Lecture Two: Whiteness

Earlier this evening Professor Dame Mary Beard gave her second of six Gifford lecturesThe video of Beard’s lecture is embedded below (followed by a short summary) for those who were unable to attend in person, or for those who’d like to watch it again. An audio only version can also be found at the end of this post. In order to further facilitate discussion Ines Silva offers her initial reflections on the lecture. Silva is currently a Classics PhD student at the School of History, Classics, and Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh. We’d like to reiterate that we warmly welcome anyone wishing to engage with Beard’s lectures to contribute their comments and questions below.

Earlier this evening Professor Dame Mary Beard opened her lecture on “whiteness” by talking about a controversy that erupted a few years ago over an animated cartoon for children produced by the BBC. The center of the controversy revolved around the depiction “of a high-ranking Roman official as not white” that caused some (Paul Joseph Watson in particular) to criticize its historical accuracy and offer their own explanations for why the BBC, in an educational show, would intentionally misrepresent the Roman world in Britain.  Beard acknowledged that the cartoon was not perfect in its representations of Roman Britain, but she argued (along with others) “that this was a perfectly reasonable representation and not surprising in the context of the diversity of Roman Britain.” In order to illustrate this point she spent some time speaking about Quintus Lollius Urbicus “who was a governor of the province [in Britain] in the first half of the second century AD” who, as the evidence suggests, came from Algeria having also spent time in Germany, Judea, and Turkey. She quickly acknowledged that this “doesn’t tell us anything for sure about the color of his skin,” but what this does do is show that the depiction “of a high-ranking Roman official as not white” in Roman Britain is “perfectly possible.”

As she began to move on in her lecture Beard mentioned that she started with this example “in order to give a sense of just how edgy, just how incendiary the theme I’ve chosen for today can be. Or to put it more positively just how much it still matters to some people.” She described the theme of “whiteness” to be centered around “the question of what color, or colors, we see the classical world in.” She explained that this theme of whiteness is obviously closely tied up with the themes of race and ethnicity (especially when we are focusing various receptions of “classical culture”), but that she has chosen this particular angle of approach in order avoid (in this lecture) having to get involved in the “enormously complex debates around those terms” in order to focus here on taking “the question beyond the human skin, to think about ancient statues, white and colored, about architecture, even togas – as well as about the terms in which the Greeks and Romans themselves described the colors round about them, and why that makes a difference to how we understand the ancient world.” That being the case, however, she did mention that she would briefly touch on an issue related to ethnicity and the “relative non-diversity” in the field of Classics toward the end of her lecture.


Beard next spoke of the close connection of modern politics and the issue of “whiteness” in this lecture. As she stated, “some much more direct issues of modern politics will be in play, issues that center around the question of who gets to see themselves reflected in the ancient world.” After briefly expressing her curiosity with how and why the Far Right (not merely conservatives) so readily see themselves in the classical world (and the classical world in them) she admitted to feeling “something of a moral dilemma.” While Beard obviously deplored “the weaponizing of the ancient world in the cause of white supremacy” she stated that “there is also a fundamental principle that no one owns the Classics” and then went on to state that if Classics are “to continue to be part of widespread public debate and interest, that can’t be on condition that  it is only used for causes of which we approve.”  Engaging with the facts wherever they might lead is the only right course of action and, as she went on to say, “on which here and elsewhere, the Alt Right and friends are largely wrong.”

Beard then moved on to speak more about the history of white projection in the study of Classics and began to look at some of the evidence that challenges this predominate projection of “whiteness.” As she noted, “one of the consequences of elite western culture seeing itself in the tradition of the classical Greeks and Romans was that it also projected its own image of itself back onto the Greeks and Romans and as the Cambridge Latin Course shows [with the whitely depicted Metalla and Caecilius] we are still learning to see the Romans in that way.” This, Beard stated, gives a false impression that “western ‘whiteness’” has “an unbroken history that appears to go back more than 2000 years.” This is not the case and it obscures the diversity that made up the Roman world as a whole and Roman Britain in particular. As she mentioned speaking of Roman Britain, “there was almost every shade of skin color here from black and brown to pink and white.” She then went on to specifically speak of the example of Barates and his wife Regina and of an encounter with an Ethiopian soldier depicted in the biography of emperor Septimius Severus on Hadrian’s Wall. She then spoke more generally about the new methods of analyzing oxygen isotope traces in tooth enamel as well as analyses of skull formation which provide researchers with strong evidence that the populations of Roman Britain were made up of people with diverse and far-ranging backgrounds. As she later went on to mention (despite acknowledging that loose ends still exist), “the overwhelming consensus now among Roman historians and archaeologists is that when you looked round the towns  of Roman Britain” you now recognize that “the myth of a white Roman Britain is exactly that, a myth – and if that’s true for Roman Britain, it was even more true for the rest of the empire.”

