Think of Ancient Greece and you’ll often consider things on an East-West axis. You may not consider looking southwards, to the long coastline which frames the south Mediterranean. Namely, Africa.
This is surprising as Africa wasn’t as invisible to the ancient Greeks. Greek diplomats are depicted in tomb paintings in Egypt from the 14th century BC. In 600 BC Greek mercenaries were fighting for Egyptian pharaohs. The colony of Cyrene was set up by Greeks. Aristotle mentions a woman from Elis marrying an Ethiopian (Gen Animals I.XVIII.722a)
Simply put – Greece knew about Africa.
Herodotus tried to place the peoples of Africa in his writings and the map below (based on this) is a simplified and handy representation - splitting the peoples into three civilisations or societies. Of these three it’s the Ethiopians that I’ll be looking at. Herodotus’ attempt to tie the Ethiopians to one distinct area does carry some complications as Ethiopian is often used to describe anyone from what we now call Africa. As such the focus of this article will look at Ethiopians, whether from Ethiopia or in the more general ‘African’ context.
The word ‘Ethiopian’ apparently originated from the ancient Greek meaning ‘sunburnt face’ and Homer uses this in both the Iliad and Odyssey (e.g. Od. 1.22-3, Ill.1.423) the term isn’t pejorative nor something we would now term as a racial slur (I’ll cover that in the conclusion). In fact Homer mentions the Ethiopians receiving Gods (such as Zeus and Iris) to their feasts and Herodotus reserves special praise, Ethiopian men being the longest living and best looking (3.114). Eurybates, a herald who Odysseus thought very highly of is described with African features (Od.19.247).
Africa itself was somewhere that fascinated the Greeks. Libya was where amazons and gorgons resided, where Anteus fought Herakles. It’s thought that both Poseidon and Athena, those two centre pieces in the Greek pantheon (and who competed for Athens) were both based on Libyan deities.
As such Ethiopia/Africa was a cultural influence in Greece and, as we’ll see, they weren’t without depiction.
This piece dates to around 480 BC and is a kantharos (a drinking vessel). These were used at symposia, so these were valuable high-quality items a host might impress upon his guests. As such the context of Africa is something positive, exotic and perhaps luxurious.
Dating from the mid-5th century BC This is a slightly different vase, not a drinking cup, but an aryballos which were used to hold perfume or oil. Again we are looking at a high-status item, which is reflected in what it contained.
This rhyton dates from 350-300 BC and shows a poor chap being attacked by a crocodile. Rhytons were used as a pouring vessel for libations and such, so again, a very prominent visual piece. This is interesting in that it doesn’t hold the home/exotic theme as the others do. Both the crocodile and the victim are within the context of their own space (i.e. Africa).
Normally I wouldn’t use anything that I didn’t have more details on (such as date) but these vases (lekythoi) contrast the depiction of a Persian warrior and an Ethiopian mercenary fighting for the Persians (which we know happened).
Another mid-5th-century BC piece, this time a pelike which was an all-purpose large vase. The scene is of Andromeda being chained to a rock by characters who seem to be Ethiopian. The myth surrounding Andromeda (and her rescue by Perseus) is ambiguous as to its location, both Libya and Phoenicia were given as where the it took place. I’m presuming that this vase depiction sides with Libya.
This aryballos (an oil container often used by athletes) dates to around 570 BC. It’s difficult to see but the scene around the rim is of pygmies fighting cranes. This myth seems bizarre but Homer mentions it (Ill.3.6ff) and Herodotus places the pygmies somewhere in Africa (2.32). Here’s a link to more on this which reveals some interesting thoughts.
We can see from the small selection above that Greek culture interacted with Africa in a number of ways. Aside from the Egyptian element (which is often more leant towards in such discussions) there were other cultural exchanges going. Greece was happy to import religious influences in the example of Athena and Poseidon yet also export myths to be featured on its landscape.
I mentioned earlier on about perceptions of Africans, it’s true that the Greeks remarked on their appearance, and the name ‘Ethiopian’ originates from this. However, this wasn’t a negative comment, there doesn’t seem to be anything which can support an argument that Greeks discriminated against Ethiopians or Africans in general purely on the basis of skin colour.
Anyone who wants to read more on this topic should place Frank Snowden Jnr at the top of their reading list.