Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.01.39

Miriam Eliav-Feldon, Benjamin Isaac, Joseph Ziegler (ed.), The Origins of Racism in the West.   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2009.  Pp. xiii, 333.  ISBN 9780521888554.  £55.00/$99.00.  

Reviewed by Naoise Mac Sweeney, Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge UK (
Word count: 2554 words

Table of Contents

The application of potentially anachronistic terms to pre-modern societies is the subject of ongoing debate; and the debate is at its most bloody when considering the interlinked concepts of ethnicity, identity and race. This new edited volume contributes greatly to both sides of the discussion, containing within its covers the full gamut of academic argument from detailed scholarly reasoning and masterful surveys of material to impassioned personal counter-attacks. This range reflects the dual nature and purpose of the book: on the one hand, it is a selection of research papers on an important and popular subject; on the other, it is an argument occupying a specific space within a continuing academic dispute.

The book is drawn from the papers presented at a conference held in Tel Aviv University in 2005, entitled 'Racism in Western Civilization before 1700'. The papers in this volume consider the topic through a variety of different time periods and source material, making for varied and engaging reading. In one sense therefore, the book is successful, as it presents a series of new studies on what is currently a 'hot' topic in academia.

However, the volume is subject to a second agenda. Both the book and the original conference are deliberate companion pieces to an earlier publication by one of the volume editors: The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity by Benjamin Isaac. Isaac's book stimulated controversy when it was first published in 2004, eliciting praise from some reviewers and strong objections from others.1 The introduction and the first paper (penned by Isaac himself) both make extensive reference to this controversy, and both explicitly state that this edited volume was conceived as a response to Isaac's critics. As well as the direct assertion of this agenda in these introductory chapters, in the rest of the book the individual authors also engage with Isaac's thesis, either lending their support or outlining their reasons for disagreement. The resulting unity of theme in the volume is remarkable, and is one of the strong points of the book. However, the final publication does not completely fulfil its aim in that it does not wholly support Isaac's argument. Indeed, the various papers in the volume pose more questions for his theory than they answer.

The introduction is strongly influenced by Isaac at the expense of the other editors, and explicitly lays out his agenda for the book. It introduces Isaac's conception of racism, not simply as ethnic prejudice (which can take many diverse forms), but as a very specific phenomenon -- prejudice justified on pseudo-scientific and pseudo-biological grounds. Under this definition, two common forms of prejudice often considered to be racism today cannot be classified under the term: prejudice based on cultural traits such as religion and language; and ethnic prejudices without an attached scientific justification. Having established his definition of racism, the Introduction then summarizes Isaac's previous argument. This holds that racism first emerged in Classical Greece and was passed down through the centuries in 'western' (i.e., European and North American) culture, before developing into its modern form and being exported to the rest of the world through western imperialism and cultural dominance. The Introduction then explains that since Isaac's 2004 monograph focused on the emergence of racism in antiquity itself, the aim of this edited volume would be to trace the transmission and development of the idea through the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period (p. 14-15).

Isaac's own paper follows the Introduction, and address specific criticisms of Isaac's previous book, focusing in turn on different criticisms concerning his choice of limited source material, ancient evidence countering his argument, his interpretation of the geographic determinism in Airs, Waters, Places, and anachronism. The chapter is therefore less of a research paper than a review rebuttal, and may appear somewhat jarring for the reader unfamiliar with the history of the debate.

After the introductory chapters, the papers are arranged chronologically by the time period they discuss. The first of these is Shapiro's survey of depictions of Persians in Athenian vase painting between c. 540-330 BC, highlighting how many of these images portray the historical Persians as fantastical or mythical figures. Shapiro does not, however, consider how these visual representations might be interpreted in the context of Classical Greek perceptions of the Other or what his conclusions might mean for the wider questions at hand.

Goldenberg's paper discusses antique and early Christian colour symbolism linking black with the underworld, sin and the devil. He argues that this symbolism would have informed contemporary perceptions of black Africans, and was influential in the development of later racist attitudes towards them. Goldenberg also suggests that these attitudes may not in themselves have been 'racist' in Isaac's sense, as negative associations to do with skin colour seem unconnected to personal characteristics or cultural traits.

Early Christian ideas about ethnicity are also discussed by Buell, who uses textual sources to suggest that converts to Christianity were seen as entering into a new genealogy, leaving behind them their old ethnos and receiving true (i.e. spiritual) Abrahamic ancestry. Buell points out that this perception of ancestry as changeable rather than fixed is in direct opposition to modern racism, which concentrates on the fixity of biology. This interesting conclusion is then somewhat obscured by Buell's final argument, where she posits that this idea of a changeable ancestry does not preclude the existence of Isaac's 'racism', as early Christians were still prejudiced against individuals outside their ethnos (i.e. non-Christians).

