(The Root) — This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.
A black archer, carrying a short bow and wearing a quiver of arrows on his back, turns his head to the rear as he strides to the left. His features, seen in strict profile, are unmistakably black. His nose is pointed and slightly upturned, and his hair bordering the forehead is rendered in sketchy, loose curls to indicate their coiled form. Around his head is a red band, the sign of a ruler, akin to a diadem or crown. Flanking him are two light-skinned women warriors, or Amazons. The scene appears on a painted clay jar, or amphora, a vessel used in ancient Greece for holding wine and other liquids.
Modern scholars all relate this simple scene to one of the last moments of the Trojan War. The black man is Memnon, the great warrior said to be from “Aethiopia,” who is briefly mentioned by Homer in the Iliad, the epic account of the struggle between Greece and Troy. The story of Memnon was greatly enlarged upon by subsequent writers, who relate his arrival at Troy with innumerable troops. Although Achilles slays him in battle, in the manner of the Greek epic, Memnon’s fame only increases, and he is made immortal by the gods.
Judging by his depiction on the vase and his Aethiopian origin in literature, it is easy to take for granted that Memnon was always thought of as black and African. The real story is much more nuanced, however, and his appearance in art reflects the ancient Greeks’ growing awareness of actual black people through colonization and trade since Memnon’s heroic exploits were first set down.
From the heroic age of Homer until the more clearly documented time of the historian Herodotus in the fifth century B.C., Aethiopia was more a vast, vaguely conceived zone at the southern edge of the world than a place understood through direct experience. The origin of the name is rooted in Greek words for fire and light. Memnon’s home generally was held to be in the East, often in ancient Persia. As a consequence, the hero was thought of as perhaps darker than the Greeks themselves, but definitely not black.
By the late sixth century B.C., however, about the time this vase was made, the philosopher Xenophanes had characterized Aethiopians more specifically as black Africans. Half a century later, Herodotus, who actually traveled up the Nile, described ancient Aethiopia as roughly equivalent to the modern region of Nubia, lying to the south of Egypt. He writes that it is a land inhabited by black people, of sunburnt complexions, where “the men are taller, handsomer and longer lived than anywhere else.” Nubian bowmen were also renowned for their deadly accuracy, and it is likely in reference to this skill that Memnon is shown on the vase as an archer rather than equipped with the more standard spear and shield.
From the depiction of a mythological black figure, it was a logical jump for Greek artists to focus on black people of the everyday world. The representation of blacks of all types, both humble and exalted, became an enduring feature throughout the centuries-long course of Greco-Roman civilization. Although the complete absence of color prejudice in antiquity may be open to discussion, the representation of black people during this vibrant period indicates a degree of acceptance regrettably uncommon in other historical periods.
The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. The director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.