Seeing Race

The Family Resemblance of Obama and his Grandfather. Links to excellent blog post by Gwen Sharp.

It is often suggested that the Barcid coinage of Spain could be portraits of members of the dynasty in the guise of Melkart/Heracles.  The idea has fallen mostly out of favor, or is usually qualified by a strong ‘might.  The idea never gained that much traction in serious academic circles.  Crawford rejects it.  Scullard is most cautious in the CAH, but toys with the idea more in his general histories.  Hoyos in a more recent popular history tosses the idea out.



The idea goes back to E.G. S. Robinson and his 1956 article on the Punic coins of Spain in Essays Mattingly (p. 39):


The idea however holds on in many popular works, for example, in places where it would be visually convenient to have a picture of Hannibal:


My issue is that the assumption that these are portraits goes back to Robinson’s perception of race, as he himself says.

And, race is a social construct. [Can’t quite believe this?  Click on the top image of this post.]

I’ve been wrestling somewhat with perceptions of race on a personal level with my time in Turkey.  We’ve had a large number of dear friends and family as visitors, all of whom have found Turkey and the different culture groups who live here to be a warm, loving society.  However, some of our white American visitors have made clear in casual comments that they perceive Turks as non-white, a different race from themselves.  I found this pretty surprising.  Until I open my mouth, I get mistaken for a Turk fairly regularly (or when I’m not with my red-headed life partner that is).  It never occurred to me to think of myself as living with a different race, even if it is certainly a different culture and predominant religious orientation from my own.

Or, am I the one unwittingly just passing as ‘white’? I don’t know my biological father, but he may well have been Ashkenazi.  On one truly awful blind date in my college days, I was told by a nice Jewish boy over cake and coffee that I could be certain that “when they come for us, they’re coming for you too”.

In the 1950s it was exceptionally common to think of Semitic peoples as a distinctive race.  If you dare, go ahead and Google “Are Jews White”.  The results aren’t pretty.  If you want something safer to read on the subject you could start with this Princeton University Press publication:

The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity by Eric L. Goldstein

Robinson’s certitude that the Barcid coinage were portraits is dependent on his ability to “know” what a “African Semite” looked like.

Robinson was part of the same milieu as Mattingly and Altheim.  Altheim’s work from the mid-1930s onward was funded by Himmler’s Ahnernerbe, the scientific institute tasked with demonstrating the hypothesized historical predominance of the Aryan race.  Altheim solicited and received funds for research aimed at demonstrating the Aryan origins of Rome.  His subsequent publications are clearly marked by this most unfortunate bias (Momigliano 1945: 130).  Mattingly translated Altheim’s still influential History of Roman Religion into English. I don’t claim to know how Robinson felt about race politics, but he certainly worked in a milieu that was comfortable using ancient history as a means of justifying a particular Euro-centric world view.

This approach was not an invention of his peers or even his generation.  I’ve been ‘enjoying’  Bury’s History of Greece to the Death of Alexander (1900) before bed of late.  It is rife with comments disparaging Semitic and Persian societies and directly connecting the Greco-Roman world to the ‘success’ of Modern Europe.


If Classics today is going to go forward as a academic pursuit with any integrity at all we need to own the demons of our past.   It is not enough to say it’s not likely to be a Barcid portrait we need to own that that interpretation has its origins in a worldview that wanted to see the Punic as “Other”.  Not Other in relation to Rome alone, but Other in relationship to Western, Aryan, Europe.

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