- Race: Antiquity and Its Legacy by Denise Eileen McCoskey
This book is part of Oxford’s “Ancients and Moderns” series, the goal of which, as stated in the series introduction by Phiroze Vasunia, is “to stir up debates about and within reception studies and to complicate some of the standard narratives about the ‘legacy’ of Greece and Rome” (ix) by encouraging scholars to consider the connection between the past and how it has been discussed in the history of scholarship. In her introduction, McCoskey states that she wants to “help explain the position of race today by unveiling its relation to structures of thought and practice in the past, and more specifically, those of classical antiquity” (1). Race: Antiquity and Its Legacy does an admirable job of accomplishing this goal. The book covers the whole range of antiquity but also zooms in to focus on key moments and controversial figures. McCoskey offers thought-provoking parallels to ancient constructions of race in more recent history, and the final chapter explicitly investigates through the lens of race how Greece and Rome have been received since the Renaissance.
The introduction offers readers a strong definition of race: a social construction imposed upon the human body. Keeping this definition in mind while reading the book is important, because, as McCoskey often points out, Classicists (among many other scholars) have a tendency to hide discussion of race and “racial formation” behind words like “ethnicity” or “cultural” because confronting race as an issue constructed around the body head-on (both in the ancient and modern world) can be uncomfortable and even scary (27, 93). McCoskey uses the terms “race” and “racial formation” precisely because they require readers to confront racism in the ancient world through to the present. In her subsection “Blacks in Antiquity,” McCoskey skillfully argues that, despite the early scholarly consensus that skin color was insignificant in the construction of ancient racial ideology, that does not mean that the ancients did not think racially (with skin color as a criterion rather than the criteria) or that modern ideas which do posit that skin color is significant have not affected how ancient representations of race, and particularly blackness, have been received in the modern world. McCoskey’s extensive analysis of Cleopatra and how she was perceived (and even presented herself) in the ancient world, as well as her exploration of representations of Cleopatra in recent history, reveal the tension between ancient and modern categories of racial thought created by the “hybrid cultures” that flourished in the ancient world. [End Page 525]
The first chapter, “Racial Theory,” surveys the development of ideas about race in the ancient world and how they changed over time and differ between Greece and Rome. I assigned this chapter to students in my Race and Ethnicity course because it is useful for identifying key moments that contributed to Greek and Roman racial ideology. Here, however, and also in the third chapter, “Racial Representations,” is where one finds one of the problems with this book. The range of time periods and genres covered invites generalizations about both the nature of the “barbarians” the Greeks and Romans interact with and about the Greeks and Romans themselves. For example, in her discussion of the Greek-barbarian binary (a view which has been complicated since the seminal work of Edith Hall , although McCoskey’s presentation does not consistently acknowledge this), she claims that, “given the specific threat to Greek sovereignty the Persian Wars presented, the barbarian was defined first and foremost by the propensity for a particular mode of government, a theme central, as we have seen, to the Hippocratic Airs, Waters, Places. Whereas barbarians displayed a natural inclination for subservience and tyranny, as the theory went, Greeks were characterized by a commitment to democratic rule and the equality of citizens” (54). Here, as in many other instances in this book, “Greece” feels like a gloss for “Athens.” She does offer a discussion of how Athens itself contributed to the discussions of identity (56–58), but it does...