Why We Need to Start Seeing the Classical World in Color

The equation of white marble with beauty is not an inherent truth of the universe; it’s a dangerous construct that continues to influence white supremacist ideas today.

Large polychrome tauroctony relief of Mithras killing a bull, originally from the mithraeum of S. Stefano Rotonodo (end of 3rd century CE), now at the Baths of Diocletian Museum, Rome (photo by Carole Raddato/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Modern technology has revealed an irrefutable, if unpopular, truth: many of the statues, reliefs, and sarcophagi created in the ancient Western world were in fact painted. Marble was a precious material for Greco-Roman artisans, but it was considered a canvas, not the finished product for sculpture. It was carefully selected and then often painted in gold, red, green, black, white, and brown, among other colors.

A number of fantastic museum shows throughout Europe and the US in recent years have addressed the issue of ancient polychromy. The Gods in Color exhibit travelled the world between 2003–15, after its initial display at the Glyptothek in Munich. (Many of the photos in this essay come from that exhibit, including the famed Caligula bust and the Alexander Sarcophagus.) Digital humanists and archaeologists have played a large part in making those shows possible. In particular, the archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann, whose research informed Gods in Color, has done important work, applying various technologies and ultraviolet light to antique statues in order to analyze the minute vestiges of paint on them and then recreate polychrome versions.

The Archer from the western pediment of the Temple of Aphaia on Aigina, reconstruction, color variant A from the Gods of Color exhibit (photo by Marsyas/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 2.5)

Acceptance of polychromy by the public is another matter. A friend peering up at early-20th-century polychrome terra cottas of mythological figures at the Philadelphia Museum of Art once remarked to me: “There is no way the Greeks were that gauche.” How did color become gauche? Where does this aesthetic disgust come from? To many, the pristine whiteness of marble statues is the expectation and thus the classical ideal. But the equation of white marble with beauty is not an inherent truth of the universe. Where this standard came from and how it continues to influence white supremacist ideas today are often ignored.

Most museums and art history textbooks contain a predominantly neon white display of skin tone when it comes to classical statues and sarcophagi. This has an impact on the way we view the antique world. The assemblage of neon whiteness serves to create a false idea of homogeneity — everyone was very white! — across the Mediterranean region. The Romans, in fact, did not define people as “white”; where, then, did this notion of race come from?

A painted Romano-Egyptian mummy mask of a man (late 2nd century CE), plaster, paint, glass, now at the Rhode Island School of Design (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

In early modern Europe, taxonomies were all the rage. What would later be termed the “scientific revolution” was marked by a desire to categorize, label, and rank everything from plants to minerals. It was only a matter of time before humans were similarly subjected to such manmade systems of classification. At the same time, artists began to engage with mathematics and anatomy and to use classical sculpture as a means of addressing the question of replicable beauty through proportions.

One of the most influential art historians of the era was Johann Joachim Winckelmann. He produced two volumes recounting the history of ancient art, Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums (1764), which were widely read and came to form a foundation for the modern field of art history. These books celebrate the whiteness of classical statuary and cast the Apollo of the Belvedere — a Roman marble copy of a Hellenistic bronze original — as the quintessence of beauty. Historian Nell Irvin Painter writes in her book The History of White People (2010) that Winckelmann was a Eurocentrist who depreciated people of other nationalities, like the Chinese or the Kalmyk.

The Apollo Belvedere, now at the Vatican Museums, was viewed in the 18th century as the model of beauty. Artists became fascinated with the statue after its discovery in the late 15th century, including Albrecht Dürer. (photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia)

“Color in sculpture came to mean barbarism, for they assumed that the lofty ancient Greeks were too sophisticated to color their art,” Painter writes. The ties between barbarism and color, civility and whiteness would endure. Not to mention Winckelmann’s pronounced preference for sculptures of gleaming white men over women. Regardless of his own sexual identity — which may have been expressed in this preference — Winckelmann’s gender bias would go on to have an impact on white male supremacists who saw themselves as upholding an ideal.

Winckelmann wasn’t the only man obsessed with the Apollo Belvedere. The Dutch anatomist Pieter Camper believed that he could find the formula for perfect beauty through facial angles and used the statue as a standard to be attained. He began to measure human and animal facial features, particularly the lines running from the nose to the ear and the forehead to the jawbone. Those ratios were later used by others to create the racist “cephalic index,” which categorized humans based on the width and length of their facial features. The Nazis drew on the index to support notions of Aryan superiority in Germany during the Third Reich.

