Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.04.20 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.04.20

Denise Eileen McCoskey, Race: Antiquity and Its Legacy. Ancients and Moderns.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2012.  Pp. x, 250.  ISBN 9780195381887.  $24.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by James H. Dee, Austin, Texas (


[The reviewer apologizes for the lateness of this review.]

This book, in Oxford's "Ancients and Moderns" series (fifteen titles published or announced), is a wide-ranging and valuable study of one of the most difficult, substantial—and disputed—aspects of classical antiquity, its contribution to modern ideas about race. At 200 pages of text, it might seem inadequate to the subject's magnitude; but forty small-print pages of endnotes (about 875 in all) show the author's depth of reading. The proportions of the book may also be awkward for some, since the introduction takes 34 pages and the four chapters occupy 46, 51, 35, and 33 pages—no quick reads here for the Twitter Generation.

But this is clearly not meant to be an easy book: Both the quantity of well-chosen, often striking details and the theoretically sophisticated treatment of larger issues demand careful attention. Chronologically, the book covers the whole of antiquity, and, more importantly in this context, it offers material of great cultural variety, from around the Mediterranean and from high and low on the social scale.

The introduction lays out the issues: the history of thinking about racial categorization and the emergence of "scientific" theories; the status of blacks in antiquity, citing, among others, Martin Bernal, Aubrey Diller, Michael Rostovtzeff, and Frank Snowden; the race and color of Cleopatra, starting with the films of Mankiewicz and DeMille and a famous 1991 Newsweek cover, then opening up to address the long-running debate over the ethnic identity of Egyptians; and the differences between ancient and modern ideas about race and skin-color, with emphasis on the Greek concepts of genos and ethnos and the contrasting approaches of A. N. Sherwin-White and Benjamin Isaac.1 The rapid transition to blacks demonstrates the double focus of the book (no ancient would have given such prominence to Africans), further reinforced by the postponed discussion of genos and ethnos, which are sufficiently complex to defy any simple explanation.

The first chapter, "Racial Theory," discusses ideas about race and ethnicity from Homer to the Roman Empire, with sections on environmental theory, the origins of Hellas and the "Greek-barbarian" dichotomy, Alexander's supposed "unity of mankind" concept, the complex notion of "Roman-ness," the Roman encounters with Gauls and Germans, and more. The range and balancing of topics in this chapter are especially effective—but may prove challenging to those previously unfamiliar with the subject.2 The second, "Race as Social Practice," highlights the difficulty of associating material remains with social identity, both collective and individual, and the often-tense inter-cultural relations among Jews and other groups in Alexandria, incorporating a host of interesting examples from Hellenistic and Roman Egypt. The concentration on Egypt may surprise classicists used to focusing on the northern Mediterranean, but it reflects the degree of diversity and the abundance of evidence found there. The third, "Racial Representations," focuses on literary and artistic portrayals of the classical "self" (within Greek and Roman contexts), in contrast with their treatment of outsiders. Permutations of that theme can be seen in several subtitles: "Viewing the 'Other'," "Staging the 'Other'," "Voicing the 'Other'," Displaying the Defeated 'Other'," and "'Becoming' the 'Other'." This part of the book has a rushed and superficial "Cook's Tour" feel, and one suspects that the author might have preferred to expand on topics which sometimes race past: the Iliad and Odyssey together receive one paragraph, the Aeneid a paragraph and a half—and yet discussion of the African female Scybale in the Moretum claims two full pages.3 The fourth, "Whose History?," considers the "reception history" of ancient racial and ethnic ideas, primarily in the post-Renaissance world, with emphasis on Martin Bernal's Black Athena; there are subsections on various aspects of "coming to terms"—with Black Athena, "black" Athena, the ancient Egyptians, Roman conquest, and the classical past. This time, the proportions are appropriate, and the work ends with an impressive (but, inevitably, also distressing) review of the most ambivalent aspects of the classical heritage: the development of modern racist theories and the "Aryan Model," disputes about the ethnicity of the Egyptians, the race-based imperial ambitions of Mussolini and Hitler (and the British), and, as an encouraging counterweight to being passively defined by others, the emergence of "new terms" created by writers of actual African ancestry, from the Guinea Coast native Jacobus Elisa Johannes Capitein (1717-1747), who, transplanted to the Netherlands, wrote a remarkable Latin thesis defending slavery as compatible with Christianity, and the poet Phillis Wheatley (ca. 1754-1784) to more prominent figures like W. E. B. Du Bois, Romare Bearden, and Derek Walcott. After so much reliance on inference from silent sources, it's a welcome change to have voices speaking for themselves—and it reminds us of how much from past centuries has been lost.

Successful as the book is overall, there are several respects (admittedly small-scale) in which improvements could be made. One design element presents an obstacle, especially for "students and general readers": there is no bibliography for the very sizable quantity of books and articles cited in the notes, and their authors' names do not appear in the index; for a similar complaint (involving the same press), cf. TLS Nov. 2, 2012, p. 28. This can make tracking down a reference to a previously-cited work annoyingly time-consuming: for example, note 203 on page 227, "Bagnall, 'Decolonizing Ptolemaic Egypt,'" sends one back seven pages and 170 footnotes, while a reference at page 235, note 16, to "Gould, 'American Polygeny,'" requires a trek to page 204, note 10 — thirty-one pages and 551 notes earlier. Albin Lesky once referred, with justifiable dry humor, to "the ominous op. cit." (History of Greek Literature [London: Methuen, 1966] xv); that expression has fallen out of favor, but the now-popular "author-title-pages" format is just as unhelpful if there is no reference to an "anchor entry" or a comprehensive alphabetical list. A Google search on appropriate keywords will probably bring up the desired information—which implies that one should be reading with computer at hand (and makes one wonder why publishers keep issuing such archaic things as printed books when the ideal would be a fully-linked, multi-layered hypertext).

