Modern Issues, Ancient Times

Race & Antiquity

Fall 2018
Tuesday Thursday 12:30–1:45 pm
ECON 205

Instructor information

Professor Dimitri Nakassis
Office:                   Eaton Humanities 1B25
Office hours:        Wednesday, 10 am – 12 noon (or by appointment)
Phone:                  303-492-8184

Class description

This class is an introduction to identity and difference in the ancient Mediterranean world, with special emphasis on the Greeks and Romans. How did ancient authors and artists express and understand differences (which today we might call ‘racial’ or ‘ethnic’) between various communities living in and around the Mediterranean? How did they explain these differences? In trying to answer these questions, we’ll survey the rich evidence, mostly textual but also material, that survives about the peoples of the ancient world, from Ethiopians to Scythians, from Indians to Gauls. In exploring this evidence, we’ll also reflect on modern identities, and especially the way that ancient perceptions influenced modern ideas about ‘race.’ No background in the ancient world or anthropology is necessary or expected.

Course objectives

  • To understand better the ways that the ancients (and moderns) understood and organized human communities and the world through their creative and literary production;
  • To explore the complex developments in thinking about difference from the ancient Greek and Roman world to the present;
  • To read, write, discuss, and think critically about ancient evidence and modern scholarship.

Required reading

  • Anthology = Race and Ethnicity in the Classical World: An Anthology of Primary Sources in Translation, by R.F. Kennedy, C.S. Roy and M.L. Goldman (2013). ISBN 978-1-60384-994-4 (paperback).
  • McCoskey = Race: Antiquity & Its Legacy, by Denise McCoskey (2012). ISBN 978-0-19-538188-7 (paperback).
  • Canvas = Readings on Canvas:


General attendance and participation: 20%

I expect you to attend class regularly and to participate in class discussions. Although there will be some lecture, ultimately the most meaningful progress in our understanding will happen through class discussion.

Leading class discussion, three times: 30%

Over the course of the semester, starting in Week 3, you’ll be in charge of helping to lead class discussion three times. We should have about four discussion leaders per class, so you won’t be alone. I’ll create a sign-up sheet on Canvas so that we can all track who’s responsible for each class.

At the beginning of the class for which you’re a discussion leader, you’ll turn in to me a short written assignment (500-1000 words). This will help you to prepare for class discussion and help me to evaluate your engagement with the readings. Your goals are twofold:

(i) Briefly summarize what you understand to be some of the most important or interesting points of the readings, and

(ii) Respond in some way to the readings, either by criticizing them, or adding to them, or asking any obvious questions, or comparing what you find in the readings to something else, or connecting ideas that you find in the readings to other ideas or materials that you’ve encountered elsewhere (in this class, another class, something that you’ve read or experienced, etc.).

You’ll turn this assignment in to me electronically, via Canvas.

Two short papers (due October 18 and December 13): 30%

Imagine that you are approached by The New Yorker, The New Criterion, The Atlantic, or a similar literary/cultural magazine to write a short (1500 to 2000-word) article aimed a general audience who doesn’t know all that much about the ancient world. The subject of your articles is the topic of our class: how does the ancient world inform the way that we should think about modern issues of race and ethnicity? Within that general rubric, you can pick any topic that you are interested in. If you’re not sure if it’s an appropriate topic, please ask me. An example of a good topic might be to ask how appropriate (or not) it is to cast black actors to play ancient Greek heroes in a modern cinematic adaptation of Greek literature, using what you’ve learned in class. The articles by Sarah Bond are a good model: historically informed, but oriented towards modern debates.

These short papers are not research papers, but you might want to do some additional reading, depending on the topic; feel free to cite any sources that you found useful, and you can also cite relevant sources from class reading (of course if material from other classes you’ve taken is also relevant, feel free to bring that in too).

Optional: If you would rather write one longer research paper instead of two short papers, you can do so. If you would like to choose this option, I will require a short (200 word) abstract with at least 3 scholarly sources you plan to use for your paper, turned in to me by October 18. The abstract isn’t a contract, but it encourages you to start thinking about what you’re doing to write about, and it gives me an opportunity to make suggestions. The topic of the research paper must be relevant to the topic of the class. You could follow up in more detail on a topic that we’ve covered in class (for example, artistic representations of Ethiopians in Greek art) or explore a topic that we didn’t have time to get around to in class (for example, the representations of Thracians in Greek literature). It should be about 12-16 pages double-spaced (3000 to 4000 words), and is due on December 13.