She next spoke of the difficulty of deciphering how diversity was experienced by the Romans themselves. She went on to argue that skin color was not as centrally significant for the Romans as it has been in more modern times. As she stated, “so far as we can tell, skin color was not a major, and certainly not the key coordinate of their prejudice” and that “if a Roman thought ‘slave,’ he probably thought shaggy ginger haired German as much as anything else. In these terms Roman society offers a very poor model indeed for racist ideologues.”

At this point Beard moved on in her lecture to spend some time talking about the issue of “whiteness” as it relates to our engagement with Greco-Roman marble statues. Despite their white appearance to us now Beard stated that “it is established beyond doubt that much ancient sculpture was not white at all” but rather “brightly colored.” Furthermore, not all were made from white marble. Many were made from bronze and some were made from other shades of marble or occasionally some sort of black stone. While acknowledging all this (and the challenges that it presents to those who would look to Classical sculptures in order to adopt some sort of ideology of white purity and superiority) Beard also felt the need to acknowledge some qualifications that nuance this line of thinking. She mentioned that she was unsure just how universal the practice of painting white marble sculptures was. Given that it seems unlikely that highly polished sculptures were ever painted as well as “the fact that Roman love poets seem regularly to hail marble as white, and compare their girlfriend’s skin to it,” this Beard concluded, “should give us a little pause about quite how universal the practice was.”


She then admitted, rather cautiously, that she (as she suspected many others), despite the problematic political consequences that can and have ensued, preferred the aesthetic of the white marble statues over their colored restorations. As she stated, “I can accept that this is how the Prima Porta Augustus once looked, but you can’t make me like it.”  But, as she continued, of even more importance “is how this image of white marble that dominates our vision of the classical sculpture originated.” Beard spoke of the standard reference to J.J. Winckelmann (1717-1768) and his “admiration of pure white” but Beard only sees this as a partially helpful answer since it “offers a historical chronology that doesn’t add up” since, for one, it does not adequately pay attention to earlier Renaissance examples.

In concluding this section of her lecture Beard mentioned the lack of subtlety that often characterizes these whiteness versus polychromy debates. As she stated, “the Alt Right are misrepresenting the tradition of ancient sculpture itself in asserting its whiteness” and “on the other hand, many of those who rightly point to the racial exclusivity, which the faux-‘whiteness’ of classical sculpture has recently underpinned –  are, at the very least, themselves guilty of oversimplifying  the history of that, in their search for goodies and baddies.” Beard ended this section pointing out that appeals to ancient Greek ceramics might provide stronger arguments for critique than do appeals to polychromatic sculptures .

Beard began to conclude her second lecture on “whiteness” similarly to how she started it: by looking at controversy that arose around another BBC production, namely, Troy: Fall of a City. The controversy revolved around the fact that a black actor was playing Achilles (when Homer describes Achilles as being blond, never mind that Achilles is a fictional character). At this point Beard referenced her colleague Tim Whitmarsh’s arguments revolving around the various nuances of meaning that xanthos can have (blond being only one). Beard references the nuances of meaning of this and other color terms her in order to argue that “the more you look at these so-called color terms, the more you find they don’t actually fit our definition of color in any simple way, but involve what we would see as quite separate characteristics.” Even more to the point of her argument, as she goes on to say, “what these definitional puzzles mean is not just that you can’t map one modern color term directly on to an ancient one. But you can’t even map the idea of color itself between ancient and modern cultures,” and therefore “there is an underlying category mistake in looking for ‘whiteness’ in the ancient world.”

Having made this argument Beard concluded her lecture by reflecting on some of the implications of this for addressing criticisms that ‘whiteness’ predominates the contemporary field of Classics. While not pretending to offer an exhaustive answer to problems of non-diversity in the field of Classics she did “suggest that some of what we have been discussing this evening is relevant to the problem” and she warned that “the only honest way to diversify the subject is not to buy into identity politics, good or bad,” but “is to insist even more firmly that no one owns the Classics, however it’s defined: and that no one’s identities or color are reflected there.” In other words, as she ended her lecture, “Classics is about all of us, and its about none of us; and that is why it has diverse appeal, and why we can learn from it.”

9 thoughts on “Lecture Two: Whiteness

  1. “The politics of whiteness transcends the colour of anyone’s skin. It is an occupying force in the mind.”

    Reni Eddo-Lodge in Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, p. 170

    As a child, whenever I escaped to the sacred halls of classical Athens, I imagined a white Parthenon. When I learnt that the buildings and statues in the Acropolis (and beyond) had in fact been painted in all sorts of colours, I found myself slightly disappointed. The ancient world had lost its colour.

