Classics in Color: A View From the Minority

“Do we make it easy for people of color who want to study the ancient world? Do they see themselves in the ancient landscape that we present to them?” -Sarah E. Bond, Why We Need to Start Seeing the Classical World in Color

When, almost a week ago, I came across this article, I will admit that I didn’t actually read it. I thought that it was an interesting interpretation of art history, shared it on Facebook, and left it at that. But after a more recent article, entitled “Classicist Receives Death Threats from Alt-Right over Art Historical Essay,” I thought maybe it was time I gave it a look.

Although I agree with many of her sentiments and don’t deny the harsh reality of the racist investigations of early classicists and more recent alt-right groups, I think that the questions that Professor Bond asks (quoted above) all but scream for the perspective of the people she mentions – people of color who want to study the ancient world. People of color who are studying the ancient world. People like me.

Although I agree with her, when the white majority (91%, according to a 2014 survey of undergraduate Classics majors) of the field is the only one speaking and publishing and making their voices heard, it’s hard to fully understand the experiences of the minority and it’s easy for us to be overlooked save for the occasional statistic.

But despite all of that, she certainly does not deserve the response that she got. No one deserves to be attacked with death threats solely because their views do not align with your own.

In her article, Bond focuses on the origins of the white supremacist view that emerged among early classicists that color in sculpture meant barbarism and that the Greeks were far too sophisticated to color their white marble sculptures. It is no secret, at least to art historians and archaeologists, that pigments do sometimes survive on sculpture even today, leading to articles like Bond’s which point out the fact that the Greeks did, in fact, color their sculpture on many occasions, if not all the time. But she misses two important points.

First, the fact that the vibrant colors of sculpture sometimes served utilitarian as well as decorative purposes. Imagine looking at the pediment or frieze sculptures on a monumental temple from the ground – would it be easier to make out those scenes if they were in the same white marble as the rest of the building or if they were in color? Those vibrant colors, though sometimes gaudy and unbelievable, made it easier for the visitors of sanctuaries and public areas to see the magnificent handiwork of the artists who carved and decorated them.

The Archer from the western pediment of the Temple of Aphaia on Aigina, reconstruction, color variant A from the Gods of Color exhibit (photo by Marsyas/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 2.5)

Second, in almost every reconstruction of the colors of marble sculpture, it seems to be the case that, although Bond and others champion the idea of diversity in the ancient world, many of those reconstructions feature people of just one race – white. That is not to say that there weren’t other races of people living in Greece and in Rome and their territories, but the fact remains that those who create these reconstructions of marble sculpture more often than not have an idea in their mind of what a ‘Greek’ or ‘Roman’ looked like.

Painted terra cotta cinerary urn (150–100 BCE), originally from Chiusi, now at the British Museum (photo by Bond for Hyperallergic)

Returning to my original quote, I have to return to a point that I made in a post I made earlier in the year. My sentiment remains the same: I do not think that it’s representation in the classics (that is, the literature, the art, the archaeology) that is the problem. I don’t think that simply knowing or seeing that there were people of color in Greece and Rome would make me more likely to have become a Classics major in undergrad.

I know now that there was, in fact, a lot of diversity throughout the Greek and Roman worlds – take, for example, Egypt and Asia Minor – but that does not necessarily mean that everyone was equal. On the contrary, there was a great deal of disparity between classes almost all of the time, and it was more often than not that the people who were wealthiest were Greeks and Romans in the strictest sense of the word. Even during the Hellenistic period, the first Ptolemy was just a Macedonian Greek who was assigned the kingdom of Egypt while actual Egyptians were more usually of lower status.

Slavery is, of course, another aspect of the disparity that existed. Sure, especially in the Roman period, slaves could be freed, take up trades, and become wealthy in their own right. But it is important not to think of slavery during the Greek and Roman worlds as equivalent to the slavery that occurred, for example, in North America. Slaves were not necessarily of a different race or ethnicity than those who owned them – they were mostly war captives or debtors during the earlier periods. Chattel slavery and slave trade came into play in later periods, but people were not enslaved because of the color of their skin. Difference or inferiority was most often determined based on the way someone spoke (i.e. if they didn’t speak Greek) or for cultural reasons (i.e. barbarians were people who wore pants and hats, rather than the traditional toga).

My point is that diversity existed in the Greek and Roman worlds, but we cannot let that automatically mean that everyone was living in harmony all of the time. We also cannot begin thinking that because there were people of color that they were always living good lives as opposed to the persecution minorities often face today, because ancient POCs were persecuted too, if for different reasons.

This is why I don’t think that representation in the materials we study will bring more students of color to the classics. I don’t think that seeing a statue painted with darker skin in a reconstruction based on some scholar’s interpretation or reading something about the lives of slaves or freedmen will make people of color interested. I stand by what I said when I said that it has to be more about getting more representation in the faculty and, maybe even if we have more people of color in the field speaking out about issues that we only ever see the white majority speaking about.

As someone who is actively experiencing the discrepancy between the majority and the minority, more often than not being the only person of color in a classroom or an excavation team, I think it would be a lot more encouraging to see people who look like me doing the things that I want to be doing. But I know that, with such small numbers, it is a difficult task to accomplish. However, I keep hoping and I will keep making blog posts as I see fit because people of color in the classics need to start speaking up.

