Alternate Colors

I am fortunate in my online experience. Not only am I generally identified as a white man, but I have a curated existence and small footprint. I am nevertheless exhausted just as a spectator to the maelstrom. This week the storm again struck the corner of the internet inhabited by ancient history.

Here’s what happened: Dr. Sarah Bond, a professor at the University of Iowa and probably the public historian of the ancient world with the greatest breadth of subjects, published a piece for hyperallergic titled “Why We Need to Start Seeing the Classical World in Color.” In the article, Bond introduces the readers to the issue of polychromy—the idea that the naked marble of the surviving statues was once garishly painted (not to mention literally dressed and armed). She then transitions to how the naked marble came to represent the classical ideal and explores how this standard allows modern prejudices concerning race to be channeled onto the ancient world.

(Not for nothing, but I am reminded of the Carbon Leaf song “The War Was In Color” about remembering wars from black and white pictures.)

Bond’s article is an excellent introduction to this issue and there was some excited conversation on ancient Twitter about the legacy of the controversial Black Athena and a variety of other issues. I was absolutely delighted to see the article (for reasons I will get into below), and driving discussion of this sort is exactly what it should do. Nobody challenged its fundamental assumptions because the ancient Mediterranean was a variegated quilt of cultures and peoples. How these colors were created and looked may be disputed—I once heard a scholar suggest that the fabled Spartan crimson was actually bright pink based on modern efforts to recreate ancient pigment—but the existence of colors is not.

Outside this conversation there were death threats.

People are so committed to their preconceptions that they would rather threaten the life of an academic in an effort to bully and silence her rather than face fundamental truths. But I am not here to “defend” Bond or to chide the bullies, even leaving alone the willful misreadings of her piece. I planned to write this post before reading about the backlash.

One issue with teaching history is that it runs the risk of presenting the past either as something teleological in an endless progressive march to the present or something static. Since there are political agendas that want ancient Greece to be the self-referential origin for western civilization, it is particular susceptible to these caricatures. And yet, even in antiquity, the definitions of “Europe” and “Greece” were constantly in flux. Ionia, the subject of my dissertation, for instance, consisted of communities that were Greek, but were not in Europe. Ancient orators such as Isocrates tended to gloss issues like this when giving speeches, but the seeming dissonance has cast a long shadow, with historians of colossal stature like Rostovtzeff describing them as “fragments of the western world on the fringe of the eastern.” In point of fact, much of Greek “civilization” developed in communication with the Near East and Egypt.

Similarly, scholars have tied themselves in knots trying to explain Alexander the Great’s behavior in terms of race. At issue were his decisions (personally, and with regard to his men) about marriage and whether marrying Greek men with eastern women, either in a simple east-west binary or in a more complicated and totally anachronistic distinction between Indo-European and Semitic populations.

In both examples, the history of these academic debates was driven by or responding to racially-motivated agendas. As Bond makes clear in her article, not all of the scholars were racist but, intentionally or not, their scholarship worked in tandem to support these agendas. The end result is that the statues became marble-white and Greece became singularly European.

Ancient Greece, ranging far beyond the modern national borders, was deeply enmeshed in the ancient Mediterranean and would have had many different shades, not lease because of the historical movement of people and ideas. The variations became even more pronounced after Alexander’s conquests when there were people who were culturally Greek as far east as central Asia. Redefining Greece is nothing new and was, in fact, a fairly standard feature of diplomacy in the ancient world, including one instance when the Judean kingdom claimed kinship with Sparta. The result was successive layers of definitions that bore only a loose connection to history. These were, and are, political agendas.

To come full circle, then, I want to echo Bond’s core point: the ancient world was awash in color, most of which was not white. Art history is not my wheelhouse, but many of the same forces are at work in scholarship on other issues. Greece was not European adjacent to, but separate from, the Mediterranean. Greece was Mediterranean and shaped by continuous movement of people and ideas in trickles and waves, with all of the colors that go along with that.

Vanished Kingdoms – Norman Davies

My final non-fiction read of 2016 was another large book that has been on my list for quite some time. Norman Davies Vanished Kingdoms is a weighty tome that purports to investigate the rise and fall of states. In my opinion, Davies falls short of this stated objective, but the book as a whole is nevertheless worth reading.

Each chapter of Vanished Kingdoms is dedicated to a different European “kingdom” that a) came into being after the fall of the Roman Empire b) has somehow shaped the modern European landscape and c) no longer exists. The studies are arranged in rough chronological order, starting with the Visigothic kingdom of Tolosa and concluding with the Soviet Union (albeit focussed on Estonia). Each chapter is divided into three parts. First, there is a synopsis of the modern region, second is a synopsis of the titular state of the chapter, and finally there is an analysis of how that state collapsed. Some chapters are more comprehensive than others; for instance, the chapter on Byzantium is littered with comments about how this short chapter is inadequate to give anything other than a passing impression. The unevenness was usually not a major problem, except in the case of Byzantium, which seemed like a chapter that a reviewer asked to be added to the book rather than one that really fit with the rest of the text.

Davies returns to themes of language, culture, and religion over and over again, and with good reason. His approach highlights that the largely stable borders of European nation-states were deeply fragmented as little as a century and a half ago and liable to change because of elite marriages. Vanished Kingdoms does an excellent job of explaining many of the independence movements in, for instance Catalonia, without trying to be a Grand Narrative of Europe. I also particularly liked Davies’ approach to European nationalism, which is not to push national identity per se into the past, but to ascribe weight to historical developments in terms of the the development of modern nationalism—and starting this narrative in the shadow of Rome was defensible for seeking these roots.

I liked Vanished Kingdoms quite a bit, particularly enjoying the chapters on Alt Clud (northern England), Litvia, Borussia, and Aragon, but, as noted above, think that framing the book as a study of how states die is misleading. The final chapter is a historiographical epilogue that engages with the literature on how states fail, infused with observations and conclusions from the fifteen studies in the book. This chapter was fine, but I found the frame limiting, particularly in that this is a Eurocentric book. Instead, I thought the stronger parts of the book engaged with the wrinkles of European Nationalism, something that is tangentially related to how states collapse, but actually examining how states survive—not in terms of political strategy, but in terms of the formations that currently exist.