For many who have pondered the horror of racism in the modern world, the publication in 2004 of Benjamin Isaac’s deeply researched and lucidly written book, The Invention of Racism in Antiquity, was a new cause for reflection. What is racism? Is it as old as humankind? Or, as most contemporary scholars argue, can racism’s emergence be traced to a specific historical context, to either post-Columbian or post-Darwinian Europe? Isaac’s answers to these question-shave triggered much debate among classicists but they merit a broader hearing.
The key points in the 2004 volume are worth summarizing: (1) Racism, Isaac maintains (Invention, p. 23), is “[a]n attitude toward individuals and groups of peoples which posits a direct and linear connection between physical and mental qualities. It therefore attributes to those individuals and groups of peoples collective traits, physical, mental and moral, which are constant and unalterable by human will, because they are caused by hereditary factors or external influences, such as climate or geography.” (2) The prototype for this way of thinking was “invented” by Hippocrates and Aristotle during the fourth century B.C.E. and carried forward by a host of later classical writers. Aristotle’s Politics contains the classic iteration (Invention, pp. 70–71): “The peoples of cold countries generally, and particularly those of Europe, are full of spirit, but deficient in skill and intelligence; this is why they continue to remain comparatively free, but attain no political development and show no capacity for governing others. The peoples of Asia are endowed with skill and intelligence, but are deficient in spirit; and this is why they continue to be peoples of subjects and slaves. The Greek stock, intermediate in geographical position, unites the qualities of both sets of peoples. It possesses both spirit and intelligence: the one quality makes it continue free; the other enables it to gain the heights of political development, and to show a capacity for governing every other people—if it could only achieve political unity.” (3) Racism petered out with the end of the classical period, only to revive in a more virulent form inearly modern Europe, partly owing to the rediscovery of Greek and Roman texts that provided a convenient justification for lording it over American Indians, Africans and Asians.
The book under review, The Origins of Racism in the West, is a multi-authored follow-up to Isaac’s earlier volume. Thirteen of its fifteen chapters are revised versions of lectures given at the “Howard Gilman International Conference on Racism in Western Civilization before 1700” held at Tel Aviv University in December 2005. The contributors include three scholars from Israel, four from Western Europe, one from South Africa and six from the United States. A useful introductory chapter by the editors prepares the reader for four chapters on the classical period, six on the European Middle Ages, and four on early modern Europe. All of the chapters are worthy contributions to the growing body of scholarship on the history of racism.
The section on the classical period leads off with a chapter by Isaac in which he responds to critics and slightly revises his stance on whether the term proto-racism, which he used in The Invention, or racism tout court applies to the Greeks and Romans; he now accepts the latter as appropriate. H.A. Shapiro, David Goldenberg and Denise Kimber Buell add complexity. Shapiro finds the depiction of Persians on Greek household pottery to be free of racism. Goldenberg explores the metaphor of black Africans as sin in Christian Patristic writing, concluding that because the Church Fathers did not posit a link between the physical and the non-physical they were not racist. On the other hand, Buell’s interrogation of early Christian universalism uncovers a counter-current of thinking that associates being a Christian with being one of “Abraham’s offspring”; she names this type of thinking “ethnic reasoning” and sees it as a forerunner of modern racism.
The six chapters on the Middle Ages, on the whole, demonstrate that medieval writers and artists contributed somewhat to the rise of racism. Three of the chapters are noteworthy in this regard. Robert Bartlett’s...