When Jokes Fall Flat: Why We Shouldn’t Be Laughing at Ancient Greek Vases

I’ll admit it – the choice of title isn’t great, and it doesn’t convey the fact that I really mean that we shouldn’t be laughing at all ancient Greek vases. I wholly accept the idea that there was a certain level of visual humor that existed in Greek art, some things at levels even we today couldn’t possibly get at first glance, but I haven’t read Alexandre Mitchell’s Greek Vase Painting and the Origins of Visual Humor or David Walsh’s Distorted Ideals in Greek Vase Paintings: the World of Mythological Burlesque so I don’t feel totally qualified to speak to that subject.

However, I did recently stumble across an article that appeared on my Facebook timeline, entitled Laughing at the Jokes on Ancient Greek Vases by Daniel Larkin. As a budding scholar of ancient ceramics and given that this article was being promoted by the American School for Classical Studies, I was intrigued.

Needless to say, I was disappointed.

I don’t know anything about Larkin. I really don’t. I didn’t even know he had authored the article until I had finished it. But there were some glaring issues with the article that I couldn’t quite ignore even as I dragged my way to the end of it. First, it was quite clear that the author was trying way too hard to pander to his audience. Reaching for a laugh, I think that in this day and age, it’s disappointing to see someone making jokes of things that probably would’ve gotten a genuine laugh twenty years ago.

His first attempt was in the first paragraph of his article:

Too many Greek vase jokes are lost in translation. For example, this duel between Achilles and Hector looks serious. But tragicomic ironies abound in ancient epic. The Trojan war started over a woman — Helen of Troy — and before this particular duel, Achilles chased a frightened Hector around the city three times before he would finally face him. That’s not exactly courageous, is it?

As a classical scholar and a die-hard Helen of Troy fan (I wrote my senior thesis in undergrad on her, y’all), maybe this was more cringe-worthy for me than for most others. But is the idea of a war starting over a woman really that funny? Personally, with all that I know about the origins of the Trojan War – the pact between the suitors of Helen, the Judgement of Paris, the involvement of the gods – I don’t think that the situation is funny at all. Sure, we might think that, today, there are more ‘logical’ reasons for going to war, but in that time, fighting to get back a lost possession, a wife, after traditional customs (i.e. xenia, guest friendship) had been betrayed, was logical for the Greeks. That’s why they wrote about it, after all.

Another quip by the author of this article that really bothered me was this:

For example, Zeus, not pictured, lusts after Ganymede, pictured below, in one object on view. It’s not just funny because it’s gay, it’s funny because it’s Zeus. Imagine if the leader of the gods was a sex addict and, like Bill Clinton, he always got away with it. How reassuring Zeus must have been to carousing men in symposia scheming to get away with cheating, too.

“It’s not just funny because it’s gay” – I have two questions for the author: what century are you living in and do you know anything about Greek culture at all? ‘Gay jokes’ are seriously a thing of the past, and even if they were still as prevalent and tolerated as they were decades ago, they certainly would not apply to the ways in which the Greeks saw themselves or their gods.

If there’s anything that I learned from an Ancient Sexualities course that I took two years ago, it’s that the sexual experiences of our modern world do not map on to the experiences of the Greeks thousands of years ago. I do not think that the images of Zeus and his consorts on vases were meant to be entertaining in the ways that this author thinks that they were. I think that, although it might be amusing to think of Zeus, the king of the gods, as the antithesis of moral Greek behavior – because of his infidelity with both unmarried and married women, not because of his interest in men – Zeus may have been mythologized in such a way in order to explain other parts of Greek history and of the Greek world. For example, many of the Olympian gods (Dionysos, Athena, Apollo, Artemis) would not exist without Zeus’ infidelities, nor would the Horai (the goddesses of the seasons), the Morai (the goddesses of fate and destiny), or the Muses.

Moreover, ‘cheating’ in our world did not carry the same connotations in the Greek world. Greek men were, in general, much more free to carry on with whomever they pleased, whether or not they were married (with some age-restricted exceptions).

The article is rife with what can only be characterized as, for lack of a better term, ‘locker room talk’, straight from the mouth (or keyboard) of a man who clearly has no idea what he’s talking about. From the quip about Zeus being ‘gay’ being funny, to the Greeks no less, to his speculation about whether Athena might have put Medusa’s head on her shield because ‘she was jealous that Medusa was too beautiful’ (are we sure he’s not referring to Aphrodite?), it is quite clear that an ancient history lesson is in order.

However, I’m not the one to give it to him (though I probably could).

As I said at the beginning of this post, I don’t mean to say that we shouldn’t laugh at any of the ancient Greek vases we come across. There are plenty of vases out there that – whether they were intended to make us laugh or not – amuse us in different ways. With that said, though, we should never pretend to know what the intentions of the ancient Greeks were, nor should we assume that their opinions on things like sexuality and war were the same as ours.

Perhaps Socrates was right when he said “For the gods too love a joke,” but those jokes are far out of our reach now, filtered through the lenses of artists who have agendas and senses of humor of their own. I think that, if there were to be a study of the humor of the ancient Greeks, the closest we might get to that is through the plays of comedians like Aristophanes, not through the so-called ‘visual humor’ of vase paintings (unless we use the humor of the comedies as our guide).