Recent films about ancient Greece such as Troy, Helen of Troy, and 300, have used actors who are of Anglo-Saxon or Celtic ancestry (e.g. Brad Pitt, Gerard Butler). Recent films about ancient Rome, such as Gladiator and HBO’s series Rome, have done the same (e.g. Russell Crowe). Were the directors right, from an historical point of view? Were the ancient Greeks and Romans of North European stock?
A reproduction of Phidias’ masterwork, Athena Parthenos.
Most classical historians today are silent on the subject. For example, Paul Cartledge, a professor of Greek culture at Cambridge, writes about his specialty, Sparta, for educated but non-academic readers, yet nowhere that I can find does he discuss the racial origins of the Spartans. Some years ago I asked several classics professors about the race of the ancient Greeks only to be met with shrugs that suggested that no one knew, and that it was not something worth looking into. Today, an interest in the race of the ancients seems to be taken as an unhealthy sign, and any evidence of their Nordic origins discounted for fear it might give rise to dangerous sentiments.
A hundred years ago, however, Europeans took it for granted that many Greeks and Romans were the same race as themselves. The famed 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, published in 1911, noted that “survival of fair hair and complexion and light eyes among the upper classes in Thebes and some other localities shows that the blond type of mankind which is characteristic of north-western Europe had already penetrated into Greek lands before classical times.” It added that the early Greeks, or Hellenes, were Nordic, one of “the fair-haired tribes of upper Europe known to the ancients as Keltoi.” Sixty years ago even Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher and socialist, believed that the Hellenes “were fair-haired invaders from the North, who brought the Greek language with them” (History of Western Philosophy, 1946). Today, an interest in the race of the ancients seems to be taken as an unhealthy sign.
Scholars today recoil at this pre-1960s consensus. The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Greece, written in 1996, scoffs at the “undoubtedly dubious racial theories underlying much of this reconstruction,” but offers no theory to replace it, conceding only that “the origin of the Greeks remains a much-debated subject.” The Penguin author makes this startling admission, however: “Many of the ideas of racial origins were developed in the 19th century and, although they may have had some foundation in historical tradition, archaeology or linguistics, they were often combined with more dubious presumptions.” The author fails to list these dubious presumptions. Beth Cohen, author of Not the Classical Ideal: Athens and the Construction of the Other in Greek Art (2000), asserts that the Thracians, distant cousins of the Greeks, had “the same dark hair and the same facial features as the Ancient Greeks.”
In fact, there was a good basis for the 1911 Britannica to write about blonds in Thebes. Thebes was the leading city of Boeotia, a rich agricultural region in south-central Greece. Fragments from an ancient 150 BC travelogue describe the women of Thebes as “the tallest, prettiest, and most graceful in all of Hellas. Their yellow hair is tied up in a knot on the top of their head.” Pindar, a fifth century Theban lyric poet, refers to the Greeks as “the fair-haired Danaoi,” using a poetical name for the Hellenes. Likewise, in his Partheneia, or “Maiden Songs,” the seventh century BC Spartan poet Alcman, praised the beauty of Spartan female athletes, with their “golden hair” and “violet eyes.” He also wrote of Spartan women with “silver eyes,” meaning light gray. The seventh-century BC Greek poet Archilochus praises the “yellow hair” of one of his lovers, and Sappho — also of the seventh century BC — writes of her “beautiful daughter, golden like a flower.”
Red-haired Thracian woman from the fourth century BC.
As late as the fourth century AD, Adamantius, an Alexandrian physician and scientist, wrote in his Physiognominica, that “of all the nations the Greeks have the fairest eyes,” adding, that “wherever the Hellenic and Ionic race has been kept pure, we see tall men of fairly broad and straight build,... of fairly light skin, and blond.” Several centuries of mixing had presumably changed the racial character of many Greeks, but blonds still survived, and Xanthos, which means “yellow” in Greek, was a common personal name.
Professor Nell Painter of Princeton, author of The History of White People (see “Whiting Out White People,” AR, July 2010), complains that “not a few Westerners have attempted to racialize antiquity, making ancient history into white race history.” She points out that the Greeks often painted their marble statues — “the originals were often dark in color” — that the paint wore off over time, and Europeans mistakenly concluded from the white marble that the Greeks were white.
Yes, the Greeks painted their statues, but the originals were not dark. Praxiteles’ Aphrodite, from the Greek city of Knidos, was the most famous and most copied statue in the ancient world. Hundreds of copies survive. Experts have determined from microscopic paint particles that Aphrodite was painted blonde. The Romans had their own name for this goddess, Venus, and likewise her “cult images” were ubiquitous and “painted with pale-coloured flesh and golden-blonde hair” (see Joanna Pitman’s On Blondes, 2003).
Phidias’ masterwork, the Athena Parthenos, stood in the Parthenon for nearly 1,000 years until it was lost, probably in the 5th century AD. When American sculptor Alan LeQuire set out to make a faithful copy for the full-scale Parthenon replica in Nashville’s Centennial Park he modeled it on descriptions of the original work. The 42-foot-tall Athena, unveiled in 1990, has light skin, blue eyes, and golden hair (see photo above).
Many small terra-cotta figurines from Greece of the fourth century BC have survived with traces of paint. They show light hair, usually reddish brown, and blue eyes, as do larger statues from the time of the Persian Wars in the early fifth century BC. Even a cursory examination of ancient marble reliefs, statues, and busts reveals European features. Many of the faces could just as easily be those of Celtic chieftains or Viking kings.
There is more evidence of the appearance of the Greeks. Xenophanes, an Ionian Greek philosopher who lived in the fifth century BC, was amused to note that different peoples believed that the gods look like themselves: “Our gods have flat noses and black skins, say the Ethiopians. The Thracians (despite Prof. Cohen’s observations above) say our gods have red hair and hazel eyes.” Indeed, a fourth century BC fresco of a Thracian woman, found in the Ostrusha Mound in central Bulgaria, shows distinctly red hair and European features.
The Greek poet Hesiod (c. 700 BC) called Troy the “land of fair women.” According to the Roman historian Diodorus Sicilus, who lived in the first century BC, the Egyptian god Set had “reddish hair,” a color that was “rare in Egypt, but common among the Hellenes.” Plutarch (46–120 AD) tells us that while the Theban general Pelopidas (d. 364 BC) was campaigning in central Greece, he had a dream in which a ghost urged him to sacrifice a red-haired virgin if he wished to be victorious in the next day’s battle.