Bartlett's paper returns to visual sources to analyse the depiction of different ethnic groups in illustrated manuscripts of the eleventh to fourteenth centuries. Bartlett draws up a tripartite classification of such illustrations; images where no visual cues are given to differentiate between different groups, images where people are differentiated by dress and hairstyle, and images where people are differentiated by bodily characteristics. While only the last of these can be said to be at all indicative of 'racism' in Isaac's sense, Bartlett goes on to show how English illustrations in the second group were a crucial part of the creation of the negative stereotype of the Irish which was used to justify English imperialism. Such non-biological stereotyping, Bartlett argues, was still influential in the development of modern racism.

The next two papers by Biller and Ziegler argue for two different interpretations of a similar body of material and for two different positions on Isaac's theory. Biller starts with the classical texts examined by Isaac in The Invention of Racism..., and traces the use of these texts in the arts and medicine faculties of the major European universities. From this, Biller concludes that the ancient Greek 'racism' identified by Isaac would have been broadly influential amongst the educated classes, thereby accounting for the transmission of the idea of racism in western culture.

Ziegler focuses more specifically on physiognomic texts from a similar period, perhaps the source material most likely to contain Isaacian racist comments. Physiognomy, he argues, was held to be more indicative of individual personality and character rather than biological descent, and physiognomic works arguing a 'racist' approach were "relegated to a marginal position" within the discipline (p. 199).

De Miramon argues a similar position in his paper. He identifies the first known usages of the word 'race' in the fourteenth century, highlighting that it was used primarily of animals -- specifically of domesticated dogs and hawks. He concludes that interest in the idea of race grew only gradually over the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and that this was "a minority trend that must be understood in the framework of a complex cultural change that took place at the end of the Middle Ages" (p. 216).

Groebner's paper gives literary examples of blacks and Arabs being associated with a dangerously strong and perhaps even violent sexuality. Groebner sees this trend as part of the European response to the expansion of the slave trade, and connected to the growing anxiety about race and racial encounter in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

The following paper by Nirenberg also identifies a new interest in genealogy and race in the mid-fifteenth century. Nirenberg, however, focuses on perceptions of Jews in medieval Spain, and highlights several instances which would classify as 'racism' under Isaac's scheme where biological arguments are used to make social or cultural assertions about Spanish Jews. He therefore agrees with Isaac that some elements of modern racism can be traced back to the pre-modern period. However, Nirenberg nuances this view, pointing out that Spanish Christians did not conform to any single approach to Jews. Race, he asserts, is not a singular theory or concept, and it cannot be said to have a linear development through history (p. 261).

Po-chia Hsia's paper also considers Christian attitudes to Jews, but focuses on how Jewish converts were perceived in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Like Nirenberg, Po-chia Hsia stresses the complexity of these attitudes, pointing out that the confessional diversity within Christianity made any unified approach to other religions impossible.

Eliav-Feldon's chapter on Gypsies in Early Modern Europe echoes the conclusions of the last few contributors, in that she argues for a more complex understanding of ethnic prejudice. Eliav-Feldon identifies some elements of Isaacian 'racism' in literary representations of Gypsies, but however warns that "a handful of racists does not Racism make" (p. 288).

Pagden offers a stronger version of these earlier conclusions, claiming that the idea of race and racism is "of relatively recent origin", and arguing that applying the term 'racism' to pre-modern periods is "purely anachronistic" (p. 292). He identifies the sixteenth century and the new engagement with Amerindians in the new world as a vital turning point, when the concept of 'race' and 'racism' attracted mainstream interest and gained purchase. However, Pagden warns that even in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century treatments of Amerindians, ideas about biology and ethnicity were still far from uniform, and the concept of separate races was problematic for the evangelical justifications of empire.

The final paper in the volume is Canñizares-Esguerra's discussion of how physical bodies were understood in the Early Modern period. Like previous authors, Canñizares-Esguerra sees a change in attitudes, suggesting that bodies and bloodlines were thought to be changeable for much of the period, and subject to external influence. It is not until the end of the period, he argues, that bodies began to be conceived of as fixed and immutable.

The two introductory chapters and thirteen papers of this volume make for varied reading, and many of the papers contain interesting insights on an important topic. However, many of these papers do not fully support the stated aim of the book -- to demonstrate Isaac's theory that racism was invented in Classical Greece and transmitted to the modern world through western tradition in the Middle Ages and Early Modern period. While several papers do identify instances where ethnic prejudice was justified on pseudo-scientific and biological grounds, almost all papers equally assert that such views were only one amongst many different contemporary ways of articulating difference. Shapiro, Buell, and Bartlett all highlight instances where difference was expressed in non-biological terms. Goldenberg, Nirenberg, Po-chia Hsia, Eliav-Feldon and Pagden all emphasize the complexity of ethnic prejudice and assert that biological and non-biological theories of ethnic difference frequently co-existed. Ziegler, De Miramon and Pagden go yet further, claiming that biological explanations of difference were less common than non-biological ones in the pre-modern period. But perhaps the most serious issue undermining Isaac's thesis is the widespread agreement amongst the other authors that there was a marked change during the Early Modern period. De Miramon, Groebner, Nirenberg, Po-chia Hisa, Eliav-Feldon, Pagden and Canñizares-Esguerra all suggest that there was something of a 'racial turn' in the later Early Modern period, where biological rationalisations of difference became gradually more popular. It therefore seems that there is not unanimous support within the volume for the lead editor's strong view about the unbroken transmission of the idea of racism from antiquity to the present day. Whilst this edited volume may initially have been designed as a vehicle for the furtherance of Isaac's theory, the overall impression serves to question at least as much as to support his thesis.

