Racial Identity and Ethnicity in the Ancient World

8 October 2020
By Clara Hardy

The Classics Department’s initial application for a summer research circle was to explore current trends in the study of race and ethnicity in the ancient world. Classics (like many traditional academic fields) has a troubled history, and for at least thirty years has periodically undergone moments of intense self-examination and critique around issues of inclusion and exclusion in the profession, blind spots in our views of the ancient world, and ways in which the history and culture of Greece and Rome have been used to uphold a whitewashed and romanticized view of the greatness of “Western Civilization.” We, Jake Morton, Clara Hardy and Chico Zimmerman, wondered if a productive step our department could take might be to add a course on ancient race and ethnicity, and had intended to devote our readings to laying the groundwork for this project.

Our early discussions, however, moved away from the idea of a single course and toward the goal of integrating some of these issues more broadly and organically into our curriculum. In literature courses, this would mean including a focus on the reception and adaptation of ancient epic and drama, especially from African American and Afro-Caribbean authors and artists; in the history sequence, it would mean finding ways to incorporate more of the material on ancient ethnicity, as well as on slavery; in gender, it would mean being more fully attentive to the ways categories such as social status or ethnic identity intersect with gender. In all areas it could mean being more intentional about locating and integrating the work of classicists of color, and contesting the notion of the “whiteness” of the ancient Mediterranean world.

We met four times and explored a wide range of literature that will help us think about all of these areas. We had very productive discussions on the substance of the chapters and articles we read, as well as the broader issues that connections among them raised. The chance to re-visit some older, foundational work from the 1980s and 90s, and to explore some more recent studies, gave us a good sense of the how approaches and focuses in scholarship have (and haven’t!) shifted substantially in the contested areas of race, ethnicity, slavery, and even color terms in recent years. We also were able to brainstorm numerous ways in which we hope to be able to integrate this material into our classes. Because Clara was simultaneously in the process of revising her Ancient Drama course, Jake and Chico were able to give her helpful feedback on a draft syllabus, and help her think about a good balance of ancient and modern material, as well as particularly interesting modern adaptations to include in that course.

We greatly appreciated the opportunity to do this reading and discussion. We finished the summer with many ideas, both curricular and co-curricular, about making this material more visible to our students. As a start, we drafted a statement to post on the department website concerning our discipline and the diversity of the Classical world. In it we state our aspirations and specific plans to emphasize that diversity and enhance the inclusivity of our content and practices. We hope that this in turn will make our department more welcoming to and inclusive of students from all backgrounds, and we are looking forward to sustaining the momentum for change this tumultuous moment, with the support of the Humanities Center, has provided.