1. Magazine
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  3. Ancient and modern

Peter Jones

The Romans weren’t racist

The Romans weren’t racist
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Rod Liddle has questioned whether Ms Jolly, chief librarian of the British Library, was right to say that whites invented racism, and cites the Ancient Greeks and Romans as racists. But he does not define what he means by the term.

If, as Mr Liddle suggests, a racist is someone who loves fighting other people, then racism has indeed been universal throughout human history. But fighting does not necessarily have anything to do with race. So what distinguished races for Greeks and Romans? Environmental determinism is the key. For example, working from medical beliefs about ‘humours’, Greeks thought Germans living in the north were cold, and therefore courageous but thick; Ethiopians in the south, hot and intelligent but cowardly. One Greek doctor observed that the characteristics inherent in living in Asia applied equally to ‘immigrants’, a crucial observation: live in that climate and culture, and you will become that sort of person; live in a different one, and you will become a different sort.

Romans took the same theoretical view but, being pragmatists, they judged others as they found them. So as they fought their way to controlling a huge empire — the more your land and manpower, the greater your security — they welcomed men from all nations into the army. Soldiers like the Bulgarian Aetius reached positions of immense power. In AD 212 all free men across the empire were given citizenship. Elite Spaniards, Gauls, North Africans, Syrians, Illyrians, etc. in turn became elites in Rome and, thoroughly Romanised, provided emperors from time to time. One ancient writer said it would be impossible to count the different nationalities living there. Though Rome as a whole was riven with social tensions and animosities, race riots were unknown.

Mr Liddle is right to say that all humans have a ‘them and us’ reflex in them. The ancients certainly did: mocking or expressing distrust of foreigners was common. If that is racism, then it was as rife in the ancient world as it is in the UK. But the essence of racism is defining specific human groups, usually of a certain physical appearance, as of unequal human value — a very different matter.