From the Washington Post “Perspective” section:
In the Byzantine Empire, ideas of race and gender were deeply intertwined.
By Roland Betancourt
Roland Betancourt is a professor and Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of California, Irvine and author of “Byzantine Intersectionality: Sexuality, Gender, and Race in the Middle Ages ” (Princeton University Press, 2020).
June 16, 2021 at 3:00 a.m. PDT
When did racism begin?
I’m guessing that humans always had clan conflicts between extended families, but when people could only get around by walking, it was not that common to confront extended families that were so genealogically/genetically remote from yours that you could tell they were different by a glance at their faces. (Clans probably dressed different, so visual recognition was still easy.) People did come into contact with migrating tribes that didn’t look like them 10,000 years ago, but it often wasn’t part of daily life.
Then the domestication of the horse maybe 5000 plus years ago and the development of near-land sailing made contact between distant peoples in the same general region of the world more common, but it was more like: the Scythians are fairer than us Greeks and the Egyptians are darker, and I’ve heard that the Ethiopians are really burnt by the sun.
Finally, the development of ocean-crossing sailing ships in the 1400s led to the modern scientific awareness of major continental-scale races: sail west for 3000 miles and you suddenly arrive in a New World with a completely different race than one we Europeans have ever seen before.
But nothing could be further from the truth.
More than just race thinking and varied forms of racialized prejudices, the ancient and medieval world provide us with a deep legacy of anti-Blackness. This history of anti-Blackness has not only defined modern racism as we know it, but also shaped how gender and sexuality have been explained and represented for centuries. Remembering this longer history of racism and transphobia should remind us of how deeply ingrained these ideas are — and how much effort it will take to root them out.
Recognizing anti-Blackness in the deep past, particularly the Christian Middle Ages, allows us to better understand how colorist prejudices were racialized and transmitted from Ancient Greece and Rome to the modern Western world. Throughout this period, Christianity attempted to position itself as a new “race” (genos) or group of people that transcended ethnic categories and civilizations by proselytizing across the known world from India to Ethiopia. But Christianity still retained the deep anti-Blackness rooted in ancient theories of racialized and gendered differences.
The Byzantine Empire (or, more accurately, the medieval Roman Empire) controlled the eastern Mediterranean from 330 to 1453 C.E. with its capital in Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul. Constantinople was the envy of the Western medieval world, a cosmopolitan center at the crossroads of the Mediterranean, Eastern Europe and Asia. Because of its lineage dating to antiquity, the Byzantine Empire provides a unique lens on how racial tropes persisted across millennia and how they were transmitted and reconceived under Christian rule.
European visitors to Constantinople often remarked on the city’s racial diversity and commented on the darker skin of its emperors and peoples.
Not hugely darker, in general, at least until the Central Asian Ottoman emperors arrived in 1453. People in Istanbul today look not too different from people in Athens.
Surprisingly, Byzantine sources were often silent on this racialized difference, potentially taking it for granted in their cosmopolitan empire.
Yet while Byzantines were not White in the eyes of their European neighbors, they also privileged Whiteness in their descriptions of feminine beauty
It’s almost as if, as Peter Frost argues, the fair sex really is a little fairer than the unfair sex and thus fairness is seen as a desirable secondary sex characteristic of women, like long hair. In our racially diverse modern world, the small difference in coloration between men and women (women are softer with more sub-dermal fat, which keeps the blood further from the surface of the skin, while men tend to be ruddier), is dwarfed by racial differences, but fairness appears to remain a desired feminine trait all over the world, especially outside of European countries.
Another possibility is that the further north you go, the less portion of the year women gatherers can bring home the bacon so the more necessary are husband hunters to bag big game. And plowing in heavy northern soils requires a strong man, while lighter southern soils can be weeded by women with hoes. So, in the north there is more selection for beauty among women, while in the south (especially in sub-Saharan Africa hoe agricultural system), there is more selection for work among women.
I’d completely believe this theory if Eskimo women were universally acknowledged to be the world’s most beautiful.
and often contoured their own identity through a prism of anti-Blackness.
For example, Byzantine intellectuals boasted about the students who came to work with them from around the globe and imperial authors praised the diversity of the imperial court. In 1174, Eustathios of Thessaloniki celebrated the diversity of the emperor’s entourage by listing all the various envoys from foreign lands present, including, “the Indian too, slightly tinged with black, and the Ethiopian with his whole skin burnt dark.” At the same time, the popular epic romance, “Digenes Akritas,” dating to the same period, described its hero’s Arab father as knowing the Romans’ (i.e. Byzantines’) language perfectly, having curly hair and saying that his complexion was “not black like the Ethiopians but fair and handsome.”
One of the leading companions of Mohammed was a blonde man named Suhayb the Roman.
While outsiders could be scorned for their dark complexion, dark skin wasn’t considered bad in all cases for the subjects of the Byzantine Empire. In fact, it was associated with the admirable strength of ancient heroes, like Odysseus, who Homer described as “black skinned” (melanochroous) in the “Odyssey.”
