Black people in ancient Roman history

In classical antiquity, Greek and Roman writers were acquainted with people of every skin tone from very pale (associated with populations from Scythia) to very dark (associated with populations from sub-Saharan Africa (Aethiopia). People described with words meaning "black", or as Aethiopes, are occasionally mentioned throughout the Empire in surviving writings, and people with very dark skin tones and woolly hair are depicted in various artistic modes. Other words for people with other skin tones were also used.[citation needed]

A young toga-clad man of letters holding a scroll.

Skin tones did not carry any social implications, and no social identity, either imposed or assumed, was associated with skin color. Although the color black was associated with ill-omens in the ancient Roman religion, racism as understood today developed only after the classical period:

"The ancients did not fall into the error of biological racism; black skin color was not a sign of inferiority. Greeks and Romans did not establish color as an obstacle to integration in society. An ancient society was one that for all its faults and failures never made color the basis for judging a man."

— Frank Snowden, Jr.[1][2]


World according to Pomponius Mela, a Roman geographer.

In classical antiquity, terms such as afer, maurus, niger, ater, fuscus, perustus, or melas were commonly used in reference to darker-toned physical characteristics encountered in daily life around the Mediterranean. The term "Aethiopes" referred to particularly dark-skinned peoples, first recorded as early as Homer, who presented them as remote, almost legendary figures that inhabited the far reaches of the known world.[3][4] No ancient writer attempted the detailed human classifications of pseudoscientific racism, and no exact definition of the term Aethiops is recorded.[5][6][7][8] Early contacts with such populations were along the Nile and with the civilization of the kingdoms of Nubia; the mythological stereotype of Aethiopia described its inhabitants as particularly moral.[5][6]


The inhabited world according to Herodotus: Libya (Africa) is imagined as extending no further south than the Horn of Africa, terminating in the uninhabitable desert. All peoples inhabiting the southernmost fringes of the inhabitable world are known as Aethiopians (after their dark skin). At the extreme south-east of the continent are the Macrobians, so-called for their longevity.

The earliest surviving mention is in the Odyssey:

"But Poseidon was visiting the Ethiopians (Αἰθίοπας), who live far away. Indeed, the Ethiopians, who are the most far-off of men, are divided in two. Some live where the sun sets, and some dwell where it rises. Poseidon went to accept a hecatomb of bulls and sheep. And while there he enjoys the feast."

— Homer[9]

Extant geographical sources place Aethiopia somewhere within the upper part of the torrid zone in Sahara desert, imagined as engulfed by the Red Sea, and at the end of the world as known to classical antiquity. This territory merges into areas unknown to classical civilization at its edges, and Aethiopiae are at times described as antichthones, semi-mythic figures who lived beyond the edge of the known world.[10][11][12]

Identifiable peopleEdit

Aethiopiae were rare in the capital under Nero; it was evidence of a brilliant and costly affair when the gladiators for a whole day's show consisted only of Aethiopes.[13]

One "Aethiop" soldier is reported (by an unreliable source) in Britannia in about 210 CE, his black skin being considered a bad omen[14] for North African Emperor Septimius Severus who was born in Leptis Magna.[15]

Depictions of skin toneEdit

A strong distinction in skin color is frequently seen in the portrayal of men and women in Ancient Rome. Since women in Ancient Rome were traditionally expected to stay inside and out of the sun, they were usually quite pale; whereas men were expected to go outside and work in the sun, so they were usually deeply tanned.[16] Separately, people with very dark skin and woolly hair were often depicted in art.[5] Classical pedagogy, intermingled with the fraught legacy of racism, has incorrectly imputed racism to ancient depictions of people with the physical characteristics of sub-Saharan Africans.[5][17]

Attitudes towards physical differences between populationsEdit

Romans and Greeks were generally ethnocentric, priding themselves on their autochthony and viewing themselves as somewhat privileged inhabitants of the optimal environment for human prosperity and advancement.[18] Environmental determinism was the primary lens through which classical elites understood their perceived advantages vis-à-vis the "other", and ubiquitous themes of eastern effeminacy as compared to northern hardiness were ascribed to the consequences of different climatic conditions.[citation needed]