Indeed, Isaac's own contributions to the volume in Chapters 1 and 2 are less than completely convincing on three levels. Firstly, his definition of racism is somewhat problematic when applied to pre-modern societies. Unlike some other critics, I would agree with Isaac that when ethnic prejudice is justified on rationalising and systematic grounds, it should be considered as a qualitatively different phenomenon from other forms of ethnic prejudice. However, Isaac focuses exclusively on explanations of difference which we might recognise as striving for some kind of 'scientific' basis. Myths are summarily dismissed as irrelevant (p. 9). But it has long been recognised that regimes of rationality vary between cultures, and that myths can encode rational systems, performing essentially the same function of systematizing and rationalizing which science does for us today.2 By restricting his analysis to 'pseudo-scientific' explanations of difference, Isaac imposes an anachronistic and culturally specific regime of rationality on the pre-modern past.

Even if we accept Isaac's definition of racism and accept western scientific rationality as the only valid form of rationality through history, a second problem emerges. Isaac himself admits that he cannot conclusively prove that it was the Classical Greeks who first 'invented' ethnic prejudice with a pseudo-scientific justification. He concedes that he does not have the training necessary to study Mesopotamian ethnic prejudices, for example (p. 33). Instead, he justifies his assumption on the grounds that "[the Greeks] were the first to develop abstract concepts in their thinking about nature and to systematize those ideas" (p. 9). Aside from the fact that scholars of Mesopotamia, Egypt and China might justifiably object to this latter assertion, Isaac's argument is problematic because it is a negative one -- to prove the Greeks 'invented' racism, it is first necessary to prove no one else did.3

Even if we accept Isaac's definition of racism and the improvable hypothesis that racism was invented in Greece, one final problem emerges. This problem strikes to the heart of the book's stated aim -- that of tracing the linear transmission of racism from antiquity to pre-modern western European society, enabling its later transmission to other parts of the world in modern times. The problem stems from the reception of antiquity in places other than western Europe. Greek texts, after all, were preserved more fully in the Arabic scholarly tradition during the Middle Ages than in the European.4 Under Isaac's theory, we would expect racism to be equally transmitted to Arabic culture as well as western culture. However, only one mention of Arab scholarship is made in the entire volume, and this mentions Ibn Battuta's (non-racist) belief that physiognomy could be influenced by environment (p. 198). If, as Isaac seems to argue, the racism of antiquity was indeed transmitted solely to 'the West', the question begs to be asked why Europe was a more fertile ground for racist ideas than North Africa or the Middle East. Isaac's underlying assumption that 'the West' is the sole heir to Classical antiquity is in itself instructive. It seems that it is us historians, rather than our historical subjects, who are most concerned with heredity and who strive the hardest to claim our lineage.


1.   Positive reviews include: Dee, J. H. BMCR 2009.06.49 and Nov, D. 2005. Phoenix 59, 405-407. Critical reviews include: Haley, S. P. 2005. The American Journal of Philology 126, 451-454; Lambert, M. 2005. Classical Review 55, 658-662; Millar, F. 2005. The International History Review 27, 85-99; and Richter, D. 2006. Classical Philology 101, 287-290.
2.   For 'regimes of rationality', see: Foucault, M. 1991. 'Questions of Method', in Burchell, Gordon, & Miller (eds.) The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, p. 79. Mythic and non-scientific rationalities are explored in many works, of which the following are only a tiny proportion: Adorno, T. 2002. Introduction to Sociology; Brody, H. 1981. Maps and Dreams: Indians and the British Columbia Frontier; Ingold, T. 2000. The perception of the environment: essays on livelihood, dwelling and skill; Kirk, G. S. 1970. Myth. For rationality and myth in Greece, see papers in: Buxton, R. (ed.) From Myth to Reason? Studies in the Development of Greek Thought.
3.   It should perhaps also be noted that earlier or contemporary evidence for ethnic prejudice justified explicitly on biological and genealogical grounds can indeed be found. In fifth century Persia, Achaemenid ideology held that the ability to govern effectively was linked to Aryan lineage (see Darius' mortuary inscription at Naqsh-i Rushtam, in R. G. Kent, 1953 Old Persian, DNa). Similarly, in fourteenth century Egypt, peoples of different countries were described as being of different skins, language and natures in The Great Hymn to Aten (Pritchard, 1958 The Ancient Near East. Similar again is the assertion in Old Testament times that for the Israelites, biological descent could be connected to divine favour (see Deuteronomy 7.3-8 for endogamy, ancestry and divine favour).
4.   Gutas 1998, Greek Thought, Arab Culture; Reynolds and Wilson, 1991, Scribes and Scholars, p. 55-57.

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