Posted on October 23, 2018

The Myth of Whiteness in Classical Sculpture

Margaret Talbot, New Yorker, October 29, 2018

Mark Abbe was ambushed by color in 2000, while working on an archeological dig in the ancient Greek city of Aphrodisias, in present-day Turkey. At the time, he was a graduate student at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, and, like most people, he thought of Greek and Roman statues as objects of pure white marble. The gods, heroes, and nymphs displayed in museums look that way, as do neoclassical monuments and statuary, from the Jefferson Memorial to the Caesar perched outside his palace in Las Vegas.

{snip} When Abbe arrived there, several decades later, he started poking around the depots and was astonished to find that many statues had flecks of color: red pigment on lips, black pigment on coils of hair, mirrorlike gilding on limbs. For centuries, archeologists and museum curators had been scrubbing away these traces of color before presenting statues and architectural reliefs to the public. “Imagine you’ve got an intact lower body of a nude male statue lying there on the depot floor, covered in dust,” Abbe said. “You look at it up close, and you realize the whole thing is covered in bits of gold leaf. Oh, my God! The visual appearance of these things was just totally different from what I’d seen in the standard textbooks — which had only black-and-white plates, in any case.” {snip}


Lately, this obscure academic debate about ancient sculpture has taken on an unexpected moral and political urgency. Last year, a University of Iowa classics professor, Sarah Bond, published two essays, one in the online arts journal Hyperallergic and one in Forbes, arguing that it was time we all accepted that ancient sculpture was not pure white — and neither were the people of the ancient world. One false notion, she said, had reinforced the other. For classical scholars, it is a given that the Roman Empire — which, at its height, stretched from North Africa to Scotland — was ethnically diverse. In the Forbes essay, Bond notes, “Although Romans generally differentiated people on their cultural and ethnic background rather than the color of their skin, ancient sources do occasionally mention skin tone and artists tried to convey the color of their flesh.” Depictions of darker skin can be seen on ancient vases, in small terra-cotta figures, and in the Fayum portraits, a remarkable trove of naturalistic paintings from the imperial Roman province of Egypt, which are among the few paintings on wood that survive from that period. These near-life-size portraits, which were painted on funerary objects, present their subjects with an array of skin tones, from olive green to deep brown, testifying to a complex intermingling of Greek, Roman, and local Egyptian populations. {snip}

Bond told me that she’d been moved to write her essays when a racist group, Identity Evropa, started putting up posters on college campuses, including Iowa’s, that presented classical white marble statues as emblems of white nationalism. After the publication of her essays, she received a stream of hate messages online. She is not the only classicist who has been targeted by the so-called alt-right. Some white supremacists have been drawn to classical studies out of a desire to affirm what they imagine to be an unblemished lineage of white Western culture extending back to ancient Greece. When they are told that their understanding of classical history is flawed, they often get testy.

Earlier this year, the BBC and Netflix broadcast “Troy: Fall of a City,” a miniseries in which the Homeric hero Achilles is played by a British actor of Ghanaian descent. The casting decision elicited a backlash in right-wing publications. Online commenters insisted that the “real” Achilles was blond-haired and blue-eyed, and that someone with skin as dark as the actor’s surely would have been a slave. It’s true that Homer describes the hair of Achilles as xanthos, a word often used to characterize objects that we would call yellow, but Achilles is fictional, so imaginative license in casting seems perfectly acceptable. Moreover, several scholars explained online that, though ancient Greeks and Romans certainly noticed skin color, they did not practice systematic racism. They owned slaves, but this population was drawn from a wide range of conquered peoples, including Gauls and Germans.

Nor did the Greeks conceive of race the way we do. Some of the ancients’ racial theories were derived from the Hippocratic idea of the humors. {snip}

In an essay for the online magazine Aeon, Tim Whitmarsh, a professor of Greek culture at the University of Cambridge, writes that the Greeks “would have been staggered” by the suggestion that they were “white.” Not only do our modern notions of race clash with the thinking of the ancient past; so do our terms for colors, as is clear to anyone who has tried to conceive what a “wine-dark sea” actually looked like. In the Odyssey, Whitmarsh points out, the goddess Athena is said to have restored Odysseus to godlike good looks in this way: “He became black-skinned again and the hairs became blue around his chin.” On the Web site Pharos, which was founded, last year, in part to counter white-supremacist interpretations of the ancient world, a recent essay notes, “Although there is a persistent, racist preference for lighter skin over darker skin in the contemporary world, the ancient Greeks considered darker skin” for men to be “more beautiful and a sign of physical and moral superiority.”


Starting in the Renaissance, artists made sculpture and architecture that exalted form over color, in homage to what they thought Greek and Roman art had looked like. In the eighteenth century, Johann Winckelmann, the German scholar who is often called the father of art history, contended that “the whiter the body is, the more beautiful it is,” and that “color contributes to beauty, but it is not beauty.” When the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were first excavated, in the mid-eighteenth century, Winckelmann saw some of their artifacts in Naples, and noticed color on them. But he found a way around that discomfiting observation, claiming that a statue of Artemis with red hair, red sandals, and a red quiver strap must have been not Greek but Etruscan — the product of an earlier civilization that was considered less sophisticated. He later concluded, however, that the Artemis probably was Greek. (It is now thought to be a Roman copy of a Greek original.) {snip}

The cult of unpainted sculpture continued to permeate Europe, buttressing the equation of whiteness with beauty. In Germany, Goethe declared that “savage nations, uneducated people, and children have a great predilection for vivid colors.” He also noted that “people of refinement avoid vivid colors in their dress and the objects that are about them.”


{snip} Mark Abbe, who has become the leading American scholar of ancient Greek and Roman polychromy, believes that, when such a delusion persists, you have to ask yourself, “Cui bono?” — “Who benefits?” He told me, “If we weren’t benefitting, we wouldn’t be so invested in it. We benefit from a whole range of assumptions about cultural, ethnic, and racial superiority. We benefit in terms of the core identity of Western civilization, that sense of the West as more rational — the Greek miracle and all that. And I’m not saying there’s no truth to the idea that something singular happened in Greece and Rome, but we can do better and see the ancient past on a broader cultural horizon.”


Abbe and Van Voorhis will have to engage in some speculation, particularly when it comes to hair color and skin tone. They have no reason to believe that there wasn’t pigment on the skin or hair of the busts, but they have not found any traces of it. “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” Abbe wrote to me, in an e-mail. “Classic neoclassical assumption!”

Later, in another e-mail, Abbe pointed out that much of the Roman élite “came from diverse-looking stock — Berber, Arab, Transylvanian, Danubian, Spanish, etc.” He also noted that sculptures of African people from the ancient world were sometimes carved from black stones, such as basalt, and then painted with reddish-brown pigments to create a lifelike effect. {snip}

Severus and Julia were Romans, but neither was of Italic descent. Severus was of Berber origin, from an élite family in Libya. Julia came from a priestly family in Emesa, Syria. A panel painting of the couple, known as the Berlin Tondo, has survived: Severus has a chestnut-brown complexion and a grizzled gray beard; Julia is paler, with dark hair and eyes. The Tondo will help guide Abbe and Van Voorhis in their work on the busts, just as the Fayum portraits aided Verri.


[Editor’s Note: The original article is quite long and deals primarily with the painting of classical sculptures.]