This article is a response to the latest hit movie, “The Gladiator,” which is only minimally factual. Historically there were far more Africans in the Roman Empire than what was depicted in the movie, but that is Hollywood and Hollywood reflects racist American culture.
The ancient Greeks and Romans did not display any hard core race prejudice as is evidenced today. What they did display was an attitude that manifested itself as that of superior toward the subordinate. The Romans were what could be considered a colonial power–actually a conquering power is better–and they brought captives from different parts of the world–especially Africa.
The point must be made at this juncture that not all Africans in Rome were slaves, or servants. On the contrary, some were writers, generals, philosophers, and emperors (a good example of a Roman general was Septimius Serverus, whom the Antiochene chronicler, John Malalas, said was dark-skinned). Moreover, a number of African slaves in Rome became prominent citizens and contributed to Roman culture.
The African in the Roman Empire worked, lived without fear of racial animosity, entertained, and in many respects worshipped the same gods at the same place of worship together with other slaves, servants and freedmen. Seneca, the Roman statesman, philosopher, and intellectual said that among his own people the African’s color was not noticeable.
It must be said that despite this statement by Seneca there was some somatic classifying of Africans, Roman group stereotyping, even Romanocentric behavior regarding the “Aethiops,” a term widely used to describe Africans. However, I will limit my brief study to the positive aspects of the Africans in Rome. I am compelled to say, however, that the amicable relationship that had existed between ancient Greece and Africa (Aethiops/Ethiopia) did not develop in a continual progressive manner between Africans and Romans. The Greeks told us through their art, literature and scholars of the
greatness of Africans/Aethiops/Blacks. The Romans, on the other hand, viewed the Africans from a political and cultural perspective. This, I believe, was predicated on the fact that the Roman populace had little contact with Africans prior to conquest, and most importantly their subjugation by the African general, Hannibal of Carthage, left them with bitter memories.
Carthage had flourished for seven hundred years and was the seat of commercialism and education. The Romans after they conquered Carthage, out of jealousy, destroyed the great libraries they found at Carthage. some of the libraries (books and manuscripts) they gave to their Numidian allies. The Carthaginians had records of all their achievements. Unfortunately, the only Roman writers that referred to those manuscripts were Sallust and Pliny.
Excluding the above mentioned factors as they relate to the early behavior and attitude of the Romans’ toward the Africans, most Africans/Aethiops were acknowledged for their cultural contributions to Roman society, or rather the Roman Empire. There was no law which prohibited Africans from assuming roles of responsibility and authority.
In fact, as stated earlier, Africans became emperors, writers, philosophers, entertainers, generals and popes. After centuries of subjugating African people, the Romans became more acquainted with their subjects and their impeccable character and talents.
Historical models are: Tiro, an African born a slave about the year 103 B. C. in Arpium, a city of Latium. He was born on the estate of Cicero, the Roman statesman and lawyer. In fact, it was Tiro who invented shorthand. When Cicero, who was still his slave master died, Tiro opened a shorthand school in Rome. He died in 4 B. C.
Terence, another African was born about 190 B. C. He was sent to Rome as a slave and was bought by a Roman Senator, Terentius Lucanus, who named Terence after him. He was emancipated because of his extraordinary talents. He wrote six plays and his works were studied with great interest. He was/is highly regarded as one of the greatest humanists of all time. He wrote: “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto” (I am a man and nothing human is alien to me). Terence died in 159 B. C.
Fronto was another exceptional African writer; he taught the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, who was up to a point depicted accurately in the movie. There was Apuleius another African writer, and Slavius Julians, an African who edited the Paraetorian Edict.
On another note as it relates to our subject, Lusius Quietus was one of Rome’s greatest African generals (in the movie it is Maximus, he was of minor significance). Quietus served under Emperor Trajan. The Emperor named him his successor to the Imperial Purple. Quietus and other African soldiers defended the Dacians. Moreover, when the Jews revolted, Trajan sent Quietus to suppress the revolt, which he did with extreme severity. The Jews called the rebellion “The War of Quietus.”