    From buildings to skins to morals, whiteness is a horizontal force in the modern making of the classical world. My first reaction to the loss of classical whiteness wasn’t insignificant: it revealed deep-seated ideas about purity, morality, and cultural superiority. White buildings and statues meant a white aesthetic and, for me, a white culture. The pristine, flawless marble was the natural backdrop for white elite males to perform the highest achievements of the Western intellectual tradition. And these ideas (it pains me to admit) were as powerful in Nazi propaganda and British imperialism as they were in my misinformed mind.

    The idea of whiteness allows us to talk about and connect many different aspects of Classics, from scholarly matters (e.g. the colour of buildings and statues) to ideological uses and misuses of the classical tradition by emerging far-right forces. From niche to topical discussions, whiteness is, I suspect, a driving force in the minds of many readers, students, and heirs of the classical tradition. It colours the view of the world around us, and so it colours our view of the ancient world, no matter how impartial we wish to be.

    Due to a cycle of systemic race-and-class inequalities, Classics are often unquestionably the prerogative of white elites (now a little less male, at least). As a consequence of the growing power of identity politics and political correctness, white people like me are put in a position in which we have seldom, if ever, found ourselves: discomfortable about our own skin. The white discomfort with whiteness affects white people from all over the political spectrum, but it takes wildly different forms: it can lead to introspection, flagellation, self-betterment, etc. At its most extreme, however, it leads to white supremacy, both as individual belief and organised movement. Whiteness is an identitarian, organising force in many minds. The threat to whiteness awakens in many intense anxiety about the future: the “fear of a black planet”, as Reni Eddo-Lodge puts it. This fear pricks instinctive anxieties shared by all humans about our permanence in the world.

    And threat is a black hole for human thought. As a species, we evolved for threat-detection, and it is in our best interest to devote a lot of attention to threats, namely “recurrent threats as predation, intrusion by strangers, contamination, contagion, social offense, and harm to offspring”, as anthropologist Pascal Boyer notes in his latest book, Minds Make Societies (p. 79). He goes on: “Humans readily attend to information about these, and by contrast tend to leave aside other kinds of threats, even if they are actually more dangerous.” When these recurrent threats are leveraged in political rhetoric, the long-term danger posed by the institutionalisation of hatemongering political forces becomes virtually invisible. Threat to identity means threat to material and immaterial rights, and this trumps threat to, say, world peace in five or ten years time.

    In Confronting the Classics, Professor Dame Mary Beard puts her finger on the prevalent attitude towards Classics throughout history: “that sense of imminent loss, the terrifying fragility of our connections with distant antiquity (always in danger of rupture), the fear of the barbarians at the gates and that we are simply not up to the preservation of what we value.” (p. 9). The emotions of engagement with our classical inheritance are remarkably (and unsurprisingly) similar to the emotions of the emerging political forces represented by Trump, Brexit, Salvini, and Bolsonaro, thrown together due to a striking similarity in anti-democratic rhetoric masquerading as defence of free speech for an embattled social group. This rhetoric is rooted in fear of loss: loss of identity, of autonomy, of self-determination, of wealth – in one word, of power. Indeed, whiteness is ultimately a matter of power. It defines the borders of legitimacy and abhors trespassers, though it does allow for “others” to come in as long as they play by a set of rules laid down for its benefit. Trump, Brexit supporters, Salvini, and Bolsonaro believe that the physical borders of their countries should match a narrow and mostly illusory idea of national identity.

    Classics fits into a category openly reviled by this political phenomenon: useless knowledge. Useless knowledge is a fuzzy concept, but it seems to encompass any field that does not visibly improve people’s lives or generate immediate economic value (insofar as “immediate economic value” means a product or service that can be fed straight into the market). Classical studies keep alive a very old, very niche conversation with the hordes of dead people who populated the ancient world and the hordes of (mostly dead) scholars who studied them. It is fundamentally a conversation with dead people and lost or broken things. What’s the use?
    The Classical world is a convenient model: we can aspire to it by filling its gaps with our own ideas. In the Gifford lectures, Beard probes these gaps, drawing a line between the modern and ancient worlds: “us and them”. This line is both a boundary and a link. We are separated from them by millennia and cultural norms, and we are linked to them as the ancestors and referents of our cultural norms. But who is “us and them” in this scenario? Because ancient culture is both different from modern culture and a part of Western civilisation, the “us” sometimes includes, and sometimes excludes, “them”. Faced with the lack of diversity in Classics, Beard suggested that the way out is to emphasise the boundary between “us and them”. Indeed, “Classics and the classical world are a mirror to nobody”, and any attempt at putting the mirror up devolves into ideological manipulation. The truth is that there are many ways to use useless knowledge. There are many ways for classical forces to occupy our minds. And it is within our grasp to muddy the waters. Today we grapple with the classical tradition, which contains the classical world itself but also, and crucially, how that world has been received throughout the history of “Western civilisation”, and there is willingness and capacity to repaint the Parthenon, tell the stories of women and slaves, and question their masters, instead of bowing to them. The way in which we remember our cultural origins defines our culture now. Classics has been used over and over again to forge new ways to impose otherness, which is precisely why it can be a powerful tool to forge new ways into otherness. Again, Reni Eddo-Lodge put it best: “I don’t want to be included. Instead, I want to question who created the standard in the first place” (idem, p. 184). I think Beard’s lecture on whiteness showed that the modern making of classical standards could use a fair bit of questioning.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think it really does need a good bit of questioning. But I am also concerned not to construct straw men, or apportion blame in the past. To characterise eg Winckelmann as a Eurocentric racist doesnt seem to me to advance the argument… Likewise a lot of this is about how Classics is developed in the public sphere. Most students are taught, I am fairly certain, about the diversity of eg the Roman empire… but the popular image of whiteness is sustained (and obviously has an effect on the academy.. it is not two wholly different spheres.

