Reception of Blacks in Classical Greece

Image of the Week: Pottery made during the period of Greek colonization tells an interesting story.

Rhyton in the form of a black youth seized by a crocodile, circa 340-320 BC. Greek, south Italian. Cambridge, UK.

(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.

The durable medium of pottery preserves one of the most-intact surviving impressions of ancient Greek civilization. In addition to the often-encountered vases decorated with mythological scenes, other, lesser-known types have the ability to surprise and challenge our received idea of Greek culture. One such example is the rhyton, or drinking cup, shown here.

The base of the vessel is formed by a figure group made up of a rearing Nile crocodile that has just seized a naked young black man. The fearsome creature grips the right arm of the youth in its jaws, while its forepaws grasp him around the waist. Its hold is further secured by the tip of its tail as it wraps around the youth's left forearm. Technically the cup represents every aspect of the potter's art. It consists of a cylindrical neck and rim thrown on the potter's wheel, with figures cast from a two-piece mold. The component parts are then joined together, painted and fired.

The cup was created by an anonymous Greek or local potter in the southern-Italian region of Apulia during the period of Greek colonization. Although it dates from the second half of the fourth century B.C., the work copies a prototype created by the well-known Athenian potter Sotades more than a century earlier.

Sotades was one of the most original and prolific potters of the early classical period in Athens. If he did not pioneer this type of figural vase, he at least developed it into a major genre of the potter's art. His work was widely distributed and has been found at sites in the Persian empire, Greece, Italy and even the sub-Saharan site of Meroe in Nubia.  

Sotades seems to have specialized in the creation of vessels that feature pairs of exotic animals and people, sometimes in deadly confrontation. Other examples fashioned by him pair a pygmy -- in at least one case black -- with a crane, and a Near Eastern man and a camel. These motives became very popular in the contemporary Greek world, as evidenced by at least a dozen excavated examples of his black-and-crocodile vase, all made from the same mold.

The presentation of the youth's body -- its proportions, articulation and relatively restrained movement and facial expression -- is imbued with the Greek classical ideal of the balance between the human form and the mind that inhabits it. The youth's pose is taken from the well-developed repertoire for the heroic figure in action that was being developed on a large scale by Greek sculptors of the period.


The reaction to this frightful scene by its first viewers is clouded by the subsequent history of the black experience in the Western world. Today one may think particularly in terms of victimization, and it seems natural to recall the depredation of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The ancient Greeks, however, would have responded differently, perhaps with a certain sense of pathos combined with a fascination with the picturesque, foreign subject.

As Frank Snowden has argued, blacks in antiquity did not suffer from the same type of endemic racial prejudice as their descendants. Though capable of being enslaved, as were all other people during this time, blacks played many roles in the ancient world. They had come to the attention of the Greeks not too long before the time of Sotades as a result of the new trading colony of Naukratis on the Egyptian coast, and even as part of the invading Persian army during the early fifth century B.C.  Well before 500 B.C., blacks were appearing on vases, often in striking juxtaposition with more familiar facial types.