Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.03.22

Gay L. Byron, Symbolic Blackness and Ethnic Difference in Early Christian Literature.   London:  Routledge, 2002.  Pp. xii, 223.  ISBN 0-415-24369-6.  $25.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Anthony Alcock (

This book has 223 pages, of which 129 are text and 94 are notes, bibliography and indexes. It has an introduction, two parts and a conclusion. I will try to give some idea of the content before commenting on it.

Part One is sub-titled "Developing a Taxonomy of Ethno-Political Rhetorics" and has two chapters, which give examples of ethno-political rhetoric from various non-Christian and Christian writers, grouped under various headings labelled as a "taxonomy". It contains the evidence.

Part Two is subtitled "Reading Ethno-Political Rhetorics in Early Christian Literature" and has three chapters, which show how these forms of rhetoric were deployed. It contains the argumentation.

Since Byron gives her reasons for writing this book in the introduction, which are both personal and academic, I will summarise them here.

1. Discussions, ancient and modern, of "Egypt/Egyptians" and "Ethiopia/Ethiopians" are full of inconsistencies. For example, one ancient writer treats them both indiscriminately as symbols of sin, while another text differentiates between them.

2. The references to all three groups in the ancient sources are positive and negative and deserve analysis. The overwhelmingly positive picture presented by Frank Snowden in his key books "Blacks in Antiquity" and "Before Color Prejudice" is unbalanced and needs to be adjusted. For Byron a positive portrayal is idealised, while a negative one is vituperative.

3. The significance of the ancient references all three groups has been overlooked by most but not all modern scholars. C. Copher, V. Wimbush and R. Hood have done extensive work in this area, but even they have neglected the issue of gender.

4. Gender. No analysis of women belonging to any of the three groups has so far been done, and this is an opportunity to fill that gap.

After a brief treatment of various types of criticism (rhetorical, ethno- and gender) that have enhanced modern sensitivity to various passages in ancient texts, Byron sets out her taxonomy or rather her two taxonomies, one for non-Christian texts and one for Christian texts. There is clearly overlap. Non-Christian texts generate the following divisions.

1. Geopolitical identification, with five subdivisions: a) geographical location, b) mythical idealization, c) Ethiopian-Scythian antithesis, d) economic and military domain, e) social and political status.

2. Moral-spiritual characterization, with five subdivisions :a) character description, b) color symbolism, c) demons and evil, d) models of "virtue", e) sexual threats.

3 Descriptive differentiation, with three subdivisions: a) physical description, b) name or title, c) aesthetic sensibilities.

Christian texts follow this framework, an important modification being "Christian self-definition", by which Christian groups of the centre (orthodox) identify and exclude other Christian groups of the periphery (not orthodox). I hope that this is a reasonably faithful account of the genesis and structure of the book.

"Ethno-political rhetorics" is a key concept in the book. A working definition (p.2) of it is that these forms of rhetoric refer to "ethnic" (which means overwhelmingly non-white in this book) identities or geographical locations and function as political invective. The identities and geographical locations meant are Egypt/Egyptians, Ethiopia/Ethiopians and Blacks/Blackness. The first two groups are equally balanced pairings of country/inhabitant, but the third group is not as simple. Byron identifies four uses of "black" (p.23): 1. Black = ethnic group; 2. Black = proper name; 3. black = colour or ethnic identity; 4. blackness = colour symbolism. Ethno-centric rhetoric is, in effect, a circumlocution for racial prejudice.

One of the difficulties I have had in trying to formulate my comments on this book lies in my own understanding of racial prejudice. I have never been the object of prejudice based on skin colour, so I have no first hand experience, unlike Prof. Byron (p.8).

The main argument, it seems to me, revolves around the social meaning of the colour black in classical and late antiquity, in particular what the writing classes (always, almost by definition, an elite of some sort) intended when they used it in certain contexts. Almost all of the evidence submitted by Byron clearly indicates that "black" was negative: it is a colour associated with evil, sin, things of the night. The question, it seems to me, is how this negativity affected the relationship between non-black people and black people in antiquity. Ethnic groups distinguish themselves from each other in various ways. The ancient Egyptians, for example, sometimes referred to themselves simply as "the people", while designating other groups by their names. The Greeks and the Romans used the category "barbarians" to denote others of lower cultural status, often with the same skin colour as themselves. Early Christianity probably sought its own identity by developing a rhetoric of sin concerning any sort of behaviour it considered deviant, whether sexual behaviour or unacceptable doctrine, because this sort of behaviour, by its heterodox nature, was a threat to the cohesion of the group. Part of this rhetoric of sin, especially concerning sex, involved colour symbolism, in particular the colour black.

A substantial section of the book, chapters 3 and 4, deals with the connection between Ethiopian/black and the stirring of sexual passions. This is the most powerful part of the book. Byron is quite right to point out the failure of other writers, particularly those who have devoted monographs to sex in early Christianity, to deal with the black component in descriptions of sexual passion. I am not sure, however, about the attempt to link black figures shooting arrows at monks to arouse their sexual passion with the military threat posed by the Blemmyes (pp.82-84). I would have thought that the arrows had a lot more to do with Eros. Byron discusses the question of smell, particularly in connection with black women. One of the terms used in Egyptian texts to describe sanctity is the word "stoinoufe" (good smell). The opposite of this is "bad smell". And, I think, this is what is principally meant here.

I think that the ethnic groups, Egyptians and Ethiopians, are best kept separate in any treatment of them: the classical world had first-hand knowledge of Egypt, whereas Ethiopians was largely unknown. If, as I believe, the degree of acquaintance informs attitude, the relationship with Egypt was based on reality, the one with Ethiopia largely on speculation. Negative statements about Egyptians were more likely to be based on actual dislike of them than those made about Ethiopians. Egyptians may have been colonised by foreigners as of the 4th cent. BC, but they had an ancient culture, were undoubtedly proud of it and probably relatively contemptuous of upstart outsiders. A sign of this contempt, it has always seemed to me, was their point blank refusal to call Alexandria by its Greek name when writing in Egyptian, but by its Egyptian name (Rakote). Egyptians, of course, always used their own names for Egyptians cities, but Rakote had been a tiny, utterly insignificant fishing village before Alexandria was built there.

We should be grateful to Prof. Byron for having taken the trouble to write up her research in the form of this most stimulating book. It will undoubtedly provide an indispensable starting-point for subsequent research on the subject.

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