Page from Pieter Camper, The Works of the late Professor Camper, on The Connexion [sic] between the Science of Anatomy and The Arts of Drawing, Painting, Statuary &c. &c. (London: Charles Dilly, 1794) (image via the Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Camper’s successors perpetuated and reshaped many of his ideas to be even more biased towards newly constructed races. As classicist Christopher B. Krebs wrote in A Most Dangerous Book, his work on the Third Reich’s manipulation of the classical author Tacitus, “Throughout the nineteenth century, scientists would scour far and wide mismeasuring human anatomy. The more data that was compiled, the less significant the result became. Where science failed, prejudice stepped in and observation yielded to opinion.” This prejudice was seen particularly in the diagramming of beauty within anatomical textbooks of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The son of a famous botanist, Mathias Marie Duval developed numerous anatomical models that were broadly used in medical schools and perpetuated ideas of whiteness that never existed in the ancient world. They were derived from examples of classical sculpture, particularly (you guessed it) the Apollo Belvedere.

Duval’s diagram of the facial angle of an antique head, based on Camper’s work with the Apollo Belvedere; fig. 63 in Matthias Duval’s Artistic Anatomy: Completely Revised, with Additional Original Illustrations. Edited and Amplified by A. Melville Paterson, M.D. (1919) (screenshot via Internet Archive)

Too often today, we fail to acknowledge and confront the incredible amount of racism that has shaped the ideas of scholars we cite in the field of ancient history. For example, I recently, came across Tenney Frank’s disturbing article “Race Mixture in the Roman Empire” while looking through an edited volume. First published in The American Historical Review in July 1916, the article sees Frank attempting to count extant inscriptions (mostly epitaphs) in order to gauge whether “race mixing” contributed to the decline of the Roman empire. It was then reprinted without comment in Greek historian Donald Kagan’s 1962 collection of articles on the fall of Rome.

I am not suggesting that Kagan is a racist (far from it), but, at the least, he should have contextualized Frank’s essay in his introduction to the volume and highlighted it as an example of the virulent racism built into the foundation of the Classics field. As Denise Eileen McCoskey points out in her excellent book Race: Antiquity and Its Legacy, Frank’s argument is not only untrue, it is dangerous. It provides further ammunition for white supremacists today, including groups like Identity Europa, who use classical statuary as a symbol of white male superiority. It also continues to buttress the false construction of Western civilization as white by politicians like Steve King.

How can we address the problem of the lily white antiquity that persists in the public imagination? What can classicists learn from the debate over whiteness and ancient sculpture?

First, we must consider why we are such a homogenous field. According to the Society for Classical Studies, the leading association for Classics in the United States, in 2014, just 9% of all undergraduate Classics majors were minorities. This number decreases the higher into academia you go. Just 2% of tenured full-time Classics faculty were minorities, according to the study.

Do we make it easy for people of color who want to study the ancient world? Do they see themselves in the ancient landscape that we present to them? The dearth of people of color in modern media depicting the ancient world is a pivotal issue here. Movies and video games, in particular, perpetuate the notion that the classical world was white. This is an issue when 70% of my students tell me that games such as Ryse: Son of Rome (which uses white statues to decorate the city of Rome and white Roman soldiers as lead characters), as well as films like Gladiator (which has a man from New Zealand playing the Spaniard Maximus) and the 300 (which has xenophobic depictions of Persians) led them to take my courses.

If we want to see more diversity in Classics, we have to work harder as public historians to change the narrative — by talking to filmmakers, writing mainstream articles, annotating our academic writing and making it open access, and doing more outreach that emphasizes the vast palette of skin tones in the ancient Mediterranean. I’m not suggesting that we go, with a bucket in hand, and attempt to repaint every white marble statue across the country. However, I believe that tactics such as better museum signage, the presentation of 3D reconstructions alongside originals, and the use of computerized light projections can help produce a contextual framework for understanding classical sculpture as it truly was. It may have taken just one classical statue to influence the false construction of race, but it will take many of us to tear it down. We have the power to return color to the ancient world, but it has to start with us.

Painted terra cotta cinerary urn (150–100 BCE), originally from Chiusi, now at the British Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Detail of painted terra cotta cinerary urn (150–100 BCE), originally from Chiusi, now at the British Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
comments (0)