Similarly, African soldiers distinguished themselves under the reign of Emperor Diocletian.
Interestingly, at least ten Africans became Emperors of Rome. They are listed on the historical record as the following: Macrinu, Firmus, Emilianus, Septimius Serverus, Pescennius Niger, Aquilus Niger, Brutidius Niger, Q. Caecilus Niger, Novius Niger, and Trebius Niger who was a proconsul in Spain. Africans were authorities on medicine and they were often quoted by Caelius Aurelianus and Galen. Other noted Africans were Domituis Afer, orator, Arnobius Afer, Christian writer; and Victorianus Afer, a scholar of rhetoric whose statue was erected in the forum of Emperor Trajan.
With regard to the subject of religion, three Africans became popes in Rome. They were Victor 189-199 A. D., Melchiades 311-312; and St. Gelasius 496 A. D. It was Victor who sent a letter to the Eastern Churches requesting them to observe Easter on the same day as the Western Churches. The Eastern Churches refused and Victor excluded them from his communion. Afterwards, Victor was killed in the sixth persecution under Emperor Serverus. It is befitting to say that all three of these African popes contributed immensely to the development of Christianity in Rome.
Continuing with religion, Saint Benedict the Moor is a saint of the Catholic Church. He was born at Fradella, a village of the Diocese of Messina in Sicily in 1526; he died April 4, 1589. His parents were slaves from Ethiopia. Because of Benedict’s religious piety, their master freed him. Furthermore, owing to his strict virtues he was made superior of the monastery of Santa Maria de Jesus at Palermo. He devoted his life to caring for the sick and needy. He became known as “The Holy Negro.” He was sought by persons from every class on matters of religion and other human concerns. He died at the age of 63; as a consequence of his God-filled life, a vigorous cult developed immediately after his death. His veneration became especially popular in Italy, Spain, and South America. The city of Palermo chose him as its patron saint. He was pronounced Blessed in 1743 by Pope Benedict XVII and was canonized in 1807 by Pope Pius VII.
In conclusion, color prejudice seems to have developed in the first century A. D. as a phase of the struggle among Christianity, Judaism, and Paganism. Furthermore, the French anthropologist, Topinard, believes the Rabbis of the fifth century were the first to stress differences of race and color. The historical record asserts that he is correct.
Topinard states, “In the first century when Christianity was beginning to establish itself in Rome the doctrine of a separate creation for whites and Africans was defended by the Babylonian Rabbis and later by Emperor Julian. In 415 A. D. when one council was debating whether the Ethiopians/Africans were descended from Adam and the theory they were not was making considerable progress, St. Augustine in his “City of God” interjected and declared that no true Christian would doubt that all men, of no matter what form, color, or height were of the same protoplasmic origin.
These early Rabbis did say with conviction that a Black skin was the result of a “curse” on them by Noah. The signs of this “curse” said the Rabbis were a “Black skin, misshapen nose, lips and twisted hair.”
Lastly, Africans in ancient Rome before the philosophical structure of color prejudice and racism, like others conquered by the Romans, were treated as captives. There is no historical record from my studies that suggest wanton cruel treatment on the basis of color or ethnicity. A slave was a slave whether he was a Syrian, Thracian, or an African.
The Romans after becoming accustomed to Africans from various parts of Africa and their varying complexions treated them with consideration and respect.
Romans and Blacks, By Lloyd A. Thompson (University of Oklahoma Press, 1990)
Septimius Serverus: The African Emperor, By Anthony R. Birley (Yale University Press, 1988)
Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience, By Frank M. Snowden (Cambridge University Press, 1970)
Before Color Prejudice, By Frank M. Snowden (Cambridge University Press, 1984)
African Glory The Story of Vanished Negro Civilizations, By J. C. deGraft Johnson (Black Classic Press, 1986)
History of The African People Vol. II Africans in Europe, By G. K. Osei (The African Publication Society, 1971) .