The ancient Greeks and Romans encountered numerous peoples from many lands. Some of these people were of different races, and most were of different ethnic groups, having customs and traditions that the Greeks and Romans did not share. Most of the prejudice against different ethnic groups in ancient Greece and Rome appears to have been based on social and cultural differences rather than on physical appearance.

Ethnicity in Ancient Greece. The ancient Greeks distinguished between themselves and all those who did not speak Greek. Those who spoke other languages came to be called barbarians, from the Greek word for nonsense words, barbaroi. Most barbarians were believed to be lacking in culture. This attitude of superiority toward other ethnic groups was best expressed by Aristotle in his book Politics, in which he wrote that barbarians were, by nature, slaves. However, the Greeks considered a few non-Greek speaking peoples, including the Persians and the Egyptians, not to be barbarians in the modern sense of the word. Early Greek myths about the races of mankind placed the Egyptians, Libyans, and other ethnically different peoples in the same genealogy, or family history, as the Greeks.

Non-Greeks had fewer rights than Greeks in most city-states*. Citizenship was usually restricted to only those who could prove descent from a citizen. After 451-450 B.C., the rules for citizenship in Athens were even stricter. Only those whose parents were both Athenian citizens were granted citizenship. Many noncitizens lived in Athens, but they paid special taxes and were not allowed to own land or to hold public office. These limitations were not based on racial prejudice but served as a way to promote political, social, and economic unity among the Greek inhabitants of the city-state.

Ethnicity in Ancient Rome. Official Roman prejudice toward different ethnic groups was less severe than that of the Greeks. Roman citizenship was granted to Rome’s allies beginning in the 300s B.C. In A.D. 212, all free inhabitants of the empire were given the rights of citizens. Participation in the Roman government by other ethnic groups came more slowly, however. Although a few non-Italians were in the Roman Senate during the late Roman Republic*, as late as the A.D. 40s there was strong opposition to admitting senators from the northern province* of Gaul. Even so, by A.D. 98, the emperor Trajan himself was a non-Italian. He came from the province of Iberia. Following Trajan, non-Italian emperors became the rule, rather than the exception.

The average Roman was prejudiced against a wide range of peoples. The Romans despised the Greeks, even while admiring their literature and culture. Their strong prejudice against the Gauls and Germans, two peoples from northern Europe, was partly based on physical differences. The Romans remarked on these peoples’ large size, fair complexion, tendency toward drunkenness, and poor tolerance of heat. One Roman author, Florus, compared the Gauls to the snow in the Alps—massive and white, but quickly dissolved by the heat of the sun. The fact that the northern Gauls and Germans refused to adopt Roman culture and continued to pose a military threat to Rome’s frontiers also played a significant factor in Roman prejudice against them.

* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory

* Roman Republic Rome during the period of 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials

* province overseas area controlled by Rome


Ancient authors recognized racial differences, but these were usually explained as a result of differences in climate and environment. For example, the Greek historian Herodotus explained that the sun's heat caused the dark complexion of Ethiopians and Libyans. In fact, the name Ethiopians comes from a Greek word meaning "men with burnt faces." According to the Greek medical book Airs, Waters, Places, environmental factors not only caused differences in physical appearance but differences in national character as well.

The Roman attitude towards blacks is less clear. In his satires*, Juvenal indicated that proper Romans considered the physical appearance of blacks unfortunate at best. There is little other evidence that Romans saw blacks as inferior. Although Ethiopians and Libyans worked in a wide range of occupations, most of the occupations Africans held were of rather low status. Few blacks participated in the upper levels of Roman society and government, making it likely that an informal racial barrier existed. (See also Class Structure, Greek; Class Structure, Roman; Peoples of Ancient Greece and Rome.)

* satire literary technique that uses wit and sarcasm to expose or ridicule vice and folly

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