Roman Skin Colour

One of the most important and devastating book reviews I have read was published 10 years ago this year. It was written, I’m proud to say, by one of my doctoral supervisors, Professor Martin Goodman, and was published in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement. The review explodes a number of claims made by the Israeli historian Shlomo Sand in his book The Invention of the Jewish People.

The review is delivered authoritatively and calmly, developing a multi-pronged case with reference to relevant facts. It can be read in reproduction here. Goodman explodes Sand’s various claims that

i) ‘there was no exile of the Jews in the aftermath of the Roman conquest of Jerusalem in AD70’;

ii) ‘that the notion of such an exile was the product of Christian theology later adopted by the rabbis’;

iii) that modern Jews are all the descendants of gentiles from outside Judaea who converted to Judaism as a religion;

iv) and that the Jews were not, and should not now, be considered as a people until the Jewish people were “invented” in the nineteenth century.

Poussin, Destruction of Jerusalem Temple

Goodman’s arguments against these claims are made with careful reference to primary source materials, particularly the first century Jewish historian Josephus and the second century Christian apologist Justin Martyr. The need to marshal these sources carefully in order to deal with Sand’s wider arguments about modern Jewish genealogy was clear: Goodman’s isn’t just one reading of the surviving sources against another (Sand’s), but a carefully reasoned case against a clumsy, incoherent one. It’s on the basis of command of the relevant facts that Goodman can dismiss Sand’s claims effectively.

Reading this review was exciting for me not just because it was the work of my supervisor, but because it encapsulated the kind of ancient history writing I myself wanted to aim at doing. It showed how false modern claims about matters of great importance could be shattered by paying close attention to the ancient historical record. And it showed how false claims could be made – and be in need of trenchant correction – by eminent academic figures (Sand is a professor at Tel Aviv university). The need to question everything was all too apparent.

Fast forward 10 years to the present where, earlier today, on Twitter, Professor Mary Beard found herself arguing against some people who wanted to claim that ‘Romans were white’. It’s strange to me that some (I would think only very few) people can become attached to claims like this. The Romans conquered vast areas of land, across North Africa and the near east, very far beyond the confines of modern Europe. The Roman empire was a huge place and it contained a very diverse population.

The Roman citizenship was initially held only by a select few people, but in the 3rd century AD, under the emperor Caracalla in AD 212, it was extended widely. All free men across the empire now enjoyed Roman citizenship. They could thus legitimately see themselves very much as Romans (if they had not already done so), not just as the Romans’ subjects. Free women too enjoyed a (more limited) form of citizenship from this date.

Certainly, being Roman (in the sense of having a sense of Roman identity) was possible for people across the Roman empire long before Caracalla came along: Caracalla’s extension of the citizenship will merely have formalised a sense of belonging that will already have existed for many. People of diverse backgrounds from across the empire, for example, had long served in the Roman army, going far and wide as their roles demanded.

Bust of Caracalla

All this should make it easy to see why Romans weren’t just, well, ‘white’. And in Mary Beard’s rebuke of her disputants, she addresses this directly, writing: ‘some [Romans] were and some weren’t [ie. white]’.

But wait. It’s important to remember that modern racial categories (‘black’, ‘white’ etc) come to us with their own histories. The habit of dividing people between these particular categories (and endowing them with great significance) only really emerged quite recently in world-historical terms, over the past half milennium. The ancient Romans did not categorise themselves in this way. Certainly, they observed differences in skin colour, but they did not use labels such as ‘black’ and ‘white’ to divide up the membership of whole populations.

When Mary Beard writes that some Romans were ‘white’, she in fact imposes on the Romans a modern category that the Romans in question did not use to describe themselves as a group of people. For Romans, as was pointed out by another commenter on Beard’s post, the only sub-groups ‘white’ (Lat. albus, candidus, niveus) referred to, when used of skin pigmentation, were: a) some northern barbarian tribes; b) women’s skin; c) the unhealthy. Not, then, as an identity marker or as a description in anything like the way it can in contemporary societies. There is nothing, for instance, to suggest that the label ‘White-Italian’ would have made any sense to an ancient Roman.

Mary Beard will of course know all this. So it’s interesting to me that she chooses to ignore it, instead deciding to apply the term ‘white’ to ‘some Romans’. Perhaps it was an unintentional, hastily written phrase (though she didn’t correct it). Or perhaps she does in fact take the view that telling a more complicated story of the kind I have hinted at above is just, well, unnecessarily complicated. And that using modern racial categories of ancient people is reasonable practice.

Whatever the case may be, for me, the Romans’ own practice in this area makes a different approach seem preferable. If Romans didn’t call themselves ‘white’ in the way someone today might, I’m reluctant myself to do so when referring to them, not least because it may cloud my ability to get a grip on their understanding of their ethnic and cultural identities. The Romans just didn’t see the world in terms of black and white in a way that can seem natural to us now – and this, I think, offers a useful chance for reflection.

Here, then, on the question how we might best discuss Roman skin colour, is an important area where ancient historical subject matter intersects with contemporary issues of race and identity. As with Martin Goodman’s review of Shlomo Sand’s book, it’s an area that deserves careful handling. But, if done judiciously, it’s an area that can open genuine space for perspective.