Ancient and modern

How the ancients showed their true colours

4 September 2021

9:00 AM

4 September 2021

9:00 AM

In the 18th century, art historians’ admiration for the beauty of white-ish ancient Greek marble statuary led people to draw conclusions, on the back of their belief in classical ‘authority’, about white superiority. This, we are told, turned many classicists into racists. Today some members of the Cambridge Classics Faculty feel the white-ish plaster-cast replicas of those statues in their museum ‘entrench[es] racism’ in the same way. Their proposal is to put up a notice about it. Wow. Go, Cambridge! That’ll show those racists! And surely those still disgustingly white originals all over the world need notices as well.

Two things need to be said. This is a modern ‘problem’: no Greek or Roman believed that body type or colour in itself made the slightest difference to one’s standing in the world. Second, Greek and Latin literature — and there was no other literature in Europe for more than a thousand years from Homer (700 bc) onwards — provides any number of far more worrying examples of ancient beliefs.

They had no concept of human rights, only laws. No one had a ‘right to life’ (or anything else). They did not believe in equality: the useless were dispensed with. They saw nothing wrong in buying and selling humans. Humans’ primary duty (after honouring their myriad gods) was to be useful: for men, that meant killing enemies to protect their community; for women, producing enough children to live long enough to kill or be killed, with obvious implications for women’s role in society. Education (in our sense of the three Rs) was restricted to the leisured (i.e. well off). Ancient values were dominated by reciprocating obligations and duties: helping your friends and harming your enemies were taken for granted.

But at the same time the literature also lays down western Europe’s first markers on questions of e.g. justice, freedom, goodness, truth, honour, pity, love, forgiveness and mercy, which some think makes classics so important — and fascinating.

Still, you can’t be too careful. Cambridge must put up more notices warning people about those alarming ancient attitudes.

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