Final exam (take-home, due December 19, 7:00 p.m.): 20%

By December 13, I’ll provide (in class and on Canvas) a set of four essay questions based on the class readings (and discussion). You’ll have to answer one of these questions and turn it in by the end of the final exam period assigned for this class (7 pm on December 19) electronically, via Canvas. The essay you write will not require any additional research, and it shouldn’t take too long to write (i.e., no longer than 2.5 hours, the length of the final exam period).

Academic Policies

Accommodation for Disabilities

If you qualify for accommodations because of a disability, please submit your accommodation letter from Disability Services to your faculty member in a timely manner so that your needs can be addressed.  Disability Services determines accommodations based on documented disabilities in the academic environment.  Information on requesting accommodations is located on the Disability Services website. Contact Disability Services at 303-492-8671 or for further assistance.  If you have a temporary medical condition or injury, see Temporary Medical Conditions under the Students tab on the Disability Services website.

Classroom Behavior

Students and faculty each have responsibility for maintaining an appropriate learning environment. Those who fail to adhere to such behavioral standards may be subject to discipline. Professional courtesy and sensitivity are especially important with respect to individuals and topics dealing with race, color, national origin, sex, pregnancy, age, disability, creed, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, veteran status, political affiliation or political philosophy.  Class rosters are provided to the instructor with the student’s legal name. I will gladly honor your request to address you by an alternate name or gender pronoun. Please advise me of this preference early in the semester so that I may make appropriate changes to my records.  For more information, see the policies on classroom behavior and the Student Code of Conduct.

Religious Holidays

Campus policy regarding religious observances requires that faculty make every effort to deal reasonably and fairly with all students who, because of religious obligations, have conflicts with scheduled exams, assignments or required attendance.  In this class, you must notify me at least 14 days in advance of any religious observance so that we can make alternative arrangements for your absence.

Sexual Misconduct, Discrimination, Harassment and/or Related Retaliation

The University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder) is committed to fostering a positive and welcoming learning, working, and living environment. CU Boulder will not tolerate acts of sexual misconduct (including sexual assault, exploitation, harassment, dating or domestic violence, and stalking), discrimination, and harassment by members of our community. Individuals who believe they have been subject to misconduct or retaliatory actions for reporting a concern should contact the Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance (OIEC) at 303-492-2127 or Information about the OIEC, university policies, anonymous reporting, and the campus resources can be found on the OIEC website.

Please know that faculty and instructors have a responsibility to inform OIEC when made aware of incidents of sexual misconduct, discrimination, harassment and/or related retaliation, to ensure that individuals impacted receive information about options for reporting and support resources.

Honor Code

All students enrolled in a University of Colorado Boulder course are responsible for knowing and adhering to the Honor Code. Violations of the policy may include: plagiarism, cheating, fabrication, lying, bribery, threat, unauthorized access to academic materials, clicker fraud, submitting the same or similar work in more than one course without permission from all course instructors involved, and aiding academic dishonesty. All incidents of academic misconduct will be reported to the Honor Code (; 303-492-5550). Students who are found responsible for violating the academic integrity policy will be subject to nonacademic sanctions from the Honor Code as well as academic sanctions from the faculty member. Additional information regarding the Honor Code academic integrity policy can be found at the Honor Code Office website.


If you believe that your work has been incorrectly or unfairly graded, you may ask for a remarking. You must make this request as soon as is reasonably possible after receiving the marked work. If the test is remarked, you are required to accept the remark, whether it goes up or down.


I will make announcements verbally in class and electronically via Canvas and e-mail. It is your responsibility to check Canvas and your University e-mail address on a regular basis.

Resources and Information for DACA/ASSET Students


Complicated materials

Some (or maybe all) of the material we’ll deal with in this class is complicated; some of it may be difficult to read and to talk about. I’ll do my best to deal with class materials sensitively, but please do talk to me if you have any questions or issues. This is primarily a class about the ancient world, and it’s also very empirical (that is to say, there’s a lot of ancient evidence – too much evidence! – that we’ll be sorting through and dealing with). But the nature of the class is to interrogate the relationship between ancient times and modern issues, and so we’ll inevitably talk about race in 21st century America. We need to maintain a civil classroom atmosphere, especially because so much of the class is discussion-based. That doesn’t mean that we should always agree: far from it! It’s through disagreeing that we’ll learn the most about our positions (i.e., not only what we believe but also, and more importantly, why we believe the things we do). I’ll do my best to be a neutral arbiter in the classroom, but please speak with me if I’m falling short of my duties.

Course schedule

Subject to modification.  Readings should be completed before the class for which they are assigned.

