BMCR 2023.09.14

Untangling blackness in Greek antiquity

, Untangling blackness in Greek antiquity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022. Pp. 270. ISBN 9781108495288



The Greek citizen male did not use the color term “white” (e.g. λευκός [leukos]) of himself, but generally reserved its use for those he perceived to be insufficiently masculine: women, some foreigners, the overly intellectual, the ill, the guilty, the cowardly. As a result, attempts to assert the “whiteness” of Greece—coopting the ancient world into modern constructions of “Whiteness”[1] forged “in the wake”[2] of the transatlantic slave trade—are claims which Greek men would have rejected. However, Greek writers did use the color term “black” (μελάγχιμος [melangchimos], μελάγχρως [melangchrōs], etc.: Derbew p. 4, cf. 172) of a variety of peoples including, but not limited to, Egyptians, Indians, and Aithiopians. Yet historical and contemporary illiteracies regarding race in both popular and disciplinary responses to antiquity have fundamentally occluded our vision of black people in the ancient world. The critical intervention of Sarah Derbew’s Untangling Blackness in Greek Antiquity (2022) is a sharp and sensitive exploration of the rootedness of our understandings in unexamined prejudices and—by means of a rich, ambitiously wide-ranging, and theoretically-engaged reading of black characters in Greek art and literature from the 5th c. BCE to the 4th c. CE—a powerful refutation of the invisibility,[3] marginality, and inherent inferiority attributed to ancient black people by classical scholarship.

In Chapter 1, Derbew prepares the reader by situating her investigation in the history of scholarship, introducing her major influences in decoloniality, theories of Blackness, Black performance studies, and classical reception studies (pp. 1-7). Next, Derbew executes a series of critical disambiguations. Firstly, she clarifies geographical landscape amidst contemporary tendencies to conflate ancient and modern terms. In this book, “Libya” is used instead of “Africa,” as the latter (a Latin word) is not attested until Ennius in the 3rd/2nd c. BCE (pp. 10-11);[4] “Ethiopia” refers to the modern country, while “Aithiopia” refers to an “ethereal land” (i.e. a mythical or imaginative landscape) as well as a physical location spanning the south of modern Egypt and the north of modern Sudan (p. 12; cf. 98, 168); and similar distinctions are made between ancient/modern “Egypt” and “India” (p. 12n36). Secondly, by drawing (p. 16) upon Christina Sharpe’s (2016) concept of “anagrammatical blackness” wherein familiar words are “arranged anew” via conceptual “anarrangement,” Derbew dislodges the history of ancient blackness from the discourses of modern racism by orthographically distinguishing ancient peoples with lower case b (“black people”) and modern peoples with an upper case B (“Black people”).[5] Derbew’s anagrammatical revision seeks not to remove ancient black people from the long history of “African” and diasporic peoples (indeed: dialogue between ancient literature and the Black literary canon at the end of chapters 3-7 achieves quite the opposite) but rather to uncouple them from the discourses of modern anti-Blackness which have fueled the anachronistic and racist readings of classical scholarship. Finally, Derbew demonstrates the impact of what Charles Mills (1998: xvi) terms the “conceptual and theoretical cataracts on the white eye” (p. 15) by sketching the history of the scholarship of ancient blackness, with particular attention to the privileges granted White scholars such as Grace Hadley Beardsley, against which Black classicists such as Frank Snowden Jr. and Lloyd Thompson sought to represent a less hostile vision of ancient black people (pp. 24-25).[6]

Having cleared the way for a new assessment of the material while simultaneously drawing the reader’s attention to the historically prejudicial treatment of ancient representations of blackness, Derbew introduces the primary sites of her investigation through an “illustrative rather than exhaustive” (p. 25) series of case studies: janiform cups of 5th c. BCE Athens (Chapter 2), Aeschylus’ Suppliants (Chapter 3), Herodotus’ Histories (Chapter 4), Lucian’s Satires (Chapter 5), Heliodorus’ Aithiopika (Chapter 6), followed by a conclusion (Chapter 7). Derbew places each ancient case in dialogue with the modern world: Chapter 2 concludes with a critique of the British Museum’s staging of Nubia as an inherently marginal culture (pp. 50-65); Chapters 3-7 conclude with connective meditations upon modern literatures of hybridity and Black literary classics.

