Color Prejudice Among 4th Century Greek Elites

Velvet Yates

University of Florida

It is commonly observed that "nothing comparable to the virulent color prejudice of modern times existed in the ancient world" (Snowden 1983.63).  I would like to suggest that there was a color prejudice of sorts among some members of the Socratic circle, who (not coincidentally) shared a strong prejudice against manual labor (de Sainte Croix 1988.412).  This color prejudice did not operate along the axis of race, however, but of gender, complicated by an elitist disdain for manual labor.  Based on the evidence of Xenophon and Aristotle, among others, I propose that these elites considered the ideal skin color to be something like 'red,' intermediary between the extremes of an effeminate 'white', and a 'dark' appropriate only for agricultural laborers.

The most striking evidence for this scheme comes from Xenophon, Oec. X.5.  Ischomachus admonishes his young wife for painting herself with white lead (white skin was, of course, considered attractive for women).  He asks her what she would think, "if I presented myself to you smeared with red lead (miltôi aleiphomenos) ... deceiving you and offering you red lead (miltou) to see and touch instead of my own skin?"  This red lead simulates the healthy complexion (eukhrôs) achieved through gymnastics.  Xenophon echoes Plato's contrast between the deceptive coloring of cosmetics and the rosy glow provided by gymnastics (Gorgias 465b).  Gymnastics is an instrument of the elite (e.g., Ar., Pol. 1297a15-34: oligarchies use gymnastics to deceive the people, by fining the rich who do not attend, but not penalizing the poor).  Xenophon (Symp. II.4) even claims that gymnastics gives the eleutheros a distinctive odor (Cambiano in Finley 1987.28).  It serves as a status marker most blatantly in Aristotle's ideal state: the older citizens practice gymnastics in the "freemen's agora," into which non-citizens are not allowed to enter (Pol. 1331a31-b1).

The 'rosy glow' of gymnastics is not to be confused with the dark, 'sun-tanned' look that was the result of prolonged exposure to intense sunlight.  (The Greeks accounted for the darkness of Black Africans in this way: Snowden 1983.7.)  Greek men were expected to work outdoors (Xen., Oec. VII.30-32), but the 'gentleman' farming advocated by Xenophon has nothing to do with long, hard work in the sun: "It was, rather, a unique and stylized form of labor that distinguished the aristocrat" (Johnstone, CP 1994.223).  For Aristotle, the bodies of citizens should be useless for servile (i.e. manual) labor (Pol. 1254b25-34); the fields of the ideal state are to be tended by barbarian slaves or serfs (Pol. 1330a25-30).  The sole physical activity of the ideal state's male citizens, gymnastics, would supposedly distinguish them from white, indoor women and dark, servile agricultural laborers.


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