Week 1

Tuesday, August 28

Topic: Class introduction
Reading: none

Thursday, August 30

Topic: Background on the ancient Mediterranean I (lecture)
Reading: none
Discussion: none

Week 2

Tuesday, September 4

Topic: Background on the ancient Mediterranean II (lecture)
Reading: none
Discussion: none

Thursday, September 6: no class

Week 3

Tuesday, September 11

Topic: Some preliminaries: race

Discussion: What is meant by “race,” exactly, in 2018? How much change has there been in what “race” has meant, and how does that influence your expectations for what we’ll find in ancient authors?

Thursday, September 13

Topic: Some preliminaries: ethnicity

Discussion: What is meant by “ethnicity,” exactly, in 2018? What are the most useful ways to use the terms ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’, for analyzing the present and the past? Does DNA research (and genetic testing companies) make things more clear, do you think, or does it muddy the waters?

Week 4

Tuesday, September 18

Topic: “East” and “West”
Short lecture: Orientalism & Occidentalism

Of interest (optional):

Discussion: Do you agree with Appiah and Saïd? Specifically, how is the division between ‘western’ and ‘eastern’ civilizations useful (or not), in your opinion? How might have modern ideas about “the West” and “the East” affected the way we study the Greeks and Romans now?

Thursday, September 20

Topic: Skin color and antiquity

Discussion: For us, skin color is an important marker of difference; what about the Greeks and Romans?

Week 5

Tuesday, September 25

Topic: Greek statues

Of interest (optional):

Discussion: Were you surprised to learn that Greek and Roman statues were originally painted? How much does it change the way you think about them? Do you agree with Sarah Bond about the implications of whitewashing ancient statues?

Thursday, September 27

Topic: Greek painting

  • Brinkmann et al., Gods in Color (Canvas)
  • Brecoulaki, “Greek painting and the challenge of mimesis” (Canvas)

Of interest (optional):

Discussion: What does the study of painting (and in conjunction with what we know from texts) suggest about the ways that ancients thought about skin color?

Week 6

Tuesday, October 2: no class

Thursday, October 4

Topic: Genealogical theories

  • Anthology, ch. 2 (pp. 15-33)
  • Erich Gruen, “Fictitious Kinships: Greeks and Others” (Canvas)
  • Erich Gruen, “Did Romans Have an Ethnic Identity?” (Canvas)

Discussion: Reflecting on these readings, what characterizes genealogical modes of explanation? How do they work to articulate sameness and difference?

Week 7

Tuesday, October 9

Topic: Environmental theories

  • Anthology, ch. 3 (pp. 35-51)
  • McCoskey, pp. 35-49
  • Benjamin Isaac, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity (Canvas)

Discussion: How do various authors describe different groups? Are the differences natural, environmental, cultural, or all of these?

Thursday, October 11: no class

Week 8

Tuesday, October 16: no class

Thursday, October 18: first short paper due (or abstract of research paper)

Topic: Genetic & cultural theories

  • Anthology, ch. 4-5 (pp. 53-80)
  • McCoskey, pp. 49-76
  • Rebecca Futo Kennedy, “Airs, Waters, Metals, Earth” (Canvas)

Discussion: How important were “genetic” and “cultural” theories to Greek understandings of difference?

Week 9

Tuesday, October 23

Topic: Slavery
Short lecture: slavery and the Greek and Roman worlds

  • Aristotle, Politics selections on slavery (Canvas)
  • Vincent Rosivach, Historia (Canvas)
  • Page duBois, “Slavery,” The Oxford Handbook of Hellenic Studies (Canvas)

Discussion: What was the relationship between race/ethnicity and slavery in the Greek world?

Thursday, October 25

Topic: Homer and Hesiod
Short lecture: the world of Odysseus

  • Anthology, ch. 1 (pp. 3-13)
  • Dougherty, The Raft of Odysseus (Canvas)
  • Brent Shaw, “Eaters of Flesh, Drinkers of Milk” (Canvas)

Discussion: What awareness do early Greek poems show of what we would call “race” or “ethnicity” generally? How should we interpret the Cyclops episode in the Odyssey in particular?

Week 10

Tuesday, October 30

Topic: Egypt
Short lecture: Greeks and Egypt

  • Anthology, ch. 7 (pp. 111-140)
  • James Redfield, “Herodotus the Tourist” (Canvas)
  • François Hartog, “Greeks as Egyptologists” (Canvas)

Discussion: What was the place of Egypt in the Greek imagination of the world? What about Egypt do Greeks seemed to have admired, and what not so much?