The series is ostensibly "written for non-specialists" and accordingly translates most titles—but not always. On page 217, a reference to "Cicero, On the Responses of the Haruspices" is followed by another to "Cicero, De Finibus" (notes 195, 196). The non-specialist reader may need to consult the OED to complete the translation of "haruspices," a word the Dictionary itself labels "not naturalized, alien." On the other side of the book's prospective readership, there will surely be many who are specialists (including, presumably, every reader of this review); they may often wish, as I did, that a little extra space had been granted in the notes to quote the original for some of the most arresting texts, instead of forcing us to seek them out in separate, not always readily accessible sources. For example, one would like to see the "unique epitaph" of a woman in Rome who "identifies her homeland as Apamea but her race as Greek" (119). The quote is from David Noy's Foreigners in Rome (London: Duckworth, 2000) 159, note 6; in fairness, Noy himself simply refers at that point to IGUR 1287—although the quasi-hexametrical Greek text may be found at his page 320, in a list of immigrants from Syria-Palestine: Hellên men to genos, patris de moi êton [sic] Apamea.4 Similarly attractive is the outburst of one expatriate living in Memphis, who reportedly writes at the end of his copy of Euripides' Telephus, "Apollonios the Macedonian...a Macedonian, I say" (131). This time, the reference is to PCPS 33 (1987) 117, where, disappointingly, one finds English; but things get complicated when one consults the original source, which has an almost unreadable text, described most recently by Richard Kannicht as versus...lectu perdifficiles (Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta 5.2 [Berlin: De Gruyter, 2008] 689). 5 A future edition should at least mention the uncertainty, or delete it altogether. McCoskey does tacitly acknowledge the presence of specialist readers by parenthetically adding Latin and (transliterated) Greek words and phrases at a few points; it would not have cost much more space to include the primary texts and references for the most intriguing of those quotes. Since even the finest university presses do not obsess over details these days, there are typos and errors lightly sprinkled throughout; deserving of mention are the amusing semi-Freudian slip "Wm. Black Tyrrell" (45) and three peculiar uses of "infamous" ("Schliemann infamously claimed to have found..." [49], "Horace's infamous claim that 'captured Greece...'" [74]; "Tiberius...once infamously 'reminded' one prefect..." [109]).

But I do not mean to end on a negative note; this is essential and very worthwhile reading for anyone concerned with race, then and now (which is to say, everyone).


1.   There is no mention of an article that would strongly support the author's main point, that the Greeks and Romans did not consider themselves "white" or valorize "whiteness": "Black Odysseus, White Caesar: When Did 'White People' Become 'White'?" (Classical Journal 99 [2004] 157-167)—this reviewer's only contribution (thus far) to the subject. Another book that deserves notice, though it may not have been available to McCoskey in time, is Nell Irvin Painter's The History of White People (New York: Norton, 2010).
2.   McCoskey notes (75) that Cicero divided the world into Graecia, Italia, and barbaria (De Fin. 2.49; I wonder what educated Hellênes might have said about the brazen redefinition of barbarus by which the Romans, in Sam Goldwyn fashion, "included themselves out"—a shift expressly acknowledged in the Oxford Latin Dictionary. (Cato, as quoted by Pliny N.H. 2.9, said that when Greeks wanted to insult Romans, they called them Opici.) Another subtle sign of cultural-identity tensions between Greeks and Romans, not mentioned by McCoskey, is a mirror-image pair of lexicographical suppressions: Latin writers, as Alfred Ernout observed (Revue de Philologie 1962), never (with exceptions that prove the rule) use Hellas, Hellenes, Hellênikos; Greek writers similarly reject Graeci and Graecia.
3.   This passage (138) contains an odd comment regarding Moretum 102, color est e pluribus unus and the familiar Great Seal motto: citing William Fitzgerald (Arethusa 29 [1996]) 416), McCoskey asserts that "it is from this poem that the United States took the phrase" and adds that the "striking omission of color surely enacts the very type of racial suppression that [Toni] Morrison finds throughout early American thought." But in the poem, the word color has nothing to do with skin pigment or race, and even a cursory glance at the multiple eighteenth-century antecedents (not acknowledged by Fitzgerald or McCoskey) makes it seem unlikely that a minor poem in the little-read Appendix Vergiliana was uppermost in the mind of the person who proposed the phrase, a Philadelphia artist named Eugène Philippe du Simitière, or the "Founding Fathers" who approved it—much less that latent racism should be discerned.
4.   There are similarly tantalizing quotes on pages 55, 60, 95 (alas, here the original is in Egyptian Demotic), 101, 102 (bis), 124, 125, and 130.
5.   The original transcript by A. Calderini (Aegyptus 15 [1935] 241) has απολλωνιχμησδων...δετ̣ασαυτηι̣..δ....|απ....πλησδ......δ........απλησλεγω|...εδων. There is a color photograph in Medea Norsa, Scrittura letteraria (Firenze 1939), Plate IV. I thank Jim Keenan (Loyola/Chicago) for helpful advice in dealing with this difficult text.

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