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  2. On Prof Beards lecture I just wanted to make two brief notes
    1) We see the world in our own image and contemporary times and
    2) On her preference for white marble statues as opposed to original coloured painted versions beauty/aesthetics is in the eye of the beholder
    Looking forward to rest of lectures

    Liked by 2 people

      • But surely, the coloured statue of Augustus couldn’t possibly have been as bad as that reconstruction. My guess is that it would have been more like a modern waxwork. Look at the paintings in Pompeii – they would have got the same calibre of artists to paint their statues I think.

        Liked by 1 person

      • The technology for determining ancient pigment is not very precise and as a result some of the early rendering where too vibrant. Maybe the picture in this article is from some of the initial research.

        I’ll also add, as a scientist myself, when research contradicts commmon sense your common sense is probably correct. I use to work in a materials science lab it was amazing how many chemistry papers we couldn’t reproduce because the findings were bogus.


  3. Thank you very much for the interesting lecture. I was wondering if I could ask a very basic question, when Prof Beard refers to early and late antiquity approximately which dates and time frames should I think? Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good point, and the border is a fuzzy one (hence one tends to use those slogans). To put it crudely: many people would see the early empire as covering the first two centuries CE, then a period of crisis in the third century, then by the time you get into the fourth century, you are in ‘the late empire’. Someone who works on the late empire will correct me!

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  4. What a bunch of muddled points that seem to be designed at refuting some straw man Dr.Beard refers to as “the alt-right”. It’s not clear what hypothesis she is proposing nor what her imagined detractors might believe, but the goal of her project is clear: To cast doubt on the notion that populations and figures in the ancient European past were overwhelmingly racially indigenous European.

    First bit of obfuscation is the idea of white people. White is not a scientific category there are categories for races and within those ethnicities. These categories are supported by anthropology observation and genetics. The categories can change over time when major events like invasion, mass migration, or colonization lead to an ethnogenesis. Analyzing the world through this lens, it seems that Dr. Beards primary goal is to caste doubt of the relative racial homogeneity of ancient Britain and classical heros. For example, at one point a part of Britain may have been governed by someone who was an ancient North African. (Which at the time were likely even genetically similar to Europeans than they are today.) Is this really enough evidence to cast doubt on the idea that Britain in the past was not 99% indigenous european?

    She also mentions there are multiple meaning for the translation of the word blonde in Ancient Greek in an attempt to cast doubt on the race of the character Achilles. Many words in English have multiple meanings and are only clear in context. If I say “my car is running” do I mean the car has legs and is swinging them in particular gate? No the meaning is clear from the context, so if Dr. Beard believes that Homer did not mean blonde when describing achillies, what does she think the proper translation is? Do you see what I mean? Dr. Beard is attempting to cast doubt on the mainstream narrative without providing evidence for any sort of counter narrative.

    A couple sanity checks. If there is so much diversity (non Europeans) in ancient Europe, why are there descendants, us, white? Shouldn’t we look like mixed race people do today? Why do the overwhelming majority (perhaps all) of the statues we have today of prominent Romans have european facial features (Nose, lips, eyes, hair)?

    Now I will take a risk. I suspect if anything ancient Europe was whiter than it is today. In ancient sources people from meditatianian nations like Greece and Italy are described as having more northern european features like blue eyes and light hair. When I visit places like south Italy, Greece, and Spain the modern inhabitants appear somewhat swarthy. We know those regions were at various points in medieval history conquered by invaders from North Africa and the Middle East. It seems likely those events would have added some darker features to the gene pool.

    Perhaps I should write my own lecture on whiteness in the ancient world and why the ancient world was even whiter than we think it is. Though I suspect, despite having better arguments on my side, it wouldn’t be welcome in quite the way Dr. Beard is. Perhaps our perseption of whiteness in the ancient world and the tendency of modern scholars to deny its prominence says more about our modern politics than it does about ancient times. On that I think Dr. Beard and I can agree.


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