to justify slavery and the brutal colonization and rape of the African continent.
Agreed. It’s a pity that so many don’t understand, and believe the bias instead. :-\
Hello I enjoyed your article, recently for about the past eight months, I have been doing a little research about slavery, and the African American during slavery times, and the methods used to try to dehumanize blacks during slavery, especially the black male. Your article about there being no predi in early centuries was very imformative and gave a little peace in my soul, how blacks were viewed in the world early on. I recently listened to an sermon about Nimrod in the bible, one of the things the Preacher brought up was after the flood in the bible all nations, and ethic groups worked side by side, and there was not any prejudice or racism, and that Nimrod was a mighty hunter before the LORD. As a black man your article and sermons, like the one I just mentioned are helpful , comforting , and inspiring.
Glad you found it so helpful & inspiring. Please feel free to read my other posts on similar topics.