This long-read article was written by upper sixth former Sebastian Norris.
Estimated read time of introduction: 1 minute
Estimated read time of essay: 11 minutes
Setting aside preconceptions and a modern, judgemental approach is difficult when discussing racism in the ancient world, due to the pertinence of the issue in our society. However, it is also easy to justify ancient attitudes by the argument that racism as we know it has only existed in more modern times. Therefore, to avoid getting involved in debate about how to define racism, I am regarding racism as the belief that one’s race is superior in some way to others, as such beliefs are at the very heart of racial discrimination.
In order to discuss the question in some depth, I am only considering the ancient Greeks, as their beliefs and prejudices have been so influential, especially since they were formative for the Romans’ views and therefore endured for a long time. However, it is also important to consider the difference between racism and xenophobia, as despite the common use of the word racism describing hate crimes or speech, it is fundamentally the ideology of superiority of a race, whereas xenophobia is the fear or hatred of foreigners.
Within these parameters, clearly some form of racism did exist in the ancient world, as the ancient Greeks had a strong sense of superiority over non-Greeks, seen both in their attitude towards foreigners, for whom they had a collective term (‘βαρβαροι’) to signify that they were not Greek, and in how they saw themselves, that is, as a pure race descended from the Earth itself, giving them a sense of superiority over other races.
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