Saturday, July 29, 2017

Ethnic Diversity and Racism in Ancient Rome

A brouhaha has erupted in Britain about ethnic diversity and racism in ancient Rome: Alt-right commentator gets 'schooled' by historian over diversity in Roman Britain, and now people are arguing about who got schooled by whom and who is or isn't alt-right.

I don't know who is or isn't alt-right or who got schooled by whom, and I also don't know how racist or ethnically-diverse ancient Rome was.

I do know that here, as seemingly always and everywhere, a lot of people are making up a version of history which suits them, rather than actually studying history.

It seems that people are so anxious to be sure that racism was unknown in ancient Rome that they've even taken to translating "white" and "black" out of Catullus' notorious 93rd poem: "Nil nimium studeo, Caesar, tibi velle placere/ nec scire utrum sis albus an ater homo." ("I don't care much about pleasing you, Caesar, or knowing whether you are white or black." This short poem was Catullus' response to an invitation to dinner by Caesar.) As Caesar said, "Libenter homines id quod volunt credunt." ("Men gladly believe what they wish to be true.") And Caesar's bonmot applies equally to those who underestimate the prevalence of racism in ancient Rome and those who overestimate it, rather than examining the evidence with an open mind. And it applies as well to those who are convinced that Jesus was "black" and also to those who are convinced he was "white" (I contend that his historical existence is uncertain and his appearance completely unknown), and to everyone else who claims to be studying history when what they are actually doing is making uninformed pronouncements on historical subjects with closed minds and little information.

If I had translated Caesar as "People gladly believe[...]" instead of "Men gladly believe[...]," I would've been editing out his sexism, which he shared with almost all ancient Roman men of whom we know, a sexism which is much more obvious and plain than the degree to which ancient Romans were or were not racist.

Have people already begun to present a non-sexist version of ancient Rome?

I feel very lonely at times when I consider how very few people care at all about getting an accurate view of historical subjects.

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