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  • The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity
  • Brent D. Shaw
The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity. By Benjamin Isaac. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004. xiv + 563 pp. $45.00 (cloth).

Given the intrinsic historical importance of the idea of racism and its virulent Nachleben in European and world history, it is surprising that this is the first serious scholarly work to confront the problem of race and racism in Greco-Roman antiquity. The author rightly rejects the few existing works—for example those by Nicholas Sherwin-White, Racial Prejudice in Imperial Rome (Cambridge, 1967), and Yves Dauge, Le Barbare: Recherches sur la conception romaine de la barbarie et de la civilisation (Brussels, 1981)—as having little that is worthwhile to contribute to an understanding of the problem. There have been, it is true, a host of recent works in ancient history on the modish subject of ethnicity. But Isaac's work is not another discourse on difference. It is, as he puts it, a history of hate (p. 50). He argues that most modern work on race, even by eminent scholars such as George Fredrickson and Michael Banton, has labored under the combined misconceptions of modernizing definitions of race and a faulty knowledge of the ancient evidence on racism. Isaac therefore begins his investigation with a lengthy introduction in which he attempts to formulate definitions that clearly separate "race" and "racism" from other kinds of classifications of human groups, like popular prejudices, cultural biases, and ethnic stereotyping.

Isaac contends—correctly in this reviewer's opinion—that racism was not a creation of the nineteenth century. Some, of course, have ventured earlier dates. In his famous lectures on race at the College de [End Page 227] France in 1976, Foucault thought that the origins of racial consciousness could be traced back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Il faut défendre la société [Paris, 1997], pp. 57–74). It is nevertheless true that the words "race," "racialism," and "racism" did not occur with their modern meanings in English until the first decades of the twentieth century (p. 25). It is also true that the "factual" underpinnings of race were newly scientized in the nineteenth century, especially by the science of biology. But it is equally true that concepts fundamental to race and racism had a long prehistory before this most recent modern phase in their existence. The views of Luigi Cavalli-Sforza in The History and Geography of Human Genes (Princeton, 1994) therefore seem close to Isaac's views on the subject: "Racism has existed from time immemorial, but only in the nineteenth century were there attempts to justify it on the basis of scientific arguments" (p. 36, n. 84). Close, but not quite, since Isaac persuasively argues that scientific ideas were already being deployed to underpin concepts of race in Greco-Roman antiquity. He further argues, as the title of his work indicates, that there was a specific point in time when the components necessary to the creation of a coherent ideology of race came together. Racism therefore did not exist "from time immemorial." It was invented in the context of the Greek city-state.

Having made these gains, however, the author perhaps concedes too much to the skeptics by allowing that ancient racism might only be a "proto-racism" (pp. 2, 36, and passim). His arguments and the evidence point in the opposite direction: both sustain the presence of strong concepts of race and racism in antiquity. What happened in the most recent phase of their development was their legitimation in modern scientific, usually biological, modes. Isaac, indeed, criticizes most current social scientific definitions of race as constructed too narrowly in a way that conveniently suits modern circumstances alone, thereby creating a self-fulfilling field of what can and cannot be counted as "race" and "racism" (pp. 17–21). Because of excessive emphasis on biological elements or because they are far too devoted to a single case (the American) and its set of factors (distinctive somatic appearance, skin color), modern definitions simply mirror the world that they are attempting to analyze. Isaac's own definition of racism (pp. 34–35) is sufficiently specific...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-8050
Print ISSN
1045-6007
Pages
pp. 227-232
Launched on MUSE
2005-11-21
Open Access
No
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