Home Entertainment The classics weren’t racist, even if there are those who want to pillory them

The classics weren’t racist, even if there are those who want to pillory them

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The classics weren’t racist, even if there are those who want to pillory them

It will be a less conspicuous aspect than others, in the panorama of the so-called cancel culture, but there is also this, and not least: many American antiquarians are now openly flirting with the idea that classical culture, Greek and Roman, legitimized thanks to the its prestige all the evil in the world, from colonialism to white supremacism, from the marginalization of women and minorities to slavery and racism.

Women and slavery are not discussed (assuming it is the classics’ fault, of course), but at least racism seems that the well-meaning English-speaking classicists have made a (small?) blunder. Their anathema or in any case the warning, the “Trigger Warning” – which is added to an epidemic of infinite others, for example the one put even on Orwell’s 1984 by the University of Northampton: a good list is in a recent essay by the English journalist Mike Hume, which came out with this very title and a gun on the cover – however seems particularly out of place.

Mario Lentano, a Latinist from the University of Siena, maintains this in an essay entitled “Classics in the pillory” (Salerno), who, beyond the now obvious and interminable controversy, offers us a very interesting analysis of the relationship between Greeks and above all Romans with the black color, of the skin but not only. In the classical world, this is the conclusion, a racist practice does not exist as such, above all because Greeks and Romans did not define and identify themselves as “white”.

And they didn’t even have the word «race», with which their «genus» is sometimes «improvidently» translated: a term which, explains Lentano, «which includes, among other things, notions such as those of ‘family’, ‘social condition’ , “gender” or “ethnicity”». For people with black skin, described and recognized on the basis of morphological characteristics, the word used was then «Ethiopian», which already belonged to the Greek literary tradition and evoked a «nation blessed and of guests loved by the gods», indeed a «paradigm example of religious devotion.

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Things change, look a little, only with the diffusion and then the triumph of Christianity, when poor Ethiopia becomes “icon and metaphor of sinful nations, sometimes in association with Egypt, whose bad press was linked to the fact of having long held the chosen people in bondage”. Indeed, according to Jerome “in all the sacred scriptures those who are completely immersed in vices are called ‘Ethiopians'”.

At the same time, black, the color of Hades and of mourning, becomes the brand of Satan and his devils, idolaters and heretics starting from the third century and goes without saying of the Ethiopians, in some cases directly subjects of the devil. It follows that all those devils will sooner or later be converted, perhaps by force, and will in any case be another threatening and despised person, possibly to be oppressed.

Fanaticism, as we know, plays tricks, but it concerns a phase in which the great classical culture is waning; a new history begins with the late imperial age, new doctrines are invented and incidentally, it will not be forgotten, books are burned in quantity (not that the ancient Romans didn’t do it, but they were isolated cases).

Earlier that foul-mouthed Martial, we are in the first century, could instead have enjoyed provoking a certain Cinna, listing the seven children he had – so to speak – from his wife Marulla, who usually amused himself with the slaves, including them, as can be understood from the descriptions of some of the children, those of black skin. The problem was not their color, but that they weren’t juridically “free.” A century later the misogynist Juvenal could calmly remind a cuckolded husband that in the particular circumstance he ran the serious risk of finding himself “father of an Ethiopian”, mentioning the typically Roman superstition that meeting something black in the morning brought bad luck – moreover it came right up to us.

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Is this racism? One would say not, indeed the scholar is certain of it, also because he gathers a rather impressive series of examples in support of his thesis. The beauty is that each of them is a small story, very enjoyable even for the non-specialist reader. So no Trigger Warning. Indeed, as was once written in the reports of the CCC (the Catholic film center – which warned against the vast majority of films), this book is “for everyone”.

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