An investigation into the use of terms aithiops and aithiopia in Greek literature from Homer to Lycophron.
The Greeks and Romans were acquainted with dark skinned people from Africa from an early stage. It has been generally accepted that such people were referred to as aithiopias; by the Greeks, and modem commentators have accepted the term to be a synonym of the English term 'Negro' . Such an assumption ignores the wide variety of connotations associated with the terms aithiops and aithiopia. Furthermore, the trend in scholarship in the field of race relations in antiquity has been to study the interaction between Greeks and foreigners based on implicit, and often invalid, theory. The aim of this study is to examine the uses of the terms aithiops and aithiopia in the context of Greek ideology. Previous studies in the field have employed naive semiological approaches to the issue of racism in Greece and Rome, whereby references to Negroes have simply been weighed up in order to determine the extent of negative attitude toward Negroes in antiquity. In this regard, the following study departs radically from the approaches of its predecessors in that, although it is not intended as a narrow linguistic study of the terms aithiops and aithiopia, the focus of the examination concerns the semantics of these terms and the connotations thereof. Through an analysis of these terms in their ideological context, not only do we gain an insight into the processes which underlie Greek perceptions of group boundaries, but we may gain a deeper understanding of our own perceptions of race and racism. The study is confined to pre-Hellenistic literature (although later works are often used to illuminate Classical and Archaic passages) since it was the perceptions of the authors from this period which shaped the ideas of subsequent authors. In addition, during the Hellenistic period, the focus of Greek literary activity shifted from Athens to Alexandria, allowing Hellenistic authors far more contact with Negroes than was enjoyed by their predecessors. For the purpose of this study, Lycophron's Alexandria has been assumed to be the last pre-Hellenistic work, although this point may be debatable.