Thursday, November 1

Topic: Ethiopia
Short lecture: Ethiopia in the Greek imagination

  • Anthology, ch. 9 (pp. 179-201)
  • McCoskey, pp. 132-139
  • Frank Snowden, Jr., “Greeks and Ethiopians” (Canvas)

Discussion: Why, do you think, were Ethiopians so positively portrayed (for the most part) in Greek literature? Does this tell us something about the social and historical forces that contribute to the formation of ethnic stereotypes?

Week 11

Tuesday, November 6

Topic: Africans in Greek and Roman art

  • Frank Snowden, Jr., The Image of the Black in Western Art ch. 3 (Canvas)
  • John Clarke, Looking at Laughter, chapter 5 (Canvas)
  • McCoskey, pp. 139-143

Discussion: How do we identify Africans in ancient art? Is it problematic? How do we decide what the art means, to producers and to consumers? How easy is it to tell if they reflect “color prejudice”?

Thursday, November 8

Topic: Egyptian views of difference

  • “The Teaching for King Merikare” and “The Hymn to the Aten” (Canvas)
  • Ann Macy Roth, “Representing the Other” (Canvas)
  • Stuart Tyson Smith, “Nubian and Egyptian Ethnicity” (Canvas)

Discussion: How similar (and different) does Egyptian ethnicity seem to be from what we’ve seen so far? How convincing do you find the use of artistic and archaeological evidence to reconstruct ancient ethnicities? Does the example of Egyptian art help us at all to understand representations of non-Greeks and non-Romans in Greek and Roman art?

Week 12

Tuesday, November 13

Topic: Hellenistic & Roman Egypt
Short lecture: Egypt after Alexander

  • Graham Shipley, The Greek World After Alexander (Canvas)
  • McCoskey, pp. 81-131
  • Debbie Challis, “What’s in a Face?” (Canvas) & skim images of mummy portraits (Canvas)

Discussion: Hellenistic and Roman Egypt was diverse and multi-cultural, but there are some indications of prejudice, too; what does this tell us about ancient attitudes?

Thursday, November 15

Topic: Persia
Short lecture: Persia and Greece

  • Anthology, ch. 10 (pp. 203-242)
  • McCoskey, pp. 148-152
  • Pierre Briant, “History and Ideology: The Greeks and ‘Persian Decadence’” (Canvas)

Discussion: What characterizes the Persians in our ancient sources? Are the descriptions surprising, considering that much of Greece had just fought and won a war against an invasion commanded by the Persian Great King?


Thanksgiving break

Week 13

Tuesday, November 27

Topic: Persians in art

  • McCoskey, pp. 143-148
  • Margaret Miller, “Persians in the Greek Imagination” (Canvas)
  • Margaret Miller, “I am Eurymedon” (Canvas)

Discussion: What do the artistic sources add to our understanding of Greek attitudes towards Persia?

Thursday, November 29

Topic: Persian views of difference
Short lecture: Persian ethnic labels

  • Pierre Briant, From Cyrus to Alexander : A History of the Persian Empire, 172-183 (Canvas)
  • Jennifer Gates-Foster, “Achaemenids, Royal Power, and Persian Ethnicity” (Canvas)
  • Elspeth Dusinberre, Empire, Authority, and Autonomy in Achaemenid Anatolia, 259-271 (Canvas)

Discussion: What was the role of ethnic identity within the Persian empire? What accounts for the differences from Greek, Roman, or Egyptian perspectives? Is it just the nature of our evidence, or is it something else?

Week 14

Tuesday, December 4

Topic: Europe
Short lecture: Rome & ‘Europe’

  • Anthology, ch. 15
  • McCoskey, pp. 76-80
  • I.M. Ferris, Enemies of Rome, chapter 1 (Canvas)

Discussion: How do ancient authors treat Gauls and Germans and Celts? How is it different, if it is, from what we’ve seen elsewhere, and why should that be?

Thursday, December 6

Topic: Nazi race theory
Short lecture: Greeks, Romans, and race theory

Discussion: Nazi appropriations of race theory resulted in the latter being thoroughly discredited, but not other ideas, like the notion that ancient Greeks and Romans were effectively ‘white’ Europeans; why not?

Week 15

Tuesday, December 11

Topic: Black Athena
Short lecture: The ‘Black Athena’ controversy

  • Martin Bernal, Black Athena, pp. xii-38 (Canvas)
  • McCoskey, pp. 167-201
  • Eric Adler, Classics and the Culture Wars (Canvas)

Discussion: What do you think of Black Athena, and the reaction to it?

Thursday, December 13: second short paper due (or research paper)

Topic: None; I’m giving us an extra day just in case…