By now, many classicists have begun to recognise and to think about how the study of ancient Greece and Rome has contributed to promoting and upholding structures of white supremacy and other forms of racism. Part of the discipline of Classics’ role in supporting white supremacy has been in the elevation of ancient Greece and ancient Rome above other ancient societies, as something distinctly glorious and worthy of study. By lumping the diverse societies of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds together, a myth of a White, Western civilisation took shape, allowing those invested in such a myth to draw a straight line between, for example, fifth-century BCE Athens and the twentieth-century United States of America. Such narratives also serve to exclude societies constructed as non-White or non-European from the myth of civilisation. However, challenging such narratives remains controversial. A recent episode of ‘Horrible Histories’ was accused of reinventing history when it highlighted the fact that people with dark skin have been present in Britain since prehistory and that African soldiers in the Roman army were stationed in Britain. Such controversies serve to show that there remains an urgent need for a conversation on the assumed whiteness of the ancient world.
For several decades now, academics at the University of Reading’s Classics Department have been working to unpick this side of the discipline, thinking about how Classics has been used to promote ideologies of racism and colonialism, how those subject to racist and colonialist uses of the Classics have formulated their own responses to and resisted such uses, and how the legacies of ancient Greece and ancient Rome have been felt beyond the so-called West. Relatedly, Classicists at Reading have been turning to the idea of interconnected Global Antiquities, in order to decentre ancient Greece and Rome from perspectives on the ancient world. In 2023, two new undergraduate modules bring the research of staff in this area to the undergraduate syllabus, contributing an already diverse and boundary-pushing offering of modules.
In the Spring Term of 2023, Dr Sam Agbamu introduced a third-year module on ‘Race and Ethnicity in the Ancient Greek and Roman Worlds’. Taking students from the earliest texts of the Greco-Roman literary canon right up to contemporary Classical Reception, the module focuses on how ideas of race and ethnicity took root in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds and how such ideas continue to shape the worlds we live in today. One of the aims of the module is to challenge the biological reality of race, by showing just how changeable conceptions of race in the ancient world were. As well as looking at how race was thought about in antiquity, students also study how authors, artists, and scholars racialised as ‘non-white’ have encountered the constructed whiteness of classical antiquity. The module encourages students to draw on their own experiences and perceptions of race and ethnicity in order to formulate personal responses to the texts and material studied. Part of this involves creative elements of coursework, in which students can respond to module material in a medium of their choosing, whether that be a piece of visual art, creative writing, or a film. The module is running again in the 2023/2024 academic year, and will be updated to take into account the rapidly developing scholarship in the field, as well as the changing global context in which the module situates itself.
In Spring 2024 Professor Rachel Mairs will be teaching a new second-year module on Ancient Ethiopia: The Aksumite Kingdom. This module looks at the city of Aksum, in modern Ethiopia, and its empire in the third and fourth centuries CE. Spectacular monuments remain at Aksum today: tall stelae used to mark the graves of kings, stone inscriptions, the ruins of palaces. All of these speak to the Aksumite kingdom’s sense of its own power and place in the world. Aksum is mentioned in a small number of ancient Greek and Roman historical sources, but this module takes a different angle by focussing on Aksumite accounts of their own history: whether inscriptions from the period of the empire itself, or later Ethiopian and Eritrean written and oral histories which give the memory of Aksum a special place in local identities in the northern Horn of Africa.
Written by Sam Agbamu and Rachel Mairs