Classical authors have left no record of any social implications of dark or black skin color, but multiple sources of group identity are recorded.[19] Romans clearly perceived physical differences between individuals and populations across time and space, as evidenced by the frequent representation of diverse types in classical iconography.[20] But they never defined these differences in a comprehensive manner, employing a range of terms to describe human social and physical characteristics. For example, terms such as genos, ethnos, ethnê, and phulê can be approximately mapped onto 21st-century notions of race, ethnic grouping, political units, or other sociocultural concepts. A "Roman" identity did not suggest a given skin tone, rather it referred to an ever-shifting set of cultural traditions, growing more eclectic in later Roman history, to which inherited physical characteristics were of no relevance.[21][22]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Snowden, Jr., Frank M. (1970). Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience. Retrieved 2022-06-24.
  2. ^ Art and the somatic norm image, Frank Snowden. pp 79-82 in Before Color Prejudice, Harvard University Press 1983
  3. ^ van Wyk Smith, Malvern (2009). The First Ethiopians: The image of Africa and Africans in the early Mediterranean World. Wits University Press. pp. 344–5.
  4. ^ Mauny, R.; Snowden, Frank M. (1971). "Africans in Antiquity". The Journal of African History. 12 (1): 157–159. ISSN 0021-8537.
  5. ^ a b c d Snowden, Jr., Frank M. (1970). Blacks in Antiquity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  6. ^ a b Snowden, Jr., Frank M. (1983). Before Color Prejudice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  7. ^ Thompson, Lloyd (1989). Romans and Blacks. London: Routledge.
  8. ^ Isaac, Benjamin (2004). The Invention of Racism in Antiquity. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  9. ^ Homer, Odyssey. 1.22-26. (Lattimore 1975)
  10. ^ Strabo. The Geography of Strabo. London: New York: W. Heinemann; G.P. Putnam's Sons.
  11. ^ Romer, F.E. (1998). Pomponius Mela's Description of the World. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  12. ^ Herodotus (1996). Herodotus : the Histories. London: Penguin Books.
  13. ^ Cassius Dio. Roman History LXII 3: "Nero admired him for this action and entertained him in many ways, especially by giving a gladiatorial exhibition at Puteoli. It was under the direction of Patrobius, one of his freedmen, who managed to make it a most brilliant and costly affair, as may be seen from the fact that on one of the days not a person but Ethiopians — men, women, and children — appeared in the theatre."*.html#29
  14. ^ Historia Augusta, Septimius Severus, chapter 22.*.html#22
  15. ^ Birley, Anthony R (2002). Septimius Severus: The African Emperor. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-113-470-745-4.
  16. ^ McDaniel, Spencer (September 30, 2020). "Were the Ancient Greeks and Romans White?".
  17. ^ Goff, Barbara (2005). Colonialism in Classics. Reading: Bloomsbury Publishing.
  18. ^ Isaac, Benjamin (2004). The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 503.
  19. ^ Kennedy, RF; Roy, CS; Goldman, ML (2013). Race and Ethnicity in the Classical World: An Anthology of Primary Sources. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company. pp. 3–10.
  20. ^ Gates, Jr., Henry Louis; Bindman, David; Dalton, Karen C. C. (2010). The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume I: From the Pharaohs to the Fall of the Roman Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674052710.
  21. ^ LOMAS, KATHRYN; GARDNER, ANDREW; HERRING, EDWARD (2013). "CREATING ETHNICITIES AND IDENTITIES IN THE ROMAN WORLD". Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies. Supplement (120): 1–10. ISSN 2398-3264.
  22. ^ de Souza Briggs, Xavier (4 December 2004). "Civilization in Color: The Multicultural City in Three Millennia" (PDF). City & Community – via