Why were the Greeks and Romans so prejudiced?

Well, as we know, the Athenians of the 5th century BC espoused democratic principles that we are so indebted to in the modern West. And Cicero wrote such inspiring words on the creation of a republic that they were taken almost wholesale by the Founding Fathers of the USA.

Indeed, there were radicals both in Classical Greece and in the Roman Republic who wanted to shake the old established order and replace it with something revolutionary and different. Look at the reverence given to the poet Sappho – she was named the “tenth muse” by Plato (if indeed it was he who wrote that epigram in the Greek Anthology), and she wrote love poetry to other women. Stobaeus says that the politician Solon heard his nephew singing a song of Sappho and asked to be taught the song, “so that I may sing it and die”.
Sappho’s poetry is beautiful, and that is clearly the main reason why it survives, and yet, her gender and sexuality might have put off the sexists and homophobes; but they both remain.

Plato himself says, in Republic Book V, that just as female watch-dogs do the same jobs and have the same training as male watch-dogs, so women ought to play the same roles in a perfect society as men. When Socrates’s interlocutor objects that the idea of women exercising naked in the exercise grounds causes hilarity, Socrates says that there was a time when even men exercising naked was seen as ridiculous [perhaps we have returned to that time now!]. Socrates then appears to be suggesting that just as the idea of insisting that bald men must be cobblers, and long-haired men can’t do the job, so with women and men, they ought to do the same jobs. Radical indeed.


So we always knew, didn’t we, that the Greeks weren’t homophobic. After all, Plato and his ilk suggested that homosexual love was the only truly altruistic love, as it’s not entangled with the idea of procreation, and in loving one of the same gender, one can try to train him or her to be just like oneself (not sure that’s entirely healthy, or for that matter exactly what Plato meant, but still, you get the idea…) But it would seem that some of them were feminists. And yet, look at the Pnyx, and the thousands gathered making democratic decisions. Off they went home at the end of the debate to a house run by slaves. The Greeks kept slaves. In fact, surely the Romans were the worst of all – look at the exploits of Caligula and Nero, who treated other human beings like animals.

We shouldn’t judge the Romans by the standards of Caligula and Nero, of course. Seneca, a man who tried his best to tutor Nero, said these words, an imagined conversation in a letter to Lucilius:

“servi sunt.” immo homines. “servi sunt.” immo contubernales. “servi sunt.” immo humiles amici. “servi sunt.” immo conservi, si cogitaveris tantundem in utrosque licere fortunae.

“They are slaves.” No, they’re men. “They’re slaves.” No, companions. “They’re slaves.” No, just humble friends. “They’re slaves.” No, they’re fellow-slaves, if you consider that fortune has equal rights over both of us.

The Greeks and Romans, then: feminists, comfortable with all types of sexuality, champions of the rights of slaves, but… well, they were a bit racist weren’t they? Where does the word barbarian come from? Isn’t it the Greek pejorative term for someone who can’t speak Greek, and so spends every conversation going “BAR BAR BAR!”? In fact, this comes from early Mycenaean script “pa-pa-ro” and has an equivalent in Sanskrit, बर्बर (barbara-) meaning “stammering” or “curly-haired”. They didn’t like the foreigners, did they?

And yet, they wouldn’t be the only ones to be afraid of people coming from other lands. In fact, it might be understood that the Greeks were cautious of those (such as the Persians) coming from the East, as they were indeed aiming to take control of the Mediterranean. It takes a strong and historically rare sense of morality to see “the enemy” whose leaders are trying to invade your lands as human beings like you. A sense of linguistic superiority is surely not the worst thing in the world. After all, Ancient Greek was (and still is) an awesome language (if you’ve never learnt it, I recommend it. Just don’t be surprised when the rules don’t apply. Irregular verbs are the most common in Greek). Of course, a sense of linguistic superiority is now felt by some of the many English-speakers across the world, so pervasive is this language now.

So there we go. What a fundamentally forward-thinking, feminist, right-on lot they were, the Greeks and Romans. Well, no, not quite.
As Julia Annas said in her excellent article on Plato and Feminism, Plato was no feminist. If you’re aiming for a society without nuclear families, in order to destroy those family ties which blind people to moral actions, then you might as well have women doing the same roles as men (except for those who act as baby and milk machines for the good of the state!). The women who are not engaged in human-production will do jobs usually seen as men’s jobs (although women are, he says, generally weaker at everything than men – even women’s work such as boiling pots, watching pancakes and weaving). “the one sex is far surpassed by the other in everything, one may say.” This is a writer who uses the term “womanish” as a synonym for weak.

The likes of Seneca were in the minority, too, it seems. Plutarch describes the Elder Cato’s treatment of slaves “like beasts of burden, using them to the uttermost, and then, when they were old, driving them off and selling them, as the mark of a very mean nature, which recognizes no tie between man and man but that of necessity.” Cato wasn’t unusual in this, it seems. And laws passed on slavery through the Classical period simply altered slightly the way that they were freed, how you could murder them without prosecution, and such like.

Even homosexuality wasn’t really as accepted as people would have you believe. Aristophanes uses the term “wide-arsed” as an insult, and it’s clear that it’s ok to use effeminate men as if they were women, in a sexual sense, but not to be the man ‘playing the part of a woman’, so to speak. Many of the Greeks and Romans tried to write Sappho off as a woman pretending to be a man, training people in the art of male poetry. Others just refused to teach her poetry, and some tried bizarrely to suggest that the poems are not sexual, any more than Plato’s relationship with Alcibiades was sexual (and the term Platonic love still describes, surely erroneously, love that lacks a sexual element).

What is notable, it seems to me, is the extent to which we haven’t really changed as a human race. Those with different sexualities, genders, nationalities, beliefs have always existed, and always will. They will always interact with each other, and there will always be people suggesting that the best way is to see everybody as a human being with valid rights and opinions, no matter how different they are from you. Those people have over the years managed to alter stereotypes and sexist, homophobic and racist preconceptions in national and international debates, and there are governments and organisations who have seen fit to enshrine genuine equality and respect for others into their constitutions. But there are also those who fear these differences, and reject calls for mutual respect because it doesn’t fit in with the comfortable prejudices they have settled into.

Some resort to violence and threats, as Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez and others have discovered on Twitter, when their prejudices are challenged. But threatening sexual violence when you don’t agree is nothing new. I won’t quote the full text of Catullus’s poem 16 (this is a blog intended to be accessible to school students) but suffice it to say that it includes rape-threats and homophobic insults as shocking as some of those directed recently on Twitter, merely because the two critics had suggested that Catullus was sharing too much information.


So really I think the questions ought to be: have we really moved on as a human race since the prejudices of Greece and Rome? And why are we just as prejudiced as the Greeks and Romans?


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