Odysseus would have gotten pretty tanned while sailing around for ten years.
But whether dark skin was seen as virtue or ugliness depended on one’s gender and sexuality.
A dark complexion was prized as a sign of masculinity: Manly men were said to have dark skin. But dark skin was considered unfeminine, and therefore dark-skinned women were viewed negatively — as were light-skinned men. Since white skin was associated with feminine beauty, when translated onto the male body it became a sign of queerness and “effeminacy.”
One Byzantine emperor, Manuel I Komnenos, was praised at length for his dark complexion. But his eulogy revealed the gendered view on dark skin in this period. Komnenos’s dark skin matched his dignity since it did not display “an effeminate paleness … having aspired to an appearance that one does not find on womanly or soft people.”
In other words, this emperor was always out and about doing emperor-stuff outdoors like training his army and thus was tanned, unlike some decadent emperors we could mention who spent all their time indoors.
In general, Woke intellectuals seem to have more or less forgotten the process of tanning in their obsession with race (which does not exist).
In Greek, terms like “womanly” (gynaikias) and “soft” (malthakous) were slurs for effeminate men and for men who slept with men respectively. Malthakos was even a technical term in late antique medicine to pathologize same-gender desire, particularly for men acting as the passive partner in such acts.
When discussing this same emperor in the early 13th century, chronicler Niketas Choniates wrote that “in complexion he was neither snow-white like those reared in the shade nor the color of deep black smoke like those exposed to the burning rays of the sun; he was, consequently, not fair-complexioned but swarthy in appearance.” Like the emperor’s eulogizers, Choniates is clear to highlight Komnenos as someone who spent his time in the sun doing manly things. Yet he also walked a careful racial tightrope: wanting to praise the emperor’s dark skin — and therefore his masculinity — while also making sure not to associate him with “those exposed to the burning rays of the sun.” In other words, making sure to not associate the color of his skin with a distinctly racialized group, such as Black Africans, what Greek texts would have vaguely referred to as “Ethiopians” (literally meaning, “burnt-faced”).
I’m not clear on what the Greeks thought the reason was that Ethiopians were so dark. Sometimes they seem to sound as if they assume Ethiopians were just so suntanned during their life that it was permanent. Or maybe they had a proto-Lamarckian view: their ancestors passed their tans down. It took humanity a ridiculous amount of time to come up with the theory of natural selection, which is only 163 years old, which helps explain why thinking in terms of natural selection is still so alien to many in 2021.
This reference to the burning rays of the sun is crucial, because since antiquity it was believed that not only did the sun’s rays darken the skin, but the climate also altered people’s character. For example, those reared in the extreme cold and shade were understood as having been burned white by the cold, and Hippocrates even said that the men in these places became eunuchs and behaved like women. Thus, the understanding that dark skin was associated with masculinity and virility emerged from this broader dialogue involving both racialized and gendered identities.
Some unique tales of transgender saints from the 5th to the 9th centuries provide a vivid illustration of how these identities intersect. These saints had been assigned female at birth but lived out their lives as men in male monastic communities. Across their stories, we read how their bodies changed over the years, with their breasts withering, the cessation of menstruation — and their skin gaining a darker and coarse complexion. One trans monk’s former husband does not even recognize his former wife because he appeared “just as an Ethiopian.” Part of affirming the male gender of these trans monks involved articulating a transformation in skin color.
These associations between race thinking and gender were so central that in depictions of the Ethiopian Eunuch (a figure assigned male at birth who was castrated in childhood) from the Acts of the Apostles in the Bible, the figure of the eunuch was rarely depicted as a Black person — even though “Ethiopian” was defined in contemporaneous dictionaries as literally meaning “a black person.” Instead, the Ethiopian eunuch was depicted as a White youth because it was pale whiteness that was associated with the appearance of eunuchs.
Eunuchs played an important role in the Byzantine Empire, understood not quite as men,
The Byzantines were into nonbinary thinking!
and often attacked with misogynistic language and stereotypes.
Those Byzantines were pretty Woke even by 2021 standards: castrating children is about as Woke as you can get.
Therefore, it was their disputed gender identity that came to determine the depiction of eunuchs’ skin by artists, deploying the same palettes used for the depiction of courtly women with pale, white skin and rosy cheeks.
It is in these rich and nuanced crossings of gender, sexuality and race that the Middle Ages can productively shatter many of our preconceptions — and also make us aware of the deep and interlaced histories of racism and transphobia. Across history, racializing peoples as others often went far beyond epidermal, physiognomic or genetic markers of race alone. Accurately understanding the complex and intertwined history of these ideas is key to understanding our world where racism and transphobia have become the dominant ideologies of hatred.
The Middle Ages offer crucial lessons to us today as we continue the struggle for trans rights, work against anti-Black police brutality and articulate the importance of teaching our history of racism in classrooms.
Here’s my 2005 book review of Frost.