Derbew’s approach to the ancient material, informed by the scholarship of especially Daphne Brooks (2006) and Saidiya Hartman (1997), is rooted in the concept of performance. As such, Derbew recodes Athenian sympotic ware, Aeschylean tragedy, Herodotean historiography, Lucianic satire, and Heliodoran romance into a series of stages upon which varied and historically situated performances of blackness play out. Derbew’s own scholarly “restagings” put into practice Sharpe’s concept of “anagrammatical blackness” at a structural level: familiar (although, in the cases of Lucian and Heliodorus, as relatively understudied authors, also less familiar) cultural artefacts are “arranged anew.” In Chapter 2, Derbew demonstrates that the reading of janiform cups—drinking vessels which represent one face on each of their two sides—as assertions of “dramatic contrast”[7] (p. 31) rather than fusion invites an unequal and prejudicial treatment in which one side is interpreted as “white (i.e. Greek)”[8] (p. 51), converting the other side into a constructed antithesis onto which classical scholars (and the general public, p. 52) may project their own bias. Such bias, belying a deeply-held belief in the inherent inferiority and a fixed, transhistorical enslaveability of black/Black people (p. 45), runs equally deeply within the archive of classical scholarship: J. D. Beazley, for instance, described one side of a janiform cup as the face “of one born to serve, and to suffer confusedly: a drudge” (p. 35).[9] Through an emphasis upon performance and play, Derbew offers an alternative reading whereby janiform cups are removed from the decontextualizing display case and reconceptualized within their original sympotic environment. Merry drinkers lift wine to their own faces to transform the cups into temporary masks and themselves into actors on a sympotic stage (pp. 42-44). Read in this light, the cups are no longer taken as literal representations of race but rather as masks of performance representing playful and active negotiations of identity staged within a ludic setting.

Indeed, the “janiform” as a conceptual model of mutual “intersubjectivity” (p. 111) and interlocking constructions of identity plays as leitmotif throughout the book as a whole. Rejecting modern assumptions that indications of difference in ancient literature automatically amount to hostility, Derbew is able to parse out the details of complex reciprocal negotiations within performances of ancient blackness. With the emphasis upon performance, the Greek author generally recedes from view while an increased agency is granted to the black characters themselves. In Aeschylus’ Suppliants, the subject of Chapter 3, it is the Danaids, acting as “versatile ethnographers” (p. 68), who actively resist Pelasgus’ assumption of their “unGreek” (Supp. 234; pp. 80-84) identity on the grounds of their clothing (p. 80) and black skin (p. 86), successfully representing themselves as simultaneously, syncretically black, Egyptian, and Argive Greek (p. 72). Similarly, it is the Persians, Egyptian “Fish-eaters,” and Aithiopians of Herodotus’ Book 3 who (like the author himself) investigate and report upon the nature of the “foreign” cultures to which they are proximate, engaging in reciprocal ethnographic practices to create definitions in which no one culture emerges as the “norm” (pp. 106-110). Significantly, while the Aithopians’ black skin is noted as a constitutive characteristic (3.101; p. 105), Herodotus’ interest in cultural markers of Aithiopian identity “destabilizes any reductive reading of color as the sole marker of group categorization” (p. 110). Just as Herodotus, discussed in Chapter 4, “places Aithiopia at the center of the map” (p. 122), Lucian’s Hermotimus (31), discussed in Chapter 5, recenters the map through an Aithiopian character who imagines that everyone on earth is black (pp. 136-137). And just as Herodotus’ Persian/Egyptian/Aithiopian ethnographers define identity by mutual observation, Lucian’s (Anach. 25) staging of a conversation between the Athenian Solon and Scythian Anacharsis, following the latter’s observation of Athenian athletic practices, results in an assertion of the athletes’ “somewhat red and rather black” (ὑπέρυθροι εἰς τὸ μελάντερον [hyperythroi es to melanteron]) skin as a sign of healthy virility (pp. 149-154). Finally, Heliodorus’ Aithiopika, discussed in Chapter 6, demonstrates the instability of ancient racial designations with Chariclea, a “white” (see n5) child of “black” Aithiopian royalty, indicating that Aithiopian identity could circumscribe “whiteness” as well as “blackness” (p. 159).

At its core, the book executes a radical recuperation of blackness in antiquity. Indeed, as with Derbew’s prior scholarship, intent to redress epistemic injustice is explicit throughout. Furthermore, the conclusion exhorts the reader towards production of scholarship as liberatory practice. Although the question of subjectivity and self-representation is complex (Aeschylus, Herodotus, Lucian, and Heliodorus are not self-identified black writers writing about themselves), Derbew works towards the ability to imagine such self-signification through a theoretical first-person view. A form of Sharpe’s “anagrammatical blackness” may be detected in Derbew’s subtle use of the first person whenever she discusses a Greek verb: “κυανέω [kuaneō]” (p. 14) in this context does not simply mean “to be black” but “I am black.” Similarly, Derbew’s definition of “Aithiops” repeats throughout the work as an insistent refrain reclaiming first person subjectivity: “aithō, ‘I blaze’ + ops, ‘face’” (p. 102, cf. 110, 137, 142, 145, 157, 172). An instant classic, Derbew’s Untangling Blackness is not just a book but a curriculum: its careful analysis of Greek art and literature (with two appendices listing janiform cups, as well as a list of preferred translations of the Greek texts discussed) in dialogue with Black theory and literature offers the reader a pathway to disciplinary change which may be immediately implemented in a variety of pedagogical and scholarly contexts.


Works Cited

Beazley, J. D. 1929. “Charinos.” JHS 49: 38-78.

