Peter Jones

Ancient and Modern – 6 December 2008

In the last two columns we have considered Barack Obama as novus homo and orator. But what about his mixed race?

In the last two columns we have considered Barack Obama as novus homo and orator. But what about his mixed race?

The racist seeks the cause for the differences between groups of people in either physiological or genetic determinism. The resulting characteristics are unalterable and define them as inherently inferior. But are prejudice, xenophobia and stereotyping ‘racist’ in those terms? If they are, Romans were certainly racist, as probably all people of all colours, ages and backgrounds have been and always will be.

A major theme is the contamination that results from contact with foreigners. Romans living in the East, we are regularly told, stood a fair chance of being corrupted by foreigners’ low morals and love of luxury. The historian Livy composes a speech for a commander before a battle in which he argues, ‘Whatever grows in its own soil prospers better; transplanted to alien soil, it changes and degenerates to conform to the soil that feeds it.’ Cicero makes the younger Scipio say that maritime cities are particularly prone to this disease, ‘for they receive a mixture of strange languages and customs and import foreign ways as well as foreign merchandise’. The elder Cato rants against the Greeks as ‘a quite worthless and intractable people — when they give us their literature it will corrupt everything’, and especially against their doctors, who ‘take fees to murder us with their medicines’. The satirist Juvenal rails against all Orientals, saying the Orontes (in Syria) has long been discharging its filth into the Tiber — its language, morals, music and girls.

On the other hand, Romans (as Horace said) were captivated by Greek culture, and Greek was at the heart of their education system.

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