Reception of Blacks in Classical Greece

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Some scholars have found in groups like this a real sense of the parodic, and even the spitefully humorous, exacerbated perhaps by the race of the victim. Otherwise, interpretations of the struggle between the youth and the crocodile have ranged from high-minded mythological exegesis to the more mundane evocation of exotic locales.

In the first case, the black youth is being snatched to heaven and waiting immortality by a god in disguise. In the other he is simply the unfortunate victim of an all-too-common occurrence along the dangerous banks of the Nile. Both views could be supported by the evidence of an inscription found on one of Sotades' original pieces, which reads, ho krokodilos erasth(eis), or "the crocodile in love." As conflicting as these concepts may be, they have the virtue of revealing the potential reception of the black in classical Greece.

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Surely the most disturbing latter-day comparison with the vase is the avalanche of patently racist postcards, figurines and other imagery avidly collected by the American public during the Jim Crow era. In these, monstrously caricatured black people are represented as objects of ridicule and contempt, as mere alligator bait. This sort of corrosive kitsch stands in stark contrast to the relative degree of acceptance accorded black people in the time of the ancient Greeks.

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.

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The Image of the Black Archive & Library resides at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also chairman of The Root. 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. 

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