Brooks, D. A. 2006. Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850–1910. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Hartman, S. 1997. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Knox, B. 1993. The Oldest Dead White European Males and Other Reflections on the Classics. New York: Norton.

Mills, C. W. 1998. Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Olya, N. 2021. “Exiting Frank M. Snowden, Jr.’s Anthropological Gallery: Toward an Understanding of Visual Representations of Africans in Ancient Greek Vase-Painting.” Paper delivered 22nd October (University of Virginia).

Olya, N. 2022. “On the (In)visibility of Aithiopians: Interrogating the Presentation of Greek Images of Black Africans in Museums and Their Absence in Greek Art Survey Textbooks.” Paper delivered at the Res Difficiles 3 conference 20th May.; link accessed 12th July 2023.

Rankine, P. 2011. “Black Apollo?” in D. Orrells, G.K. Bhambra, and T. Roynon (eds), African Athena: New Agendas. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. 40–55.

Sharpe, C. E. 2016. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Snowden, F. M. 1988. “Μέλας-λευκός and Niger-candidus Contrasts in Classical Literature.” AHB 2: 60-64.



[1] This review follows Derbew’s decision to distinguish ancient and modern peoples orthographically (“black” = ancient, “Black” = modern, etc.), as discussed below.

[2] Sharpe 2016, cf. Derbew p. 16n50.

[3] Derbew p. 188: “In the words of Frank Snowden, Jr. [1988: 63-64], some scholars ‘have regarded the black man of antiquity as a kind of Ralph Ellisonian “invisible man”: they have refused to see him.’”

[4] While Africa (as a Latin term) is anachronistically applied to, for instance, janiform cups of 5th c. BCE Athens (p. 10, cf. 34), Derbew’s study includes material from the Roman period (Lucian = 2nd c. CE, Chapter 5, Heliodorus = 4th c. CE, Chapter 6). While Lucian and Heliodorus, of course, wrote in Greek, it is still worth noting that there was a contemporary concept of “Africa” in the Roman consciousness at the time of their writing. Nonetheless, the broader point — namely, that the modern term “Africa” (referring to the continent) is back projected onto ancient material — is significant.

[5] Derbew engages in a series of anagrammatical rewritings (“Classics,” “classics”; “Empire,” “empire”: p. xiv, 14, 131n9), some of which are more successful than others. Derbew (pp. 34-35, cf. 82) does herself recognize, for instance, the difficulty of her proposed term “black face” (defined in the “Note on Nomenclature” as: “A term that describes the faces of black people on Attic janiform cups,” p. xiv), which might be easily elided with—indeed, while orthography may make a subtle distinction, it is aurally indistinguishable from—the modern “Blackface” (“A term that refers to the performance of nineteenth- and twentieth-century White minstrel actors,” p. xiv). Similarly, “brown face” risks the danger of eliciting negative stereotypes regarding South Asian peoples (p. 33). Given Derbew’s consistent effort to distinguish ancient and modern racial discourses, this homophone and near homograph is likely to invite the very conflation she wishes to avoid. Furthermore, not all “rewritten” terms are explicitly defined. While “blackness,” “Blackness,” “black face,” “Black face,” “black people,” “Black people,” “brown people,” “Brown people,” “white,” “White people,” all receive definitions in the “Note” (pp. xiii-xv), “white people” does not—but this term does appear in the body of the text (p. 153). Relatedly, in the context of the book’s sophisticated analysis of the fluidity and multivalence of racial constructions in antiquity, it is surprising to see “white” defined in the “Note” (p. xv) as: “An objective [my emphasis] color marker.” (There is also no definition of “black” in the “Note” with which to make a comparison here.) This definition of “white” as “objective color” perhaps relates best to the “white” pigment of janiform cups discussed in Chapter 2, but is particularly incongruous with the discussion of Chariclea’s “whiteness” (a major theme) in Chapter 6.

[6] On mainstream classicists’ refusal to engage with Snowden’s extensive research into the representations of black people in Greco-Roman art, see Rankine (2011: 53): “The many wonderful images of ‘blacks’ in antiquity that grace the pages of Snowden’s books tend not to find their way into textbooks on Greek art”; and on Rankine, Olya (2022): “Rankine was correct ten years ago, and still is now.”

[7] Derbew (p. 31) here critiques Snowden’s (1988: 61) interpretation of the janiform cups as “dramatic contrast” representing “melas-leukos [i.e. “black-white”] antithesis,” comparing (p. 33n8) Snowden’s remarks to Bernard Knox’s (1993: 26) later labeling of ancient Greeks as “undoubtedly white or, to be exact, a sort of Mediterranean olive color.” On Snowden’s construction of an “anthropological gallery” from which modern scholars must now exit, see Olya 2021.

[8] The term “white (i.e. Greek)” still appears in the online catalogue of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) for the janiform cup 98.926:; link accessed 12th July 2023.

[9] Beazley 1929: 42.